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April 17, 2009



You make a good point about religious freedom, but I'm wondering if infractions tend to be a result of establishment of religion. The Puritans were NOT tolerant of religious dissent. They chased more than a few people out of New England and executed some Quakers as I recall. Anyway, it seems to me that the Sanhedrin were at fault in part because, though they claimed to live holy lives and serve God, they did not recognize the Messiah when he came among them. They were guilty because they loved power and praise and their hearts were hard so that they were unable to recognize a spiritual witness of Jesus' divinity. At least most of them--Nicodemus was an exception.


From wikipedia:
"While some notable examples such as Roger Williams of Rhode Island and William Penn ensured the protection of religious minorities within their colonies, others such as the Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony had established churches. The Dutch colony of New Netherland had also established the Dutch Reformed Church and outlawed all other worship.
The Flushing Remonstrance shows support for separation of church and state as early as the mid-17th century. The document was signed December 27 1657 by a group of English citizens in America who were affronted by persecution of Quakers and the religious policies of the Governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant had formally banned all religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church from being practised in the colony, in accordance with the laws of the Dutch Republic. The signers indicated their "desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand or fall to his own Master."[3] Stuyvesant fined the petitioners and threw them in prison until they recanted. However, John Bowne allowed the Quakers to meet in his home. Bowne was arrested, jailed, and sent to the Netherlands for trial; the Dutch court exonerated Bowne.
Thomas Jefferson's influential Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted in 1786, five years before the Bill of Rights."

During the crafting of the constitution, there was bitter debate about whether or not to have an official US religion, and whether or not to include invocations and the like in the constitution. The framers of the constitution were inspired not by the bible but Cicero, Montesquieu, Polybius, John Locke, among others. American Republicanism was based on early Roman and English models and ideas. It formed the basis for the American Revolution and the consequential Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the Gettysburg Address.

Nathan wrote:
"And so the Protestant reformers eventually came to put into practice-- especially in America-- the Gospel lesson of religious freedom. Is it strange that it took over fifteen hundred years for Christian societies to put into practice this clear lesson from the Gospels?"

Religious freedom was espoused and practised in parts of the world long before Jesus was alive. What's strange is that it took 1500 years for the ideals of religious freedom to make a comeback after the founding of Christianity and, later, Islam.

Nathan Smith

Well, don't exaggerate the religious tolerance of the Romans; they did, after all, kill Jesus Christ, as well as many many other Christians. Whether or not the Romans were more religiously tolerant depends on which religion you are: if you were a Greek or Roman or Egyptian pagan, a sun-worshipping or a Zoroastrian, then yes, they were more tolerant. If you were a Christian, they were less tolerant. The Romans were actually not inclined to tolerate "atheism," a category in which they included Christians and Jews who worshipped an invisible God; though they sort of make an exception for the Jews because the Jewish faith was so ancient.

I don't think there are any historical examples of full-fledged religious tolerance before modern western Europe. I don't know enough details about China to say for sure. The Muslims were supposed to practice tolerance towards "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians) but gave them second-class citizenship, levied special taxes, and-- this above all makes Islamic "tolerance" a travesty from the beginning-- forbade them to proselytize; Muslims who converted (or converts to Islam who re-converted) were subject to the death penalty.

If you say that the Sanhedrin were guilty for not recognizing the Messiah, well, yes, in a way. But there's a big difference between just declining to convert to the new movement, and actually *killing* its Leader. It does violence to intuition and moral reasoning, I think, to conflate a failure to recognize Jesus with the act of killing Him.


When people are persecuted for political reasons, I don't consider the fact that the people are also religious very relevant. Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth, but he was able to do so with impunity for 70+ years. And even after his sentencing, he was given ample opportunity to get out of it. He chose not to do so for ideological reasons. Likewise, Jesus was given plenty of warning and opportunity to escape his fate, and he also chose not to do so. Gandhi was beaten and imprisoned, not because he was Hindi, but because he was a political dissident.

There have always been inklings of oppression of one kind or another throughout history, but at least before the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, it was possible to have varying beliefs without one's life being destroyed. Europe became monolithic in religious belief through violent and oppressive means, and that eventually inspired the Protestant movement as a backlash against the Catholic tyranny. The Catholic church didn't really start to lose power until the Enlightenment, which was inspired by the rediscovery of the Old Roman Empire and its philosophies, and enabled by the invention of the printing press.

