The book of Acts has an illuminating episode about religious rules. The specific issue was the ancient Jewish dietary regulations and whether Jesus’ followers had to follow the traditional strict diet.
First some background. Christianity started out as a reform movement within Judaism. Jesus was Jewish as were all of his Apostles and most if not all of his earliest disciples. Gradually, Jesus’ teachings appealed to primarily non-Jews, a fact that began the first great rift in the new religion. Christianity and Judaism made a decisive split during the first century that has since continued.
Peter is the central character in today’s narrative. He had a vision about all sorts of animals, and he saw those that had been previously forbidden for obedient Jews to eat. But all that was to change–thankfully. A heavenly voice told Peter that he was now permitted to eat almost anything because God had stopped all the needless food restrictions. To appreciate Peter’s progressive new view, just look through such a Bible book as Exodus, where the weird diet began with Passover. The dietary laws became even more complicated, with some of the key passages described in Leviticus chapter 11.
The Old Testament strict dietary laws are also known as kosher rules, but they have no basis in nutritional science. Modern researchers have studied kosher diets and found no reliable, positive correlation between what the Old Testament prohibited and what we now know to be healthy food choices. Ancient Jews had no consciousness of modern germ theory. The prescribed, endless ritual washings of food vessels in ancient rituals did not necessarily yield better health outcomes. Even today, we must be reminded that disease-causing pathogens are not visible with the unaided eye. Visible surface dirt is not the primary problem.
Just to take one example of an obsolete food law we review the Old Testament total ban on pork products. True, poorly cooked pork can result in an illness known as trichinosis. However, sickness can arise from many under-cooked foods. The fact is that pork is higher in protein and lower in bad fat than beef products (which are not banned in the Old Testament). Sadly, trying to argue on the basis of facts doesn’t appeal to people who are intent on slavishly following tradition over truth. Thank God that we have been set free from such nonsense. Our role is to remain vigilant and not allow superstition and error to threaten us.
In Peter’s day, many of the traditional Jews, even those who had decided to follow Jesus, didn’t accept the new more liberal, anti-kosher diet. The stubborn resistors of God’s new Way embraced a stricter rule, and they felt that something was being cheapened or lost by lifting the food prohibitions. So ingrained had the conservative food regulations become within Judaism that many people didn’t know how to function without them. It seems that when captives exist in slavery too long, sticking with the familiar feels better than exercising freedom. We have since learned that even when nations go to war, and liberate oppressed peoples, freedom must be taught. Sadly, populations often regress to new forms of slavery even after the old ones have been overthrown.
Many religions impose harsh diets and other arbitrary limitations upon their followers, seldom for humanitarian reasons. The human-shapers of religion use power to create an organizational structure that places themselves in privileged positions. From here, they become drunk with authority. Worse, ruinous religious rules encourage a destructive pride among the tiny minority who can consistently obey the rules. The dysfunctional psychology of overly strict religion ultimately results in the sacrifice of sanity. The twisted logic leads the devout to believe that strict living directly translates into a special place in heaven. God isn’t manipulated by how narrow is the thinking or living of would-be followers. Making and multiplying rules is not an act of faith as much as it is an act of folly, of substituting a choke-hold narrowness for a more loving, enlightened lifestyle.
Both Judaism and Christianity have contributed to the regrettable practice of burdening believers with “Don’t do this!” commands. But the remedy isn’t the opposite. Caution is warranted lest we throw out the baby with the bath water. For instance, the ethical framework as summed-up in the Ten Commandments is as timeless a guide for human behavior as any inherited from the ancient world. For most other Old Testament rules, not so much. The danger of error remains: humans can become trapped within toxic religion, one which twists truth and falsely teaches a new servitude. Sick religion is effective at keeping people in their place, often from fear of social exclusion or divine damnation. There are many ways that religions impose burdens on followers for the sake of control, and for maintaining distinctiveness from outsiders who are not members (often of a preferred ethnic group). The sum total of all this exclusivity is a collective nonsense which never substitutes for the love God most wants.
To reject ruinous religious rules does not mean that everyone should be free to do whatever they want; anarchy is not a remedy. For the common good, it’s worth the effort to strike even an imperfect balance between freedom and responsibility. Jesus realized that we should ‘ “. . . love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” ‘(John 13:34b-35). Jesus set us free, but bad religion want to imprison us. It’s no longer about rules, but about love, which is the most reliable guide to what a healthy faith and religion can offer. –Reverend Larry Hoxey