Porkgate—On Islam, Christianity & Pork.



Last weekend I ended up having a protracted argument with Mohammed Ansar about, of all things, pork! The discussion was instigated by Mo, a Muslim, when he Tweeted:
“Never could understand how Christians eat swine when Jesus did not; he forbade it and hated pigs, even killing 2,000 of them.‪#SwineMeat”
This is an allusion to Christ’s exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, which, to the best of my understanding, demonstrates nothing about Jesus’ feelings towards the humble Sus domesticus. Also, nowhere does Jesus forbid the eating of pork, although as a devout Jew, it seems highly unlikely He would have ever eaten it Himself.

Mo went on to assert that eating pork is “the same as eating the flesh of one’s dead brother”, that pork “tastes like human flesh" (to which one has to wonder; how does he know what pork-or human flesh for that matter-tastes like?) and that he is
“...astounded that Christ, so pivotal in Islam and Christianity; is disregarded by so many Christians so easily. #pickandchoose"
Now, I have to say I was drawn into the argument, politely, for a couple of reasons. One is that I do like to try and dialogue with my Muslim brothers. I have studied Islam and Al Qur'an quite extensively and have also been to the Middle East. The second reason is that I take my actions seriously, try to live in tabin Adonai (fear of the Lord— see Proverbs 1:7) and I consistently try not do anything that would offend God (I often fail, but I continue to try). Also I have to admit that I was a little put out by the assertion that I was arrogant, and following my own “misguidances”

I have spent time studying my faith, and as such, consider I have come to a position which is worthy of consideration, or should be, at least listened to. I consider it Mo’s right to not eat pork if he feels it is important to Allah that he does not, but I would expect he would at least listen to my argument; why I do not think that pleasing God is a matter of what we eat, or do not eat, and demonstrate respect for my beliefs. On this occasion I felt that Mo was telling me that I was not a good person because I am happy to eat pork, and that seems like, at best, poor logic. In fact, if we read the Gospel, we gain a sense that Jesus is actually arguing against mere ritualism as a form of worship. 

Probably the first text any Christian would reach for when the question of food rules is raised is Acts 10 where Peter, Prince of the Apostles, has a vision and is commanded “What God has cleansed, call not thou common”.

But let’s look at Jesus’ own words and actions about this. In Mk 7:3 Jesus explains about religious customs which emphasise the dangers of ritual impurity & neglect moral defilement. In Mk 7:14 Jesus explains this further:
Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him." And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14-19)
As the Catechism (teaching) of the Catholic Church explains: "Jesus perfects the dietary law, so important in Jewish daily life, by revealing its pedagogical meaning [i.e. in respect to what it teaches us] through a divine interpretation . . . What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ." (CCC 582).

In Matt 12:1-8 Jesus indicates that He—not the Old Testament—has authority over the Sabbath, and its regulation was not as rigid as the Pharisees thought. In fact, once Jesus would endow the hierarchy of his Church with his own authority (Matt. 16:19; 18:18), regulation of worship would become the domain of the Church:
Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the Sabbath." (Matt. 12:1-8)
The essential point is that the obligation to worship is something all people of every place and time can know simply through the use of reason. It is knowledge built into the human conscience as part of what is called the "natural law." Paul makes note of such law when discussing those of his own time who were never bound by Old Testament law:
"When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts . . ." (Rom. 2:14-15a).
The Ten Commandments are often cited as examples of the natural law. Christians are obliged to follow the laws cited in the Ten Commandments not because they are cited in the Ten Commandments—part of Old Testament law—but because they are part of the natural law. They are the outer limits of what we should do; the bare minimum, and when you think about it, pretty obvious; certainly we can know by reason alone that certain actions are immoral—e.g., to kill the innocent, to take what does not belong to us, to cheat on our spouses, etc.

Against this, Mo quotes Matthew 5:18:
"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:17-19)
He suggests that this trumps all the other references (of which I have quoted some, but not all, here). Specifically against Acts 10 he states: “Jesus said do not break the existing law, the Law of Moses. Not eventhe tiniest amount. Someone's visions do not overrule this.” 

Just think about that for a moment. If Mo’s assertion here is correct, wouldn’t we all have to circumcised as well as @PartTimePilgrim correctly asserted at this juncture in the conversation? And of course, that’s not all. Based on Mo's dogmatic assertions on this, I asked him some searching questions about the Levitical code:
  • I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
  • I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Ex 21:7. What do you think would be a fair price for her?
  • I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  • When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord Lev. 1:9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  • I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
  • Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Scotts, but not the Welsh. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Welshmen?
  • A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
  • Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?
  • My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev.24:10-16)? Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev. 20:14)?

Of course, this is meant to be amusing, but it does pose some interesting questions about literalism and about apparent contradictions in the law. The answers are fairly obvious and simple (as detailed on the answering Islam site) and fundamentally revolve around understanding the difference between the moral and civil law.

The Mosaic Law had a specific purpose for the Children of Israel. The Law of the Old Testament consisted of both the moral law and the civil law. The moral law dealt with the great ethics of life. Its purpose was to set apart the chosen people of Israel from all other nations on the basis of inner holiness with regard to honour for both God and man. You have to remember that at the time, strength was the power that ruled all. One of the most extraordinary truths of biblical faith is that monotheism lifted the Israelites out of that melee for power and set them apart from other nations who’s basis was strength and domination. This great moral law was to uplift the Children of Israel to a much higher standard of holiness and to serve as a model for all people of all generations (Isaiah 42:6). For example, the Ten Commandments are a code of moral law that pertain to man's duties to God and fellowman. They are laws unaffected by changes in the environment, and thus themselves remain unchanged.

