Published for The Washington Post, August 23, 2012
Take two congressmen — I am tempted to say, please. One exposes his, well, equipment in the Holy Land. The other exposes his ignorance and pride. Who is the more sacrilegious?
It sounds a bit like a parable, which I suppose it is. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) has apologized for taking a “spontaneous and very brief dive” into the Sea of Galilee without benefit of swimwear. The media piously note that this is the place where the Bible says Jesus walked on water. Joe Scarborough accuses the Republican of “messing all over this holy site” and predicts outrage in the Christian base.
If Yoder took his moonlight dip in inappropriate company — the accounts are unclear on this point — it represents a serious lapse of judgment. If the issue is trunkless swimming, Yoder is probably in good biblical company. It is impossible to imagine that a bunch of first-century Galilean fishermen would not have occasionally jumped naked over the side of their boat. Yoder was not stripping off at the Lourdes grotto. He was swimming in a recreational lake where water-skiing is also known to take place. I don’t suppose that Jesus, who inhabited an actual human society, not a cardboard creche, would find either act surprising or inherently immoral.
(I hasten to add that I am not a practitioner of naked swimming. But this results from both repression and a sense of the ridiculous, neither of which is a moral virtue.)
The whole accusation of impiety in the sacred waters of the Galilee requires a reinterpretation of the New Testament, in which the Pharisees become the heroes. Jesus was continually charged with being an enemy of conventional piety and propriety — which, indeed, he was. You can imagine his opponents saying: Doesn’t he consort with tax collectors, Sabbath violators, winebibbers and skinny-dippers? To which he would have responded with a tart remark about whitewashed tombs or viper broods and moved on. It was a central element of his teaching that the state of the heart matters infinitely more than human rules or public religiosity.