Overview:

Religious humanists are welcome to accuse Christian nationalists of not being Christ-like, but atheists must stop playing that losing game.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Humanists know that there is so much to do in our hurting world. It’s frustrating when a given cultural moment nevertheless compels us to dwell on toxic religious turf instead.

Every time we do?

We’re not working together to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Not grappling with rising environmental and war refugeeism, and reshaping local communities to foster restorative justice for all.

Not fixing the skyrocketing rich-poor divide and protecting energy, housing, food, and digital futures with more robust policy reforms.

We’re dealing, instead, with the results of a Christian nationalist long game that on Friday joined the U.S. with the ranks of Russia, Iran, North Korea, Poland, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Turkey, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as the only countries since 1980 to reverse reproductive rights, in complete contradiction to the public reforms that actually reduce the abortion rate, while also improving maternal and overall human outcomes.

A long game, furthermore, achieved in recent years by whipping up fury against a host of other demographics, including queer and trans people, immigrants, and anyone with the audacity to want the U.S. to teach its racialized history. Single-issue voters driven by hate are the death knell of anything resembling actual democracy. But here we are.

There’s a lot of work ahead to heal this terrible situation, and to bring the Western world into greater collective focus around genuinely humanist goals.

But until that work is done, one very important argument needs to be knocked squarely off the secular table.

While white Christian nationalism is having its field day, I know the temptation to try to shame such fascistic right-wingers on their own “turf” will run strong.

But we have to stop using the “not very Christ-like” card with hateful people.

Because the unfortunate truth is that they do have plenty of textual backing, from the words of Christ in the gospels themselves, for most of their worst beliefs.

Progressives and conservatives: A bible for both

Now, I want to be clear here: religious humans make up the vast majority of our species. As such, religious humanists are a vital part of our global project to build a world of greater agency and dignity for all. Many Christians grew up in communities that always gave them a kinder vision of Christ. Or, if their first church didn’t provide a god that seemed as loving as they knew a god should be, they later found faith groups dedicated to using the best of their shared spiritual vocabulary to create something more progressive.

It is so easy for secular folks to scoff at this work of relativist renegotiation, and to say that religious people would be better off just giving up on the Bible, their faith, and its communities. But for one? Many people articulating this disdain forget how crucial those vocabularies were for, say, African Americans enduring multiple generations of oppression, along with other colonized peoples the world over who used the imposed culture of their oppressors to create relationships to struggle, resilience, and revolution all their own. It is certainly not for me to tell anyone how they should feel about a faith that both oppressed and also gave their ancestors the strength to overcome.

Similarly, secular folks would do well to remember how hard it is to give up our own treasured vocabularies of harm. We in the West grew up in systems that treat men as much as women very poorly, steeped in narratives of Western entitlement and elitism, white supremacist nationalism, language supremacy, racism, ableism, xenophobia, classism, individual disposability, and overall institutional rectitude. We too would do well to start over with fresh lingo.

But it’s not that easy, is it?

For better and for worse, we have to navigate most changes in our sociopolitical and cultural contexts through the cruel vocabularies we’ve been given.

So if fellow humanists in the religious camp want to condemn the right for “not being very Christ-like”, that’s their prerogative. They’re engaging in an internal argument over which slice of the Bible, and which slice of its attendant Christian cultures, should matter most.

But for the rest of us? There’s no excuse, if you know what the Bible actually says.

The right wing’s scriptural Christ

As a quick note, I prefer the King James Version for excerpting (well, actually, Douay-Rheims is my favorite, from grad-level medieval studies, but that’s esoteric). However, the KJV has a lot of antiquated phrasing, so I’ll pop in modern alternatives where necessary.

1. The scriptural case for attacking teachers for their lesson plans, queer people in general, and drag queens at children’s events

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6, KJV, statement directly ascribed to Christ, with variants in Luke 17:1-2 and Mark 9:42

In the English Standard Version, this notion of offense is better spelled out as “caus[ing] one of these little ones to sin”, and that’s where we get to the crux of this Biblical endorsement of mobs getting together to murder anyone who does anything that might cause a child to stray from Christ’s teachings. It’s pretty straightforward in its championing of cruelty toward anyone the masses perceive as leading a child down the wrong path.

And it definitely makes advancing the idea of a loving Christ harder for folks who seek such admirable societal changes as queer and gender equality, carceral reform, and an end to the death penalty through Christ’s words elsewhere. That’s a problem in general for the Bible, though: there’s pretty much a quote for anything, and plenty are in direct contradiction.

