Abandoning the religion and politics of exclusion

Abandoning the religion and politics of exclusion

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
20 Aug 2009

Texts: Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23; James 1.17-27; Song of Solomon 2.8-13.

People are different. They cannot be neatly sorted into the categories of good or bad according to their appearance, their manners, their beliefs or lack of them, or any of the other labels we attach to them. Perhaps that ought to be a statement of the blindingly obvious. But mostly the world chooses to operate as if something else was the case – that people are to be favoured or disfavoured because they are scruffy or tidy, native or foreigner, like us or not like us.

Just read the newspapers or watch the TV news with that thought in mind. It soon becomes apparent that a major part of the human instinct is to respond positively or negatively to others (both individually and corporately) according to where they fit into our scheme of things – to see them as Christians or non-Christians, Muslims or non-Muslims, Jews or non-Jews, Catholics or non-Catholics, Evangelicals or non-Evangelicals, believers or non-believers, atheists or non-atheists. In short, us or non-us, whoever ‘us’ happens to be.

But although there are moments of exclusivity in the New Testament, the predominant direction is towards a different way of valuing people, as Mark’s Gospel and the Epistle of James make plain. It is the often underplayed virtue of faithfulness (loyal stickability based on trust) that provides a sure path from this kind of mundane death-dealing with each other to the realization of shared abundant life. But who or what do we stick with, and how?

Let us start with chapter seven from the Gospel of Mark – Jesus’ confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes (one of many) concerning true purity and true defilement. The context is that he and his followers have been accused of breaking the ritual law because they have been eating with unwashed hands. Jesus’ point is not that cleanliness is to be despised. Rather he is saying that in the eyes of God it is whether you show a good heart that matters, not whether you can meet certain standards of physical perfection or symbolic purity.

To us this probably seems uncontroversial – well, until our kids decide that they don’t need to use the bathroom before the next meal, at least! But in Jesus’ setting it was much trickier, much more fundamental to the identity and sense of belonging (even entitlement) of a people. This is how it worked. The Jewish religion, Jesus’ faith community, was felt by those who cherished it most to be in deep trouble. It was threatened by the Roman Empire and it was racked with internal uncertainty. What is more, the development of the Law on which it was based seemed impossibly hard for many ordinary people to understand and implement.

So in order to preserve the endangered path of God, teachers and maintainers of the faith came up with clever ways to turn what seemed like a ‘big ask’ into small manageable tasks. Such as remembering to purify your hands before you ate, for instance: because in this way you would know that the food you were receiving was a gift of God, not just any old bit of candy. So it would be even more nourishing.

In other words, though you might not know it from reading the Gospels, the Pharisees (whose concern was to interpret the Law in a modern context) were often the good guys. They were trying, in theory, to help some people who would not otherwise manage it, onto the right path. That is what Jesus wanted too. But he spotted a major problem. Some of these religious leaders were now using the ritual law to enslave people rather than to liberate them. Regulations which were meant to help the masses were actually being employed to find petty fault in others by a group of elders who supposed themselves to be better and more pious. Meanwhile, they ignored what really mattered to God – right relationships and active social evidence of an inner depth of love and faith.

In identifying his critics’ hypocrisy, in other words, Jesus was attacking a form of religion which neatly categorized people as good or bad according to whether they were in ‘the right group’ and did or believed ‘the right things’. What he says, again and again, in his healings and in his arguments with the religious authorities, is this: “You think God loves you more than these scruffy types – like my followers – who are rendered impure by your increasingly pernickety interpretations of the Law. You couldn’t be more wrong. What you are doing is usurping God, who actually loves us like a perfect parent and therefore wants the best for us all. In fact you’ve got it so wrong, that even prostitutes, whose very existence breaks every rule in the book, are entering God’s realm before you are!” That’s in St Matthew’s account, by the way. One wonders how it might play out in our contemporary ‘Anglican wars’, and other wrangles among the churches that claim to be Jesus’ body today.

What becomes clear, the more we immerse ourselves in these awkward (for us) Gospel narratives, is that the way and the life and the truth that is Jesus, in his embodiment of God’s uncontainable love, challenges every method of a priori exclusion we human beings try to set up against one another – especially when it employs a ‘religious’ label. Instead, Jesus invites people into a new community where we recognize each other not as competitors for God’s love, but as fellow citizens in a realm of unfathomable generosity made possible by the kind of love which is truly dispossessing – it does not operate from some secret self-interest, as ours often does. Rather, its redemptive quality is so amazing, so divine, that it even enables us to treat the enemy as a friend.

Elias Chacour, the Melkite Catholic archbishop, has put it like this with regard to one modern example of how Christ’s love could transform us. Palestinians and Jews, he says, presently see each other mostly as a threat that must be contained or eliminated. That is why conflict often seems the only logic. This will only change when the different parties can see each other instead, as two wounded peoples loved equally and unsparingly by God. In that way they will be able to look each other properly in the eye. And then, instead of wanting to kill, they will want to cry over the hurt they have caused each other. Because by recognizing the wounds of the other, rather than first finding fault, we find ourselves in the presence (whether we name him or not) of the crucified and risen Jesus who makes this possible in his body.

