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“Orphans! Listen to me! Listen to Ignacio! I know it is fun to wrestle. A nice pile drive to the face. Or a punch to the face. But you cannot do it. Because, it is in the Bible not to wrestle your neighbour.”
Of course Ignacio, Jack Black’s character in the wrigglishly quirky 2006 movie Nacho Libre, gets it wrong even while trying to do right. What is in the Bible is not a negative injunction against wrestling your neighbour. It’s a positive commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. It’s the second of Christ’s two great commandments, following indivisibly from the first: to love God with all heart, soul, and mind.
The correction is obvious – or would have been to everyone in pre-post-Christian culture. Indeed, the humour of Ignacio’s speech is the distance between his mangled misunderstanding of the Gospel and our minimally residual awareness of his muddle. Such spoofing still worked in the movies a mere dozen years ago. The daily reality of 2018, however, is that Ignacio’s muddle is very much our muddle. His confusion is now rife within post-Christian culture. It is one of the manifold costs of having destroyed our foundational way of knowing the world.
In turn, it exposes the feebleness unto futility of a prevailing replacement for Christian culture, i.e., the so-called “doctrine of harm” under which our impulses are bounded only by the limit of demonstrably hurting others. Yes, it’s fun to wrestle, to administer a “nice” pile drive to the face. But, orphans, it’s not much fun to be the recipient of such evidently injurious violence. So, you cannot do it. The great Scriptural call to love is consequently contorted into a mundane and arbitrary buzz kill.
Even in terms of purely cultural robustness, never mind of religious need, the Commandments’ loss should be as evident as their substitute is insipid. Yet this catheterized meagerness now sustains everything from our legal system to the pallid, palliative ethics our children are taught in school. It is, like alchemist’s phlogiston, everywhere by being nowhere.
To take a deliberately anodyne example, this week witnessed the august jamboree of something called International Golden Rule Day. It is, its interfaith organizers tell us, 24 hours dedicated to a global “virtual celebration of the universal principle shared by nearly all cultural, spiritual, religious and secular traditions on Earth.”
Now, our contemporary calendar has become a billboard for markers and causes of every kind, silly and serious. This week was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention the religious profundity of Easter and Passover. Yet it was also, in case you were unsure, the week of National Deep Dish Pizza Day, National Burrito Day, National Caramel Day, National Read a Road Map Day, National Go For Broke Day, National Librarian Day, National Jeep 4 X 4 Riding Day, and National Hug a News Person Day. Among others.
On its surface, International Golden Rule Day appears to be a point somewhere between solemn religious feasts and munching a burrito. Its emphasis on right conduct seems to call us to communion between something larger than ourselves that, at the same time, is intrinsic to us. Its intentions sound unquestionably good, almost even verging on noble.
The day’s streaming videos, its talks, its songs and dances, are directed at reminding us to “treat others and the planet as you would like to be treated.” The admonition to treat material earth as you would like to be humanly treated might be a giveaway for the kind of thinking that is, shall we say, less than rigorous. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. As an ethical venture, International Golden Rule Day appears to go beyond being just an annual Have a Nice Day Day.
But does it? Orphans, I have my doubts.
Why? Because, despite its many merits, it is at bottom another muddled diminishment, à la Ignacio, of the Christian imperative to love self and neighbour. It is further reduction of Christian culture’s explicit end to love God. It reduces that imperative to the same-old-same-old subjectivity of the doctrine of harm. It affirms eternal rounds of negotiated settlements about what constitutes not just right and wrong, but the very purpose of human life.
At the same time, again à la Ignacio, it wraps that subjectivity in pseudo-authoritative “universal principle.” It cloaks it in amorphous “spiritual, religious or secular” (all three at once??) tradition. Ultimately, though, it is not about genuine and enduring communion between the External and the intrinsic. It is, once more, all about us. How do we like to be treated? How would we like others to like it? How, in other words, do they like us so far?
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What a remove, what a profound cultural loss, from the great Christian commandments – commandments, mind you – to love. For Christianity does not ask even non-Christians to decide, psychologically, that they (meaning all of us as human beings) are worthy of love. It tells us we are worthy of love precisely because we are creations of a God worthy of love with our whole heart, soul and mind.
More, because we are worthy of that love, so are our fellow creatures, the very neighbours with whom we might otherwise be tempted to wrestle, to give “a nice pile drive to the face.”
We are not merely discouraged from that form of “fun” by formal Biblical proscription. We are not Scripturally enjoined to merely refrain from causing “harm” depending on what our negotiated threshold of harm might be. No. We are called to exactly the opposite. We are called to live our lives today, tomorrow, everyday, meeting the positive obligations of Christ’s two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets.
On those two commandments of love-inextricable hang the very source of freedom that is so muddled coming out of Ignacio’s mouth in Nacho Libre, not to mention in our deeply confused post-Christian culture.
So, orphans! Listen to me! Have a nice day. But spare a thought for the time when we used to have so much more.
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