2. The scriptural case for treating migrants as lesser beings, and generally reinforcing tiered levels of care

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Matthew 15:21-28, KJV

This isn’t the only Biblical verse involving Christ specifically saying that he had come for the elect. The Parable of the Sower is another nasty piece of business, describing a farmer who intentionally sows in such a way that only some seeds find good soil and flourish. In that section, Christ also explains that he speaks in parables specifically “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matthew 13:11-13).

In other words, this section with the Canaanite woman is not atypical. Christ’s cruelty with her, and the cruelty of his disciples in wanting to dispatch her, is of a piece with other stark divisions of care in The New Testament. Churches therefore teach the Good Samaritan parable instead, because that’s a nice little story that suggests fellow-feeling between all peoples. But… pay attention to the topical difference. The Good Samaritan helps someone already seen as belonging to a worthy circle. “See?” it says, to shame locals. “Even that outsider did better by someone of your tribe than you did”.

With the Canaanite woman, though, the task was for Christ and his disciples to help someone outside their stated mission for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. And so he dehumanized this mother of a sick child, telling her it wasn’t right to give his children’s food to the dogs. Parents who love their children will most certainly accept any humiliation in exchange for aid, though, so she readily accepts the hierarchy he’s placed on her. Fine, she’s a dog. But even dogs can get some scraps from the master’s table, right?

When people try to shame Western politicians for their hateful attitudes toward migrants seeking asylum, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the generally suffering from other demographics, by accusing them of “not being very Christ-like”, this passage always comes back to me. It’s not a parable. It’s words and actions directly ascribed to Christ. Those politicians are not doing anything that Christ didn’t already: offering mere crumbs to outsiders willing to accept their “place” in the social order of whose lives really matter.

3. The scriptural case for indentured servitude, and hatefulness toward people who don’t know their place

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow [trust] not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

Luke 17:7-10, KJV, statement directly ascribed to Christ

Again, we have a passage that endorses Christ’s belief in social hierarchy. Plenty of his parables involve master-worker relations, some among laborers paid for a day’s work, and others, like this “servant” (“slave” in the Greek, δοῦλος, but routinely mistranslated), simply expected to do his duty without thanks.

These parables make the work of striving for a more just and equitable society much more difficult for progressive Christians. After all, in each such story, Christ describes a divine model for the world by endorsing an earthly system where masters get to make all key decisions, and where those who work for them should be thankful for what they receive, rather than expressing any concerns.

In this one, too, Christ endorses the master-slave system as one where the slave obviously should expect no thanks for working all day for someone else and then having to suffer further while the master first dines. He’s simply doing his duty, fulfilling his rightful role.

Can we really wonder at the Christian “masters” of today’s world, the people in power who monopolize our economies, gut our welfare system, and otherwise exacerbate our rich-poor divide while diminishing our democratic institutions, for so readily exploiting the carceral system and weak workers’ protections, too? Christ asserts the rightful existence of a worldly hierarchy (promising, at best, that the poor are guaranteed a higher role in heaven), and calls for everyone to strive to accept and honor their lot, expecting nothing more.

4. The scriptural case for lying to stay in rich people’s good graces

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?

Luke 16:1-12, KJV, parable directly ascribed to Christ

There is technically a Luke 16:13, but Biblical scholars consider it to have been tacked on to the end of this parable, possibly to mediate its awfulness. Why tacked on? Because it is almost word-for-word Matthew 6:24 in the original Greek (only a single word’s variance).

But the core story follows a frivolous employee who mismanaged his employer’s holdings to the point of almost losing his job, so he lied to all his employer’s debtors, acting as though his employer was graciously reducing their debt. This allowed him to hedge his bets. If he had lost his job, he would already have made himself a friendly face elsewhere. But as it happened, his first lord was pleased by his ingenuity (and perhaps by the positive reputation his steward had given him in town), so he seems to have kept his original post.

All this deception is praised by Christ as a way of making friends with the unrighteousness of the world, doing whatever it takes to retain a good situation within its worldly evils. Be a loyal servant even unto wealth in this life, because it’s the loyalty that counts when it comes to reaping greater rewards later on.

Gee, I wonder how that might relate to the politics of many wealthy Christians.

5. The scriptural case for misappropriation of funds

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

John 12:3-8, KJV

The ESV clears up a little of the narrator’s interrupting note, by translating the explanation for Judas’s question as related to the apparently well-known fact that, “having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it”. Oh, really? Well that’s a fascinating state of affairs for this traveling band of disciples to have taken for granted.