In a note made some years ago in one of his Bibles, my father-in-law, Willard Roth, [1] commented: “The art of successful living is the art of entering into the right relationships at the appropriate time.” It is that simple. And that difficult. For recasting our relationships requires nothing less than a turning away from self-preoccupation toward the wounds and loves and possibilities of the other, supremely the Other who is the Living God, the one who dwells in unapproachable light which nevertheless gives us light. This is salvation.

Which is where the Letter of James comes in. For here we read: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Luther famously regarded this New Testament book as “a straw epistle”, because his ever-so-reformed soul feared that its seamless intertwining of good intent and good practice, faith and action, might turn salvation into something we can earn.

But he need not have worried. James is right on the button in identifying integrity as the key issue, as Jesus did in chastising some of his Pharisaical challengers. And, says James, this unity of conviction-and-deed (which is what integrity means) is not something you are naturally inclined towards as a fallible human being, it is the doing of God. It is, in the correct sense of this term, a supernatural gift. [2]

In order properly to care for others and for the world, you need to recognize them as pure gift. Now when we give a gift, it often has strings or obligations attached. Left to our own devices, even our noblest deeds are not devoid of self-interest. They are part of a world of transactions where some gain and others lose out. But God is not like this. God (being God, and not mortal) has no need to try to outdo us or to participate in the kind of human relationships which are (whether we like it or not) inevitably distorted by our competitive and self-asserting instincts.

So the truth, as James says, is that every truly generous act is a reflection or gift of God. This is so because, unlike you and me, God is not fickle. God is perfect faithfulness. Absolute stickability. The variations and shadows of life (which includes the darned impossibility of other people and ourselves!) doesn’t stop God going on pouring forth light. In the midst of all the pain and wickedness around us, it may be tough to see. Therefore keep reminding yourselves, says the writer, that God is the Father of light, not the father of lies.

As with Jesus, James uses the terms ‘father’ not as a gender descriptor, but to indicate the one who originates life. In early Jewish thought, it was believed that the father played the truly generative role, with the mother being the recipient rather than the co-creator of new life. Modern biology tells us that this is not so but the intention of the ancient metaphor is clear. God alone is the giver of incorruptible life.

Jesus emphasizes this point elsewhere by saying “call no-one but God ‘Father’.” Not your religious leaders, not even your biological father. Because God is not part of the competitive world of human relationships – where sons vie with fathers, mothers with daughters, siblings with each other. This world where, as Alice Roth reminds us in a 1999 article, “women’s voices are still often not heard with the same weight as those of men.” [3]

God is, rather, the transcendent giver of life beyond manipulation, who enables us to glimpse the ultimate gift (which we call heaven) in the most ordinary human relationships – as in the Song of Solomon, a lyric about love that is, at one and the same time, human and divine.

In this way, God’s endlessly renewing love enables us to go on giving and receiving, sustained by the kind of faithfulness (that is, persistent, un-possessive goodness) which can only come from the One who we meet in Christ, who endures even death, so that we can be inheritors of a life beyond our imagining, beyond our capacities and beyond all that mars and calls it into question.

To be re-formed in this way as persons-in-community (the body of Christ) is what ‘church’ is all about, if is true to its purpose. It certainly is not about something arcane and disconnected from real life which we want to label ‘religion’. Likewise, spirituality is not a matter of esoteric practices and knowledge: it is about learning to be oriented to life rather than death in the whole of your being and in your relations with others.

Notes

[1] This article is adapted and slightly expanded from a sermon preached at Southside Fellowship (Mennonite Church USA) in Elkhart, Indiana, USA, on Sunday 3 September 2006. The occasion was a service celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of Alice and Willard Roth, and the theme was faithfulness – human and divine.
[2] A theological footnote: The term ‘supernatural’ originally meant “elevated by divine grace” – as in instances where human beings are enabled to act beyond their limitations and their introspection. As a modern, post C17th descriptor for God, popularly used by believers to ‘elevate’ God above the natural or analogously by non-believers to stress that God is an otherworldly fantasy, it is deeply misleading. God is not part of the natural order, super or otherwise, and can in no way be elevated (or de-elevated) by us mortals. However, in Christian understanding, God, who remains Other than us, nevertheless communicates this otherness to us as love (wholly unselfish giving-ness) in and through the natural and the fleshly. The failure to make this distinction (and the incarnational connection that flows from its re-ordering) renders much Christian apologetic and much anti-religious rhetoric incoherent and detracts from the challenge of seeing the truth of the divine in and through the world, rather than over and against it.
[3] See Alice Roth’s chapter in She Has Done A Good Thing: Mennonite women leaders tell their stories, edited by Mary Swartley, Rhoda Keener (Herald Press, 1999). The book may be purchased through Ekklesia at: http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=985

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His web resources can be found at: www.simonbarow.net

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