Jimmy Carter vs. Jesus Christ

Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times published an op-ed piece today in which he related a conversation with Jimmy Carter about, among other things, whether one can be a Christian without believing in the Resurrection, whether one can be a Christian by basing one's religion on the Sermon on the Mount, and whether virtuous and admirable non-Christians can somehow get to heaven, too.

Mr. Kristoff is an intelligent and- typically for this day and age in our culture- biblically uninformed person harboring deep and culturally common misconceptions about matters which lie at the very heart of the New Testament and the historic Christian faith. This was a great opportunity for Mr. Carter to enlighten him. He blew it, probably because he has allowed his own thinking to become fuzzy about things which are uncomfortable for Christians in our culture to affirm. He pulled his punches and even misapplied Scripture in an attempt to justify himself in doing so. The result was so vapid that one of the on-line commenters on the article said that he, as an atheist, could find nothing he could object to in Mr. Carter's version of "evangelical" Christianity.

Could a more devastating critique of that vision even be possible?

I say this with respect, as someone who disagrees with much of what President Carter has said and done since 1980 but who not only voted for him but worked for him in both of his campaigns. I say it also as an ordained Lutheran minister since this subject is sort of in my professional wheelhouse. But while I agree with a little of what Mr. Carter says in this conversation, most if it is flat-out intellectually dishonest.

Mr. Carter's abuse of Galatians 3:28, while of a type common among mainline and liberal theologians, does incredible violence to the text. Both biblical interpretation and in other kinds of hermeneutics distinguish between "exegesis-" analysis of a text which seeks to extract meaning from that text- and "eisegesis-" the abuse of a text which seeks to impose alien meaning upon it. What Mr. Carter does with Galatians 3:28 is a particularly heinous example of eisegesis.

Here is Galatians 3:28 in context.

The text says simply that our acceptability to God in Christ does not depend upon nationality or gender. Mr. Carter, like many others, takes this simple idea and runs wild with it, going far beyond the boundaries of what the text can be reasonably understood to actually say. It isn't about "building walls;" it's about our acceptability to God in Christ not depending upon nationality or gender! One might legitimately add any number of other human characteristics which neither exclude people from the Church or ought to be divisive among Christians, but that pretty much exhausts what the text says or legitimately implies.

But where legitimate exegesis of the passage ends is merely where Mr. Carter begins. He ends up implicitly putting Jesus Himself in the wrong for rebuking the Pharisees, and thereby "building a wall" between Himself and them. He ends up implicitly putting Jesus in the wrong once again for acknowledging the wall which unbelief and willful sin erect between the unbeliever and God, and- significantly- the relative consequences of faith and unbelief.

Mr. Carter's  reading of  Galatians 3.28 condemns its own author, the Apostle Paul, for "building a wall" between himself and the Galatian legalists whose false teaching was the occasion for his writing of the very epistle he quotes!  How's this for "building a wall?"

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-12, ESV).

Ultimately, Mr. Carter's distortion of Galatians 3:28 ends up forbidding us to actually apply anything Jesus ever said or the Apostles ever wrote!  To acknowledge a wall- especially one which Jesus Himself says already exists - is not to build it. And Galatians 3:28 is not a mandate for Christians to turn off their minds and just make nice-nice. It seems that, by Mr. Carter's lights, Paul really should have read his Bible more often!

And Jesus must have been especially unacquainted with the teachings of Jesus. "Judge not, lest you be judged" is probably the most misapplied thing Jesus ever said. Again, on Mr. Carter's understanding, and that of many both inside and outside the contemporary Church,  those words effectively negate pretty much everything else Jesus said! Here we have another example of pure, shameless eisegesis. Jesus was speaking here about considering ourselves as superior to others and condemning them,  and not about our attitude toward their behavior or beliefs as such. If taking a negative view of or even criticizing either had been what He had meant by "judging,"Jesus Himself would have to be regarded as a hypocrite because He never shrank from criticizing people on either of those grounds. Consider the following before deciding that Jesus meant what Mr. Carter- and the culture- think He meant by "judging:"

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

"They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finge.They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Matthew 23:1-15,ESV).

How judgmental! How unloving! How unChristian!

