Anger and Mercy

Over the weekend here in Sydney there was a small riot in protest of the outrageous amateur film posted on YouTube about the Prophet Mohammed, and a sermon on mercy in the small church I go to. While the priest did not make the connection with the riots, the link between anger and mercy occurred to me.

Anger and Mercy

There is a lot of anger among Australians at the behaviour of the protestors. “Send them back to their own country!” (Notice I did not say Islamic protestors, because while the marchers may be Muslims, their outrageous slogans definitely don’t represent the approach of the vast majority of that faith.)  So what are we non-Muslims so angry about? Riots tend to trigger atavistic reactions — is that what we are feeling? Are these protestors wrong to march against the blasphemy of this YouTube video? I don’t think so. Perhaps it was the slogans they carried, some of which were extremely offensive. But we don’t get as outraged by off-the-wall polemics when they are used by other protestors, such as union members’ on strike. Do we think that Muslims really mean to start a Middle East-type war here in Australia? Doesn’t that say more about our fears than any realistic possibility? Whatever we are feeling, I suggest that we also ought to seek mercy for these protestors.

What a strange word mercy is, so inappropriate in most situations. Mercy means that the guilty person is simply forgiven not condemned. Mercy is contrary to this common atavistic feeling we have that someone (or some group) should get what they deserve. But why ought we to seek mercy? Basically because it is a higher form of human behaviour, which, for Christians, represents how God treats us. It is at the core of the second half of the Our Father, Jesus’ own prayer — “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God, you have every right to be angry with us but we ask you to treat us with mercy, as we treat others. Mercy not only applies to the guilty one, it applies to us as well. Mercy transforms anger into love, in our hearts and actions — and perhaps also in the hearts and actions of the guilty ones. Surely that is why we ought to seek mercy for these angry protestors. And seek, not just wish it would happen. Be peace-bringers, for example, between Muslims and Christians for a start.

If you need any added impetus for seeking mercy for the protestors, read the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald by Waleed Aly called “The Incredible Muslim Hulk proves to be no friend of Islam either.” http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/the-incredible-muslim-hulk-proves-to-be-no-friend-of-islam-either-20120916-260e8.html#ixzz26g3vhn9Z

Remind me — who am I?

“When I look at my tattoo it reminds me I want to be free and independent and open to more experiences. . .As Johnny Depp reportedly said, ‘My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.'” in a featured article “I ink therefore I am” in Sunday Life, Sydney Morning Herald, May 27, 2012.

I come from a different generation, which didn’t value body-art, but I can understand what this young Gen-Y woman (and Johnny Depp) are saying. It’s hard to be who you want to be. You need to remind yourself and others so you don’t forget and so they’ll ask you about your tattoo and, in a way, hold you accountable.

Two things occur to me. Why is it hard to be “free, independent and open to more experiences” in today’s society? That is exactly what our culture values. Maybe it’s a case of ‘espoused values not values in practice.’ Maybe we don’t really want people to become themselves freely or ‘march to the beat of a different drummer’ as Thoreau said. My sense is that the western system actually values conformity, dependency (on consuming) and enjoying the pre-packaged experiences offered by the media and iPhone apps. If you aren’t doing those, you aren’t helping the GDP grow and “you ain’t nobody man!”

The second thing that occurs to me is what would I tattoo on myself? Maybe not actually display three words inked onto my arm but what is the ‘headline’ for my story, like Johnny Depp said? I know what I’d like it to be — Semper Fidelis: a faithful follower of Jesus Christ — but what is actually there, everyday, for everyone to see?

Practical versus theoretical religion

Michael Fallon in his book Change Leaders made a profound point that Christians must understand to follow Jesus’ leadership. “Day to day practice is the only experience that can engage and reshape the brain.” This raises a number of questions which, when answered, can expand our sense of what salvation and our church are all about.
1. What are we humans and what role does our brain play in our life? Secular thinkers would say that our brain is all there is — Christians believe that we have an immortal soul. Still, we do have a brain because we are “enfleshed spirits” not angels. So what is the relationship between our brain and our soul, our flesh and our spirit? They must be taken together and our lifelong learning consists in developing that integration. It’s not “mind over matter” but the harmony between our different aspects that ought to shape our lives.
2. What is Jesus’ role in achieving this harmony? Jesus shows us how, in practical ways, to balance our flesh and spirit. God is not a spirit, some sort of super-angel or mighty spiritual being. God became an enfleshed spirit, Jesus, to communicate his “life” to us and, in fact has done that through Jesus becoming one of us. We are adopted sons and daughters because of this but that doesn’t mean that we are fully constructed and complete at the time of our birth. Learning what we are and what it means to be God’s adopted child is a life-long learning task for every person. The great challenge (and mystery) of human life is becoming conscious of the fact that, in freedom, we are creating who we are as God’s child. Learning how to achieve harmony between our brain and our spirit is the core of this learning process.
3. What is the role of religion and church in our becoming conscious that, as God’s adopted child, creating harmony between the two sides of our nature, our flesh and our spirit, is the practical way we create our eternal soul? Basically we learn by doing what others are doing, by imitating. The community of believers learn from each other how to imitate Jesus. This is not a theoretical task but a highly practical one. The difficulty is discerning which behaviors and actions we want to imitate because everyone in a church community is an “amateur” at being a child of God. No one does it right all the time, even so-called saints. This is why Jesus’ primary teachings were about love of neighbor, forgiveness and humility. This is also why everyone must be part of a community of believing teachers / learners.