Nathan Smith

Jesus and Socrates were killed for religious reasons, not political reasons. Jesus was killed for blasphemy, as the quote from Matthew shows. Socrates was condemned because, among other charges, "his gods are not the city's gods." Tom is very wrong if he does not consider religion relevant to the two cases; it is perfectly clear from the historical record that the religion both of Socrates and Jesus and of their antagonists was extremely relevant, certainly in Jesus's and probably in Socrates's case the central issue. The fact that both of them refused to bend an inch on the moral issues in order to save their skins does not in the slightest absolve the authorities who killed them. On the contrary, that is precisely what any honest and courageous person must do. It is even clearer that the Christians who were martyred for refusing to participate in the imperial cult were killed for religious reasons. Some good things can be said about the record of ancient Rome, but it is a bit unhistoric to claim that they were exemplars of a religious toleration which was sadly lost in the Middle Ages and which the moderns happily recovered. Certainly emulation of ancient Rome played a role in the emergence of modern religious freedom, but the Roman example was refracted through the moral lens of Christianity, giving rise to a principled religious tolerance in contemporary America which has no analogue in ancient Rome. (It makes more sense to credit Protestantism with the emergence of religious toleration, after some time and trials of course, than to credit the Enlightenment, considering that the regime which sought to enact Enlightenment principles, revolutionary France, was not at all religiously tolerant, compelling Catholics underground.)

It was possible to have varying beliefs without one's life being destroyed for it under the Holy Roman Empire, if you kept quiet about them. Indeed, it was possible to have varying beliefs within Catholic orthodoxy: Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, for example, disagreed without either of them being excommunicated or persecuted. Man's moral need is not to be able to believe what he wants in the privacy of his own home; it is to believe *and profess* whatever his conscience and reason impel him to.


If it was a matter of pure blasphemy, then Socrates and Jesus would have been killed much earlier. As previously mentioned, Socrates had been doing his shtick for a long, long time. People were claiming that Jesus was God incarnate since he was born; certainly, not many people. But when Jesus himself started claiming he was God, Why did it take so long for the authorities to condemn him? It seems to me that the authorities were more worried about the power and influence he wielded than his crackpot, blasphemous notions. That's why they gave him a choice, just as Socrates was given a choice. I don't absolve the authorities in either case, but I think it's simplistic to say that both of these men were killed primarily for religious reasons. Any time a person has power and influence, other people will try to either take it from them or protect their own. If you step on the wrong toes, it doesn't matter what you believe. When a person who has no power is put to death, on the other hand, it's much harder to say it was done for political reasons.

Joyless Moralist

Oh, Nathan! You really want to argue that the number one moral to be drawn from Christ's crucifixion is about the importance of religious freedom?

The Jews did not know that they were killing their Messiah. But the point is that they should have known; had they not been blinded by their own sin and arrogance, they would have been able to see this. Christ indicates this over and over again in the Gospels. He has come into the midst, preached truths never heard from the foundations of the world, worked miracles that would (he says) have brought about the conversion of some of the wickedest societies of the Old Testament, but the Jews, because of their sinfulness, respond with wrath. They are the wedding guests who wouldn't come to the feast, and the laborers in the vineyard who, out of envy, killed the master's son when he came to restore order. Again and again we see the Pharisees and Sadducees resenting Christ because he exposes their ignorance and their hypocrisies. It is precisely because he brings them the truth that they hate him so much -- truth burns, and they want to get away from that searing heat.

It seems to me that we should believe Jesus' own words about why he was killed. He speaks again and again about the sinfulness and pride of the Pharisees, and how this prevented them from recognizing their own. But I can't think of a single passage that sounds like an injunction to respect religious freedom.

If you don't believe that then you lose so much of the rich symbolism of the Gospels. On Good Friday, we ought to remind ourselves that in a way, we too participate in the crucifixion of Christ. Obviously we weren't there literally, but we also reject his message in so many ways, and it was our fallen race's tendency to reject that message that made the Sacrifice necessary. So in a way, we should remind ourselves that though we didn't personally drive the nails into Christ's hands, we would have, and in a non-literal sense we do something very like it when we hide from the truth in our sins.

I don't want to have another argument about religious freedom here. But trying to make this into a story about religious freedom is almost as bad as the homily I once heard on Good Friday, trying to make the Passion into a cautionary tale about the evils of the death penalty. Even if the principles you want to enumerate are right and technically applicable here, there are much more important things at stake.

