Our Dodge Polara – more tank than station wagon – slowed as it passed the Biltmore Twin Theatres. Maybe Mom was trying to read the picket signs. Marchers and their placards asserted hate for Hollywood, love for God and country. Oddly enough, I don’t remember which movie was on the marquee. Last Tango in Paris, The Exorcist, Life of Brian, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Last Temptation of Christ – for all I know, the same protest signs were reused from one film to the next.
The objections were always to depictions of blasphemy or (even consensual) sex. Why never violence? Why never the unflattering depiction of women or minorities? Why never the censorious overreach of governments? Unevenly indignant, I suppose the protesters nevertheless intended to stand for something noble.
The Pharisees (spiritual fathers of modern Judaism), too, stood for something they thought noble: attentive observance of Jewish law. But history is written by winners. And – for the moment – Christians outnumber Jews. Thus, the tale of the Pharisees is seldom told by the Pharisees themselves. Once respected leaders of town and temple, Christian revisionists render them hypocritical buffoons, the mustache-twirling punch lines of the New Testament.
Persons of faith are too often playing the short game. They are not asking what narrative functions they will serve in histories yet written. Will this generation of devout believers be remembered for their advocacy or their opposition? Will they chiefly be identified by what they love or what they hate? Will they be winsomely characterized as principled martyrs or derided as those merely afflicted with a martyr’s complex?
Some might say “I give no thought to the judgment of history. My only concern is the judgment of my Creator.” Such a focus justifies the ill-will of enemies. It lets believers claim “I am hated because I stand for something noble.” Though it tries to echo religion’s inverse economy (the poor are rich, the weak are strong, and so on) those are not dependent clauses of causation. It’s true that many believers are reviled. But surely some have earned the hate. Such is the fate of ill-mannered jerks (too often mistaken for high-minded warriors).
Some sports teams make dumb trades in the off-season. They make errors in the field. They contest legitimate ref calls with displays of childish temper. We call these teams “bad.” We seldom root for bad teams because their badness is self-inflicted. They are idiots. They are losers. Capital “L.” Full Stop.
A few other teams feature players of obvious moral character. Rule-keepers. Disciplined in practice. Underfunded, perhaps. Unlucky. Overmatched. They, too, are losers. But, beloved of many followers, they are underdogs. Darlings. Cinderellas. Make no mistake, such teams still have opponents. But even these rivals generally wish them well. Indeed, competitors who go beyond mere winning to destroy, crush, and humiliate, often earn a backlash of fan hostility.
What is the outrage du jour: A cartoon of Mohammed? A sexy film? The definition of marriage? And what is the response of the faithful in a free pluralism of capitalists: A suicide bomb? Epithets shouted at a military funeral? A vitriolic social media campaign? Is it possible the choices which honor one’s religion are so very far removed from those which will be favorably remembered by history?