The Cult of the Meme

This article first appeared in The Call in 2014.

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Behold I will do a new thing
(Isaiah 43:19)

American feminist poet, essayist, and critic Katha Pollitt once said the following, which is now a widespread ‘meme’ on ‘social media’ on the internet:

“When you consider that God could have commanded anything he wanted – anything! – the Ten [Commandments] have got to rank as one of the great missed moral opportunities of all time. How different history would have been had he clearly and unmistakably forbidden war, tyranny, taking over people’s countries, slavery, exploitation of workers, cruelty to children, wife-beating, stoning, treating women – or anyone – as chattel or inferior beings.”

Now the main problem with quotations like this, or quotations of any kind in the context of social media, is just that – their context. Somewhere like ‘Facebook’ is full of things like this – even Christian ones – that are the on-screen equivalent of the ‘sound bite’ or the slogan. They are passed around by whomever feels that they conform to their ‘confirmation bias’. None of these ‘memes’ is a good basis for a thesis, or for a debate from the contrary viewpoint. I dare say that Katha Pollitt herself would rather her statement above be taken in the context of her wider writings and pronouncements.

It’s all too easy to give the instant comeback to her statement and say that the things she advocates are implicit in the Ten Commandments, but to be fair to her she did say ‘clearly and unmistakably’!

The first thing that needs to be said is that God is not about morality. Morality is a purely human thing, and is changeable. The very word comes from the Latin ‘mores’, meaning ‘custom’, and from that it is plain that ‘morality’ is something that conforms to the culture of the time and place in which it is found. It is not and never can be an absolute.

God could, of course, have started by creating a world of puppets, unable to do anything but obey his laws. But then we would have been his toys and not his children. He made humanity first of all, in our innocent state, to live with him in the garden that he had created. But we listened to our second teacher – the serpent – became self-aware, ashamed of our nakedness, no longer innocent. At that point God could have scrapped everything and started again. Instead he sent us out into the world. We would be free, but it would be hard going, because the world he sent us into was and is a dynamic place, a place where things happen, a place with hard edges.

But one day we would have before us the way back to that life with God.

That was not the letter of the Ten Commandments, although they were what might be called a ‘type’ or a ‘figure’ – something that reveals a little of the nature of something greater to come. The Ten Commandments were originally laid down for a group of nomads wandering through the wilderness – the Children of Israel, a little flock whom God had raised from the world to remember him. The Ten were part of a complex system of laws and performances, suited to a small remnant of fallen humanity, a system which by its imposition would keep God in their minds. The Ten were, if you like, part of the ‘small print’ of a Covenant between God and the Children of Israel.

Could it be that God was aware (indeed, how could he not be?) that even these chosen people were imperfect, and would sometimes lose sight of their side of the Covenant?

He sent his prophets amongst them, some to warn them of the consequences of their backsliding and disobedience, some to promise that one day all their struggles would be over, some even to warn their oppressors. But even if he had said, explicitly, “I forbid war”, how could self-aware, ashamed-of-nakedness, no-longer-innocent humanity have obeyed that commandment any better than they obeyed the others?

One day he sent the Way back, he sent the Word – the very power by which he had created the world (see the first chapter of John’s Gospel) in human flesh – his son Jesus Christ, who proceeded, to the surprise of the Children of Israel and to humanity as a whole, simultaneously to strengthen and to drive a coach-and-horses through the Ten Commandments. The things he preached took people aback, and they still do to this day – particularly things he took from the Law of the Covenant between God and the Children of Israel and prefaced with “But I say unto you…”

Katha Pollitt wanted God to have commanded no war, for example; would the following be ‘clear’ and ‘unmistakable’ enough?

“… whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…”

“…resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

“… 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…”
(from Matthew 5:22, 39, 44)

How could Jesus make such ‘impossible’ commandments? Because he was the Way back to living in unity with God. because he gave to humanity the Holy Spirit, and wrote his law by that Holy Spirit not on tablets of stone, as the Commandments were that were given to Moses, but upon the human psyche. And it is by that Holy Spirit that the faithful, who freely give themselves to be led to the Father by the Son, can hear and obey the commandment not to go to war.

Some people may still ask why God could not have done this wonder from the very beginning. Why wait? Why let bad things happen? Any of us, unbeliever or believer, could ask this from a purely human understanding, from a point of view that humanity is the most important thing in creation. But that would be to give in to that second teacher, the serpent…

Friends, even an article of this length is not enough to address the serious questions raised by Katha Pollitt – and they are serious questions that have troubled believers and non-believers alike. Perhaps in pointing the way to answers we can, however, counter a little of the cult of the meme.

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