“Camels leaping through needles”: Jesus, Exaggeration, and Hyperbole

hyperbole 1When I was growing up my dad had numerous phrases that used to annoy me – “this house is lit up like a Christmas tree”, “you know money doesn’t grow on trees”, and “if your friend put their hand in the fire would you put yours in?” The one that used to infuriate me more than any other, though, was: “how many thousands of times have I told you not to exaggerate?!” Now I’m older, and my life involves preaching and writing, I realise the dramatic importance of exaggeration and hyperbole. Exaggeration is, of course, not always a good thing, but, as long as we recognise that this technique is being used, it can certainly be helpful. Even as a child, I knew that money didn’t literally grow on trees, but the phrase taught me something about the value of not squandering what we have. And I never literally saw a friend put his hand into a fire, but the phrase help teach me to resist peer pressure. And leaving my bedroom light on doesn’t literally look like dozens of sparkling lights on a Christmas tree, but the phrase helped me to recognise the impact that wasting electricity has on the environment.

Camel 2In the Bible, Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole on numerous occasions, as he connected with his listeners by expressing deep truths in a nonliteral manner. He came from a Jewish tradition that was steeped in this technique of writing and speaking. “You are all together beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”, asserts the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (Song 4:7). I’m sure Solomon’s beloved was stunningly beautiful, but even the very best of us have a couple of flaws! By Jesus’ time, hyperbole was a technique used by some rabbis, the teachers of the day. Jesus, though, particularly employed this technique, often as a way of grabbing his audience’s attention or to shock them into recognising the deep truth he was asserting. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Christ had even a literary style of his own; the diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque – it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea”.

eyesThe Sermon on the Mount has many such examples. When Jesus refers to lust, for example, he says “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. This passage clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, not least because its literal fulfilment won’t achieve the desired goal anyway. One of my closest and oldest friends has been blind since childhood, and I remember once discussing this passage with him. “Believe me, Trystan”, he said over his pint of beer, “tearing someone’s eyes out won’t stop them lusting!”

no-means-noWhile such a statement should not be taken literally, it should still be taken seriously. This passage teaches us something far deeper, far more radical about God’s kingdom. Everything we do, Jesus is telling us, has profound effects on both others and ourselves. Objectifying those of the opposite sex is not something that has no consequences. It can hurt and damage people directly, and can also damage society. We are left with daily news reports about sexual abuse, human trafficking, and rape and assault, while young people of both sexes are pressurised into a stereotype of how they should be acting in relationships and are given impossible ideals of how they should be looking.

man-praying1Jesus’ exaggerated statements in the Sermon on the Mount, then, are not to be taken literally. But neither are those statements trying to make us feel guilt or hatred towards ourselves. Instead, they are trying to encourage us to recognise the radical nature of God’s kingdom and the impact that should have on how we think and act. In my last blog post, I emphasised the importance of us looking outside of ourselves to stand alongside those oppressed by gender, race, and ethnicity. But we need also to look inside of ourselves at our own personal issues, be they lust, anger, envy, hatred, selfishness, or material greed. How we think and how we act in our daily lives has an impact, not only on our own wellbeing and on other individuals, but also on our society and on our environment. If we really want to challenge the world, we must start with challenging ourselves. And if we really want to change the world, we must start with changing ourselves.

“We don’t do God”: A call for faith to inspire politics

Religion-and-PoliticsIt has become popular in recent years to divorce faith and politics, and to treat them as if they are separate domains that don’t have any bearing on one another. When the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to talk about his Christian faith in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, his communications manager Alistair Campbell immediately stopped the interviewer’s questions. ‘We don’t do God’, was Campbell’s now famous retort. However, I believe that the attempt to separate faith and politics is not only unhelpful and unrealistic, but can also ultimately be dangerous and have grave consequences.

While there are certainly examples of where faith has been, and is still being, misused in the political sphere, this should certainly not mask the amazing social and political reform that has been inspired by faith. It could even be argued that the majority of great political reformers down the centuries have been motivated by faith, and many have even used religious language to express their views. In the UK, we have had a long tradition of faith inspiring political and social action – not least William Wilberforce’s stand against slavery in the eighteenth century, the faith-based leadership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s, and the profound Christian influence on the main political parties down the centuries. As former Prime Minister Harold Wilson put it, even the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. The picture is the same worldwide, with faith motivating individuals (like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to bravely challenge corruption and prejudice.

