Reflections on holy week.
How are Christians seen by the rest of the world?
I am a Christian, and this is the most important week in my faith:
Maundy Thursday is arguably the 2nd most holy day in our faith – on this day we recognize the choice that was made: a deity who was a man chose to strip himself of all dignity and subject himself to the cruelty of the mob, for the sake of those who simply would not or could not follow his teachings.. Good Friday is arguably the 3rd most holy day in our faith, we remember and reflect on that horrible sacrifice. Easter is arguably the 4th most holy day in our faith, we celebrate that the teachings were true, and we are indeed loved and accepted by a loving God. (Inarguably the most holy day of the Christian faith is the day of Pentecost, which doesn’t fall within holy week… but still).
In holy week, we go to the reenactment of the last supper, we go to the Maundy Thursday service, we hold the nails and pray, we go through the stations of the cross… and then we sing the joyous songs on Easter morning to a packed sanctuary full of people half of whom are there every Sunday while half of whom will return to sing joyous songs on the Sunday before Christmas.
For this week, I wanted to take a short break from what I plan to be a usual political rant to review the following, for us to consider as we hold the nails:
This is a powerful time of rejuvenation of the soul and of the faith, this entails a lot of time spent dwelling on death, suffering, and resurrection, and a jubilant celebration of our salvation through someone else’s sacrifice.
But it seems all too often that for most Christians, this is the end of the story. “He died for me, so that I might live however I want, so long as I sing the songs on Easter and Christmas morning…” But it seems that far too little time is spent really considering the teachings that were proven true on the day we all sing songs together.
On social media, I – like everyone else – get a constant stream of thoughts, jokes, cartoons, videos, articles, etc… (Hopefully, all of my friends and family are sharing “The Centerhold” posts through social media and encouraging their friends and family to do the same… Also, this might be a good time to mention that you should “friend” The Centerhold on Facebook).
Among the friends, family, and acquaintances that all feed into my social feed, I can separate out two distinct groups as churched and unchurched. With a very few specific exceptions, I see the following:
From the churched: I seem to be getting in equal measure: biblical quotes or religious musings, and an assortment of hate-filled rants targeting people who are attracted to the same sex, racist cartoons, diatribes about how horrible poor people or immigrants are, vitriol about how we deserve our tax money back, and how it’s a sin or a crime to distribute money to give medical care to poor people, along with a smattering of gun worship, hatred directed at Muslims, and an endless stream of vitriol involving politics – mostly centered around completely false assertions… and of course cat, dog, and goat videos and some jokes about marriage.
Meanwhile, I have friends that are unchurched and in some cases non-Christian… These range from Jews and agnostics to militant atheists and pagans… Most of the posts from THESE people tend to be equal parts family pictures, jokes, personal anecdotes, personal goals, posts about the need to provide food for poor people, posts about the need to give access to medical care for poor people, posts about entertainment, posts about the need for education, rude jokes about Christians, posts insulting Christian politicians by repeating their words verbatim… and of course cat, dog, and goat videos and some jokes about relationships..
This sounds like I’m being deliberately antagonistic here. I’m not. I can promise that I’m not exaggerating, and for my close friends, family, and/or church members you are free to ask and we can scroll through my Facebook feed together. This is the impression that I get. The churched seem to post in equal parts bible quotes and daily affirmations, and hate filled rants full of deliberate untruths concerning politics or certain subgroups of society.
I had largely ignored social media before starting this blog, but the more time I spend on Facebook, the more distinctly this trend can be seen.
“Why don’t they read what he said”.
This line of consideration sort-of crystalized for me while I was discussing philosophy with one of my old professors who I am proud to call friend, and for whom I have tremendous respect. He happens to be a “secularist”, but is not militant about it. The simple question he offered is this: “If one were to truly believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God, and as the incarnation of God he sacrificed himself in unspeakable torment – all to save the believer personally… wouldn’t such a person be inclined to read what Jesus said, and attempt to understand them in context and apply them?”