Nathan Smith

"Oh, Nathan! You really want to argue that the number one moral to be drawn from Christ's crucifixion is about the importance of religious freedom?"

No, I don't. It's just one lesson, a particularly easy one. I'm not claiming it's the most important; it certainly isn't. I mostly agree with the rest of what JM writes. Except that I would insist on the difference between (a) not recognizing the Messiah, and (b) killing Him. Even the apostles were slow to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and in the Gospel of John one strongly senses that even on the brink of the Resurrection they didn't understand His claims to divinity. On the road to Emmaus the disciple Cleopas says, "we had hoped that he was the One to redeem Israel," as if His death proved that He wasn't. The apostles, too, initially disbelieved news of the Resurrection. Peter, in the Gospel of John, seems about read to restart his fishing business: 'I go a-fishing.' It seems that they didn't get it. What, then, is the difference between the apostles and the Jews? Not that the former recognized Christ as Messiah-God and the latter didn't, for the apostles themselves scarcely did that. Rather, the apostles and disciples responded with love, gratitude, welcome, curiosity and obedience, whereas the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin responded with murderous rage.

It's notable that in the parables you mention, the problem is not merely a failure to respond to the message, but *killing* the messenger. What if the wedding guests had politely declined; would the host have been so angry? Only because they abused and sometimes killed the servants who invited them was the host's response-- "And he sent out his armies, and destroyed those murderers"-- justified in terms of ordinary morality. It does seem to me that killing Jesus, not merely failing to accept Him as Lord, was an essential part of the sin of "the Jews" (i.e., of Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, and the mob). What is at stake here is whether God is just. A king who killed wedding guests who were invited but who "made light of it and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his business," would not be a just king, but a brutal despot.

Had the Jews practiced a modern American tolerance, even if they had failed to recognize Christ as Messiah-God, they would not have killed Him. If they had wished to escape from His message, they could not have done so, at least not that way. That would not have been an irrelevant difference; that would have been an essential difference, as we know by conscience and as the parables, too, seem to suggest. The existence of the death penalty for blasphemy in first-century Judea was not a sufficient, but was a necessary, condition for the death of Our Lord, and the reaction of Christians to laws prescribing the death penalty for blasphemy should, accordingly, be one of moral horror and total rejection.

Nathan Smith

JM: "I can't think of a single passage that sounds like an injunction to respect religious freedom."

Jesus: "But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also..." (Matthew 5:39-40)

I think the Catholics regard the Sermon on the Mount as meant specifically for the apostles, and since some of the teachings there do not seem feasible for anyone who is trying to maintain a career and a household, or for a society that wants to have a government, I do tend to think that something must be conceded to the idea that those of us in the world may be Christians without ever in this life attaining these counsels of perfection or even really making the attempt. But at least when we are acting in the name of God and on His behalf we ought not to defy His instructions. The state kills for the public safety, and we look forward to the day in which it will pass away but in the meantime we do not necessarily forbid men to be its agents. What is diabolical about the Inquisition is that it kills in the name of the Prince of Peace.

Joyless Moralist

Well, we already know that we don't agree on the implications of that Sermon on the Mount passage. Let's not get into that now. My point was that, in Christ's words condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees (and there are many), he never condemns them as busybodies who should just let him do his thing. He condemns them as unbelievers, as the unrepentant, and as those who have refused the divine invitation. You *can* use the story as evidence of what happens when blasphemy is punishable with death, just as the priest in my story used it as an example of the bad things that can happen when the death penalty is used at all. In either case, you might or might not be right in your conclusions, but even if you are the point certainly isn't a central one. And I would argue, in both cases, that Christ's own words on the subject of his death and resurrection are by no means sufficient to show that he would condone your interpretation. You need some other (probably controversial) premises to make your argument work.

Again, I don't want to get into a discussion of the proper role of the state here. But I don't really think the Gospels give much support for the kind of division you want to draw, wherein rejecting God is a lot less bad if done in an apathetic and indifferent, as opposed to a violent, way. You can say that it's common sense if you want, but at any rate it doesn't seem to be a point that Christ took any pains at all to underscore. Turning away from the Lord is the offense for which people are repeatedly condemned, while pretty much nothing is said about tolerance or respect for differences of opinion.

