Moving religion from harm to healing

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
5 Jun 2008

This article further develops some themes hinted at in Hearing hope through the babble.

‘Who sinned, this man or his father, that he has this sickness?’ The religious argument prompted by this misplaced question to Jesus at the beginning of St John chapter nine [1], in which two radically conflicting understandings of God’s purposes confront each other, is a primary example of a very particular struggle for the meaning of faith’s ‘global reach’ – its aspiration towards a universal hope.

For some, the thought-world behind such a question – an alleged correlation between human moral culpability and ‘natural disaster’ – is unfathomable. For others of a certain temperament and background, not always 'primitive', it is taken for granted. An equivalent can be found, for example, in Hollywood actress Sharon Stone’s controversial comments about the May 2008 China earthquake, suggesting opaquely (and, to many, in a deeply offensive way) that they might somehow be an outworking of ‘karma’ over Tibet.

As the increasingly disparate nature of the simultaneously spiritual and secular environment we inhabit becomes clearer, arguments like this will abound within religious communities. What’s more, in a wall-to-wall media culture, things that look like intra-religious disputes or bits of arcane superstition cannot be contained in the way they once could – as the furore over Stone’s remarks shows.

In an era of HIV and AIDS, for example, ‘religious sensibilities’ take on global importance, especially when they are used to promote or reject particular health strategies. They are a matter of life or death. I will come back to the specific issue of the way some believers confuse sickness with 'the sins of others' at the end. In the first instance, though, it is important to recognise this kind of thing as a theological problem with a long history.

The heart of the ‘religious’ argument

In a world that is far less automatically accepting of inherited beliefs and moral pronouncements, Christians are increasingly confronted with such questions such as: ‘What is the real heart of your message? What is its impact and true character? What does it say about you and us?’ At the root of this is the most basic question of all: ‘Who is God, what is God like, and what is God up to in our sicknesses and needs, as well as in our joys and hopes?’ It is helpful to stand back and to situate the narrative behind such questions – so that we comprehend what is truly at stake.

In the Acts of the Apostles we possess some of the ‘minutes’ of the development of the early Christian movement. For sure, an efficient secretary has tidied them up a little. But there is still a vital sense of the growth of the ‘primitive’ church not just numerically, but in understanding and maturity, too. In the final version there is certainly an emphasis on ‘high points’: Pentecost, the unity and witness of the believers, the triumph over adversity of the fledgling Christian communities, and so on. But the New Testament does not abandon us to mere ideals or to a reassuring myth of origins. It is also full of realistic argument.

Christians are people whose world has been turned upside down by Jesus Christ (Acts 17). But it is also true over the centuries that we have continued to contest every possible interpretation and understanding of the change that Christ brings and embodies. To be located within the Christian tradition of belief and practice is to be placed (as Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Protestant or whatever) within an ongoing set of unresolved arguments.

There are defining settlements of course: great doctrines, liturgies and exemplars of how true Christian community can be constructed and conveyed. But disagreement continues. It will not be tidied away. One thinks of the current contentions in the churches about human sexuality – something that goes to the heart of who we are, how we are shaped, what we long for, and how we conduct our lives in relation to one another.

From clan to cosmos

For me it is strangely liberating to note that in the early Christian movements we can see the seeds of our own ongoing disputes. It is not as if there was a moment when Christians had everything sewn up in a ‘blueprint’, so that we simply need to return to that time. God does not magic problems away, but accompanies us in the search for a better path. It is also important to be reminded, when we read the biblical accounts, that the way the church has proceeded in the face of division has more often been conditioned by pragmatism rather than the absolutism that some continue to advocate.

For example, the relative success of early Christians in communicating with God-fearers, proselytes, and those on the colonised edges of empire (as well as the spiritual edges of the established religious system), rather than just with ‘their own’, meant that what we now call ‘the Gentile mission’ became a pragmatic possibility somewhat before it was recognised as a theological necessity. Plenty at the time said that the thing we mostly take for granted today – that the Gospel is universal in scope – was a step too far. They wanted it to be restricted to one group, a Jewish one, alone.

