Christian or Heretic?

Steve Bucknum

I was interested to see that the Christian Left was mentioned here at Blue Oregon. We don’t talk enough about religion. We actually should talk more about it.

In the interplay that followed the Christian Left article various terms were thrown loosely about. I think we should define terms. I don’t often share this, but I have a religious background. I was in fact a Commissioned Minister of the Volunteers of American for a brief while (May 1989 to July 1990). As such I formally studied religion, and have done so less formally both before and since. I do not belong to any church at this time, and my leanings are towards the Unitarian Church.

But my background leaves me entirely unafraid to "get religious".

We need to reframe how we talk about the Christian religion. We use terms like "Christian Right", "Evangelical", and "Fundamentalist". But within those labels are both people that liberals and progressives share values and views with, and people that we don’t have anything in common with. Obviously to anyone of a liberal/progressive point of view; the gay bashing, anti-choice, and general mean-spirited part that comes out of groups associated with these labels is offensive.

So, let’s reframe. There are Christians and there are Heretics.

To be a Christian means that you accept the message and word of Jesus, and give it priority over other teachings. In fact, as a Christian you believe in a new covenant. In John 13:34, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." Again, John 15:17, "This I command of you, to love one another." The commandment to love is given priority over the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament.

Heretics proclaim themselves to be Christian believers, but then ignore the teachings.

The issue of "literalness" comes up in a discussion of Christianity. A branch of heresy holds that the Bible is entirely literal in its meaning, that every word was put there by God through the humans that wrote the Bible. It is out of this branch of heresy that we find gay bashing and other ugly stuff. In contradiction to the command to "love" expressed without conditions, vague passages in the Old Testament regarding homosexuality has created in the Heretics hatred towards homosexuals. It is clearly not a Christian stance to put the Old Testament over the new covenant.

Let’s examine a couple of sayings/metaphors of Jesus for a minute. My favorite is in Matthew 19:24, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." Where does a literal reading of this leave you? Does every rich man have to grind up a camel and force the remaining pulp through the eye of a needle to insure their place in heaven? Another – Matthew 22:21, looking at a coin, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are Gods." A literal read is that we should give our money back to the government. – I would think that many Republicans would find these two passages very uncomfortable. Matthew 19:20, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me." True Christians need to be charitable, and the Heretics forget this.

In fact, once you understand that the difference between a Christian and a Heretic is that the Christians have embraced a new covenant of "love", and the Heretics have embraced a weird reliance upon a literal Bible with emphasis upon the Old Testament, then it all falls into place.

When you hear someone pounding on the Bible, angry, crying out against abortion, gays and lesbians, and the liberals trying to take their guns away – they are Heretics. There is no love in their position.

When you hear someone quietly expressing compassion and concern for women in a situation that might lead to an abortion, then that person is expressing a Christian viewpoint – whether they support abortion or not. There is love in their position.

When you hear someone expressing concern over the suffering of gay or lesbian people, whether or not they think it is okay or not okay to be gay or lesbian, then they are Christians.

When someone offers food, shelter, care, love, or any form of assistance or nurturing unconditionally without regard to sexual orientation, political party, poverty or wealth, race or ethnicity, or religion; then they are Christians.

When someone offers food, shelter, care, or assistance dependent upon the person accepting a religious point of view or having to at least be preached to – then those offering this conditional assistance are Heretics.

(I could get into the parables here, or other passages, but we really don’t need to do that to establish the "re-frame" I propose.)

So anyway, when I hear terms like "religious right" I get concerned. Some of those people are Christians, and some are Heretics. When progressives paint that picture of the "religious right" with too broad of a brush, and we are painting over good people.

As I have used the term "Christian" in this to mean someone who follows the teachings of Jesus, the term is also inclusive of many Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and those who are involved with other religions that come to a similar conclusion as to the role of mankind.

