Well, that got your attention. Thomas Jefferson's life, loves, and antipathies seem relevant at this moment in history (as at others, like the founding of the republic) -- and I feel obliged to note that the "headline" above is true and refers to a time in 1808 when Jefferson learned that dogs belonging to his slaves were attacking his prize sheep at Monticello and (as he wrote to his overseer): "To secure wool enough, the negroes dogs must all be killed. Do not spare a single one. ..Let this be carried into execution immediately." According to his biographer, Fawn M. Brodie, he also suggested in a letter to a friend that the world would be better if the entire canine species were exterminated.
We know that Jefferson did not consider himself exactly a Christian and surely if those fast-disappearing Christian virtues of charity and tolerance extend to all living beings, his attitude towards canines perhaps demonstrated the far limits of his ability to empathize as a humanist. Did it haunt him when his daughter Patsy, in a letter dated May 3, 1787, cried out, "I wish with all my soul the poor negroes were all freed. It grieves my heart"?
Certainly he was conflicted about the matter of freeing his slaves -- and he did free a few, though never his own Sally Hemings. He said he abominated slavery but "lived with it, and off it."
Yet who would deny that Thomas Jefferson was a profound, enlightened, brilliant, commanding "founding father", whose wisdom made him an architect of this country's freedoms -- a man of incomparable gifts and polymathic fire and vision, "capable" of love?
What his severe lapses in what we might call (as a generic) "Christian" behavior meant was that he was deeply flawed -- and human. He was inexcusably wrong and hypocritical (he argued in public and in the courts against slavery) in his open ownership of human beings -- and he was conventionally flawed in his attitudes toward women -- perhaps he found it hard to forgive himself privately, but could dismiss his daughter's outcry about slavery as feminine weakness. His slave-owning is a terrible shadow on his character. To determine if it is unforgivable, we must time-travel to ask those who suffered as his chattel, and we must ask ourselves now what might be (again) in a generic sense, "Christian". What do we overlook in the character of Great Men -- and in the characters of ourselves and others? What do we mean when we talk about Christian forgiveness -- as opposed to other kinds of forgiveness? And allow me to demonstrate my own sometimes unforgiving nature and personal meanness and resort to a bit of name-calling.
I was raised Catholic, but "lost my faith" (as they say) early on -- but I indulge myself and most people I know in believing we live lives both thoughtful and spiritual -- generally committed to compassion, enlightened living, the ideal of "the high road". There's a Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu ecumenical "voice-over" in our lives that tells us to be tolerant, not to judge harshly, to condemn wrong but to seek to understand and maybe even forgive the wrong-doer, even as we condemn injustice and inequality. To try to live honestly, to know when we do wrong, to admit it. I have always understood the bottom-line meaning of Christianity as living a life based on the model of the life of Jesus Christ -- religious or atheist or agnostic -- his life, like Buddha's, stands as inspiration.
But we are flawed, we fuck up -- what else is new? All of us fall short, from our founding fathers to our fake TV preachers to our own sorry conscience-stricken selves. We are slobs, we do bad things, then we are sorry because that is a kind of Christianity-derived cycle -- fuck up then forgive.
What is new (and old, I guess) is the tiny loud-mouthed mean-spirited army calling itself Christian these days. These programmed "cells" don't acknowledge that they fuck up and they certainly don't forgive. Would we, if we were name-calling, label them Faux Christians? (Or Evil Winged Oz Monkeys?). What they preach is not love (as Christ did), they espouse hate and intolerance and cruel judgment. Some of them are willing to resort to violence, to murder, in order to impose their beliefs. The founding fathers, Jefferson et al, made certain of the separation of church and state, they defined religious freedom and freedom of speech. They were not so good at defining the rights of blacks and women -- but the marvelous documents they left behind were both wisely protected and open-ended -- and dependent on the democratic ideals and the honest good will of the majority of this country's citizenry, through its wisely-elected representatives, in the matter of revising or amending these documents.
Now we have a handful of freshman representatives in the House who are attempting to destroy the tradition of enlightened governance -- representing factionalism, not free debate. At this date, they stand for taking away Social Security, Medicare, veterans' benefits, programs for the poor and women -- instead of confronting the fat cat corporations, the 2% of the wealthy, the oil companies -- and throwing the economy into free-fall. Their insistence on reckless and unrealistic altering of the Constitution for a budget amendment is what John McCain, elder statesman of the once-sane Republican party, has called "unfair" and "bizarro".