The Gospels, and especially the later passages in the Synoptics (such as the so-called ‘great commission’ in Matthew 28) and the farewell discourses in the Fourth Gospel (chapter 17), were put together after the struggle between aspects of Peter and Paul’s missions, and the question of whether the vocation was to move beyond the exclusivity of a chosen nation, had been decided. So although we rarely view the matter with this kind of historical consciousness, it is surely the case that when we read the Gospels we are looking back from the vantage point of the resolution of an argument that produced the polity out of which the texts now speak to us.

Viewed this way, a key question in the struggle for the core meaning of the Christian message, echoed in the Book of Acts, is: ‘Where are the ends of the earth?’ How extensive is the Christian calling? Where are its limits, if any? St Matthew’s Jesus speaks of ‘going out into all the world’ to proclaim, disciple and baptise, but in his lexicon that still mainly means ‘go to the Jewish world’. By the time the Gospel according to John came to be written it had come to mean something much wider. But the signs of the original struggle within Judaism (and the continuing struggle within Christianity) are everywhere to be seen.

That is especially so in those uncomfortably frequent damning references by the writer or redactor to ‘the Jews’ (‘the Jews did not believe’, John 9.18). These are traces of a religious strife for which there has been an incalculably larger price to pay for Christianity – and much more lethally for the Jewish people – in the sickening history of genocide that followed, falsely legitimised on Scriptural (and many other) grounds.

Here is a deadly reminder that the ‘ends of the earth’ where God is to be found constantly turn out to be far more generous and more embracing than our anxious hearts and limited interpretative procedures allow. When religious leaders do not recognise this the outcome can be truly appalling – oppression in God’s name. Such was the case with the transatlantic slave trade and with apartheid in South Africa. Christians need to get hold of the idea that those invited to the Feast of Life are not just in our family, but also in someone else’s. Not just Jews, but Greeks. Not just men but women. We could go on with many contemporary examples where ‘received’ barriers need to be challenged.

At a certain point it is not contestable that we are called to live out the Gospel in the widest geographical and cultural settings, and to be named and identified in the company of Jesus Christ there – rather than, as Anton Wessels reminds us, to usurp the name Christ-ian (‘of Christ’) too easily [2]. At that point, where ‘globalisation’ has become an encounter with the economic, the political, the cultural and the social, we are called back once more (in the midst of our search for ‘solutions’ in those arenas) to the uneasy territory of the heart.

The challenge to the heart is this. In whatever we do and say in the name of Christian engagement with the world, whose are we? To whom do we truly belong? Where does our redemption lie? Who do we say Jesus Christ is? And who do we say our neighbour whom we are called to love is? Who is the stranger with whom we may become friends? Even more importantly, as Jesus insists: who is our enemy and how shall we love that enemy? These are questions that will be demonstrated by how we live, not just by what we say or write.

What I am saying here is not that we should abandon politics for piety, but that the politics which is an inevitable and necessary component of Christian involvement with issues of peace, justice and human dignity should be knowing, conscious and open to redemption. That is, open to a change of heart and mind at the intimate as well as the corporate level.

Healing for all, not just for ‘us’

Take that story in St John chapter nine. When some ‘religious’ people asked Jesus who had sinned, the sick person or his parents, that he should suffer like this, a statement of belief about the nature of God, the world and the relation between the two was being rehearsed by their underlying assumptions. Since these assumptions were (as Jesus pointed out) dangerously wrong and damaging, everything that flowed from them in the religious arena, both interpersonal and institutional, was liable to be corrupted. As part of a process of social and religious re-ordering, hearts and minds have to be re-ordered too. Un-reconstructed persons will not produce structures of grace. This call to transformation was the heart of Jesus’ mission. Is it not ours as well? If so, it has to start here and now.