  • JTT (unverified)


    Thank you for posting such a profound message. I wish that more of our priests, pastors, and rectors would articulate the teachings of Jesus Christ as well as you did. For as much as the “heretics” accuse liberals, Democrats, pro-choicers, and homosexuals of not heeding the word of God and the teachings of Christ—there maybe more than a fleck in their own eye.

  • LT (unverified)

    Great, profound post, Steve. I was going to say something clever like "how big is a mote, anyway?" but I couldn't remember the exact quote.

    So I searched what I could remember of the quote and found this really cool website with the versions of the quote from a bunch of different dictionaries.

    I really enjoy studying the same passage in a bunch of different translations.

    Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    I remember a time in the not too distant past when it was possible to talk about issues without having to frame them in religious terms, and both conservatives and liberals were able to to this. People's ethical principles and worldviews were shaped in whole or in part by religion, but their public discourse proceeded without reference to theology.

    Now that has all changed, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to participate in the public discourse without using religious references. For example, I think it is no longer possible for a president to give a State of the Union address without "God bless America" tacked on to the end. All candidates for the presidency have to be known as "people of faith." To be known as a "person of faith" automatically makes you a good person, ex opere operato, so to speak. If you're not a person of faith, then you're lacking in some way.

    What that means is that having some kind of religious identity is how you show your bona fides. What this also means is that religion is increasingly becoming the starting point of serious discussion; it is the default position. Trying to participate in a serious group discussion about, say, ethical issues without religious references is like travelling in Mexico without pesos -- people will still take your dollars, but they know you're an outsider because your currency is wrong.

    And in today's U.S., if you want to transact in the marketplace of ideas, religion is definetly a helpful currency to have in your wallet. If you're not throwing out occasional references to the "biblical tradition," or the "teachings of Jesus," or "our Judeo-Christian heritage," people suspect that there might be something not quite right about you. If you can't cite the Bible or church tradition in your favor, then there's something wrong with your ideas.

    Now I can certainly tolerate being suspect due to my religious deficiency. But a more serious problem is that religion polarizes more than unites. Seventeen hundred years ago people rioted in the streets of Alexandria over the correct formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Things aren't that bad now, but we still see in religion the power to polarize. And this is the danger of accepting the idea that a person's primary identity is his religious identity, whether liberal or conservative.

    The current post is an excellent example of that. Mr. Bucknum wants to have a definition of "Christian" that is inclusive, kinder, and gentler. And he succeeds. But he does so at the cost of condemning others as "heretics." It's not just that they disagree with him, or that they hold bad ideas. It's that they are in an important sense not one of us, not like us.

    Now certainly that's not Mr. Bucknum's intention. But his language evokes images of rejection and exclusion, which is exactly what so many of us object to in the rhetoric of the religious right. And to fight the religious right with a liberal version of religion is to concede to the religious right one of their major points: that the most important thing about you is your religion, and that it defines who you are as a person.

    And so the Democrats should indeed welcome people of faith -- not as "people of faith," but just as "people." Remember, it's "We the People," not "We the People of Faith."

  • (Show?)

    Amen Brother!

    I was raised Catholic. I didn't go to Catholic School but attented Caticism Class regularly during grade school. Sister Mary Catherine taught me that Christ is the Lord of Forgivness and Mercy. Quite frankly I don't see any Forgiveness and Mercy coming from the so-called Christian Right.

  • Robin Ozretich (unverified)

    I am always happy to hear a progressive speaking out for generosity and fairness; for love and peace. Making connections between our progressive politics and the values that lead our hearts and minds to fight for them is perhaps the most important habit progressive advocates need to reestablish in our discourse. We often take these values as a given - we must vocalize them - to remind ourselves and others where our politics come from.

    Progressive Christians should use Christian language and teachings to vocalize progressive values. Progressive Muslims, progressive Jews, progressive Buddhists, progressive Wiccans, progressive Humanists, progressive agnostics, etc, should also speak from their hearts and draw on the values and teachings of their own ethical, spiritual or faith traditions to promote a progressive worldview.

