Rethinking Sermon On The Mount by Annie Laurie Gaylor (March 1995)

Methodist Hillary Rodham Clinton was put on the spot by Newsweek’s religious religion editor Ken Woodward, who asked to interview her about her “spiritual life.” After keeping him at bay for three months, Rodham Clinton succumbed and consented to an interview (Oct. 31, 1994).

She spoke sympathetically of the religious views of the right, saying they are unfairly stereotyped. She endorsed intercessory prayer, saying a group of friends pray for her and the president. When asked about her favorite bible passages, she had the grace to sidestep the question, but said at the moment she was thinking about Sermon on the Mount. To her credit she finds Matthew 5, 6 and 7 “filled with challenge,” and “very hard to read . . . and fully understand.”

Dear Ms. Clinton:

I re-examined the bible passages you singled out as of special interest in your Newsweek interview. I never had much patience for the Beatitudes, which opens chapter 5, because the only pay-off for the meek is in heaven, which is too little, too late. This kind of pie-in-the-sky promise kept the enslaved African-Americans in line, and has tantalized the oppressed with empty promises. While I can see, given the persecution you have endured, how you might find comfort in the beatitude blessing “they which are persecuted,” isn’t it ironic that your persecutors are almost all “righteous” Christians?

The Jesus of the New Testament next says he came to fulfil “the law” of Moses, which I find especially troubling, given the many unsavory injunctions, such as to kill stubborn sons (Deut. 21:18-21), homosexuals (Lev. 20:13), blasphemers (Lev. 24:16) and those of other faiths (Deut. 7:1-8)–all of which have been obeyed in the past by muscular Christians.

Surely you do not agree that getting angry with a brother is nearly as bad as killing him? Or that you should go to hell for calling somebody a fool (which, incidentally, Jesus himself does, see Matt. 23:17)?

Do you agree that “lusting in one’s heart” is the same as committing adultery?

If Newsweek had asked my opinion, I would have said that Matthew 5 contains one of my least favorite bible passages:

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

“And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,” etc.–Matthew 5:29-30

Methodists probably find nonliteral ways to deal with this grisly passage, but the fact is that it continues to inspire chilling mutilations and self-mutilations. I find this passage, like you, “very hard to read.”

The next piece of advice is mischief-making and unegalitarian–the proviso against divorce unless a fornicating wife is to blame, of course.

Jesus advises us not to resist evil. Isn’t that evil advice? Should we not rescue an abused child or resist a murderous dictator? If someone hit your cheek, would you turn the other? Isn’t that masochistic? If someone made you walk a mile under duress, would you go an extra with your kidnapper? Is that what you teach your daughter? Do you think we should always give or lend whatever is asked? If we lose a civil lawsuit, should we pay twice as much as we are fined?!

Perhaps the counsel to “love your enemies,” if followed, could help prevent wars, but wouldn’t it be more practical to end the enmity rather than to pretend a phony “love”? Consider the way Christians can interpret this verse, such as Roy McMillan, the man who directs Christian Action Group and has threatened the life of the President and Supreme Court justices. He regards physicians who perform abortions as his enemy and recently told NBC that when you murder doctors, “you should do it in love.” Nor is this helpful advice to the religious battered woman. One is loathe to think of your husband following such advice too closely in his dealings with the opposition! Do we really want our president “doing good” to Newt Gingrich, who would subvert our secular democracy? Wouldn’t that be at the expense of the country?

One Christian teaching we freethinkers can heartily endorse leads off Chapter 6, in which Jesus rebukes hypocrites who pray in public:

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. . . .

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

We hope Mr. Clinton and other politicians will re-read this verse before making further comments on the proposed school prayer amendment!

The following verses I also find “filled with challenge.” After the Lord’s Prayer and some gobbledy-gook about light and darkness, Jesus resumes his impractical instructions for life: take no thought for tomorrow, your life, your next meal and drink, your clothing, “for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” Handy if you are a lily of the field but a good way to starve if you’re an ordinary human who can’t change water into wine and bread into a banquet!

Chapter 7 brings us the famous injunction, much appreciated by black collar criminals, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” We don’t need a god to tell us it is best not to be hypercritical of other people’s harmless habits, or that it is hypocritical to criticize others for things we do ourselves. But this sweeping generality strikes me as corrupting and cowardly. Should we turn off our powers of critical thought out of fear of others turning the same scrutiny toward us? Isn’t this self-serving? If we followed this advice, our jury system of criminal justice would fall!

Not pretty is Jesus’s injunction, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs” (dogs being a slur for Gentiles).

I admit to rather fancying the saying, “neither cast ye your pearls before swine,” however unfair to pigs, just as the warning about false prophets, (wolves in sheep’s clothing) is enduring imagery. But the warning hasn’t hurt Pat Robertson’s credibility any.

Matthew 7:9 reads: “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” Feminist Sonia Johnson pointed out that a stone was all the Mormon church offered women seeking equal rights. It could well serve as a metaphor for the treatment of women by Christianity as a whole, don’t you think?

The parlor trick, “seek and ye shall find,” I could do without. It inspired that awful campfire song. Of course, its promise of salvation for all is contradicted later in 7:14, with its odious predestination: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

If we judge Christianity by Matthew 7:16-20, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” wouldn’t we have to admit that it doesn’t pass muster?

Consider the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, witch-hunting, the eradication of heretics, the schisms and doctrinal disputes. Hasn’t the church stood in the way of nearly every humanistic reform and endeavor, past and present? Mainstream Christianity opposed abolition of slavery, equality for women, free inquiry and scientific pursuits. Today’s fanatics oppose a secular constitution, reproductive rights and many civil rights.

As James Madison wrote in the 1785 Memorial & Remonstrance: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” It is as vital today that we keep religion out of government as it was in Madison’s era.

The Sermon on the Mount ends with more veiled threats about what will happen to those of us who do not “do the will of my Father.” When this nation was founded, we threw off the tyrant. Why then is it still acceptable to worship a tyrant seeking converts through threats that reach beyond the grave?

Sincere Christians certainly have their work cut out for them in separating the biblical wheat from the chaff. Any good is spoiled by the spectre of a vindictive god paranoically insisting that anyone who does not submit to his will and confusing decrees “is in danger of hell fire.”

You are a praiseworthy person, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of your god. You ask your religion for substance. It gives you a stone, and its most ardent supporters throw them.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor
Freethought Today

Freedom From Religion Foundation