I have written openly about my Christ-centered faith on numerous occasions. I rediscovered it relatively recently after rejecting it out of hand earlier in life. The best way to describe the experience is that, for whatever reason or another, it found me, rather than the other way around. A belief in a higher power keeps me mentally supple and not fixated on the superficial. My faith points me to the way to live in peace among other people, and also within myself. So, when I observe yet again how easy it is for the mere mention of Jesus or God to provoke a nasty, negative response in many, I feel tremendously sad.
Organized religion has, I acknowledge, created tremendous damage for many. On the other hand, however, it seems as though certain people hold fast to a stage of processing pain and loss that stays resolutely stuck in scathing rejection. Even worse, they never seem to move beyond it. One wonders why the progression of time would not give a person the ability to reach a sense of resolution within themselves, responding to all notions of religion with which they passionately disagree with a mere shrug of the shoulders. Those who consider themselves staunchly opposed to religion or even spirituality certainly do spend a good bit of time with it on the brain. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
A right-wing strain of Christianity advances the notion that Christianity is under attack from secular fundamentalists, and I simply don’t see it this way at all. There are any number of well-documented instances that could have easily led anyone question or reject their faith wholesale. The continuing saga of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church is one of these. Growing up in a faith, regardless of what it was, that severely limited or restricted personal freedom for the sake of authoritarian control has also led to quite understandable feelings of bitterness and anger among those who have left it behind. As liberals, we value our own right to individual expression, and for good reason. But not everyone who wishes to trash religion has had these experiences. It deeply troubles me to observe how Christianity and Christians are painted with the broadest and most caustic of brushes. In response, I spend much of my energy drawing contrasts between the liberal faith I believe in and the opposite extreme which I reject as fervently as they do.
In these stressful times, I feel as though I’m on the stand, the chief witness for the defense in a particularly intense, contested court case. As I sit, I am given the third degree by a hostile, combative prosecuting attorney. The lawyer tries every trick in the book to get me to incriminate myself or to concede that what I believe is suspect or irrational. The prosecutor pulls out random verses from Scripture that could, at face value, seem contradictory without ample interpretation and context. The intent of this exercise is to try to invalidate the entire Bible by casting doubt on the entire book itself, making the assumption that if one verse rings false in some way, then the full text has no veracity and authority whatsoever. In deeper irony than that, I’m reminded of all the times where the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus either to make him incriminate himself or to cast doubt upon the validity of his teachings.
They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?”
Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, “Why are you trying to trap me? Show me a Roman coin, and I’ll tell you.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
This passage has had many interpretations over the years. It has been used, variously, to justify not paying taxes that benefit war, to articulate a need to keep church and state fully separate, as a command to pay taxes that support war, a commandment to not pay taxes that support war, a warning that involving oneself too actively in the inner workings of the state is dangerous, and an encouragement to devote oneself more fully to God. It is also worth pointing out that some believe Jesus’ answer was just a cleverly vague answer to a question which would have incriminated him regardless of whether he answered yes or no. Depending on how you see it, Jesus is either a pacifist war resister, a Libertarian, a card-carrying ACLU member, or a believer in law and order.
It is often difficult to pigeonhole precisely who Jesus was or was not. He was an anomaly in his own time. When any group or any person claims to know for certain that their interpretation of his teachings ought to be perceived as the only valid one, I for one don’t buy it. Many act as though a carpenter from Nazareth is a successful business model or a commodity with exclusive licensing rights. Jesus™ is not for sale, but this doesn’t stop some people from thinking that they are the sole proprietary owner and that all rights are reserved to them. To them, no use of the original text/leader is allowed without the expressed written consent of their particular group or faction. I can understand why conduct like that could harden hearts and scare people away in droves. But as for me, if I share my faith with others, and perhaps even a Bible verse or two, the intent is not to win converts, but to provide food for thought. In my own way, I might be capable of sharing wisdom with other people in the form of a source they might not have otherwise ever considered. There’s a lot of good stuff in that old book.
I chose to include the Biblical passage above to underscore how so many peoples’ spleen and bile is being channeled in an entirely wrong direction. Jesus is not the enemy and never will be. If he were alive now, I firmly believe, he would not be a member of any existing movement, faith group, or organization. Based on how I read his ministry, he would be much more inclined to be out on the ground among those who needed his guidance and assistance most. Jesus would not seek to shore up his power base by advancing any perversion of his own philosophy and teachings, no matter how benign. I let no one off the hook by saying this, since we all get it wrong sometimes to one degree or another. But if we can acknowledge our imperfections and start again from a place of tenderness and compassion, then we are doing all God asks of us.
My primary concern is that in this day and age, it seems like people want to build their own Two Minutes’ Hate. I suppose it speaks to our own inward dissatisfaction that we want to vent our frustration by convenient means. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Tea Party member or an infamous internet troll. In this situation, if people must be upset then I hope they’d instead consider being mad at the humans who have tainted and otherwise manipulated a message of love and compassion for their own ends. If we must think in terms of enemies and allies, one hopes that we’d be capable of knowing how to separate the two. Any system devised by human hands is capable of being easily corruptible and in so doing drifting away from its core message. Perhaps our first step ought to be recognizing that we’ve set the bar as highly for other people as we have for ourselves. And in response, we can embrace an attitude of cynicism, thinking the task too arduous and the terrain too rugged, or we can recognize that mistakes are inevitable, while knowing that course corrections will be necessary from time to time.
When systemic injustices are perpetuated, not swiftly corrected (or corrected at all), condoned, allowed to ferment, and intensified when other unchallenged injustices are layered on top, then problems become massive. And that which is destructive to faith groups is also destructive to we ourselves. We can cover up problems we’ve encountered or delay dealing with them for a long time, even years. It should be common sense to know that personal issues can only be repressed up to a point until they begin to eat us alive. A much better solution, in my opinion, would be to bring them forth into the Light whereby we can initiate the work necessary for healing to begin. If we do not, we’ll be looking for one scapegoat after another, with no end in sight.
Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.
For those uncomfortable with the God talk, holy could mean “that which makes you whole.” My hope is that the message is clear enough. The poisonous root of bitterness troubles many, but we have a remedy close at hand. I pray we set aside the poisonous aspects of ourselves, which are more damaging to us than they are to any target we may seek out. Holding grudges for any reason consumes energy which could be used for better things. We may reject the status quo with impulsive cockiness and provocative behavior, but we’re really acting just like everyone else. Capitalism, in particular, has discovered how to cater to this compulsion. We have a million avenues available for us to be angry, but real rebellion is finding peace of mind and with it serenity. The most virulent toxin ever created is produced within ourselves, not projected onto someone or something else.