Saturday, 21 January 2012

Wearing religion on our sleeve.

At the time when Jesus started on his ministry and surrounded himself with twelve disciples (and some of their wifes)  it was unlikely they wore any kind of identifiable clothes or material that would have said ‘we belong to a very special kind of religious sect’.  Imagine no mitres, no chasuble, alb, stole, rings, croizier, just simple everyday clothes.  What made Jesus and his disciples truly distinguishable was what they did for the poor, the indigent , sick and infirm.  Only then did Jesus speak of the 'good news' often in the practised form of parables.  What most of us Christians and certainly the religious leaders of his time often missed or grasped is that these parables were usually expressed in upside down and contradictory terms against a  world of strict and accepted cultural, moral and religious values.  If anyone wanted to become his followers the ‘upside down’ kingdom values were the only way.  The narrow gate, eye of the needle represented the love and compassion necessary to bring kingdom values into practise. Jesus never wrote anything down, or dictated any rules or instructed anyone that what he did or spoke of should be formed into strict dogma or doctrine.   At the same time Jesus certainly never suggested that his listeners should become Jewish or insisted that they attend the synagogue at least once a week.  Instead, compassion and Love were to be practised everyday. Jesus associated as easily with despised tax collectors, as he did with prostitutes or women and men who did not even belong to his Jewish community. He was 100 percent inclusive and frequenly challenged the norms .  Jesus and his disciples healed the sick, cured the blind, forgave the sinner and promised listeners that they should pick up their cross and live a life to be lived to the full.

To live such a joy filled life all that was required is ‘repentance’ from the original Greek word metanoia meaning a 'change of mind and heart'.  And for most of us this can be a totally up-side down experience especially when dealing with difficult situations and people.  All you need we are told is a total trust in God  with his added proviso that his Holy Spirit will  then act as our guide, and teach us all we need to know to become true believers in this new way of life.  In so doing miracles will become an everyday event, even to the point of seeing people being raised from the dead. 

You would have thought that most of us would have jumped to the chance to give up our pain and suffering, but not so.  The ego quickly came to our rescue by immediately spreading  doubt that anything could be that easy.  And soon Jesus message seemed far too difficult and demanding for most of us   After listening to him talk about the laborers in the vineyard who all received the same amount of pay regardless of the number of hours they put in – we quickly figured this model was never going to become popular or fair.   What about giving up our hard earned and respected social position in life and sitting at the lowest end of the table?  No that wasn’t something most of us are ready to accept.  We worked to hard for that.  That guy Jesus and his disciples who looked like beggars were probably crazy and should be quickly chased out of town.

Today Jesus’ promise remains as true as ever,  yet few of us are willing to trust him so completely that we prefer to play it safe by putting our primary trust in worldly institutions instead.  Here the wages are scaled according to our performance while highly trained doctors and nurses will take care of our health.  As for concerns for the poor, sick and indigent, well various government organizations will take care of most of them. By the way political rules also help us to avoid any need for direct contact with the less fortunate. And, those who call themselves ‘street people’ probably prefer to live that way anyway. 

As for the worldly institutions even the religious ones have taken up the accepted social structure first introduced by the Roman Emperor Constantine.  Roman Catholic clergy today still follow a strict code or regimen with regard its political structure, dress and hierarchy,  which is based on Constantine’s military background. Up until the time of Constantine Christians were under constant threat of being persecuted in the most violent of ways by various Roman rulers.  After that the roles were reversed and the Christians became the persecutors.  History is filled with many dark periods of religious persecution. I  will spare readers the horrific details.  However while persecution may be less obvious today a lot of fervent and very militant Christians have trouble being compassionate with people living on the margins of life, particularly those with life styles other than prescribed by the their religious leaders. Calls for compassion are quickly dismissed in the most negative terms or un-Christian ways.  By denying any responsibility for such damaging teachings they  quickly deny them   by calling it ‘bashing  of the faith’! (their faith I guess)
"Religious symbols are contentious when displayed in the public sphere. They are seen as territorial marking, like a soldier planting a flag or a dog lifting its leg. So naturally the symbol of the Red Cross was rejected by Muslim countries, which adopted the Red Crescent, instead. But neither cross nor crescent was acceptable to Israel, which wanted a Red Star of David. However, that was rejected by the Muslims as symbolising Zionism. Finally they all settled on the Red Crystal, a secular symbol that includes everyone".  Source: Concordat Watch.

Today we hear that Christians are targets when they enter countries where they are considered a minority.  Is that because we walk around with crosses on chest, bibles under our arms and erect large crosses on mountain tops?   Christian or ‘followers of the way’ would have little to fear if we practised what Jesus told us to do with compassion for all strangers.         Most if not all the worlds religions accept the Golden Rule ‘do unto others as you would them have  unto you’.  So I’ll end with this crazy thought what if all religions stopped wearing their religion on their sleeves and practised indiscriminate compassion might it result in less violence (after all how would you recognize the competition?)  and how would we know who to reject?  

But now I will come to the real point of this brief essay and again ask the question ‘is it necessary to wear our religion on our sleeve?’ Or more pointedly does Christianity depend on what we wear, what denomination we attend, what version of the Bible we read, or who is in and who is out in our community, what prayers we need to recite and ritual we must perform, what we must believe, and most importantly for some 'who will go to heaven or hell'? Do we really need to fear or distrust other religions, athiest or agnostics, and gays? Do we trust the institution, ourselves or God, to save us in the end? Or is there something far more wonderfully positive beyond our limited understanding of God and his unconditional love, from what we have been taught thus far?

Readers may be interested to read noted author and religious historian Karen Armstrong's latest book 'Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life', (2010).  What was especially significant for me was her chapter on "Compassion for Yourself'  highlighting the point that we really cannot love others until we learn to love ourself. 

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