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Andrew Sullivan and P. Z. Myers have been arguing about whether it makes sense to say that the Hutaree militia nuts are really Christians.

Sullivan says no, we should call them Christianists instead. Myers says that's silly, because where do you draw the line where Christians behaving badly is concerned? Sullivan retorts that real Christians flee power just like the "homeless, apolitical, nonviolent hippie" named Jesus. Christianists, by contrast, seek power above all else. Myers rebuts yet again, pointing out that the history of the Christian church(es) is too full of people who seek and wield power in Christ's name for Sullivan's distinction between Christian and Christianist to have any weight.

My immediate response is to observe that Sullivan is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy. When committing this fallacy, instead of dealing with exceptions to a rule as evidence for the complexity of an issue, one redefines one's categories to exclude the exception. In the case of Christianity Sullivan is stuck with the problem of repudiating not just the modern militia movement but all the Christian authorities who sought and used power before, including the men who cooperated with Constantine's project of imperializing -- and thus creating -- a lower-c catholic church in the first place.

But I sympathize with Sullivan. After all I'd like to think that "no true skeptic" and "no true atheist" would fall for Objectivism or climate-change denialism. It would be comforting to be able to deny that people who embarrass me have anything to do with my worldview. And it's true that most of the time, most Christians -- whether Catholic priests or Protestant gun owners -- are not interested in hurting anybody. So it makes sense to want to make a distinction between peaceful, tolerant people and dogmatic, violent bigots, and I'll be very pleased if Christians in general adopt the practice of excluding the latter type from their community.

But doesn't Sullivan's point of view create a theological problem?

For when it came time for Jesus to be arrested and taken before Pilate, his foremost disciple attacked the arresting party with a sword, and Jesus had to chasten him. Peter swore unswerving loyalty, even unto death, but Jesus predicted that Peter would, instead, deny Christ three times. The rock of the future church swung between rage and despair -- and was he not a Christian?

And did Peter's example not establish the fundamental problem of being Christian for the next two thousand years? Being Christian means believing in something absurd and terrifying, not just a loving god but virgin births and resurrections and an eternal judgment that is imminent at all times. It means believing that the grubby rabbi who right now is being scourged and mocked (it's the morning of Good Friday as I write this) is actually the creator and king of the universe, a superb vessel for your hopes, dreams, and salvation. It means submitting to humiliation for your beliefs while standing up and spreading the word of the Lord.

Given the example of Peter, it seems to me normal that Christians should routinely fail the ideals of Jesus. Whether from excessive zeal or from fear and despair, these failures are part of the broader problem of sin. They are unavoidable, and for a multitude of cases -- the conservative Christian who denies the liberal, the peaceful Christian who denies the violent, the Catholic who denies the Protestant, and vice versa -- the Christian's duty is to be Christ-like and embrace and succor and teach the Christian who is making a mistake.

To draw a distinction between Christians and Christianists is, it seems to me, deeply un-Christian. It misses the point of the problem of sin and the promise of salvation, because Christ died even to save the members of Hutaree from themselves.

If you're going to believe in that kind of thing, that is. For me, it's simply more evidence for that popular quote by Voltaire:
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
On Good Friday we celebrate an atrocity committed to defend one set of absurdities -- the twin authorities of Caesar and the Temple -- for the sake of establishing another set of absurdities -- original sin and salvation by proxy -- as universal law. Christians should not be surprised that their own absurdities breed atrocities in turn.
 

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June 2012

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