Lent is a good time to reflect on personal behavior: about the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. We have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics in the news of course: from fundamentalists objecting to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations, to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, to the pope making colourful new cardinals, to the bloody IS beheading of Coptic Christians, on and on…..
What are the religious attitudes, the religious values, that shape human action? I see three: reward and punishment, narcissism, and Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination in these forty days of Lent.
Reward and Punishment
Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people for their behavior. Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness, they remind us about Noah and the flood, and just a few years ago various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans. And for far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to atone for human sinfulness and appease a judgmental and vengeful God, so very distant from the Loving Father about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (what we often call the Old Testament) the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God.
Actually the concept of the reward and punishment God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people at an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.
What are the signs of healthy and mature religious development today?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, unfortunately, God’s fidelity to God’s people was too often seen in a tribal way: God was faithful to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Even later Christians taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.
The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is highly problematic and pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most virulent manifestations. In addition, annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Yesterday I was informed in an email that, as two friends were leaving their parish church with ashes on their foreheads, one fellow said “well another Lent.” “Yes,” the other fellow replied, “and let’s hope that by Easter we have killed all those Muslim bastards!”
As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.
Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is the sense of God’s grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith and that connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.
With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge.