Saturday, October 5, 2019

Religious Violence as Hypocritical

In the movie, Boy Erased (2018), the director of a church’s conversion therapy program invites the immediate family members of one gay boy to hit him with a bible to drive out the underlying demon. The boy subsequently commits suicide. Lest this notion of using violence to remove a sin in the twenty-first century is assumed to lie in the realm of fiction, John Smyth, an Anglican, was accused in 2017 “of subjecting at least 22 teenage boys to savage beatings in his garden shed” at “an elite Christian camp for boys. His intent was “purging them of perceived sins such as masturbation and pride”[1] A Christian charity group oversaw the camp, yet I contend that the camp was not Christian.
The Latin root of charity is caritas, which means human love raised up to loving God, which as Augustine writes, is love. Whereas human love of God is caritas, God’s love is agape, which is self-emptying love. Some theologians have claimed that humans are capable of this selfless love, but Augustine says the taint of original sin is too great for divine love. John Smyth is a poster child for Augustine’s point, even though he doubtlessly thought that he was being pious in purging sins in others (it is doubtful that he savagely beat himself to purge his own sins).
If God is full or perfect being as Aquinas and Leibniz assert in their respective writings, then sin represents less than full or perfect being. Smyth’s claim then is that beating someone is a way of adding more existence to the person, which I submit does not make sense. Moreover, the beatings violate Jesus’ teaching, let the person without sin throw the first stone. Also, being focused on purging the sins of other people overlooks the plank in one’s own eye. Is masturbation such an awful sin, if the instinctual behavior is indeed sin (rather than a matter for biology). So Smyth was not acting as a follower of Christ, and thus as a Christian, even if he believed that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior.
Nevertheless, the Prosperity Gospel holds that a Christian having true belief (i.e., that Jesus is the Savoir) will receive not only soteriological benefits, but also earthly wealth from God. This relatively recent belief comes from Judaism, in which Yahweh promises to make Israel prosperous if it keeps to the covenant. At least through the first millennium of Christianity, the dominant theological attitude toward earthly wealth was negative.[2] The Prosperity Gospel could only take on after centuries in which a pro-wealth paradigm dominated Christianity. At any rate, Smyth’s abhorrent attitude and behavior suggests that having true belief counts for naught if the Christian is acting contrary to Jesus’ preachments and example. This suggests that the person who does not help a detractor or foe when he or she is in need is not a Christian even if the true belief is intact. Allowing help to flow over old and even new wounds, essentially relativizing them, is two degrees of separation from violently going after sins of others.

[1] Ceylon Yoginsu, “Doubt Cast on When the Archbishop Knew of Abuse,” The New York Times, October 15, 2017.
[2] Skip Worden, Godliness and Greed: Shifting Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010). As this text is an academic treatise, and thus difficult for non-theologians and expensive, the same idea is in the nonfiction book, God’s Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth, available at Amazon.