issue 210 - August 1990
Letter of the Law
They wear their own special uniform. They're callous, tunnel-visioned and dogmatically legalistic. In the common tongue their name means 'separatist'. They are obeyers of the letter of the law, but seem to have overlooked its spirit.
In both social and religious life, they despise those who they believe to be their inferiors, and that's most of us. They're haughty, arrogant and proud. Most worryingly, they believe themselves to be the only interpreters of God's word. Because of their firmness and their dogma they have had a strong appeal to the proletariat, and given the social and political framework, they are fiercely nationalistic. Their name is Pharisee.
Fundamentalist in the extreme, the Pharisees regularly drew the condemnation of Jesus, as the New Testament records and other early documents show. Jesus above all denounced their hypocrisy and lovelessness. Pursuers of law rather than good, right living for them meant unyielding obedience to some 613 commandments.
Sadly, there are many parts of the world today where they would still feel quite at home. Christian fundamentalism has often been at the highly visible fringe of the Church. In this century, its most militant adherents spring from the US, where they are known as 'Reconstructionists'.
Their patriarch is R.J. Rushdoony and their disciples include Gary North and John Whitehead. Their platform is simple: to abolish democracy and reinstate a puritanical order based on Old Testament law. Their over-literalistic understanding of the Bible seems especially attractive to those who want hard and fast rules for living. They have found strong support in Pentecostal and some Baptist churches.
But just as not all Muslims are fundamentalists, so too not are all Christians. Many conservative Christians would find their fundamentalist counterpart's beliefs spurious and unbiblical. And many Christians who take the Bible seriously still see danger, for example, in taking its poetic parts literally, let alone imposing these on other people. So the fundamentalist Christian is at variance with most of the Christian aid and development agencies at work worldwide.
Just to confuse things, not all fundamentalist Christians are conservatives. There are liberal Christian fundamentalists, too, and these often have more in common with the Spartan creeds of some extremes of humanism than with any doctrine of the church.
But in general, the greater the vehemence of their detractors, the greater the fundamentalist Christian feels surer of their own path. In one sense they almost thrive on 'persecution', though this mostly comes as a result of their own insensitivities and their reluctance to talk than it does from the challenge of their message. Blinded by the log of legalism, their lives are characterised more by their hatred of evil than by their love of good. Without justice and compasion, they can offer nothing.
George Fisher writes for NI in Australia.