A transformational story about God and life

Thomas Merton believed that life is a process of going from “innocence to experience and back to innocence.”

  • When we are innocent children the world is magical, and death doesn’t exist.
  • As we grow up, we learn from experience that the world is a difficult place. We must compete with others to succeed.  Evil, sickness and death enter our story about life.
  • Then, a different form of transforming innocence may enter our life. The Holy Spirit leads us to discover that God is on our side and death holds no fears.  In On Being Liked, James Alison describes this process of encountering and learning a mature form of  innocence with finding a fresh, transforming story about God.

Many Christians have a story about God that emphasizes our sinfulness. This story arises from the church’s explanation for why Jesus had to die for us. He had to “atone” to God for our sinfulness.  For example, the Catholic Catechism defines atonement in this statement: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.” [Article 1992].   This description creates an image of God as a Judge who requires a victim (His Son) to offer his life to make up for the sins of his creatures. In this story, God is merciful but also just and there must be retribution for man’s sinfulness. In his mercy, God substitutes Jesus and we don’t have to pay the price for our transgressions.

Atonement puts sin at the center of our story about God. Alison creates another story about God’s motivation and Jesus’ passion. Jesus’ apparent “losing to death, was not done so as to ‘please the Father’ but rather to get through to us.” Death has no power in God’s reality and we need to get beyond our ideas about death created by our experiences in the world that stand in the way of our becoming His sons and daughters. “God has nothing to do with death and humans need not either.” Jesus become man to show us how to ‘play the game of life’ as God wants us to.

Alison uses the metaphor of how a loving parent teaches a child to play tennis to illustrate how Jesus teaches us. The parent could obviously win every game but chooses not to and loses artfully, pushing the child to learn how to play. Jesus played the ‘game of life’ and by giving himself up to death, apparently ‘losing to death.’ By doing this he showed us how to “live as if death were not.” Jesus lived in a world filled with the threat of death but he took no notice and lived freely and lovingly.

If we look at  the ‘100,000 foot view’ of Jesus’ life, one theme becomes obvious: forgiveness. It was why he was sent and it characterized his life and death.

  • “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:17]
  • (to the woman accused of adultery) “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she said. ”Then neither do I condemn you.’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave you life of sin.'” [John 8-11]
  • (from the cross) “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

So, playing the game of life as Jesus did involves learning what such forgiveness entails.  Alison illustrates that our normal way of thinking about forgiveness falls far short of what Jesus means.

  • Forgiveness is “losing the human need to survive-by-creating-human-victims”
  • Forgiveness is “moving toward someone who I am like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we can become a new ‘we'”
  • Through forgiveness “As we forgive and are forgiven we come to see what really is.”

The expansive, inclusive and creative meaning that Jesus gives forgiveness is not something we learn like all other subjects. It is a transformation that we undergo, probably for our entire life. It means viewing worldly failure and death as God does, as things that are not real! “We gradually learn to live as if death (and failure) are not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.” Paul talked of this as ‘dying to self’ and Jesus told the parable of the seed needing to die in order to yield fruit.

We must give ourselves permission to question the usual story about atonement (and the teachings of our church) in order to potentially find a new ‘transformational story’ about God’s intentions in sending His Son and allowing His death.  A fresh story about Jesus and a potential new image for God can change everything in our lives. Yet, we also sense that commiting to a new story about Jesus is a very serious business. The danger is that we might set ourself up as the ultimate authority for our beliefs about God. We might commit the sin of pride and throw out all the learning of wise and good Christians over 2000 years. Nonetheless, we also sense that, to be fully human, we must prayerfully ask questions about the Atonement and not simply swallow our church’s story whole. Ultimately, we need to share what we find with other Christians, and study what the church and Bible says, before we finally commit ourselves to a new story about Jesus’ way of playing the game of life. Such conversations are precisely why we need to be in a community of Christians: to find a way to reach the truth through honest conversation about such provocative questions.

 

 

 

Three Cheers for Empathy AND Religion!

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.

Empathy accepts  the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.

A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?

If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe,  then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!

Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!

Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to  Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!