The Religious Right

It concerns me very much that I repeatedly run into people who assume their views are ‘Christian’ because they can find verses to support them in the Bible.

On subjects like the discipline of children, capital punishment for criminals, ostracism of adulterers and homosexuals, for instance, these people have developed a punitive and bloodthirsty religion based on the Old Testament, which they call ‘Christianity’ as if it had come from the lips of Jesus himself.

What came from Jesus’s lips, of course, was something very different. On bringing up children, for instance, he said: “Suffer little children to come unto me … for of such is the Kingdom of God.” On crime and punishment “I say unto you, that you resist not evil, but to him that taketh thy coat, give thy cloak also … Love your enemies … Pray for them that despitefully use you.” On sexual sins, his words to the offender in John 8 were: “Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more.”

The Old Testament is, of course, the foundation on which Christ based his teachings. But that does not mean that the Old Testament is the same thing as Christianity—else we would all be in danger of ‘hell fire’ if we failed to eat Kosher food, or wore blended cotton and polyester in our clothing.

My particular concern is the attitude many so called ‘Christians’ (I call them the “Alberta Report” variety) have towards those in prison, which basically seems to be to try and make life as unpleasant for them as possible. Crowded living quarters, no funds for toiletries, take away their colour TV, cut down on their chance of parole, and so their opportunity to re-enter the community with guidance to keep out of trouble in the future … The list goes on.

Don’t pretend that Christ ever ordered this behaviour towards sinners… But He did have some very harsh words to say to the ‘religious right’ of his own day—the Scribes and the Pharisees.

Makes you think, doesn’t it!

– Anglican Messenger, 1997
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Begotten Again

Now that I have retired from the practice of Law, I have less chance to meet those who used to be my daily acquaintances. So it was a real pleasure the other day to run into my former associate, Dennis Edney, as both of us were shopping for groceries in the aisles of Sobey’s, Hawkestone.

Dennis, who deserves a medal for his devotion to the principles of justice and fair play, was recently back from Guantanamo Bay, where he had had a chance, long denied, to meet with his client, Omar Khadr. Omar, as a child soldier, had been arrested and imprisoned several years ago, after allegedly throwing a grenade at a U.S. soldier who was storming his compound, causing the latter’s death.

Since then, he had been kept for years in solitary confinement at Guantanamo, subject to repeated questioning, and humiliating abuse that fell very little short of torture. All this attempted to be justified by a military tribunal which appeared to wish to ignore the Geneva Convention, the convention on the treatment of child soldiers, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the regular procedures of the Common Law.

What appalled Edney in particular was that these abuses were perpetrated by clean cut American servicemen, all of whom (like 60% of the American population) claiming to be ‘born again’ Christians.

As a clergyman, this business of being ‘born again’ really worries me. It seems to give a license to anyone who has followed a particular religious formula to live thereafter any way he or she pleases, filled with a marvelous sense of self-righteousness and superiority over the ‘unsaved’ populations of the rest of the world.

It was over Easter that I began to see where the problem lay. The Greek word (‘gennao’) sometimes translated as ‘born’ can also be translated as ‘begotten’ as it is, for instance, in the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Being born comes from a different but related root (‘geno’), from which we derive such words as ‘genesis’, ‘gene’, ‘genealogy’, and ‘genetics’. ‘Begetting’ happens when a father impregnates a mother. Birth, though, takes time. There’s nine months to wait while cells divide and a new body is put together in the womb before it can take place. During that time, the unborn child assembles organs of sight, of digestion, lungs to breathe with, arms and legs to move with, all of which are needed for life after birth, but have no practical use whatever until then.

Spiritual development to me seems to be analogous. The seed of faith is sown in the human mind, and gradually a spiritual body takes shape. Abilities develop within us which really are of little personal use to us for our life on earth—prayer, worship, charity, spiritual insight, and so on. That is why people ‘whose portion of life is in this world’ usually have little place in their lives for church or religion, or if they do, have this only for its social aspect. But after our threescore years and ten or whatever other length of life is allocated to us on earth, we are going to be born into another, spiritual, world, and these various attributes become essential. That then is the time when our ‘new birth’ takes place.

St. Paul reproved the Corinthians for their self-satisfaction in their highly dysfunctional church. He prayed for the Ephesians that they might be “filled with all the fullness of God”. So he tells the Philippians “I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal, to win the prize which is God’s call to the life above, in Christ Jesus.”

Not a bad thought for any of us!

– Anglican Messenger, 2008*

Afflicting the Comfortable

John Wesley described his task as a preacher as “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

We are certainly familiar with the Gospel of comfort for the afflicted—the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the sick, lives transformed by the message of the Good News of God’s love. Saint Peter, leader of the early church, was deeply conscious of how he had utterly failed and denied his master, in spite of all his boasting, yet Jesus had still trusted him to ‘feed his sheep’, and he is only one of many failures to whom God has given a second chance to become leaders in his Kingdom.

But ‘afflict the comfortable’—what is the idea of this? How do we square this with the idea of a loving God?

There is no doubt as to who the ‘comfortable’ were in Jesus’s day—they were the religious leaders, the Pharisees. We are told they were ‘lovers of money’, ‘whited sepulchres’—looking good on the outside, but on the inside, ‘full of dead men’s bones’. They were hypocrites, ‘for a pretence making long prayers’. They loved ‘salutations in the marketplaces’ and ostentatious religious dress. They were ‘of their father, the devil’, and from very early on in Jesus’s ministry, sought to have his followers excommunicated, and Jesus himself killed. They were people who sought the best of both worlds—to be God’s favourites, while at the same time enjoying wealth, power and glory in the world in which they lived. What a contrast with the Son of Man, who “made himself of no reputation” and “had nowhere to lay his head.”

The problem of the Pharisee is that his religion is one of a bargain with God. He ‘fasts twice a week’ and ‘gives tithes of all he possesses.’ For all this trouble and sacrifice, he expects God to do him favours in return—health, wealth and reputation. He has no place for those who have failed—the tax collectors and other sinners. His self-satisfaction knows no bounds.

Jesus deals with such people by setting the standards of his Kingdom so high that even the Pharisee will fall short. “Except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” A lustful glance in the wrong direction means that one should pluck out one’s eye. A harsh word to one’s brother makes one liable to judgment. To neglect the poor at your gate leads to thy fires of Hell. The young ruler who claimed to have kept the Ten Commandments “from his youth up” is told to “sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” He goes away sorrowing—Jesus’s price is too high.

But this is Jesus’s precise point. The Pharisee, as much as the publican, is one who “has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He, too, is in need of God’s forgiveness. In contrast to the woman of the streets, who bathed his feet with her tears, he is forgiven little, and loves little. It is the fact that his investment in ‘being good’ gives no return in Jesus’s estimation that makes him hate Jesus to the point of death.

St. Paul on the road to the Damascus, was a Pharisee who ‘saw the light.’ More than once in his epistles, Paul lists the qualifications he had to be a super righteous Pharisee, and pointed out that to him this was so much garbage, for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as the Christ. But Pharisees of this kind are indeed rare.

Jesus warned his disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees”—this ‘holier than thou’ attitude that can creep into a church, so that instead of being a fellowship of redeemed sinners, it is a selective club that keeps out the very outcasts that the Son of God came to save. It strikes me that, as we face the issues of morality that are so troubling to the church at this time, we have to make sure that, while removing the speck in our brother’s eye, we don’t miss the log that is in our own!

– Anglican Messenger, November 2004