It's clear that this pack, in their rabid rhetoric, have succumbed in their terror of the Other (women, blacks, homosexuals, immigrants) to the tactics which they themselves so readily condemn. It would be easy to lean into right-wing radio language (with the horrifying example at hand of the Norway Butcher, offering in his own testimony how he was "inspired" by American Neo-Christian hate-bloggers), it would be easy to call them reckless bullies (as they cheer the recklessness of a few who have brought our country to the brink of economic disaster.) It would be easy to label them bitter unread unthinking fanatical losers, racists, misanthropes -- as they have labeled everyone else. What is hard to know is what to do about these "fellow Americans" even as one seeks to understand, in a "christian" manner -- or seeks to prevent their hateful influence.
I have family members in Minnesota -- among them my older brother, a retired judge, and his wife, who are fundamentalist Christians who are deeply involved in the Right to Life movement, who support the monstrous Michele Bachmann and campaign for her. They are anti-gay and anti-feminist. All I can say is that I love them -- but I hate what they stand for -- and we cannot really have conversations at family gatherings. Recently I tried to talk to my sister-in-law about current politics and she responded by denying global warming -- because, she said, she "knew who was behind the whole thing."
Of course that's what ends all discussion. The notion that some of us have privileged information, are aware of the real Truth, that the rest of us fail to see, right? This is the Closed Door: where religious sects take the mindless turn into cults.
So my next name-calling attempt is the F-Word -- Fuck-You Fundamentalism. These troubled souls are not Christians nor even Faux Christians -- they are demagogue fundamentalists -- and thus are not very unlike Islamic fundamentalists, whom they so fear and excoriate. They're kind of like Sharia Law Lite. Or maybe not so Lite.
If our pal Jesus Christ showed up again today on the political scene -- a long-haired Jewish boy with his twelve gay-like buddies -- how do you think the Fuck-You Fundamentalists would receive him? Would they cheer and bow down and lead him on a little white donkey through the streets with palm fronds waving? Maybe. But then they would begin to notice that he forgave adulteresses and thieves, that he said things that sounded, well, too "Christian" -- like "Turn the other cheek" or "Judge not, lest ye be judged" or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." And he drank wine and was tight with that free spirit Magdelene, he talked about "hypocrites" and exposed the greed of the rich -- and said "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"! Oh no, separation of Church and State? Radical progressivism? Support for higher taxes?
So they found they had to judge him mercilessly in a court. They had to call for his torture and death, they had to crucify him again, drive those nails into his hands and feet -- because he just wasn't one of them -- he wasn't Christian enough, that Christ -- he wasn't a fundamentalist -- he was a kind of free and funny guy, he was, well, human.
And they would stand watch at his tomb -- because if he ever came back again -- they'd want to know about it. Same thing with that Jefferson dude, who hated clergymen his whole life and loved a black woman -- same thing with women who have the idea that their bodies belong to them and not the state...
In an offhand remark, Jefferson prophesied the Internet (that merciless revelation-engine, where we witness second to second both the nobility and the bleak vileness of human nature) with these words, referring to cruel gossip about a friend, "... begged her to consider the scold as hanging over her head till I could get a machine for scolding invented, because it is a business not fit for any human heart..."
Not fit for any human heart. What do you suggest we do now, fellow citizens, Christians, non-Christians, surfers on the internet, witnesses of holy terrorism -- we the people who strive to refuse this "business not fit for any human heart"? Maybe Jesus Christ himself would have trouble forgiving these FYF's. So then how do we, who struggle in the flawed radiance of our founding fathers' plans for generations of enlightened government -- how do we forgive the FYF's, our fellow citizens? And try to live with them? Or not?
Oh, and here's a "coda" re Jefferson. Later in his life, as president, under attack re Sally Hemings and a few anti-religious remarks he'd made in his career ("Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned...What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."), Jefferson identified himself as a Christian. He went so far (being who he was) as to put together his own New Testament, The Jefferson Bible -- "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth". Jefferson called it "a document in proof that I am a REAL CHRISTIAN, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." He went on to note that Christ-inspired Christianity was far "truer" than that of clergymen, "who have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man" -- a system that -- if Christ "were to return to earth, would not recognize one feature."
So -- why not follow our Founding Father's lead and assemble a new improved "bible" of exemplary Christian behavior, based on the life or Christ? Tom Jefferson's life is shadowed by his slave-owning (and his execution of the dogs of his slaves) -- oh yes, he did wrong in his life. But at least he had the vision, after the fact, to look to someone who did it right -- though that someone was put to death for bringing the News.
This post has been updated from a previous version.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more