american society, politics, religion

The Two Greatest Commandments

While trolling the internet, I came upon a rather pedestrian claim that in the coming election the liberals will try to “get God” as a way to convince Americans that there are issues more important than ending abortion and stopping gay marriage.

The claim is profoundly absurd, not least of all because by now most Americans are probably convinced that the “war on terror,” or at least Iraq, is more important than most any domestic policy issue. Further, any concern about domestic policy probably begins with a desire to assure–through many possible means–that Americans can afford health care.

The BibleBut as I was composing an answer that would be as close to flame-worthy as possible without actually burning me–a rather difficult task, but one I felt morally obligated to take on–I remembered something from Sunday School. The Two Greatest Commandments–which I’m sure some conservative pundits will be impressed to know, are not “Don’t allow women to have abortions” and “Don’t allow gays to have state-sanctioned marriages”–seemed to me to be one of the many important parts of Christianity that the vast majority of pundits are vainly hoping Christian Americans will forget.

The two greatest commandments, to the befuddlement of my eight-year-old self, are not among the Ten. They were not given to Moses, but come directly from Jesus. I’ve forgotten the exact circumstance in which this occurs, but here’s Matthew 22: 34-40 (NIV):

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Shocking indeed. Conclusive proof that if Jesus was not a liberal (which some argue “Love your neighbor as yourself” suggests), his chief concerns were at least larger than gay marriage and abortion.

And though someone will probably claim that this text is also a compelling argument for the establishment of a church that will become the government’s moral compass, I think the vast majority of this country knows that is unwise.

The two commandments are instead a reminder that all the parts of the Bible which are presently emphasized are less important than love for God and your fellow man. That love, not condemnation, was Jesus’ central message. That politicians claiming to represent a “Christian right” don’t recognize that fact, perhaps even willfully ignore that fact, should be a source of embarrassment and not a point of pride.


Review: The Greatest Salesman in the World

Spoiler Alert: If you plan to read this book, and are concerned about having the ending spoiled, don’t read this. I tell you how the story ends, although it’s not terribly relevant to the majority of the book.

Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World was a book I found and read with little understanding of what it was. Perhaps because of this fact, I was rather disappointed by it.

We should establish two facts. First, I have never been, and hope never to be, a salesman. I wanted to read the book, however, because I had found this page, with the following quote:

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if he or she were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do so with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.

The quote was revelatory for me at the time I found it. And though I do not manage to live up to it’s high ideals, as often as I can remember to, I like to try.

But this quote is not actually in The Greatest Salesman in the World. Even if it had been, I doubt I would have liked the book much more. Perhaps I’m a greater stickler for historical accuracy and internal consistency than most (the book’s Amazon page suggests that), but I just couldn’t accept it’s flaws.

The story is unclear in it’s setting. It wasn’t until the last few pages that I was sure that it was set in Damascus around the year 40 C.E. (or A.D. to you Latin speakers). And the language was at best inconsistent, with people randomly lapsing into “wouldst thou”s for no good reason.

More grating was its structure, which offers a weak to middling story which straddles the books main feature (the ten golden rules of selling, more or less). There is little flow from the story to these Ten Commandments of selling, which leaves it to feel like Mr. Mandino was scared to just write a book called The Ten Rules of Selling and built a story into which he could paste this text.

Further, the rules themselves lack internal consistency, with one instructing us to live each day like its our last and another encouraging us to develop and constantly work toward long term goals.

Perhaps the most over-the-top failing of the book is it’s inexplicable Forrest Gump-like quality. For no apparent reason, the stories protagonist was present at the birth of Jesus Christ and offered the young child a robe. A robe which the child kept his whole life, was taken and gambled on by the Romans, retrieved by a struggling but recently-converted Paul, and then brought to our protagonist in the books stunning conclusion.

What’s worse, the book seems to offer that the secret to the success of Christianity is because Paul discovered the ten rules of good selling, and only after this was successful in converting the world to Christianity. This seems to be not only unlikely, but sacrilegious.

american society, big ideas, personal

Changing the World with Ideas

I was raised Catholic. And, for a time, I convinced myself that I was a saint. Not just any saint, I went further than that. I convinced myself that I was the Christian Messiah. I was the second-coming of Christ. To the extent that I understood such things as the immaculate conception and virgin-birth, they didn’t matter. I was Jesus Christ.

And while my messianic tendencies have declined since I was in the first grade, they are not dead. Though I’m no longer a Catholic, I still think, from time to time, that I’m rather saintly.

Perhaps we could blame my ephemeral convictions of my own importance on how children are raised “today.” The way they tend to be praised more and scolded less. Loved more, encouraged more, impressive more.

Please don’t take me as someone convinced that children are soft these days. Though I don’t disagree that I had it far better than my grandparents, I don’t think they would want me to go through all they did.

They, like most, realize that to the extent that society has made us soft, it’s also given us more comfort and time. And whether we use it for good or bad, this is a nice state of affairs.

But if I may, I’d go back to the Jesus thing. Though I’m no longer convinced of my religious significance, I still think that I can and should do something for the world.

But where two years ago I was convinced that I could fix it all, the whole world, by myself; and where one year ago I was convinced the world was hopeless and I couldn’t save it; I know recognize that no one, no one, can change the world alone.

At the risk of angering some, I would argue that Jesus certainly didn’t change the world by himself. To the extent that his teachings came to matter, it was through the concerted effort of his early followers, and later, Roman and then Church bureaucrats.

But he did offer the world something. He offered ideas that have had positive impacts in human lives for hundred of years. I’m not arguing in favor of Christianity, but rather in favor of ideas. Any idea that resonates with people and forces them out of their own little world.

I believe that ideas have transformative effects far beyond any single person.

Ghandi didn’t end British control in India. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t end segregation. But the force of their ideas and the courage of their convictions turned the tide. Helped to push others to ask themselves about their thoughts, their beliefs. What was right, what was wrong.

I still don’t know if I can save the world. Or if I can change even the smallest bit. But I believe that if I do, it will have to be through ideas.