Friday, April 1, 2011

A New Kind of Pharisee

We all know the typical application of the concept of "Pharisee" today: it's the religious person who cares about religion and doctrine and may even be rather judgmental and hypocritical. There are truth to these conceptions but there is also a lot of usage of the word "Pharisee" as an epithet. I want to sidestep the traditional application of the Pharisee and suggest there is a new type of Pharisee that is becoming much more popular.

It is the social crusader Pharisee. It is someone who is so absorbed in their social crusade (particularly those that are trendy on the left) that they embrace the crusade precisely because of its trendiness rather than giving serious thought to ethical issues and the so called "complexity of life" that we are so fond of hearing about. It becomes a sort of 'moral majority' for issues that are near and dear to the "left."

Now concern for real poverty, real creation care, real humane treatment of animals, real discrimination are things that a Christian should be concerned about. Yet, when we lose perspective on these so that any one issue or set of social issues becomes domineering then we are danger of falling into our own form of new Pharisaicallism with our own judgmentalism.

This CNN article illustrates something of the sort. PETA gets mad at GoDaddy CEO for killing an elephant.
Parsons' own website has also been inundated by negative comments protesting the video.
"A lot of the people who are upset about this are animal lovers," Parsons told CNN. "Their heart is in the right place, but they just don't understand the situation."
Parsons said he killed the animal for the good of local farmers whose crops are often destroyed by elephants. The video shows him walking through a field of flattened sorghum plants, which he said had been crushed by roaming elephants.
"They are subsistence farmers. If their crop isn't harvested, they don't eat," Parsons said.
He called the fact that the elephant meat provided food for the people "a bonus."
"They literally have nothing and they're on the brink of starvation," he said.
Parsons has traveled to Zimbabwe for several years, but only last year began hunting elephants at the request of local farmers, he said. Overall, he said he has killed five elephants.
PETA rejected Parsons' explanation, with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk saying in a statement, "If Bob Parsons really wanted to help African villagers, he would use his money to promote one of the many effective, non-lethal methods available to protect crops -- not act like a little boy with a gun."

A few provisos before my main point:
1. Elephants are beautiful creatures. I don't know if the killing was indeed "justified" but at least the explanation should give us pause for thought.

2. Posting a video of the event was probably a dumb idea (I did not watch the video). Regardless of intent posting a video does at least give the appearance of glorifying in such events. I am not opposed to hunting, but if killing this elephant was to save human life in a desperate humanitarian situation--then glorifying in it sends the wrong message.

3. There may be something to the fact that the money might have been better spend by doing more to alleviate the causes and conditions of hunger without the killing. Yet solutions are rarely so simple. Postmodernist love to tell us to wrestle with "ethical complexities" but in this case where there probably actually are ethical complexities of balancing values of multiple forms of life with the future outcomes--there is a rather cocksure attitude of what one is not morally justified in doing: namely shooting an elephant. Moral complexity and ethically wrestling be damned.

My main point:
It strikes me as the height of Western white privilege to sit in our safe center-city lofts and criticize someone for killing an animal in what quite possible is an issue of the survival of their entire village. It strikes me as a new kind of Pharisaicialism where one can be assured of moral judgments and judmentalism when it relates to social causes. Multi-culturalism, pluralism, diversity and the assured results of post-modern ethics go out the window in the face of the new moral crusade for the pet social issue of PETA (puns intended).

Now there is indeed a time for moral certitude and careful reasoned judgments. This is particularly true for the Christian who bends his will under the authority of the Word of God that is over us all. This applies to internal morality (issues of pride, greed, and the heart) as well as external issues (how I treat others).

Christians today as they look at the world and are considering how they can better live out their vocation and calling in God's earth need to beware of developing the new kind of social conscience Pharisee.* So if one does not physically do 'social justice' the way I do and with my pet projects one is hard of heart and uncaring. This sort of slander happens when people concerned with children living in poverty make stupid claims that evangelicals concerned about life before it is born are unconcerned with life after it is born. Given all the money evangelicals give to organizations like World Vision and Samaritans Purse, this new Pharisaicalism is just looking for the easy slander.

I can remember as a young man, I was traveling with my friend's dad. We stopped to pick up an elderly lady who was a stranger to give her a ride to her destination. When we asked why we were told something to the effect that "it's our Christian duty to take care of orphans and widows, that's true religion." Now that is one modest example but it strikes me that here was a committed evangelical modeling to us young boys the very thing that we are today told evangelicals have "never really done well." 

The danger of judgmentalism is when you look at someone who doesn't go to the soup kitchen once a week like you and you say "they don't love the poor/neighbor." The reality there are often countless ways to love the poor and our neighbors. One person cannot do it all in every possible permutation. 

The New Pharisee is quite sure that because you don't adopt their social issue the way that they do that you don't care. And so quite often from those who love to pour out woes of "judge not lest ye be judged" we find a most judgmental spirit.

I think PETA has misplaced priorities from an unbiblical worldview--we cannot address that here.   As a result their methods are unbalanced. They do get part of the picture right: we should care for animals. For the Christian there is a mandate for creation care. But there are other realities to life too: one is often basic human survival--a reality that I am not a forcefully bombarded with as I sit in my cushy chair in my warm home, with my fridge full and my belly warmed. Make no mistake, like the rest of us, PETA and those concerned with social issues have doctrines and beliefs that guide us. Without them we have no place to stand.

The bigger issue is that there is a new type of moral crusader: a new Pharisee. Moral crusades are not wrong if our morals are right and guided by the Biblical vision. It is the height of postmodern irony--sort of an Isaianic 'calling good evil and evil good'--that we are so sure that judgment is bad until we level judgement about our social concern and your "inability" to stand for my issue.

*One thing I did not discuss is how we can use of social issues as a form of personal justification. In is a new aberrant version of legalism and justification by works where I feel good, useful and vindicated by my social. This, along with the aspect I discuss, is a great danger. Moralism can come in many forms.

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