Understanding the audience is key.
The actual teachings of Jesus are difficult to apply to our lives in many cases because in many cases he wasn’t talking to us. The crowds that thronged around Jesus were an occupied and defeated nation, desperately seeking hope or pride. The nation had been tossed from occupation to occupation, and was – at that time – under the ruthless thumb of the Roman Empire. The Hebrew nation had come to a special arrangement with Rome, where they would acknowledge Caesar as emperor and ruler, but would not have to consider him a god (all of the other conquered nations just put Caesar into their respective pantheons… but for the Hebrew people there was only one God, so it was more complicated). But because of the fact the Hebrew people were able to maintain their religion in an uncontaminated form; the Romans had more trouble ruling the tiny nation of Israel than they did other places. So the people were oppressed in small ways and large. 90% of the Jews were servants or slaves of wealthier Jews, but even those who had great wealth and prestige could be pointed at by a lone Roman soldier and forced to carry that soldier’s gear for a mile, or be struck dismissively by the lowest-ranking Roman citizen (of course, 95% of Romans were slaves, so the lowest ranking free citizen – who could still be a servant – was still in the upper 5 percentile, and almost certainly had several slaves to bully around at leisure).
These people were occupied, bullied, threatened, utterly subjugated, and often severely impoverished. Most of the teachings of Jesus revolved around getting a person to see themselves as a person who had worth – and who their heavenly father saw as worthy of love and acceptance. To whit – the case of a Roman soldier pointing and forcing you to be his pack mule for a mile… go with him a second mile, to assert yourself as a person making a choice to help a tired soldier rather than a beaten down wretch forced to serve at the crook of a finger… If a Roman citizen backhands you as though you are a servant, turn the other cheek to him… he either has to slap you as he would another Roman who had offended him, or order a servant to chase you away… or something. But for a period of time he’s forced to consider you as a person… The act is one that humanizes you in a situation designed to de-humanize you.
Much of the teaching is focusing on banding together as a tribe, and looking out for one another as a people. Love each other as yourself, feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the prisoners, respect yourself… stop beating yourself up if you fail, everyone fails. Stop beating other people up if you see them fail… everyone fails. Take pride in your servitude, you are loved by God, and as such no-one else is above you. Take pride in the washing of another’s FEET, for God’s sake, you are comforting another, and you are still loved by God…
The teachings center around rebuilding a person’s sense of self-worth, and teaching them to forget their cares and focus on God and the people around them, and appreciate the life they have – it’s a gift from a loving God that accepts them.
Granted, there were three years of ministry, and only 4 very short books are available in the bible, all of which were written many years after Jesus’s death. It’s certain that many hundreds of sermons were not recorded, and wisdom was lost. Furthermore – to my great chagrin – despite my chastisement of not reading the teachings of Jesus, I myself have never looked up and/or read the gnostic gospels… though I’ve always told myself I will.
But within the four books that I have read are many repeated themes and examples. These would have been the most important teachings – they’re the ones that stuck in the memory of the faithful… they’re the ones worth putting on paper that was worth more than houses, and keeping that paper even though its discovery was a death sentence. This is what mattered in the teachings of Jesus.
The True Shackles of Sin
Parables, Life, and Death.
Guilt and shame can be crippling, and the condemnation of the mob can be the worst punishment. We tie ourselves to our insecurities and that does constant harm to our sense of self-worth, and our ability to move forward in our quest to love God, love others, and live the fullness of life in gratitude. It only serves to make matters worse when that condemnation of self is aided and abetted by society.
The teachings of Jesus revolved around overcoming the judgement of one’s peers. Lepers that had been driven from society were told “your sins are forgiven you, present yourself to the elders and tell them you are clean”. The repetition of this exact phrasing in multiple books indicates this took place many times. The action was “you are forgiven, ergo you are clean and have a right to rejoin society”. The story of the woman at the well, the story of the adulteress who was to be stoned, the story of the tax collector, the parable of the prodigal son, the blind man, the man possessed, etc… There are literally dozens of instances within those 4 short books where a social pariah is forgiven, absolved, and accepted without being forced to endure punishment or ridicule.
