Happy New Year! In this time of turmoil it’s hard to say what the turn of the calendar will bring. Yet it remains true that life is what we make of it.
Barataria promises to dedicate itself to spreading as much peace, brotherhood, and happiness as possible in 2017. We’re all going to need it. Someone has to lead the way – which is just what this piece is about.
To get this started, it’s time to be personal. My general theory of reporting and all writing is that pure “objectivity” is nearly impossible but an accurate report of your perspective and assumptions is not. It’s as simple as basking in the sunshine on level ground, which we all know from space is on top of a great blue ball of roiling wind and wet.
No matter how you might feel about it, the United States really is a Christian nation. That is a statement of culture and history, not a matter of law or even how law should be. What is “Christianity,” after all? My own experience has a lot of trouble answering that question. Among my 16 great-grandparents there are 16 different Christian faiths represented. These include Lutheran, Catholic, German Reformed, Brethren, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Salvation Army (which is, indeed, a religion).
All of these emphasize and teach very different things, despite their common root in the teachings of Jesus. Some emphasize service, others emphasize faith. Some call for evangelizing or bringing others to Jesus, while others prohibit it. Some tell you that God’s favor is shown in material wealth while others teach that mammon is the way of the Devil.
If I can’t make sense of “Christianity” and what it might mean to a modern life, no one can. But let me try.
It may come as a surprise to many of you that I keep a bible next to my bed and read it often. It’s one of those with the words of Jesus in red. I confess that I often bleep over the black stuff and get right to what Jesus himself had to say. I want to know him and what he had to say. I want him to be my friend. That means knowing the context of his life and really understanding where he was coming from.
What I read often splits cleanly into two parts – that which is obviously Jewish in origin and that which is not. It’s the latter part that I find fascinating.
Jesus was from Nazareth, a new Roman town on the Sea of Galilee. It was built as a freshwater stop along the routes which headed to the mysterious East, eventually connecting the Roman Empire with Persia and the Silk Road beyond. There would have been many traders coming and going through this town with very different ideas and perspectives on the world defined by great Empires moving closer together as they closed the space between them.
Some of them undoubtedly were schooled in the way of Taoism, the official state religion of Han China. Some were Zoroastrians from Persia. Some belonged to the Hindu faith. But it is the first group I find most fascinating.
There is little doubt in my mind that Taoism had some influence on the young Jesus. The concept of a universal “Way” is what that faith is all about, and is in fact the translation of the word Tao from Mandarin. That faith was a reaction to rule-bound Confucianism, emphasizing that being a wise, good, and happy person does not come from following rules to the letter. “You shall know the just by their deeds” is how my Salvation Army Great-Grandmother would have put it.
The vision of a young Jesus learning from scholars from outside his immediate faith paints a clear picture of what all these extra-Jewish teachings mean. When he said that he was the Son of God, he also said that we are all children of God. We all have that spark of divinity within us, if only we come to realize it.
I know many people who, in their reading of Jesus’ works, feel that anyone they meet on the street may be Jesus. I go one step further and say that everyone is, in fact, Jesus. Everyone has their own internal torment which they may not confess easily. Everyone benefits from a smile and a little bit of love which tells them, “Peace be with you.”
This view is often called “Gnostic,” and it was a dominant view in the early church. It was cast aside when the Roman world put structure to the faith after making it the official religion under Emperor Constantine some 400 years after Jesus’ death. But it is still dominant in Coptic Christianity and, to a very large extent, what the Mennonite faith rediscovered nearly 600 years ago under preacher Menno Simons.
Jesus’ life and teachings are, primarily, examples of how children of God should conduct their lives.
Holding this view is both easy and difficult in the modern world. It passes over all the different views of faith we might encounter, Christian and otherwise, finding an easy commonality between all of creation. It is also sorely tested on the internet by trolls and conspiracy believers who lash out in pain and ascribe their misfortune to dark forces far beyond their control.
What would Jesus do in the face of so much suffering, and indeed those who cause suffering in the world?
Those who lash out and live in a constant state of outrage are, first and foremost, to be treated carefully. Their pain should be healed, not magnified in splashing puddles of outrage and disrespect. A true child of God seeks primarily to lessen suffering and heal the pain of everyone, not share it. Where those in great power induce pain through their greed they should be faced as boldly as the money changers at the entrance to the Temple – one of the few times it was recorded that Jesus lost his temper.
There is a time and a place for everything, of course. But Jesus made it very clear that no matter what it was critical that we never lose track of our own spark of divinity as well as the glory of all creation all around us.
He didn’t say it was easy, he said it was the Way.
This view may leave you cold in many ways, which is understandable. It’s more of a philosophy than a true religion. But as philosophies go it opens up new pathways to faith – both a faith in humanity as well as faith in all of creation. The part of his teachings which are obviously Jewish are strengthened by this, not diminished in any way. God gave his creation a promise – one of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to borrow another secular perspective.
Faith is magnified, not diminished, through this understanding of Jesus.
What, then, is the role of a true follower of Jesus? If you want to take comfort in your own salvation, as per John 3:16, by all means do. But it cannot end there. To see Jesus as an example is to want to be Jesus. It is to act as Jesus did, healing as much suffering as you can. It is to raise the low and never to judge even those who society sees as outcasts – be they tax collectors, prostitutes, or Samaritans.
If everyone acted this way there would be no trolls. There would be no outrage other than that which takes action easily and bravely to confront the outrageous. No one would stew in their own anger forcing it to boil over into destructive actions and more and more pain.
To bring peace, brotherhood, and happiness to the world is the only way. And I call on everyone to do this as actively as they can in these difficult times. I promise to do my best to lead by example, following the example I have spent my entire life trying to understand.
Peace to you all, brothers and sisters of creation. May we all know the Way and live it well.