Woes of the modern Pharisees: Using the law to oppress, not uplift
The boy Jesus lecturing the Pharisees / Alexander Bida, 1874 (public domain)

According to Christian tradition and the modern dictionary, the Pharisees were a religious sect of ancient Judaism notorious for being strict about religious law, and for being insufferably hypocritical.

The law for this sect was above all. It was to be followed meticulously, elevated to a standard where the spirit of it—the reasons why the law was established in the first place—were ignored in the end. All that mattered was obeisance to the law. The idea of interpreting the law in a thoughtful way, taking note of extenuating circumstances or even simple human reasoning, was the highest blasphemy. If the law was broken, it was an offense against God, they said. There was no room for compassion or intellect. It was the Pharisees themselves, of course, who interpreted this literal “word of God,” holding themselves above all others in their self-righteousness.

Jesus can be seen as a social revolutionary in ways far beyond his theological connotations, struggling to free his people from the yoke of the decadent Roman Empire while spreading a non-violent message of peace, love, and support for the poor and destitute. During his brief lifetime—he lived only to 33, too young to be a president under the U.S. Constitution—he stood up to one of the most violent, greedy, and imperialistic societies ever spawned from the rotten husk of a failed Republic, and did so despite the Pharisees, in particular, who attacked him for insincere and disingenuous reasons. For the Pharisees were more interested in looking good than doing good, more in love with sounding righteous than acting so, more complacent with the oppressive status quo than willing to challenge the ancient establishment. They would be the first ones to call upon the Roman garrison to intervene on a family assembling without permission of Governor Pontius Pilate.

One can see this sort of mindset play out across the American religious scene. For the mega-churches of the evangelical tradition, there is much talk about Christ the son of God, the Ten Commandments, and righteous condemnation. But where is the unconditional love for all of God’s children? Donald Trump, their new Golden Calf, is for some reason beyond moral comprehension. They can build theaters for mass worship but not a single homeless shelter, and they ask not a single moral standard from their chosen standard-bearer and commander in chief. He only has to say the right things, like the Pharisees of old; he doesn’t have to show love but rather command others to follow the law as he interprets it. He doesn’t have to practice Christ’s teachings: He can kill at will or harm his fellow man (115,000 dead from COVID-19 at this writing) if it serves the “nation.” He is an idol, for lack of a better term, supplanting the Christ of the New Testament.

Trump, standing in front of the church with a Bible in his hand, is the epitome of this cold rationale. That he says he follows the works of Christ is a bitter joke: One cannot see Jesus attacking protesters for a photo opportunity, or being a crude salesman for American capitalism that is based more on the worship of the rich and incestuous corporate double-dealing than anything else, or attacking another nation to score a cheap political point, such as the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, which almost caused yet another massive war in the Middle East. Never mind his numerous adulteries!

Christ, who talked of how impossible it would be for a rich man to enter heaven, and of how blessed are the poor, would have zero understanding for why evangelical mega-churches could possibly back such a cretin.

Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, 2013 (Creative Commons)

The Christian Right, the modern Pharisee movement, has always stood in opposition to Christian liberators like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was not just a civil rights leader, but a moral leader energized by his Christian faith to denounce injustice anywhere at any time. He spoke truth to power, possessing the courage to call out his own country for the violence happening in Vietnam even as his nation had recently made historic advances in the realm of civil rights and voting rights. King even compared American tactics to the Nazis during the Second World War.

There are many faith leaders today coming out, like King, against the demented and violent policies of this capitalist country. Just think of the Poor People’s Campaign for starters. But those pastors and their affiliated political movements on the right who harp instead on cultural wedge issues such as same-gender marriage, transgender bathroom rights, women’s reproductive freedom, Second Amendment rights, prayer in public schools and taxpayer support for private religious schooling, and above all, blind obedience to the GOP candidate of the day, are making religion sound absurd and hateful to the younger generation.

Leaders like MLK and so many others continue to stand up for the true tenets of the Gospel instead of collaborating with the rich—and they come from all faith traditions, not just Christian. They defy power with their truth. Some, like Christ himself, were murdered in the end for doing so, or suffered physical violence, repression and exile. Unlike the Pharisees of old, they understand human beings in all our glorious complexity and diversity, and love them more than their own image of smug righteousness. Like Christ, they are forging a different path forward, based more on love than fear. They focus on others more than themselves, and don’t have jets or multimillion-dollar mansions to show off.

Religious faith has been turned into a tool of the powerful, weaponized against the humble of the earth. Perhaps we can compare it to a rifle: The modern-day Pharisees are happy to point their guns at the less fortunate and weaker ones, while those who really ask of themselves, “What would Jesus do?” are moved to aim their metaphorical weapons at the right targets—racism, big business, the military industrial complex, and a corrupt system that cares not for the poor. In the end, we need more MLKs than Joel Osteens, more believers in the spirit of Christ than those cherry-picking the Bible to make a few “prosperity gospel” dollars.

(Submitted to People’s World by a member of the CPUSA Religion Commission.)


Forbes West
Forbes West

Forbes West has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from California State University, Long Beach. He lives and works in Long Beach, California, and Ojima, Japan, in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. He is a published author of several books and a producer of several short films.