Death on a Cross was a public shaming ritual.
But the true parable lies at the core of holy week itself. From the instant of Jesus’s arrest, we see him mocked. Peter – the rock – was unable to withstand a single night of mockery, while Jesus was mocked by Caiaphas, mocked by Pilot, mocked by the mob… etc.. The story is one of shaming.
Movies tend to get the nature of the cross wrong. In most cases, the cross was not some 20-ft-tall SUPERcross that the condemned were hoisted up on. It was a single beam with foot support a few feet off the ground. The condemned carried the support brace – to which they were nailed or, more cruelly, tied, and the support beam was then lowered over the peak of the beam… but the peak of the beam might have been 7 or 8 feet off the ground, not 20-30, while the foot-board might have only been 2 feet. The condemned was subject to the cruel torment of the crowd, who could come within spitting or even touching distance but were dissuaded from causing harm (and thus a more merciful quick death) by the Roman soldiers. But manure could be flung, buckets of urine could be tossed, and shouts and other cruel torments could be, and would be, flung continuously.
The purpose was manifold:
First, as a culture the Romans viewed pride as far more important than life… so this was more cruel than simply killing the person out-right.
Second, the enemies of Rome would systematically have their dignity stripped from them. A few days of extreme public ridicule all while slowly dehumanizing into a desperate dying creature tends to make the lasting memory of a figure one of wretchedness… so enemies of Rome were wretched, while the citizens of Rome remained strong… it made it hard to rally around a figure against Rome.
Third, it’s entertainment to appease the masses. Ask any playground bully; the best way to keep people on your side is to let them join in on mocking the chubby kid that’s tied to a flagpole with his own pants. It was a sort-of team building exercise where people were encouraged to help Rome punish the criminals that would do Rome harm…
Regardless, the end result is one where Jesus was subjected to severe indignity. He was shamed, mocked, and dehumanized by the mob, though in his case it is recorded that even as he degenerated he kept his compassion. 3 days later, his words were proven true, and 7 weeks later a revolution was born where humans tried to help one another, share their wealth, help those in need, care for one another, and tried with varying success to not condemn one another or themselves… Thus the early church was born.
What do the same teachings say to us?
Though we are narcissistic enough to want Jesus to always be talking to us… if we remember that the people he was actually talking to were beaten down, trampled, meek, incredibly poor people who had become convinced their bad lot was the result of God hating them for some personal wrongdoing… then we can infer the teaching that would then be offered to us:
We should never, not ever, dehumanize another person. We should try to love and accept others regardless of whether we perceive them to have various shortcomings, because God loves them whether or not they have shortcomings, just as God loves us despite our own shortcomings. We should give to those less fortunate and willingly offer help to those in need.
We should love God, be thankful of the gifts we have, and live the best life we can rather than haunt ourselves with guilt and self-loathing. We should encourage and help others to do the same.
Technically, the constitution gives us the right to practice our religion so long as that doesn’t interfere with someone else’s rights. This was intended to be a true freedom to express religion, not a state-enforced rule of atheism. That should mean that, if someone with an altar to Isis (the Goddess, not the group of nihilist nutbags) and had castrated himself and burned his testicles on his altar… then chose to refuse to serve non-castradi men at his business… he (?) should and does have that right… similarly, if a worshipper at the local Temple of Satan chooses to refuse to serve any person wearing a crucifix… he or she should and does have that right… Though I suspect in either of the above cases these businesses would not survive for long.
But by definition an establishment that holds dear to the teachings of Christ would never – under any circumstances – refuse to do business with someone just because they happen to be different, or have a different faith, or have a different skin color, or are living in sin by being divorced, or have eaten meat in the presence of a vegetarian, or whatever… That sort of law (allowing institutional discrimination) just doesn’t apply to anyone trying to live by the teachings of Jesus Christ.