    Sometimes it is hard for folks like myself, who have been raised athiest, agnostic, or other non-Christian, not to chafe at Christian language in the context of politics. Growing up with heritical "Christian" politicians invoking God and Christ while promoting politics that hurt the poor and divide the nation has left us with a knee-jerk aversion to Christian language in politics. We need to retrain ourselves to value the good that the true Christians have brought to our politics. We should look forward to hearing more Christians speak out for the values we share, as Martin Luther King once did.

    I look forward to hearing Christians draw upon the teachings of Christ to promote policies that bring people together to raise up an inclusive community, where fairness and love for all people are guiding principles for moving forward through the generations.

  • Caelan MacTavish (unverified)

    Brilliant post!

    I, for one, have been waiting for someont to put words to what we all have been feeling when faced with the blatant hypocrisy of the Christian Right. Heresy is a perfect term.

    "Heretical Right" has a nice ring to it.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Theanalyst writes:

    "Mr. Bucknum wants to have a definition of "Christian" that is inclusive, kinder, and gentler. And he succeeds. But he does so at the cost of condemning others as "heretics." It's not just that they disagree with him, or that they hold bad ideas. It's that they are in an important sense not one of us, not like us."

    -- Yes, it is a contradiction. In fact this is my point more than any other aspect of what I have written. Those that hold heretic beliefs distance themselves from those that follow the Christian beliefs. There is no easy resolution to heresy.

    What are our choices? Do we ignore it? That is what the main Christian churches have done without success. Do we confront it? It takes courage to tell someone who says that they are a Christian that their beliefs are heresy.

    Like some of the others that have responded here, I think we need to begin a debate in which we point out repeatedly that there is a heresy going on that some that say they are Christian are acting outside of the teachings of Jesus. I really do like the phrase "Heretic Right" because it is exclusionary for the right reason, and still leaves in the zone of inclusion those who are conservative but practicing the loving nature of their religion.

  • Russell Sadler (unverified)

    You go, Steve!

    Brilliant post. I'm a cradle Espiscopalian and, of course, this is what we believe.

    Just as the U.S. Constitution is a "living document"-- its only been amended a couple of dozen times which makes the Original Intention crowd laughable, so too the Christian religion is a New Testament religion. "On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets." -- 1929 Prayer Book.

    Of course, those two commandments --thou shall have no other God but me and thou shall love they neighbor as thyself" are the core of modern Christianity. The heretics, of course, are the fundamentalists who confuse the Old Testament with the New Testament when it suits their temporal political prejudices.

    I am soooooooo tired of these fundies telling me I am not a Christian because I do not agree with their heresy.

    They expect me to respect their religion while they denigrate mine.

    Worse, I am expected to turn the other cheek. I am afraid I am weak. I have no intention of permitting them to establish a theocracy or a political machine so they can establish the orthodoxy of their religious beliefs over mine.

    Keep writing Steve.

  • Dale (unverified)

    I appreciate what I see as Steve's intentions here. But I do have some major concerns with his presentation. I don't think it is helpful to establish a "Christian or Heritic" dichotomy. I think there are different ways of being a Christian- that's the whole point of disagreement after all. But for each side to label the other "heritic" seems odd and counterproductive. There are different ethical and theological threads that run through the Bible from begining to end. No one can incorporate them all (even if they claim they can). Hence, differing theologies.

    But what is actually bordering on the offensive in Steve's analysis is his supersessionism. That is, his belief that the New or distinctly Christian testament is better or more elevated than the Old or distincly Jewish testament. (But of course, every word of the Christian testament was also written by Jews) That's something that most people who have been influenced by the Christian tradition have a hard time understanding. It seems natural to look at Christianity as a fullfillment or improvement on Judaism. But as James Carroll, wrote about in Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, that supersessionist theology has been the source of 2000 years of Christian persecution of the Jews. And still today, it devalues and demeans those who practice the Jewish religion.

