Why I Have Difficulty Being A Moderate Christian.

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 12:49-56

‘Why I Have Difficulty Being A Moderate Christian’…

It was a challenge to hear that being a moderate Christian was providing the context for biblical literalism and violence, because I thought being balanced in everything meant being a moderate. I struggled to get my head around how being balanced was an act of violence.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.  I read ‘not merely; to mean that while extremism is indicative of or the outcome of, the conflict, moderate Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence. Violence cannot be eradicated because moderates allow literalism and the violence it perpetuates to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for a moderate to hear.

I want to suggest that they are harsh words to hear in the face of our text for today also. Our challenge here is to hear what the text is saying to us and to resist the easy acceptance of a literalist reading. Listen again to the text as found in the New RSV and this time try to see it the writer taking the place of God making sense of an intimate involvement in peoples lives as well as acknowledging that life is always complex, never black and white and filled with opportunities to get it wrong as well as get it right. Imagine the text being heard in a patriarchal tribalistic, familial cultural environment and add in to that context a people who have long been and constantly are slaves, citizens and survivors of an oppressed and conquered world.

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so, it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It is a bit of a shock when we read these words because this isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. And now having heard this story again, I feel somewhat anxious, about preaching from it, because it paints such a dark picture, and because history has proved it true in so many ways.

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a not- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

While, West Australian theologian Bill Loader says: “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”. But Loader is not finished.  He goes on: “…or is it?  He suggests that ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The danger here is that the peace they mean is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts and we are well aware that such suppressed issues are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  Sadly, for many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities” (Loader web site, 8/2010). That has to be a challenge to being moderate surely?

History says that religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. In Northern Ireland, such conflict has a long history and we sense that it lies close to the surface still. And yet in another way we can find this story from Luke comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, Comforting, too, in that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it.

Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

Some of us find these words difficult to hear… Because being Christian is a Way of living that offers freedom from, power over and space for peace, and comfort and we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realise how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our world at the moment, it seems, is one that is rocked with religious violence. We have moved from nations pitted against nations to now include isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

And while much of the present religious violence that catches the media’s attention might seem to be acts of terrorists claiming to be Muslim, we know that naming them thus raises the fact that Christianity also has a tradition of violence against others (infidels, heretics) all in the name of God. We now have debates about the moderate position taking place in the form of deliberations about the meaning of words and when is violence and what do we mean by Muslim of Christian? One wonders if we are seeking to find the extremist to blame it on rather than how to make peace?

Susan Nelson on her web site asks an important question when she says “Is there something in our religious traditions that encourages acts of violence? (SNelson. P&Fweb site,12/2003) Do we really want to think, for instance, that it was God’s will for hundreds of people to die in bomb explosions? We might ask the same question of the Christchurch Mosque attack. Even though we may interpret these as acts of violence, and wake up calls for Western Christians to confess their responsibility in the miseries of the world, do we really want to say this violence is from God? Do we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Or can the ‘good news’ itself be a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Continuing the questions of Susan Nelson, fellow process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” Why indeed!  Marshall goes on: “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’ I and John D Caputo would agree here and suggest that the problem might be with the so called ‘strong omnipotent interventionist, in control, God to start with and the weak God that is found in the ‘perhaps’ or the ‘almost’, the ‘yet to be’ and ‘uncompleted’ God is an approach free of the dangers of extremism and the apathy inherent in the moderate approach. Being confident of God as a weak vulnerable God cannot be a perpetrator of violence.

And then we move to the important issue of ‘power’: “The fundamental issue here is raised by the question: What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving? Does it generate compassion or a need for survival? Is it like imposed social engineering and thus coercive or is it an enticing invitation to participate? Another, important question is this: What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question: What does it mean to win or conquer?” .(RMarshall.P&Fweb site,8/2010)

We don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including [politicians] justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today. Perhaps a couple of suggestions.

Like my response to a question about different Christian denominations recently, firstly, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

So, people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation. Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summed up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well

Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Meanwhile theologian Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God, function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life.

One might say that the omnipotent, interventionist all powerful, almighty God needs to become the God who is imagination, creativity, energy, insistence, ambiguity, vulnerability etc. is more attuned to a God that is love than a right, powerful overlord is.

To sound like an old academic, I might suggest that thinking theologically might help, so long as thinking theologically means more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. We are beyond acceptance and deconstruction. We are now in the reconstruction phase which is not about just restating with old words.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

May those who are moderates have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey.

Amen.

Notes:
Harris, S. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12.htm
McFague, S. Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press, 1987.
McLennan. S. Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan, 2009.
Rick Marshall.   < http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearC/2009-2010/2010-08-15.shtml&gt;
Susan Nelson.  <www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/Year

Caputo, John D, The Insistence of God A Theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

rexae74@gmail.com

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