Thursday, August 23, 2012

On Casting Pearls Before Swine, and Self-Serving Christians

In Matthew 7:6, Jesus famously says, "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." The first sentence appears to be metaphorical in a fairly obvious and straightforward way: "Don't give something valuable to those who can't appreciate it." And then: "If you do, they might destroy it, and destroy you as well." I think I understand the propositional content of this quotation, but it's not at all obvious to me how it's meant to be interpreted into the broader context of Jesus' message(s).

The quotation is from the Sermon on the Mount, part of a haphazard list of rules and principles for right-living. It's immediately preceded by the parable of the lillies, "Judge not or you'll be judged," and the plank-in-the-eye-of-the-hypocrite parable. It's immediately followed by "Seek and you shall find" and "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?" In general, Matthew's Jesus seems concerned in this section with promoting fatalism and criticizing hypocrisy. It's not clear that the "pearls before swine" bit fits into either of these categories, though it does seem to conflict with 7:1's "Judge not lest ye be judged" rule. Doesn't identifying someone as a pig-dog who will trample on pearls involve judging them? Even without any clue about what it is that Jesus intends this metaphor to concretely refer to, it seems inescapable that the admonition to "not judge" and the admonition to "not give dogs what is sacred" are in conflict with one another.

The reason I'm curious about this is that in my experience, contemporary Christians uniformly interpret this quotation in a very specific way, taking it to mean, "Don't bother trying to convert unbelievers who don't want to be converted. Fuck 'em." And they use it as a formula for writing-off anyone who seriously or aggressively disputes their religious claims: the heathen doesn't refuse to be saved because she has good reasons, but because she's constitutionally incapable of hearing the truth of the Good News. By framing the discussion in terms of revelation, these Christians insulate themselves from debate or criticism (they might debate, but only so long as it's going their way). Revealed truth--the "pearl"--can only be heard or not-heard; there's no way to interrogate it the way you can interrogate claims about shared, investigable experience. With revelation, there's nothing to discuss: either you get it, or you don't. And if you don't, then you must be a pig-dog: deaf to the Good News, ignorant to truth.

While this sentiment of "Fuck 'em" is clearly at odds with the Pauline goal of "all (becoming) one in Christ" and the Christian rejection of virtue for grace, it certainly seems to have emotional utility for Christians who need a rationale for why heathens don't see the obvious truth of the Gospel. Your reporter can report that these Christians use the "pearls before swine" line as snarky insider-code which, in both its form and its content, distinguishes between the Insiders and the Outsiders. I'm not saying that this is what the author of Matthew had in mind when he wrote 7:6 (though it's hard to see how "Don't bother with the pig-dogs" could mean anything other than Us vs. Them), but that is manifestly what snarky, self-congratulatory contemporary Christians take it to mean. Which is sadly funny, considering all the ink that the book of Matthew expends in that same section on the evils of self-serving hypocrisy.

(Disclaimer: obviously I'm making broad points about "Christians" in general, and obviously the rainbow of diversity which is "Christianity" is way, way more complex and subtle than I'm giving it credit for. If Christians were at all marginalized, I might think twice before making big clumsy statements like these; but since they are in fact the opposite of marginalized--since they have a long-standing choke-hold hegemony on my society, to the extent that atheism and Islam are effective barriers to holding public office, and finer-points of soul-theology obstruct women's reproductive health --I'm comfortable with unfair caricatures. See Shakesville's explanation of Christian Privilege, here.)

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