The Great Question of Religion: Who’s on First?

No, I’m not joking. True religion boils down to this one question. But before I demonstrate this, I’d like to point to something the literary critic Adam Kirsch recently wrote. He has been reading one page a day from the Talmud, and in discussing Sabbath keeping, he responds to some grotesque moral reasoning:

When it comes to saving gentile lives, the rabbis are far less lenient [about breaking the Sabbath to do so], as we can see in the troubling discussion in Yoma 84b. Say a building collapses on Shabbat and someone is trapped in the rubble. Now imagine that, before the building fell, there had been 10 people inside. If even just one of those people was a Jew and nine were gentiles, the rabbis say that it is permitted to violate Shabbat and dig for the survivor in the rubble. But if all 10 were gentiles, the implication is that one should not violate Shabbat to save them.

Naturally, this distinction now strikes us as abhorrent. Indeed, one might say that to refuse to violate Shabbat to save a non-Jewish life would constitute what in Yoma 86a is described as the worst sin of all: chillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name.

In other words, contrary to the Talmud, Adam Kirsch is saying that your neighbor is everybody.

It recalls for me a moment in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ in which he has Jesus say to the chief rabbis in the temple, “Do you think God belongs only to you? God is not an Israelite!”

But let’s get to the great question of religion: Who’s on first?

To answer this, it must be acknowledged that there are many things clamoring to be on first, and this means there are lots of forms of idolatry in the world. God prefers your group to others, your land to others, your temple to others. These are all forms of idolatry. There are lots and lots of ways to set up idols and render others (and even God, if God exists) unsacred, unimportant, invisible to your life. The idols we choose to focus on are our armor.

Jesus tried to bring down the armor a little bit. He had it right when he told us to love those who don’t share our idols–that is, all outsiders. But few really heard him when he said it, and we still don’t hear it now. But this is from Matthew 5 (KJV), Jesus speaking:

43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; […]

Later, Matthew’s gospel drips with hatred and aggression for the Jewish temple leaders and the mass of Jews who did not follow Jesus–turning them, by the end of his gospel, into diabolical devils (Matt. 28: 11-15) with a multi-generational blood curse (Matt. 27:24-25). Historically, such passages as those in Matthew 27 and 28 fueled Christian antisemitism in Europe–which ultimately set up the conditions for the Holocaust. So Matthew, even as he records what Jesus said about loving one’s enemies, didn’t really hear what Jesus was saying (if Jesus even said it).

But we need to hear it. If we hear nothing else Jesus is purported to have said, we need to hear at least this part. Do good to those who hate you; return hate with love. And stop erecting hate on others. Whether it comes from Jesus in the past or Adam Kirsch today, we need to hear it. We need to hear it from whoever will say it. Love. Everybody. Break the escalation of hatred and sectarian idolatry. Find something to value in your neighbor and your enemy–and move towards that. There’s a chance it will start a cascade of reciprocation. Peace begins with you. Somebody has to go first. You go first. You’re on first.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to The Great Question of Religion: Who’s on First?

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Peace begins with you. Somebody has to go first. You go first. You’re on first.
    That is profoundly true and needs to be said again and again.

    It is an act of courage and commitment to go first. It is a great act of courage and commitment to love your enemy. It is also a great risk, it is a making of oneself vulnerable. It goes against all our instincts to open our arms to the enemy.

    do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

    What would motivate a person to do something so risky, so un-self centered, so other focussed? Mere abstract belief, or the repetition of aphorisms, does not have the power to change behaviour in such a profound way. This is the point of my comment. Beliefs which powerfully change behaviour need a powerful warrant. Without that warrant, principles become vaguely comforting ideas ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance’.

    A telling example of this was the recent study of ethical behaviour among academic philosophers who specialized in the study of ethics. Their behaviour was no better than the behaviour of the average academic and in some cases worse. See The Moral Behaviour of Ethics Professors. They had the knowledge but lacked the warrant.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Regarding your reflection on warrant, what provoked me to write this post were three things: (1) I had some tension and conflict with somebody who I knew would not break the tension by going first–it’s just not in their personality to do so. So I knew I had to go first to make peace–and it did work. (2) Obama and Iran; I was thinking about that. (3) I was rearranging books in my library, and my books on WWII, Hitler, and Stalin gathered together were so bleak looking and droopy-eyed that I felt like I had to detoxify the space around them by putting my Gandhi and Alan Ginsberg books immediately after them. WWII is a huge reminder that alpha-male authoritarian selfishness and aggression is a folly whose antidote (after restraining the impulse by counter-violence, thank goodness for Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Truman), is a new attempt at producing love, liberal attitudes, and generosity–increasing the circle of “who’s in.”

      So I think if you don’t have a strong metaphysical warrant for going first (as Jesus had, obviously), there is a pragmatic hope grounded in evolutionary psychology for going first. If you’re not dealing with a clinical psychopath, you can get a cascade of reciprocation going (or at least you have a chance of doing so) if you can stimulate the generous response that is present in most people. Martin Luther King was not just a Baptist minister, but a pragmatist who knew from Gandhi that if you suffer unjustly in the presence of mass media, it will evoke democratic change by getting the majority of the fair-minded on your side.

      Going first increases the chances of cooperative dynamics firing up–a far better evolutionary strategy for social primates (in general) than going it alone (or with just your own little group).

      In Arizona, for example, the governor this week vetoed a bill that would have given business owners the legal option of discriminating against people they don’t like–i.e. homosexuals–and it was quite obvious that legalizing the witholding of generosity and service to “outsiders” like gays would set up a cascade of similar acts of witholding–i.e. boycotts of the state by corporations and individuals.

      So it’s good for business to increase your circle of “insiders.” These aren’t high motives for being kind, but they do get some work done.

      The high metaphysical and religious motives for going first, of course, are also good. I’m not trying to downgrade them by pointing out the lower motives.

      Orwell once wrote an essay on Gandhi in which he wasn’t so sure about whether lower (nonreligious) motives could sustain nonviolence, however. He wondered if Gandhi’s position on nonviolence was really consistently possible for anyone who did not share Gandhi’s religious motivations–and such a critique of nonviolence as Orwell offers in that essay is obviously applicable to the Jesus and Martin Luther King situations as well.

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