A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

I Have Met the Pharisee and the Pharisee Is... Me

Over the weekend I was involved in a Facebook discussion on whether or not it was appropriate to label certain Christians or Christian groups as Pharisees. It was an intense discussion, but a good one. There was disagreement, but one thing disagreement does is bring clarity to a debate, and that's always a good thing.

As I pondered that discussion, I decided to post some of my thoughts on the matter. In general, it is my view that to label anyone as a modern day Pharisee is not a good idea. I know that labels can serve a helpful purpose. If we say someone is conservative or liberal, a Democrat or a Republican, we are identifying a political or theological location in which they generally stand. Such labels, however, do not define the person in toto to be sure, nor does it always indicate their position on various issues. There is much more to a person than one label. The problem is when we use labels only in a pejorative way. When we do that, labels become a stereotype.

One online definition of stereotype is "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing." And certainly one of the stereotypes that remains popular throughout contemporary Christianity is the label "Pharisee," that another online definition stereotypes as "a hypocritically self-righteous person."

A few months ago, Scot McKnight outlined the problem of such usage of the term Pharisee in a couple of excellent posts (here and here). We do well to revisit them by way of reminder. Scot writes,

It's time to revisit the Pharisees, in part because their story needs to be told so we don't forget and in part because some like to use the "Pharisee" in ways that concern me. It is a standard procedure to say "Pharisee" and mean "legalist, bigot, hypocrite, or picayune meddler into other people's religious business." Look at any dictionary. But this is in and of itself a caricature and stereotype, for no one (I hope) would think that all Pharisees have always been religious bigots. Paul, after all, remained a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Such language spells danger down the road in ways that might surprise us. Even more, we have tended to download anger or extreme disagreement with others onto this term "Pharisee." So, when I call someone a Pharisee I do not mean anything nice or even charitable. Which, in and of itself is dangerous because no group (well, there are exceptions) is always wrong and always bad.
Here's the problem: the impact of our use of Pharisee is that we have learned to call all Jews and anyone we think is too conservative a "Pharisee." This can get very close and often actually is anti-Semitism. [Bevere's inserted comment: I also know more than a few liberals as well, who at times can fit the stereotype.]
Now another point: this kind of rhetoric is what is called "labeling" in order to overpower someone with moral status. To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling often strains the wisdom of Jesus and becomes unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly-- and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by "Pharisee" and what he didn't mean by "Pharisee."
In other words, labeling someone as a Pharisee because that person is perceived to be self-righteous is itself an act of self-righteousness. It is a claim to be in a morally superior position in order to criticize someone who assumes she or he is morally superior. So, is labeling someone a Pharisee, according to the stereotype, a Pharisaical act in and of itself? (I so appreciate the irony of it all.)
Scot does not rule out the possibility that Pharisaism may have some modern parallels, but he urges caution in applying the terminology:
First, use it only for those who are committed to the Torah as a comprehensive explanation for the will of God. In this sense, it is pretty hard to use for any Christian.
Second, use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray. (In this sense, it is fit most for heretics.)
Third, never use it as a synonym for "Jews," "Judaism," or any other generic Jewish group.
Frankly, my own view is that the word has been so abused that we should simply drop it from our usage in critiquing anybody or any group. Surely, we can critique the substance of people's views we find to be problematic without using the term "Pharisee."
Stereotyping is the danger of a single story as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulated so well in a TED talk that I have embedded below. To stereotype, to label others is to impose a single story upon them. Such a caricature is always misleading because, as Adichie rightly notes, it takes a very partial truth and attempts to make it the whole truth about a person or group. And in this case, the stereotypical understanding of the Pharisees in modern Christianity is not even close to even the partial truth of who they actually were. Not one of us likes it when we are stereotyped. When we are tempted to stereotype others (and we all face that temptation from time to time), we would do well to heed Jesus words to do unto others as we have them do unto us (Luke 6:31).

I have one final thought: we tend to read the Gospels from the perspective that we are on the side of the good guys-- Jesus and the disciples-- while we see the "bad guys" in the story-- the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, the Romans-- as the others, the ones we are not. I would submit that is not the best way to read the Gospels. I would suggest that before we point to those around us deciding who are the Pharisees, et al that we take the posture that Jesus is directing his harshest criticisms, first and foremost to us. After all, one thing is obvious from the Gospels-- Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms for the "insiders," and he was real nice to the tax collectors and sinners on the "outside." Why? Because Jesus thought the insiders should know better. Perhaps, we would be well served to direct Jesus difficult words to ourselves before we throw them at others.

And if we have to level such critique toward others, let's be careful when we do so reminding ourselves that the modern stereotypical "Pharisees" can indeed at times be seen in the mirror.


Unknown said...

We've been studying the Gospel of Luke over the summer and every time Christ calls out the Pharisees, I believe it's intended to call those of us that call ourselves the church out. Otherwise, why read it? We're called to measure ourselves against Christ's loving and direct criticisms whether they're pointed at the Disciples, the Crowds, or the Pharisees.

And, when people want to use the term Pharisee to describe someone, I try to point to the one who talked about "specks and planks."

Thanks for writing this!

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.