The civil law was different. It consisted of rules and regulations that pertained to everyday living; and these rules were influenced by both environment and customs of neighbouring pagan communities. Such laws dealt with issues of cleanliness, food, health, clothing, and religious ritual. The purpose of these laws was to set apart the Children of Israel from all other nations on the basis of outer holiness. They were to remain separate and distinct, and were to be distinguished in the eyes of the rest of the world for serving the one true God, and refusing to adopt the practices and superstitions of idolatrous worship that surrounded them.

Among these civil laws was the rule that forbade the eating of pig meat. It was a common practice among neighbouring pagan tribes to offer a pig as a sacred sacrifice to their idols. Furthermore, in that time and in that part of the world, the pig was a very filthy animal that fed on dead meat and garbage. As a result, eating pork caused the spread of terrible diseases that affected the whole community. This law made perfect sense, like the law about shellfish, which we all know can give you a very dodgy tummy if it is not fresh!

Traditionally we have understood that the OT Law contains elements that are indicative of God's unchanging character, and therefore do not pass away with the coming of the Messiah. Indeed the NT reiterates their significance. (e.g. the Ten Commandments). There are elements in the Levitical law that Jesus fulfils, and therefore we have no further need of them (e.g. the sacrificial system), and there are elements that are distinctive to the society of Israel at the time, that may contain some wisdom for us, but are not applicable in the society in which we live, such as the kinds of things you reference. If we only had the OT to go on for developing a view of the homosexual lifestyle vis-à-vis appropriateness for Christians, we would have theological difficulties sustaining prohibition.

Comments

  1. Aaargh! I just wrote a massive comment on the word 'fulfil' and a whole lot more and blogspot lost it all! Grrrr!

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    1. Oh you're joking? How annoying! Was it to do with the Greek in Matt 5:18 Jon? I brought that up as well: https://twitter.com/sitsio/status/208896871236767744

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  2. This is a huge question, one that deserves to be written on at length (and surprise surprise it has has been for most of Christian history!) Christians have been accused of anti-nomianism since the birth of the church and they still are!
    Your long list of (slightly antagonistic, but none the less true) questions demonstrate that it is not possible to read the Bible simply as a list of instructions on what to do to live the 'good life'. You could say that literalism literally doesn't work. We have to select or prefer passages over each other, one way or another. That's not an indictment of our faith, it's a statement of fact, one that I don't believe is unique to Christianity. It's all the more complicated by the fact that while you refer to 'moral law' and 'civil law', the two are inextricably interwoven in the Torah.
    The question is, what method of selection or preferment will we have? Personal preference is suspect, and while Catholics like yourself have the Catechism and other church traditions to draw on, Protestants like myself (especially with my free-church background) must think about how and why we choose.
    Mo is right that Jesus must be the essential hermeneutic guide in that choice, though I too think he's wrong in how he does it. First off, 'fulfil' does not simply mean 'obey' - Jesus (and Matthew) could have chosen that word if it really represented what they meant. As you clearly point out, Jesus did not see himself as subject to the Law. It's a technical Rabbinic term, meaning something more like 'complete', 'bring to fullness', or 'fully expound'. Jesus saw himself as the fulfilment of the Law - not just in the sense that Hebrews means for the sacrificial system (as you hint at), but in terms of fully demonstrating (in action and teaching) what living the life that God intended looks like. He uses apocalyptic language that refers not to the destruction of the cosmos but to his death and vindication on the cross (see NT Wright for a better exegesis of this). He is saying that the religious rulers who saw themselves as the gold standard for obedience to the law were in fact relaxing it and that before his death that was inexcusable.
    Your reference to Mark shows how the early church understood Jesus' teaching on dietary laws, and Peter's vision somewhat builds on it, but I'm intrigued you did not refer to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) or Paul's writings to the Galatian churches or Corinth. To me, it paints an image of a longer trajectory of understanding the dietary laws, evidence that it's not a simple open-and-shut case, one that took at least 50 years to work out (and probably longer).
    At the Jerusalem Council, the Apostles and the first church discussed how they should advise the new Gentile-born Christians to live. Become fully Jewish first, obeying all the Torah? Forget the Old Testament, just enjoy the Spirit? At the end, James writes a letter saying something approximating to 'Eat Kosher, avoid sexual immorality'. But this isn't the end of the conversation, as Paul seems to relax this even further, doing away with Kosher requirements all together. I would suggest that James wanted the food laws to be at least partially kept to make sure that Torah-observant Jewish-born Christians could still share table-fellowship with Gentile-born Christians, and as Christianity reached further throughout the empire, that became less of a concern to Paul.
    In summary, we have to be selective, and the narrative of Jesus is the key hermeneutic tool in doing that. 'Fulfil' does not mean what we sometimes think it does, and the dietary laws were not a binary switch that was flipped at the year zero, but a process of understanding what Jesus had done.

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    1. Thanks Jon, great comment! I left Paul out because, although I agree with what you have said about teleology here, it is a common Islamic position that Paul hi-jacked Christ's teachings to the extent that what we have now is merely Pauline, and not the teachings of Jesus Himself. I wanted to show that there is clear evidence in the Gospels from the words of Jesus Himself and the understanding of the OT He brings out.

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