Believing in the Dignity of All: Desmond M. TutuIt is, of course, not surprising that so many people are inspired through their faith to engage either directly or indirectly in the political sphere. In the Christian tradition, the Bible brims full of social justice, peace, equality, and freedom. As Desmond Tutu once famously stated: “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”. In all his tireless campaigning, in South Africa and beyond, Tutu has always maintained that poverty, sexism, homophobia, and racism are not merely political problems, they are spiritual and moral issues. “The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person,” he asserted. “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you’. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread”.

Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ has especially inspired countless political leaders, not least Gandhi (“when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world”) and Barack Obama (“a passage so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defence Department would survive its application”). Yet Jesus’s social and political influence went far beyond one sermon.  Jesus’ very presence, along with his teachings in general, were regarded as such a threat to the political powers of Rome and Jerusalem that they conspired to rid themselves of this first-century Palestinian rebel rouser.

obama prayingIf Jesus was concerned with engaging practically and compassionately with society and the world around us, surely it is only natural that Christians allow their relationship with him to do likewise. Barack Obama, for example, was not raised in a religious household, but he was moved to his baptism as an adult precisely because he saw in faith a vehicle for social change.  In his autobiography he talks about politics leading him to faith and faith leading him to politics. On the one hand, it was his work as a community organiser for churches in Chicago that led him to be drawn towards a political life. The pastors and other Christians who worked with the unemployed, drug addicted, and poverty stricken in the city “confirmed my belief in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. On the other hand, it was the power of religious traditions to spur social change that drew him to faith. The African-American religious tradition, as he put it, “understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities”.

However, Obama, like other Christians involved in social and political change, emphasizes that bringing his faith into politics certainly does not mean losing respect for those with different beliefs. In fact, the Christian faith teaches that all life is sacred, and so faith should actually lead to more respect and reverence for the world around us – for the environment, for animals, and for all other people, whether they share our beliefs or not. In other words, yes, our faith should inform and inspire our political views, but these views should also be transformed into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.

Keith Hebden protest drone warfareBy doing this, people of faith should echo the prophets of the Old Testament by being the first to speak out and protest against corrupt governments, greed-obsessed corporations, ethically-blind companies, and environmentally-damaging activities. A friend of mine, who is a Church of England vicar (and author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus), regards his tireless work for ethical and social justice as absolutely integral to his faith, and, as a result, he has even been arrested on numerous occasions while campaigning against drone warfare, nuclear weapons, and hate preaching. Other Christians, of course, work from the inside of the political systems to effect change, just as Daniel did in the Old Testament. Either way, the faith of each individual could contribute so much to the important issues of poverty, welfare cuts, economic debt (personal and national), the environment, asylum seekers, international aid, and so on.

Wall faith politics

For the Christian, God is connected to every single aspect of our lives and of the life of the world. Church does not start and finish on Sunday, but continues in whichever community God has placed us. I would argue that it is a duty for Christians, along with people of other faiths, to bring their faith into the political and social realm. If we do not, we run the danger of ending up with what Barack Obama calls “bad politics”, where the only people who bring their faith into the social and political sphere are those who want to misuse both politics and faith. By leaving our own faith out of our politics, we leave a vacuum in politics for those with insular and hateful beliefs, or for those who cynically use faith for their own means.

I once heard it said that religion is like water poured on our hearts. We all have either thorns or flowers growing in the garden of our hearts. If we pour water on thorns, they will grow. And so religion can make the thorns grow and choke the goodness in our hearts. This will then engender hatred, prejudice, and disunity. On the other hand, if we pour water on flowers, they will also grow. And so faith has the potential to make the flowers in our hearts flourish and thus bring so much love, joy, and peace to the world. Our aim should not be to stop faith being involved in politics. Rather, our aim should be to make sure that people have flowers, and not thorns, growing in their hearts, so that a loving, compassionate, and liberating faith can inspire politics and bring hope and new life to individuals, communities, and societies.

politics and faith

  • The above was a talk I gave to over 100 sixth formers at the Sixth Form Faith Day on Faith and Politics at St Teilo’s High School, Cardiff. In an exciting project, the sixth form students are starting their own “faith blog”, dealing with issues surrounding faith and society. In due course, I will provide the link.