quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Way back around my sophomore year of college, a forum post went around criticizing the Bible for advising people to be shallow and avoid complex communication:

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5:37)
Going to the actual book and reading the passage in context revealed the truth. The admonition was not to keep your speech simplistic, but to avoid swearing. Say “yes” instead of “hell yes”. Say “no” instead of “good God, no”.

I felt pretty damn smug for figuring that one out. It showed the power of digging into an issue yourself, of trusting your interpretation of a source rather than someone else’s.


Fast-forward to a couple of days ago. I found myself pondering Jesus’s “turn the other cheek” advice. “If someone assaults you, let him do it again. If someone steals from you, offer him even more.” At face value, it appears to lie on the crazy side of radical. Profoundly pacifistic, perhaps even Buddhist. It was highly irregular coming from someone with a track record of random bouts of dickery, like that time He killed a fig tree because He wanted a fig but the tree was bare due to the expressly-mentioned fact that it wasn’t fig season.

As the Bible itself was not forthcoming with additional details, I consulted the Book of Google, which sent me in turn to Wikipedia, which provided some interesting background:

  • The point about turning the other cheek presumes the first blow was a right-hand backhand slap, which was symbolically dismissive in those days. A blow to the other cheek would have to come from the left hand, which was taboo, or be something from the right besides a backhand, which would undo the dismissiveness.
  • The point about also giving your shirt to someone who demands your coat as debt payment was to shame him with your nudity and to get him in trouble for violating Hebrew law against leaving debtors bare.
  • The point about walking two miles when someone demands one was to get the demander in trouble for violating Roman law that strictly limited the amount of labor and message-carrying that the occupying force could demand from the natives.
Essentially, the whole passage is a passive-aggressive spiel about dealing with conflict by manufacturing a foul and making sure a ref sees it. Jesus isn’t so much a shepherd as He is a skeezy NBA coach.

That’s one point. Here’s the other: I wouldn’t have discovered that if I’d consulted only the primary source. The original context is several thousand miles and two thousand years distant. Too much of what it means just isn’t in it. I have no reason to believe that’s an isolated problem.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

This conversation didn’t exactly happen, but it was close.


“Guess what I discovered: it’s unconstitutional to require evolution to be taught in school.”

“Really? How so?”

“It contradicts the Christian story of creation. That means it directly attacks a main tenet of a major religion. The government isn’t supposed to promote any particular religion. Logically, it shouldn’t be allowed to inhibit any particular religion either.”

“Right. So what does that tell you about the government’s proper role in education?”

“Wait. You believe me?”

“Sure. Why shouldn’t I? You were serious, right?”

“...no. I was being silly.”

“You took two fairly evident and easily-defensible facts, drew a completely logical conclusion from them, and you say you’re not serious? How do you even do that? Why would you do that?”

“You understand politics. I don’t. I put an absurd notion forward so you’d tell me the simple, obvious factor I overlooked.”

“I don’t think you overlooked anything. Your reasoning seems sound. What do you think the error is?”

“It’s got to be something. The Supreme Court says it’s illegal for states to outlaw teaching evolution. Forbidding that subject favors Christianity.”

“First, you didn’t answer my question. I asked you to identify the flaw in your logic, not guess whether there is a flaw — and ‘a bunch of old white guys who went to fancy schools disagree with me’ is not a valid response to either of those anyway. Second, you see the conundrum. If government forbids teaching evolution, they favor a particular religion, and if they mandate teaching it, they disfavor a particular religion. Their only legal move is to do neither.”

“That’s crazy! If you go by that reasoning, there can’t be any government education requirements at all, in any subject, since they might teach something that contradicts some religious teaching.”

“Correct.”

“You are serious.”

“Absolutely. The federal government of the United States has no business forcibly educating any of its citizens that all or even part of his or her faith is false. Period. It’s that simple.”

“But the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming.”

“That’s utterly irrelevant. This isn’t about what theories are sound. It’s about what the government may force people to do.”

“So if my religion requires human sacrifice, I can just kill anyone I want? I mean, hey, the government can’t oppress me!”

“Oh come on. You know the answer to that. This is a case of conflicting rights. Your right to practice your religion loses priority to my right not to be murdered. You couldn’t legally sacrifice me unless I volunteered. But it’s an invalid analogy. There is no right to education in the U.S.’s highest legal documents. Now lift yourself out of grade school and give me a counterpoint that you don’t already know will fail.”

“Okay.... Widespread, quality education is necessary for the general welfare of the country, and the government is required to protect that.”

“Gah. The ‘general welfare’ clause is an ill-defined briar patch and always has been. It’s been used to justify almost all losses of freedom Americans have suffered.”

“So you don’t think education is crucial to a country’s very existence?”

“Oh, I do! It’s absolutely vital. But federal involvement and central control have made education worse, not better, and cost taxpayers billions in the process. The U.S. was globally competitive on the academic front for most of its existence, including the whole time before education became federally regulated and mandated. The current system is more concerned with keeping those billions of dollars flowing into it than with teaching. You’re getting worse education overall (and less religious freedom, as you yourself pointed out) than if Washington did nothing.”

“I said I wasn’t serious.”

“Uh-huh.”

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