Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Brief Explication of Christianity

Each Friday morning at 7 AM around 30-50 religious leaders and peace activists gather at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in LA and try to figure out how to promote peace and justice. One of the joys of this gathering is hearing members of our group share reflections on theological and political concers. John Forney, an Episcopal priest, is a former president of Progressive Christians Uniting (see He brought to our table this week a witty and thoughtful reflection on Ash Wednesday that I felt was well worth sharing. John is what I call a "Matthew 25" Christian, i.e. Christianity is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life grounded in justice and peace.

I also want to announce a new blog:  This blog will contain reflections and think pieces by members of ICUJP on a wide range of theological and political concerns.

A Brief Explication of Christianity
for the Ideologically Confused

It’s the Economy, Stupid. No, it’s actually, it’s the Culture Wars of Pat Robertson revisited.

To wit: recently, on the campaign trail Rick Santorum wrote off all of mainline Protestant Christianity with a dismissive, “I don't think there is such a thing," he said of Obama as a liberal Christian. "To take what is plainly written and say that 'I don't agree with that, therefore I don't have to pay attention to it,' means you're not what you say you are. You're a liberal something, but you're not a Christian."

Now I can see how it is that with all this multitude of religious denunciations by the self-promoting gate keepers of religious propriety and certainty – all claiming to have the inside scoop on who counts and who doesn’t in God’s eyes -- I can understand the confusion of many of my non-Christian friends on what my faith as a progressive Christian is. In fact all this religious hypocrisy and self-promotion is enough to drive any humble Christian right out of the pew.

So, for my sanity’s sake I’ve written this brief reflection to remind myself (and you can listen in) of the essential the core of my faith that I do affirm.

Last Wednesday is a good starting place. For many Christians it was Ash Wednesday. Ashes are imposed with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I still remember many years ago imposing ashes for the first time on my oldest son Jonathan. He was about four at the time. After repeating the ancient words and making the sign of the cross on his forehead I heard an audible gasp and the protest, “No, not me!”

Yes, you, my son. All of us. Life is fleeting, and then like the morning dew we are no more. This realization imposes two essential imperatives: first, humility. There is a great democracy in the grave. King and pauper, scholar and illiterate, none of us is immortal. This reality compels an empathy and understanding for my fellow travelers in this brief life. We are all in the same boat, none better than another.

And that realization leads to a second imperative: to figure out why we are here and what it is that is asked of us. For me, this is where Jesus comes in. Historically, Jesus never asked us to believe things about him. Those notions crept into the gospels, especially John’s gospel, in the second and third centuries. No, Jesus asked us to follow him, not to believe things about him. He invites us to understand the world in a new way, relationships in a new way.

Thus, I understand the injunction to follow to suggest behaviors like compassion, sacrifice, justice and mercy -- the core of what Christianity is about -- not any literal reading of the Bible, not any doctrine, not any penitential attitude, as my brother Santorum and his ilk claim, produces divine acceptance. There are absolutely no requirements, no spiritual SAT score needed to merit full incorporation into the very heart of Mystery that many call God. BUT, as one does allow this compassionate and gracious Mystery to take root in the heart, mind and spirit, it will make a difference. Friends will notice. Family will notice. As a Christian, I rely on Jesus as my guide in doing this. There are other ways through which God invites and receives. The Jesus way is the way I have been born into and affirm.

The Parable of the Last Judgment as found in Matthew 25 gets at what is critical. In this metaphor, when all the nations are assembled before the judgment throne before the “Son of Man,” they are separated into those on the left hand (the goats) and those on the right hand (the goats), to which Christ says, “Come, you that are blessed by the Creator, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (you know, I just never understood why it was that God didn’t like the goats); for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then those on the right hand (the sheep) began to protest, for they did not remember doing any of these things. And the king answers them saying, “As you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.”

Now, look at this most radical proclamation. There is no, absolutely no religious test. It says “all the nations.” Some of these will be Hindus, some Jews, my God…even atheists. Did anyone notice who might have been gay or straight? Even short people are fully accepted – are there no standards at all?

While there is absolutely no test about belief, there is one test. The only test is one of humility. Did you help your neighbors bear their load? Did you wipe a tearful eye? Did you fill an empty stomach? Did you hold an old person’s hand? Did you give a young person a hand up?

And as you have done so, you have entered into the blessedness of the living Spirit of Life. God in you and you in God – and whatever one means by Heaven, it is meant to be a living reality here and now. And life is GOOD.

I close with a poem by a Jesuit priest, “We are Simply Asked.”

We are simply asked to make gentle our bruised world,
To be compassionate of all, including oneself.
Then in the time left over, to repeat the ancient story,
And go the way of God’s foolish ones.
With the fresh remembrance of ashes on my forehead, this is the way of Jesus I affirm and will attempt to live, by God’s grace, as I enter the forty days of my Lenten journey.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! Christianity through and through. Let's have more of this and less of the Bible thumping finger pointing version of Churchianity.