Christianity: Curse or Cure? (part 1)

It is hard to overestimate the divisions of the world right now. Even as the myth of unity-through-consumption is pumped out by our media monitors, the armies of one side confront the suicide bombers of another.

Across the globe many religionists portray tsunami as the judgement of an angry God against human waywardness. Others, of all faiths and none, see it as a tragic cry for compassion and justice.

In the USA one side elevates the nation’s aspirations into an almost sacred ideal, while the opposing side denounces its ambitions as dangerous and wrong.

Christians, to name but one segment of warring humanity, are split apart by violence, by wealth (or lack of it), by relations with those of other faiths, by sex, by politics, by culture, by the way they read the Bible, and by who and what they believe in.

When the events, resources and texts that are supposed to unite people merely reveal their apparent irreconcilability, is searching for commonality amidst radical difference a hopeless, abstract ideal? Can our divisions be healed? What hope conversation in place of cacophony?

As David Jenkins puts it in his marvellous book, The Contradiction of Christianity (1976), the fundamental issue is about “whether I am trapped in being me, whether every tribal ‘we’ is trapped in being an exclusive ‘us’ and whether there is any realistic hope of a way of being human which fulfils us all.”

On the surface the evidence is clear. The behaviour of Christians and the performance of their institutions often render utterly incredible anything they might want to say about what the Gospel stands for. Christianity can cure, but equally it can kill.

Why bother with it, then? The Christian conviction is that the Word of life has become flesh. This means that the ‘answers’ we seek are not to be found in infallible texts or unassailable propositions, but in and through the vulnerable humanity to which God is committed.

So the only response that is adequate both to the scale of our human dilemma and to the nature of what is unveiled in the Gospel is (quite against our instincts for tidiness and convenience) the difficult truth of a person.

In the counter-story and lived reality of Jesus of Nazareth -- a narrative about being truly human, but also about a living God who is quite unlike our ideas of 'godness' – we see ‘in the flesh’ the surprising, redemptive potential of diversity in the face of division.

Put simply, Christ's is the less-travelled Way marked by open tables, acceptance of 'outsiders', refusal of violence, challenge to the rich, forgiveness and repentance, resistance to the powers-that-be, conflict through the cross, the foretaste of risen life, and the shock of the Spirit – the one who surprises us with liberated meaning.

What we long for in Jesus’ company, therefore, is not mere ‘tolerance’ or illusory power for ourselves. It is the impossible possibility of God’s domination-free kingdom (or ‘kin-dom’, as a South African theologian once beautifully put it).

The Gospel is about precisely this unimaginable love. It is a love that subjugates power so as to absorb rather than inflict violence, to embrace rather than deny suffering, and to endure in (rather than escape from) death.

Here exists an alternative understanding of ‘freedom’ not as random license but as disciplined commitment. Those who grasp at life lose it, says Jesus. Only those who are prepared to lose can gain, because what they are gaining is far greater than mere self-propagation.

Of course what makes this promise possible (and for many, impossible) is that, by definition, it can only arise from the unconstrained life of God, not from our own capabilities, fantasies and projections.

For this reason the God who exists beyond metaphysics and manipulation is met in a crucifixion brought about by religious and political power, not in the comforts of consumer ‘spirituality’ or in the self-regard of those who claim God as their own.

As the playwright Dennis Potter put it, on the threshold of his own death from cancer, “I have come to see that religion is the wound not the bandage.” This is not the Gospel we thought we knew, but one given to us beyond our means.

To be the "church" is to be the community made possible by this realisation. It is to open up an encounter with those who are different to us. It is to be possessed by the crazy idea that chaos, conflict and contract are not the only possible renderings of diversity. There is covenant towards communion too.

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