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28 March 2004

The Death of Christendom - part IV

If I take it slow and spin this out, I can make the unbroken colt story come out on Palm Sunday and wrap the whole thing up at Easter. Let's see how that works.

When I was a vegetarian, I began to question the image of the "Good Shepherd". It occurred to me, as inevitably it must to those who are trying to live a life of non-harming, that a shepherd is not really a model of compassionate care. The shepherd only tends the flocks so that they don't succumb to weather or natural causes or other predators, like wolves. But the shepherd himself is in the relationship of a predator to his sheep, so his care is rather suspect. (Never mind that sheep do not make the best metaphor for human followers, since they are used as a metaphor of foolish trust, which is understandable, or of following the wrong cause due to intellectual torpor, which is hardly fair to sheep, who were made as they are by God.) That was why I re-wrote the 23rd Psalm, which always was and still is one of my favourite parts of the Bible. Unfortunately, I have lost track of it over the years. It is probably in one of my 20-odd randomly kept "journals" (the quotes are there because I rarely "kept" a journal for more than a few days running, and then would go back and reuse the book for an isolated essay or personal minutes of a fraught political meeting. There is no index, no pattern, no hope of finding what you're looking for in those books.) But I was not totally happy with it; the language of the original King James Bible is so sublime that all attempts I have made to rewrite it have not pleased me any more than any of the other latter-day translations. I have just had to learn to overlook the shepherd thing.

It used to be very important to me to believe that Jesus was a vegetarian. But this belief in turn led me to re-examine the whole issue of sacrifice for atonement. And gradually, I began to feel that Jesus's "lifestyle" was not so important, the important thing was his prophetic message, and what he was calling me personally to do. That may be to be a vegetarian (in which case I have failed, but I may repent and be saved yet) or to be a preacher (there was a period when I thought so, maybe, but am now sure that my vocation is . . . something else) or it may be just to live a certain way, to model compassion (not saintliness), reasonable self-control (not asceticism), faithfulness "to" more than faith "in" (and remain a rational skeptic about all except God and his love for me.) In other words, Jesus was not calling his followers to some impossible standard of perfection, nor was he offering himself as a human sacrifice so that people who perform certain pre-approved rituals can be "saved" no matter what they do thereafter. As in all wisdom, the wisdom of true Christianity is the middle path, doing the best you can, and harming as little as you can, and understanding that you are forgiven your trespasses; after all that is what we pray every week or every day, and it is one of the few things we can be absolutely sure that Jesus actually did say.

Another Bible story that is very central to my belief system is the one about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-27). In searching the web for others' commentary about this story, I was struck by the wide range of Christian types that it appeals to and all the rich and varied messages that come from it. Milliennialists see a prophecy about the last days. Radical Christians focus on the fact that a Jew, who does not speak to women in public (especially true for a rabbi), is not only speaking to this woman, but teaching her and discussing religious history with her, and that she is not only a woman, but a woman of Samaria, a country whose religion was rejected by the Jews of Judea, and whose people were considered unclean. Those with an evangelical focus see this as a key story about witnessing and faith. In all, I think this commentary best sums up how I feel about this story. And the other thing, which ties into my message about caring and fairness and humility as opposed to sacrifices required for the forgiveness of sins, is this: Jesus never puts a condition on the love and acceptance he extends to the outcasts, like the woman of Samaria. When he forgives the woman of ill-repute who washes his feet, Jesus does not say "Your sins are forgiven because I am going to die for you". He says "Your sins are forgiven because of your love and faith". Unlike his Pharisee host, who has not (at least in his own opinion) sinned very much, the woman who comes in off the street is spontaneously humble and nurturing to Jesus ("from the time I came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet .") She does what God requires, and her sins are forgiven. And similarly, the woman of Samaria is offered everlasting life, and all she has to do is ask for it. Jesus has told her all the circumstances of her life - five husbands, living with one now who is not her husband, worships in the wrong place, even her fellow Samaritans seem to reject her - but he does not say go and sacrifice three goats and you can have the living water, nor does he say, I will make all the sacrifices for you and give you living water, but you must abase yourself before me. Jesus can see that she walks humbly before God. When he confronts her with her own weaknesses, she does not beg for forgiveness or try to squirm out of it, she simply says "You must be a prophet" and asks him a subtle question to determine if he is the Messiah. Assured that he is, her first and only question is how to worship God correctly, and when this is answered, she is so overwhelmed and overjoyed that she leaves her water jar at the well and goes to the town to witness for Christ. There are some Biblical scholars who see this as a key moment in the founding of the early church, since the church of James and Peter was centred in Samaria, and yet this woman who presumably started it all is not even named in the Bible!

What I am working up to here is Jesus's new angle on the prophetic message that had been offered time and again to the Jewish people ever since the return from exile. This was when the prophets like Micah and Hosea and Isaiah began to preach that God did not want their sacrifices, but only wanted them to live a certain way. And yet the world was constantly going the other way, and the Jews, to a certain extent, going along with it. God wanted humility, but arrogance and power was a survival tactic. God wanted caring and compassion, but wars and conquests made that a scarce commodity. God wanted justice and fairness, but the very religious system that was meant to serve God had entrenched injustice into Jewish society (not so much with its laws, which were meant for fairness, but with the interpretation of the laws, the power of the priests, and the compromises with the conquering Greeks and Romans.) In many ways, Jesus was another of those prophets; that is how the Muslims of today see him, and how most of his followers before his death saw him. But in the fifth part of "the Death of Christendom", I intend to explore the extra dimension in Jesus's message that carried it far beyond those of Micah and other prophets - the elemental idea of freedom. This is what is meant by the gospel - the Good News.

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