I have to say that, even if you acknowledge that your argument is not the most central point of Good Friday and Easter, I still very much dislike using the Passion narrative to draw these sorts of morals. Again, let's suppose for the sake of argument that you're right about blasphemy and the death penalty and all the rest. Even so, patting ourselves on the back for being more humane/tolerant/civilized than the first-century Jews (or medieval Christians, or whoever you want to use as your negative comparison class) can only detract from the crucial point, which is that the rejection of God is a hideous offense, whatever its form of expression, and we as fallen humans are very much prone to it. Whether we spurn Christ by nailing him to a cross, or by blaspheming, or by hiding from him in addictions/dissolute living/the pursuit of lesser ambitions, is a comparatively minor matter next to the fact that God has come to us in mercy and love, and we have rejected him.

Nathan Smith

Some of this I can't understand because the Jews didn't know they were rejecting *God*. The high priest, at any rate, apparently thought he was defending God's honor against a blasphemer. How an action can properly be characterized for ethical analysis depends on the information possessed by the actor at the time. You cannot blame a man for shooting his brother if he was in a delirium at the time and thought the brother coming to embrace him was a bear coming to eat him.

I think the rich young man is a counter-example to the claim that "the Gospels [don't] give much support for the kind of division... wherein rejecting God is a lot less bad if done in an apathetic and indifferent, as opposed to a violent, way." The rich young man apparently rejects Jesus's advice, and Jesus simply lets him go. It is interesting, though, that there doesn't seem to be almost anyone in the Gospel narratives who is merely indifferent to Jesus. No one says, "Well, you've made some good points, but I'm not quite convinced. Thanks for the healings though, and good luck to you!" Perhaps such people were less salient to the writers of the Gospels, but it also seems that His words were so powerful that they set the soul on fire either with love and a desire to obey, or with resistance and hatred-- or in some cases with bewilderment. And indeed today it is hard to read them today with indifference. They are never trite, and they scarcely become platitudes even after being used for two thousand years.

You're right that it's good to avoid back-patting... I think one thing to remember is that it's easier for us to practice tolerance because we have the Gospel narratives to learn from. We see what Caiaphas and the Jews did and it's clear in hindsight that it was a horrible thing and we don't want to be like that. The Romans and Jews lacked some of the advantages we have; without those, we might have done as badly as they did. But I was also thinking that, while an event like the Crucifixion of Jesus could hardly happen in the United States today, with our First Amendment protections, it probably wouldn't have happened in first-century *Rome* either. In Rome itself there was a lot of religious tolerance at the time. Judea was a sort of province or protectorate-- I can't remember exactly what the status would have been in A.D. 33-- comparable perhaps to the petty dictatorships which America has often allied with in the Cold War and to a lesser extent the War on Terror. And many of those might indeed have executed a peaceful preacher who seemed to stir up dangerous popular enthusiasms. So perhaps we are no better than the Romans in this respect, after all.

Joyless Moralist

There are times when ignorance is invincible, but I think we have to take it that theirs wasn't, or at least wasn't fully. No, they did not say to themselves, "This is the Messiah and the Son of God, so we should have him killed." But they were given sufficient opportunity to recognize it -- it was their own sin and hard-heartedness that prevented them from seeing it. If we hide from the truth, we can still be blamed for not knowing better when we do terrible things.

I don't know that we're really so much better, all things considered. We don't kill people for blaspheming (actually, for the most part we don't care much about blasphemy, which is a different problem), but we're pretty willing to kill the innocent (the unborn and the elderly, for example) for the sake of convenience, which hardly seems like a step up.

Nathan Smith

It seems too much to expect the Jews to have recognized Christ as God. But they certainly knew He was a gentle healer, Who taught love, and Who had done nothing deserving of death. They must have sensed his goodness if not his Godness. I think what makes it the greatest story ever told is that it shows how the world, by its nature, rejects the perfectly good *man*. That that man was also God, and overcame death, makes the story a triumph rather than a tragedy.

Joyless Moralist

I'm not too comfortable with "gentle healer who taught love and had done nothing worthy of death." That sounds too much like something the Jesus Seminar people would say. I don't know *exactly* how much the Jews should have been able to figure out, but Christ had clearly revealed himself to them as more than just a very nice/wise man. He worked miracles and, as the Gospels put it, "taught with authority and not as the scribes." And through his parables he did indicate to them that he was the Messiah, the One foretold by prophecy. He was worthy of their homage, not just their admiration, and that much had been shown to them.

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I call that the freedom to act whatever you please. Very democratic.

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