    Actually, from my understanding, the entire notion of economic justice that has shaped all critiques of the established order over the past centuries, derives from the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. The core of what we regard as liberal, humane religion comes from these Jewish sources. Homophobia, is expressed in both the old and the new testaments; in each case a very small handful of times. So there isn't much improvement in that regard from Jewish to Christian texts. But it is also a minor part of both sets of texts.

    I know I'm going on too long here. But my point is that the threads of humane-liberal religion run throughout the Bible. As do the counterthreads. I don't think we gain much by labeling those we disagree with Heritics. I really really don't like to propagate the myth that Christianity is the fullfillment of and improvement upon the Jewish religion. As members of a pluralistic society, that is something we really need to work on.

    I think the phrase Religious Right is concise and helpful. I think the Christian/Heritic dichotomy is not very helpful. And again, I am very much in support of what Steve is trying to do with this letter. I just disagree with some of his conceptualizations. And I am glad that folks are having these sorts of conversations.

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    Dale writes: " I don't think it is helpful to establish a "Christian or Heritic" dichotomy."

    In this case I think it is even rather contradictory. There has aleays been a tension in Christianity between the authority of the church and the independent faith of the individual. Mr. Bucknum obviously supports the independence of the individual, but he does so using "heresy," a concept that is used to enforce the authority of the church. I just don't think it works.

    Also, I'm troubled with the idea that we're supposed to turn the public political discourse into a sectarian religious battle, with mutual denunciations of heresy. It seems to me that that's the whole point of the religious right -- that all the important issues are basically religious. I simply don't want to concede that.

  • LT (unverified)

    Time to bring up the sign in front of the church in the neighborhood. We drive by the church every time we want to leave our neighborhood and drive to a major thoroughfare.

    On one side of the sign (going west) it says "What does the Lord require of you?". On the side going east, it says "Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God".

    There are plenty of examples of people in all walks of life who fit that description on the sign, and many are not political.

    There are many in politics who may claim religious faith but are either arrogant (not humble) don't seem to do justice or love mercy (choose your own example).

    In order to carry on an intelligent conversation, it is helpful to have a name for those who are humble, just and merciful, and another name for those who aren't because they are arrogant, unjust, unmerciful. In the first category I would put all who worked on the ground (or in supply warehouses or elsewhere) doing hurricane relief or now in the NE doing flood relief. In that latter category I would put all who participate in attack campaigns, all who attack the children of public figures, those who would rather make sarcastic remarks from afar than actually do the work of solving problems.

    Anyone who doesn't like Steve's descriptions is free to come up with _to describe the humble, just, merciful people and _ to describe those who are arrogant, unjust, and don't care who gets hurt as long as they score their political points.

  • (Show?)

    troubled with the idea that we're supposed to turn the public political discourse into a sectarian religious battle, with mutual denunciations of heresy. It seems to me that that's the whole point of the religious right -- that all the important issues are basically religious. I simply don't want to concede that.

    I absolutely agree. Keep religion personal. Someone thinks they talk to God...whatever. Just don't use that to tell me why we have to war, who I can marry, what foods I can eat, or what I can do with my body.

    As a recovering Catholic, I find the talk of Jesus' real"teachings" just a little too cute and pat, as though we can posit "love one another" as a core value for a religion that has killed tens of millions of people for two centures "in the name of Jesus."

  • Ray Whitford (unverified)

    Another term that has come to mind strongly in the last five years is anti-christian values. We need black and white terms here. Put all your values on the table and let the masses decide. Jesus of Nazarth did just that, he called "those in power" hypocrites and basically said that they were unable to "see the truth".

    Calling someone a "right wing heretic" is fine but most people, including alot of Christians will not get it. "Heretic? Oh My! That is bad, right?"