The distinction between recognizing and, where appropriate, addressing a behavior for the purpose of healing what is broken and looking down upon and condemning the person who engages in it as if we ourselves were any better is a crucial one in understanding what Jesus has to say about judging others. Matthew 18:15-18 is rather hard to reconcile with the common contemporary understanding of what Jesus said about judgment. For that matter, so is the point that brokenness both in people's relationships and in their lives have to be acknowledged before it can be healed and that it becomes impossible to proclaim forgiveness unless it is understood that there is something which needs to be forgiven!

"Judge not" certainly does not mean that we're to ignore it when what people say and do contradict His teachings, or that we should pretend that it doesn't matter. Nor does it not mean that we are to turn off our minds when it comes to other people's behavior or beliefs or refrain from believing what Jesus Himself says about their consequences.  And if there is ever a case where that is so, its when we encounter the painful, scandalous fact that He Himself says quite plainly, over and over again, that salvation comes to those with faith in Him and only to those with faith in Him.

Are there exceptions? Loopholes? Gee, I hope so. But on the basis of what the New Testament actually says, it's simply dishonest to let that hope water down His dark insistence throughout all four Gospels that "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16, ESV)." In fact, doing so means negating the entire Gospel!

I do not like that fact that He said that, and said it too plainly and too often in all four of the Gospels for any intellectually honest person who is actually familiar with the New Testament to miss the point. I admire and even love too many people who are and were not Christians for that not to be a profoundly painful thing for me to believe. But I would have to completely sacrifice my intellectual integrity not to believe it and still consider myself a follower of Jesus. Whether I like it or not, this is something that is too central, too plain, and to often repeated in all of the Gospels to be honestly treated as an unclear matter. I pray that there are loopholes we haven't been told about and given Who I understand God to be I don't consider that to be absolutely out of the question. But in the here and now we're still stuck with what Jesus actually taught, and Mr. Carter simply does not deal with what He taught honestly.

And as little as I like that teaching myself, there is a reason why it's extremely important not to evade it. Mr. Kristoff himself illustrates that reason when he tries to reduce Christianity to an ethical system based on the Sermon on the Mount. But anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount without being appalled by the utter impracticality of it as a way of life has missed the whole point.

True, Jesus lays out for us in the Sermon on the Mount what God's will for our lives looks like. But rather than being a practical program for us to follow,  the whole point is to crush our egos and our pride and our desire to be impressed with what ethical hot-shots we are. It teaches us that the most ethical and virtuous of human beings finally stands before God in exactly the same position as the most sinful and disreputable moral derelict, pleading not for justice, but for mercy. And that is about as central to the ethical teaching of Jesus as you can get.

Jesus taught, and Christianity has taught for two thousand years, that God offers such mercy in Christ, and only in Christ. Relatively recent Catholic theology has backed off that point, and liberal Protestantism sometimes goes beyond Mr. Carter and renders Christianity completely inane by embracing the ancient heresy of Universalism. But before you even get to the point of wrestling with the scandal of Christ's teaching that only in Him can salvation be found, you have to deal with the basic point that everything Jesus teaches goes out the window if what He offers can be earned or merited by any of us. No, Christianity cannot be reduced to a system of ethics. And if there is, somehow, a way for any non-Christian can obtain the salvation Jesus offers, it will have to be one which explains how somebody can reject Jesus without rejecting that offer.

Finally, Mr. Carter cops out once again when he refuses to tell Mr. Kristoff up front that in rejecting the Resurrection he's rejecting Christianity. One can certainly be an admirer of Jesus without being a Christian. One can even seek to follow His teachings without believing His claims about Who He Is and why that's important. But doing so does not make one a Christian. Words mean things, and "Christianity" is a word. It's a belief system with specific content which, despite all their differences, is shared by Roman Catholics and Lutherans and Calvinists and Arminians and the Eastern Orthodox and the Copts and Christians of every description and every time and place. The Resurrection is one of the more basic parts of that belief system, and if one rejects it that makes it hard to see how one can accept the most basic things which constitute Christianity.

St. Paul has a rather different answer to Mr. Kristoff's question than Mr. Carter does. Paul chose not to cop out on one of the most fundamental and constitutive affirmations of the Faith:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.If in Christ we have hoped in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19, ESV)

The problem with Mr. Carter's vision of Christianity as expressed in this article is that it's shallow, it's inauthentic, and that it finally negates literally everything Jesus taught and said. It's sentimental, it's intellectually fuzzy, and it's everything that our modern biblically illiterate and intellectually vapid age can get behind. And it ends up misrepresenting Christ.

No wonder that atheist found nothing in it with which to take exception.