When it comes to Christianity, sorting out the detail of belief may have to take second place to reorienting our attitudes and actions, particularly if we are expecting to be numbered among those who follow Jesus teaching.
Karen Armstrong, perhaps best known for her work with the inter-faith “Charter of Compassion”, did great service to comparative religion when she showed that the modern tendency to line up religion with preferred intellectual beliefs is a relatively new religious enthusiasm in which creedal beliefs have come to include what she calls “self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of ,one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian”. In Karen Armstrong’s now famous TED talk back in February 2008, Armstrong contrasts this endless guesswork about the unknowable with the early Christian notion of belief in which the original intention was rather to commit or engage oneself first to a new way of behaving, and with the hope that from this engagement with the experience, that religious truth would gradually emerge. In that sense, she claims, religious doctrine is intended to be a call to action. When we act in response to such a call, she says, the doctrine starts to make sense.
In this context Jesus’ teaching suddenly takes on an element of total challenge. It is remarkably easy to accept intellectually that Jesus said certain things in his teaching but unwise to then continue seeking what else he and his disciples said without ever pausing to move to that next stage of commitment. This is to miss out on discipleship. Even more to the point, if we only note his teaching in passing, then promptly move out from this teaching to seek further increasingly irrelevant abstractions of faith, we may be committing to a journey that can finish up by having nothing to do with progress in life related faith.
If you want evidence that this can happen, reflect for a moment on typical congregational attitudes towards those who have decided on a different set of beliefs. Time after time Church Union talks founder on differences of trivial abstraction. Bill Loader is perceptive when in his commentary on today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew he says that many people find satisfaction and even solidarity (or should that be communion) in common hate. The community unease in the presence of those whose religious dress is visible confirmation of a different creed, the discomfort of dealing with Saturday morning religious visitors on our doorsteps, trying to ignore street beggars or even listening with approval to the typical radio talk-back insistence that wrong doers get punished with the full weight of the law, should all be reminders that as a community, whatever we may think we are doing, we may not be following Jesus injunction about loving enemies and turning the other cheek.
Of course we have to be realistic enough to distinguish between what we should try to make happen and what is likely to work out in practice. Even a democracy is only as good as a majority will allow it to be, and when our society is threatened by those who don’t share our agreed code of practice we are not necessarily going to persuade others towards notions of forgiveness and compassion. The police will still be using pepper spray and batons when reason fails, and the courts will still require confidence tricksters and shady dealers to make good their promises and face their debts.
It is true that if we do act on Jesus’ words we will encounter some problems. In the real world, dispute resolution is often complex and frustrating, so if we wish to follow Jesus teaching we must always be prepared for partial or even sometimes complete failure. On the other hand we should be clear that that, attractive as it clearly is to many in the community, cutting through this process with quick, or as some would prefer, extreme punishment may well seem much simpler yet it is far removed from what Jesus was advocating.
It is also true that revenge is far easier to sell as a concept than forgiveness. It is much easier to march off to war in response to threatened acts of aggression, than sit down in an act of proffered friendship with a recognised enemy. However, taking a longer term view, as Gautama, better known as the Buddha, pointed out, the so-called wheel of suffering only revolves faster in response to each and every act of retaliation. Further, he said, the wheel begins to turn more slowly when instead of evil, good is returned.
Despite some who would argue that the Bible provides the rules for living, the practicalities mean that ultimately how we interpret the teachings is still up to us. However we can hardly say we are following Jesus in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount when we act as if we will have nothing to do with those who do not share our faith or background. We note Jesus was quite unambiguous when he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or a little further on where he says: “47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
I concede there is a constant tension between on one hand how we seem to be programmed in our dealing with others and the behaviour Jesus seems to be calling for. It may even be a question of where we choose to put our priorities.
Since I have used Karen Armstrong’s thinking in the preparation of what I am sharing today I might also share her reflection of how she found the reaction to her message. She said:
“When I’m speaking to congregations about compassion, I sometimes see a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces, because religion — a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate”.
Yet there is some urgency if we are going to reclaim religion as a good in society and in the world. Unfortunately religion is readily hijacked to mark the fault line for whatever tensions are building between peoples in the world. Of course it is easy to join in the Western condemnation of Islamic suicide bombers who attempt to justify their acts of barbarity by cherry picking Qur’anic verses to fit the current atrocities. But don’t forget as Christians we have been enjoined to keep no score of wrongs. Quoting Armstrong yet again:
“Where instead of taking Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies, don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, as a way of putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things”.
You may find this hard to believe, particularly given the level of hate and vicious revenge that is evident in many nations even today, but religious principles can and do make a difference. A few hundred years before Christ, even the term “an eye for an eye” represented a step forward from the total revenge once exacted before the Israelites enacted the so called law of Moses. Before that time, virtually any crime might exact the death penalty. When Jesus said – you were taught “An eye for and eye…..but I say unto you……. he was saying in effect that lessening the penalty to only punish to the extent of the crime was only part way there. Moving beyond the legalism of an eye for an eye is hopefully a mark of those who are trying to follow the Christ.
Robert P Tucker in a sermon entitled An Eye for an Eye tells a story that captured my imagination.
“In 1956, the adoptive parents of a 7-year-old boy were told by their doctor that their son had glaucoma, a terribly painful disease. The doctor said that he was sorry, but that there was nothing he could do: the diseased eye would have to be removed. Out of her desperate concern that her son’s future not be damaged by so great a handicap, the mother begged the doctor to take one of her own good eyes and transplant it into the boy. She collapsed in tears when the doctor explained that such an exchange was not possible. Neither the doctor nor the mother knew that the boy had been able (through the opening of an unclosed door) to see and hear all of their conversation—but, I did; (said Robert Tucker) and ever after that, the words, “an eye for an eye,” have made me think of love, not hate.”
We are living in a world where for many, an eye for an eye still means punishment with satisfying minimal revenge. Yet whatever their other defects may be, there are those amongst us who have already caught on to the spirit of teaching of compassion and forgiveness which is indeed found at the centre of the major religions and is at the very heart of the Christian message.
Unfortunately the humble saints who catch onto that message are often ignored and we might even question how realistic such actions are in a real world with real problems. On the other hand we have a choice before us. Will we give priority to the teaching we understand Jesus claimed to be important, or will we give our first priority to what custom decrees? Our actions are our answer. If Karen Armstrong has it right, when we commit to such actions, our beliefs may find their true meaning.