    So, I for one, look for anti-christ actions and call it out. Jesus spoke of times when there would be followers of false prophets and anti-christs. So when individuals speak, you listen to what they say and believe it because everyone really does would you to know what they are thinking.

    I think the Left (as Bill Press has noted in his latest book) can open doors to Fundementalists if the Left explains our values as truly following the more "christ-like" path. Each individual and every faith has common values (environmental stewardship, justice for the convicted, caring for the least, etc.) that the Left holds dear. Why are we afraid to talk about our faith?


  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    This has been going on a couple days, and as all blogs go, this one is fading out. So, I thought I would answer a couple of points, then let it drop.

    Dale writes about "Supersessionism" - giving the New Testament more weight than the Old Testament. Well, humm, I think I quoted Jesus on that. I, of course, don't advocate going down the road of thinking that the Jewish religion is inferior, etc. etc. My point is that if you are going to call yourself a "Christian" and then turn around and give much more weight to the Old Testament, including ignoring the teachings of Jesus - then that is a Heresy. It is judged from the Christian standpoint, not an outside point of reference.

    Theanalyst and FrankDufay agree that a public political discourse shouldn't involve a sectarian religious battle. Well now, if we lived in an ideal world, maybe that would be true. But we don't. We live in a world where the religious left is so silent, keeping church and state separate, that they are allowing the religious right or as I think of them - the Heretics - to cross that line anytime they want. So we have politics in the churches and in our elections whether it is ideal or not. Frankly, that cat is so far out of the bag that its great-grand kittens are running around wrecking havoc in our lives. If these Heretics are going to proclaim that God tells them to do all the horrible things they do, it is absolutely correct to turn around and tell them that they are following a Heresy, and that they should re-examine their religious beliefs.

    Frankly, those that say we shouldn't talk about religion in politics fall into several groups. I think FrankDufay and theanalyst are idealists. Others are naive or uninformed. Whatever their motivation, they are wrong. Let me give you my strongest argument on that, then we can all go back to our pagan life styles -

    The Heretics out there are telling you that the authors of the Constitution (which does not use the word God even once) were all Christians in their image, and the original meaning of the Constitution then was a support of Christianity as they currently see Christianity. They claim that the separation of Church and State as seen in the first Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...) means that the government is to leave them alone, and there is no limitation as to what they can do with or to government if elected. In fact, they are so twisting this around that a large movement of these Heretics are working to make us into a "Christian" nation. These folks are re-writing history to suit their purposes. They want to control everyone's religion in America.

    If that isn't political, I don't know what is. I think it is past time to start pointing out the heresy.

  • (Show?)

    a large movement of these Heretics are working to make us into a "Christian" nation. These folks are re-writing history to suit their purposes. They want to control everyone's religion in America.

    Thomas Jefferson refused to declare a day of prayer not because he'd have to decide who or what was heretical or not...his point was the state has no business with religion.

    The point in dealing with the "religious right" --or "heretics" if you will-- isn't that they've got Christ's teachings wrong. The problem is injecting religion where it doesn't belong. Call it pagan, if you want, but the right name is "secular."

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    Since I am of no discernable religious orientation, the first thing I do in any conversation about morals, ethics, or politics is throw out the "God" part and then see where the idea stands. Appealing to, or deferring to God is the weakest part of any arguement, it creates an unassailable authority based on either: what somebody says or the printed word, which is also, just what somebody says. Words like "mercy" hold a meaning of their own, they are not dependent on a holy book for their existance. I don't make any representation about anybody's religion, but when we pick on something as being "the Religious Right" or whatever label, we ignore the basic issue of that individual's reasoning. If the reasoning is kind and caring, then it is that, if it is hateful and mean, it is that, the religious underpinnings are meaningless. Maybe we ought to just entirely avoid the trap of religion in discussions of public policy. Will the Republicans? Probably not, their loss, if the arguement is properly presented.

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