In a world that is being disfigured by of war and terror sanctioned by ideologised religion, the perennial human temptation to label, to dismiss or to demonise ‘the other’ – whoever the other is for you, and not just whoever s/he is for the person sitting next to you – is overwhelming. For the self-righteous the ‘sinner’ is never us, it is always the other. The Muslim. The Arab. The terrorist. The Iraqi. The American. The Israeli. The religious. The atheist. The homosexual. We forget that all have fallen short of the glory of God, not just some. This is not a statement of moral equivalence between every act of wrongdoing, but a reminder that the wrong of the other (if it is such) can never be totally disconnected from our own wrong.

When we do not realise this, the ‘other’ becomes the person who we label and pigeonhole as 'unclean' or 'guilty' in advance of actually getting to know them. Someone whose destiny has been decided before we have talked with them; whose pain is ignored and relegated to our need; whose identity is used so that we can think - so that we can fit him or her or them into our system of reasoning and calculating, whatever we call that system.

That is precisely what is going on in this story from the Fourth Gospel. It is also the beginning of the end of the Christian message as genuinely Good News, if we are not careful. Writing from the immediate aftermath of those events we now simply call ‘9/11’, Archbishop Rowan Williams situates the meaning and challenge of the text for us in exactly this way. And he shows how the dynamic of the Scriptural argument can liberate if we will let it. I will quote at length because it is all put so concisely and eloquently. He writes:

“Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.

“I’m not sure, but perhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way. Who is being punished, the man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt.

“Jesus declines; guilt is irrelevant, and all that can be said is that this blindness is an opportunity for God’s glory to become manifest. The meaning is not in the system operated by the disciples, but in the unknown future where healing will occur. As the story proceeds, we see how the fact of healing becomes a problem in turn, because it does not fit the available categories; an outsider, a suspected heretic, has performed it. The blind man is again faced with people, this time the religious authorities, who want him to accept a meaning imposed by others, and he resists. It is this resistance, which proves costly for him, that brings him finally to faith.

“What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence. We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.” [3]

A challenge to the churches

All too often, churches and Christian agencies behave and believe in ways that render them little more than ‘religious’ versions of what is wrong with the world more generally. But sanctifying prejudices that arise from human competitive differences does not make them acceptable, it makes them blasphemous. Unless we can, by the grace of God, address that challenge to us as Christians, any message we may issue in the midst of the great issues of our time will remain hollow. For, in order to be the instrument of a larger hope (God’s domination-free order coming among us), the Body of Christ is (or ought to be) the localization of that hope – the specific place of our conversion to the truly global way, truth and life embodied in Christ. Church activity that does not proceed on the basis of humbled Christians is likely to be damning rather than saving, part of the difficulty rather than part of the healing process.

NOTES

[1] Text: John 9. 1 – 9, 16 – 18. References: Acts, John 14, Matthew 28. 18 – 20.

[2] Professor Wessels pointed out that early Christians acquired that name as a designation from others based upon their behaviour. They did not arrogate the title ‘Christian’ to themselves.

[3] Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11 September and its aftermath, Hodder and Stoughton, 2002. Pages 73-76 quoted with grateful acknowledgement. © Rowan Williams.

This is a substantially revised version of a paper originally given at the twelfth annual meeting of the Churches’ Commission on Mission (now the Global Mission Network) of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland at the University of Bangor, Wales, on 15 September 2002. It accompanies Hearing hope through the babble.The overall theme was ‘Globalization and Mission’. I have quoted from Rowan Williams at length because he comes from Wales and because the meeting took place just after the first anniversary of 11 September 2001 – the context out of which Writing in the Dust was offered.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to a range of media outlets. A new book he has edited and contributed several chapters to, Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change, will be published by Shoving Leopard in July 2008. His home page is: http://www.simonbarrow.net

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