Critics often focus on Christ’s glib dismissal of the work of charity, which suggests that it matters less than showing him worship. After all, the idea that “the poor always ye have with you” is a pretty grim assertion that poverty is just part of the social order, never to be changed.

But either the anonymous writer of John was simply trying to cast aspersions on Judas, or he was establishing that the disciples went around receiving donations from people under false pretenses, knowing full well that Judas would dip into the group’s funds as he saw fit, and that Christ didn’t bother remonstrating him or taking this responsibility from him, to ensure that their collections actually served people in need. The only betrayal of note is Judas’s betrayal of him, and not all his manipulations of other worshipers’ trust.

Should we really be shocked by the trespasses of evangelical megachurches, to say nothing of the Catholic church’s longstanding abuses, when this is how the apostles were allowed to comport themselves as they spread the word of Christ?

6. The scriptural case against bipartisanship, and pro-violent action

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:34-38, KJV, statement directly ascribed to Christ

The kind of struggle Christ calls for in this passage is difficult for many progressive Christians, but it aligns splendidly with the actions of the Christian far-right in recent politics, whether in government or in arming for the streets. When society’s crisis of faith seems to be at its zenith, when people are told that they are living in fallen times and that enemies are all about them, why shouldn’t they recognize any strife or division they might cause as a sign that they are moving in the right spiritual direction? The cross that Christ calls for them to take up here is lonely and combative. It does not at all invite expectation that it can be taken up without causing painful social schisms.

Many on the liberal left have tried too hard for too many years to hope for bipartisanship. But when division from close community is seen as its own mark of spiritual progress, and when refusal to find common cause with those whose beliefs differ is a sign of drawing closer to Christ, what else can we expect from right-wing Christian extremists? How can they ever feel shame for following the Word over following the laws and customs of the land?

7. The scriptural case against environmental advocacy

And when he was come to the other side into the country of the Gergesenes, there met him two possessed with devils, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time? And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding.

So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.

Matthew 8:28-32, KJV, with story variants in Luke 8:26-33 and Mark 5:1-13

This story is so important to The New Testament that it exists in three gospels, the other two accounts running a bit longer but introducing the demon(s) as “Legion”. The episode allows Christ to be seen as an exorcist so fierce that demons fear him on sight, but it also plays into the strong Jewish aversion to pigs as unclean animals. Like should go with like, right?

There’s absolutely no reason for Christ to agree to a demon’s request, but doing so establishes Christ as someone who does not care what happens to the swine, and embraces the idea that they are irrelevant. Who cares if they suffer and die?

This, too, accords with the hierarchy of care present in so many of Christ’s anecdotes. As such, Christ is far from an easy champion for environmental causes. While The Old Testament offers its own mess of human entitlements to prosper off the land, this thrice-mentioned episode in The New Testament bolsters the idea that Christ was only concerned with ridding men of spiritual afflictions. All our more recent earthly concerns, be they with air and water pollution, animal protections and climate change, are simply more distractions from humanity’s primary duty to come unto Christ and be cleansed.

Better moral appeals than to ‘being more Christ-like’

I would categorize most of the progressive Christians I know as better people than their Biblical Christ. More compassionate. More eager to see wrongs righted. More open to expansive communities of care. More committed to making this world better here and now. And even some conservative Christians I know (while our politics diverge widely) also give back and are constructively present in their communities to an impressive degree.

I am not happy about all our efforts, as humanists across the spectrum of cosmological beliefs, being hijacked by religious nihilists. But that’s where so many parts of the world are right now. Whether it’s the Hindutva of India or the Christian nationalists of the U.S., people who believe there is nothing of value outside their specific tribes keep dragging us back into old violence, when there is so much else we should be doing as a species.

Christian humanists have a tall order in shaping Biblical stories to center the more loving, pro-equality, and pro-care Christ they’ve always known. I wish them (you) great strength and success in that struggle.

But my brothers and sisters in impending stardust?

My fellow atheists hurting and looking for any way to get at the Christian nationalists doing so much social harm?

Save your energy for flat-out decrials of their violent and oppressive actions as immoral, reprehensible, and unfit for civil society⁠—and get to work to unseat their most powerful allies.

When it comes to trying to shame them instead for not being very Christ-like?

With all love in the struggle, please knock it the fuck off.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.