The True Christians

Bertrand Russell began his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” with some definitions.

I think… that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature—namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. … I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian. … Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a Christian I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in God and in immortality; and, secondly, why I do not think that Christ was the best and wisest of men, although I grant him a very high degree of moral goodness.

Next he discusses the various attempts to prove the existence of God. For a logician these arguments are easily demolished: if there were logical proof of God’s existence we wouldn’t be talking about God. God is that which is beyond words and categories, and therefore beyond the categories of being and non-being.

Russell then proceeds to his second point.

I now want to say a few words upon a topic which I often think is not quite sufficiently dealt with by Rationalists, and that is the question whether Christ was the best and the wisest of men. It is generally taken for granted that we should all agree that that was so. I do not myself. I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can. You will remember that He said, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present prime minister [Stanley Baldwin], for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.

I think you’ll agree that few Christians today would accept the principle of turning the other cheek, or of loving your enemy. But it seems to me that “love your enemy” is the single most important contribution of Christianity. Pretty much all the other tenets were promoted by other and earlier religions and philosophies.

Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practised. All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

Admittedly, Russell’s argument against Christianity is based in part on the hypocrisy of many Christians, which is not an argument against the philosophy. Still, in twenty-first century America a huge number of people call themselves Christians, but make no visible attempt to live by the maxims they profess to accept. Many of these people claim that religion, in particular their religion, is the source of morality. Many of them attend megachurches of the type pictured on the cover of Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy, in which an enormous US flag dominates the view, while more traditional Christian symbols such as the cross are hard to make out. Are these churches Christian, really, or are they simply right-wing propaganda factories? The world has seen this sort of thing before.

In November 2005, Fritz Stern received an award for his life’s work on Germans, Jews and the roots of National Socialism, presented to him by Joschka Fischer, then the German foreign minister. With a frankness that startled some in the audience, Stern, an emeritus professor of European history at Columbia University, peppered his acceptance speech with the similarities he saw between the path taken by Germany in the years leading up to Hitler and the path being taken by the United States today. He talked about a group of 1920’s intellectuals known as the “conservative revolutionaries,” who “denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat, and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality and cosmopolitan culture,” and about how Hitler had used religion to appeal to the German public. In Hitler’s first radio address after becoming chancellor, Stern noted, he declared that the Nazis regarded “Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”

Christianity as the foundation of national morality is a theme the Republicans have sounded so many times that when it finally comes back to bite them it’s impossible to feel any sympathy. The party appeals to the worst of human qualities. Apparently the section of the populace whose support they need is consumed with hate, willing to accept lies, comfortable with war and murder, and in general unable to recognize that they’re being used. Or perhaps they’re all premillennial dispensationalists doing everything they can to bring about the end of the world.

That version of Christianity seems to this non-Christian to be almost completely opposed to what Gibbon called the pure and simple maxims of the Gospel. But perhaps Christian theism is not as silly as it seems to me; there are, after all, true Christians who follow those pure and simple maxims.

Dozens of Amish neighbors came out Saturday to mourn the quiet milkman who killed five of their young girls and wounded five more in a brief, unfathomable rampage.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, was buried in his wife’s family plot behind a small Methodist church, a few miles from the one-room schoolhouse he stormed Monday.

His wife, Marie, and their three small children looked on as Roberts was buried beside the pink, heart-shaped grave of the infant daughter whose death nine years ago apparently haunted him.

About half of perhaps 75 mourners on hand were Amish.

“It’s the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed,” said Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Morrison, Colo., who had come to Pennsylvania to offer what help he could and attended the burial. He said Marie Roberts was also touched.

Who wouldn’t be? That’s the real thing.

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