The Pharisaical tradition is ancient and worldwide. It goes from the high priests of the Hebrew temple, who showed their piety by their asceticism, and showed they were better than other people by their refusal to eat rich foods or certain meats or display worldly wealth, to the very similar Parsees (spellings vary) in the Far East, to Aztec priests in the then unknown Western hemisphere. The common denominator, continued to this very day, is that a class of persons seeks to show that they are morally superior to others by dressing modestly, eating abstemiously, and displaying a general hair shirt kind of self-denial.
This group was particularly loathed by Jesus Christ, whose contempt and rage at Pharisees and all like them shines through in the Gospels, especially Luke. In one very famous story, Jesus tells that a publican (loosely, a bartender) is more likely to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven than is a Pharisee. Indeed, through the Gospels, the very word “pharisee” has come to mean a “self-righteous hypocrite,” in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Jesus.
The Pharisees, and the way that Jesus thought about them, come vividly to mind these days thanks to a new Pharisaical group of Jews and Christians who have started an astonishing campaign to discourage Americans from burning gasoline or having large cars, especially SUV’s. Having large cars and burning gasoline, says this group, is anti-God and anti-Christ because having large cars is sybaritic and because the pollution and traffic jams somehow hurt poor people more than rich people.
This kind of analysis and preaching is as perfect an example of Pharisaical thinking as I can imagine. And to think that this group is claiming the authority of its ancient enemy, Christ, to preach its self-righteous ways is head spinning stuff.
But it gets worse. Are the anti-big-car people telling us that we should all have small cars? If so, are they so ignorant of statistics, mechanics, and physics that they do not know that small cars are dramatically less safe in collisions than big cars? Just what do they think happens to one’s children in a tiny little Toyota when it collides with a bus as compared with what happens when your kids are in a Cadillac Escalade SUV? Just what do they think would happen to their own holy selves if they were in a small car that (perhaps while the driver is going into a trance of communion with the Almighty while on the Hollywood Freeway) collides with a cement abutment?
Is it not a wholesome act to provide as much protection as possible for one’s family as they go through their day? Is it not an unethical act to sacrifice your kids’ safety on the altar of, well, politically correct self-righteousness? What is holy about sacrificing your kids’ safety for an immeasurably tiny benefit in air quality in Bombay or Kunming? And also by the way, what if you just have a lot of kids and need a big car? Or is that also a religiously evil act in today’s anti-child Pharisaical class?
And by the way, why are these ads about large cars and air quality appearing in magazines and newspapers in the United States? This is where we have strict air pollution standards for cars and trucks. This is where we have strict emission laws for factories and utilities. What is this group doing about the polluters in India and Pakistan and China who have produced the noxious “brown cloud” that occupies much of Asia and whose effluence reaches and destroys American forests and lungs as pollution and acid rain? Shouldn’t they really be going after people who burn totally unscrubbed coal, i.e., Chinese and Indians, instead of the housewife with her catalytic converter and state of the art anti-pollution equipment on her Pontiac Aztec?
Are the Pharisees, by the way, going after the hippies with their wood-burning furnaces, who produce microparticles that are deadly for lungs? Or is this Pharisaical professional courtesy? And also by the way, where is my dear and devoted pal, Norman Lear, and his People for the American Way on this? Where is PAW’s boss, the personally charming Ralph Neas? Isn’t this campaign an infringement on the rights of Americans not to have political and economic decisions motivated by Scripture or religious compulsion? How is this different from a conservative saying the Bible compels a balanced budget? And if it isn’t, why isn’t PAW all over the campaign? Is it because one group of Pharisees likes to give another some professional courtesy? (By the way, Paul, the great epistle writer, started as a Pharisee. He changed, interestingly, after an accident on the freeway to Damascus.)
Let’s be fair about this: Of course, everyone wants clean air. Of course everyone wants to depend less on Saudi oil. And of course we all want freedom of speech. But Pharisaical simple-mindedness and self-righteousness only get you so far, and the most blatant kind of Bible thumping to prove one’s holiness is insulting to the kind of people who consider real facts, real physics, real science, real children and real lives. Boris Pasternak, a better poet than he is given credit for by some, summed it up well, without any help from me: “I am alone: all drowns in the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. / To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.”
Or as showing your immaculate self-righteousness by exposing innocents to sudden death on the 405 San Diego Freeway.