‘Affirm Human Dignity in the Face of the Indifferent’

Posted: January 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Affirm Human Dignity in the Face of the Indifferent’

Rex Hunt tells a mythical story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven. As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back. She brought back many gifts: drops of blood from a dying patriot; some coins a destitute widow had given to the poor; dust from the shoes of a missionary labouring in a remote wasteland. But she was turned back repeatedly. One day she saw a small boy playing by a town fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence. Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realised what he had done with his life. And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love.

To change her status from expulsion, rejection and casting out she had to discern what God valued most and to bring such a gift back to God to regain membership or access to heaven. In a word used widely in the church she was expected to repent and earn grace. For many folk, this call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church. Yet surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus, and usually put there by the storytellers themselves. When Matthew has Jesus using it, it is not a call to any person in particular, but the context of a general invitation to others, such as those named this morning: Peter, James, John and Andrew, are to become wandering and homeless companions, cutting family ties, and relying on the support of local sympathizers.  It seems that repentance here means to join the struggle, to join the movement that will change the world, to answer the call as an invitation which would also bring them into relationship with the likes of Herod Antipas and the political powers of this world (Sarah Dylan Breuer, 2005). No promise of a good outcome here, just an opportunity to wrestle with the world.

And surprisingly, when it is not used as an invitation, it is most often directed towards the religious people of Jesus’ day. Those who worried about other people’s so-called sins, they needed to repent – not the sinners. Likewise, the conversion experience of Paul was not to turn away from a life of so-called ‘sin’ to living a life of everlasting moral purity. It was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion. So, the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness.

This is a key problem for us today because we have inherited a faith that seems driven by fear of being wrong, fear of being vulnerable, fear of being doubtful. And it is because we fail to hear this alternative way of understanding repentance that we  and fail to communicate this call to live life in all its fullness to others. The truth is that the world hears the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying: “Become religious like us…” Become good like us when if anything it should be heard as the opposite of this:  “Be accepting of others…”

As I think about this I wonder if this is not one of the reasons I am wary of being called a “Christian” these days. (I prefer ‘Follower of Jesus’, or ‘walker of the Jesus Way) not just because it seems to have been captured by the conservative fundamentalist wing of the church but because I see the Bible being miss used and doctrines being used to denigrate others.

We are on dangerous ground when we do that. Especially with the Bible. Because many modern assumptions about the Bible are just incorrect:

  • the Bible did not encourage slavish conformity; it keeps reminding us to interpret for ourselves, It offers us alternative pathways of thinking and discernment.
  • the Bible has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets; why else would it include challenges to people’s central practices and religious assumptions
  • the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings
    is out of key with its interpretive tradition. One can’t categorically say that this or that is the answer and encourage an interpretive approach to the text itself. It is someone else’s legitimate, heartfelt story and thus it cannot demand a truth that transcends thousands of years.

Tomorrow most of us will be celebrating Auckland Anniversary Day. It is interesting to ask why we do this? Is it just to find something to celebrate? Is it really about the anniversary of the establishment of a Colony or is it about the beginning of a province called Auckland? Or is it just a day to celebrate Auckland’s wonderful weather with one of the largest one-day regatta in the world. Or is it just a day off. It seems to be a celebration of mixed blessings, really.

Like many other experiences of colonization part of the settling was to also win the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. However, like many other experiences instead of it being a “search for a feeling of re-connection to a healthy kind of wholeness” (Loehr 2000:2), Religion was seen as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the control of the people justification for the prison cell, chains, lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct”  (Blainey 1987:429).

Hence Christianity was in the main rejected by the people and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. This has led some historians to conclude that like Australia, Christianity in New Zealand has always been rather a casual affair. It has been claimed that despite popular assertion by the church here the nation at best was only ever superficially Christianized.

And one of the things New Zealanders are particularly averse to, are “religious” people: those who pray over you, quote the Bible at you, and talk about God, as if they had access to God’s personal diaries! Generally speaking, the majority of New Zealanders have little interest whatsoever in becoming religious like that. Not I said religious like that. The interest in things spiritual is not included in that statement. If we as the church have only as our goal, the making of others “religious” like we have traditionally then it is no wonder people are simply not interested. It is no wonder that mainstream is in decline., and dare I say it despite the examples of revival of form so is the rest of the Christendom based model of church.

And quite frankly I don’t blame them at all. I don’t like being told what to do let alone what to think. It seems we have lost the point. We don’t like what under-girded the celebration of a colony and we opt for a boat race instead. We have missed the point, because we haven’t been brave enough to ask the hard questions of ourselves. We prefer to repent and thus pass it away rather than take responsibility for each other. What is a nation if it is not the people who love each other?

So, the call to repent then is not to say we are not measuring up to the standards ‘others’ or ‘God’ expects of us. It is a call to be accepting of other people, in their faith or their lack of faith., and it can be an Islamic faith or a Christian Faith or any faith at all. If it is not about loving relationship it is already lost.

The call to repent is not to write people off because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms, or live the same sort of life we try to do.

The call to repent is a call to respect all people. For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people. In religious and non-religious people. In Christians and Jews and Muslims. And those of all sorts of faith.

In a Review of a book by the radical English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt he said: “Religion [is] a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last.  It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”.

Listening to his comment in light of what we have been thinking this morning ‘Repent’ is not the call of the church to the world. It is not about telling the world even a better way because that is already to remain aloof from seeing the worth and the beauty in all.

A different approach seems to be offered in a Michael Leunig prayer which was written for the commencement of 2008. Like Rex Hunt I want to share it. It is called “We shall be careful”:

We pray for the fragile ecology
of the heart and the mind.
The sense of meaning
So finely assembled and balanced and so
easily overturned.  The careful, ongoing
construction of LOVE.

As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth
and as easily abandoned.

Hard fought and won
are the shifting sands of this sacred ground,
this ecology.

Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend,
this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith,
this precious order.  This sanity.

We shall be careful.
With others and with ourselves.

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788.Australia. The most godless place under heaven  NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.
Breward, I. 1988. . VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.
Loehr, Davidson. 2000. “Salvation by character. How UU’s can find the religious center” in Journal of Liberal Religion 1The shape of belief. Christianity in Australia today, 2, 1-14 (PDF file).
Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed) . NSW:  Homebush. Lancer Books.
Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005


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