* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, September 30, 2013

Mark 9: Stumbling Blocks and Concrete Overcoats

We are still mining a section of Mark 9 comprised of a string of short scenes with a couple of overlapping themes. Having considered the theme of authentic power a couple of weeks back, we're on to this business of causing another person to sin. Although it may be tempting to write this concept off and stand on the principle that all people have personal responsibility for their own actions, there is also truth to the statement that none of our decisions take place in a vacuum. Our actions have an influence on the people around us, and part of personal responsibility includes an appreciation for how what we do affects others.

The author of the gospel of Mark places the warnings about putting stumbling blocks in front of people quickly on the heels of using a child as an example, although the final scene of this chapter goes further than just talking about how people treat children. Still, what we learn as children sticks with us for a long time. As children, we make vows about how we must be and what we must do without even realizing that we're making vows. We also develop ideas about what or who we should be afraid of (or even hate) when we are children, when we are too young to even question why. So, it is especially important for adults to be conscientious about what we teach the children in our lives. Children cannot be held responsible for their beliefs about themselves, other people, or reality, but when children grow into adults, we expect them to suddenly be able to take responsibility for themselves. If we have filled the minds of the children in our lives with fear, what kind of adults do we expect them to be?

Children are not the only people susceptible to influence, though. Influential messages bombard us all the time in the form of advertising, political commentaries on television or radio, and less blatantly through just about every form of entertainment. We are responsible for aligning our beliefs and actions with our deep guiding principles rather than the influence of a paid angry or attractive spokesperson, but that isn't always an easy feat. We are also responsible for recognizing how our beliefs and actions influence adults around us. Bullying people into agreement, arguing from a position of half-informed righteous indignation, or promoting an identity of victimhood all come from fear. When we become afraid or anxious, and we lose our connection to our deepest selves, our influence on other people can be harmful. To make matters worse, our fear or anxiety can make us less aware of the impact we're having. Even though we can hold an expectation that other people should be emotionally mature and centered, and even though we aren't ultimately responsible for other people's behavior, it's better for us to empower other people to live based on their principles than it is for us to foster fear.

One interpretation of this scene in Mark is that the afterlife was seen to involve a continued physical existence. The author of the gospel of Mark is possibly saying that it's better to enter into a blessed afterlife maimed than to suffer in one's entirety. The gospels don't actually say much about hell, though, and even this passage is lacking much of its reference to hell in the earliest copies of the text. Plus, throughout the gospel narratives, the authors suggest (through words attributed to Jesus) that the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of Heaven, depending on who's writing) are not future-tense possibilities, but are present realities. Jesus is quoted as saying, "The kingdom of God is at hand," meaning, it's right here and now. So, perhaps the author of Mark is suggesting something else when he proposes mutilating oneself and entering the kingdom of God with a few parts missing.

If the kingdom of God is at hand, presently accessible to those willing to be a part of it, then it must not be a physical location. Perhaps as some have suggested, heaven is a state of mind -- a way of being. If so, then what is sin? And how can one's hand or eye or foot cause one to sin? Many people have pointed out that sin is an old archery term that essentially means, "to miss the mark." Some people would suggest that God sets the mark, but this is problematic, given that the supposed moral bull's eye established in the Hebrew Scriptures consists of a list of prohibitions that were impossible to keep, even for the ancient Israelites who invented it. If one considers Jesus to be a divine figure, a different mark was established in the gospels: love. Jesus' one big commandment was to love, and although that may be tricky to navigate in some situations, it's not a bad bull's eye for life. For people like myself, who don't recognize any superhuman divine beings, the bull's eye comes from deep guiding principles.

Sin, then, is what shifts our focus, the action that stems from something other than our guiding principles or the noblest form of love. Various believers might point to specific behaviors that constitute sin, but the problem is not really the behaviors. The problem is what lies at the root of the behaviors. As you may already have guessed, I believe that fear is what lies at the root of what the gospel writers call sin. When we allow fear to govern us, we forget about love or guiding principles and shift away from the mark we've set for who we want to be in the world. We let fear about ourselves, other people, or reality prompt our actions rather than bringing our most authentic selves forward. I'm not keen on what the church has done with the concept of sin, because it has become a weapon of judgment and condemnation wielded by people who have no more reason than anyone else to feel righteous. Fear is something that affects all people, but we are also all capable of dismantling fear if we choose to do so.

The point, then, is that your hand can't cause you to miss the mark. If you steal something with your hand or strike someone with your fist, your hand doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your deep guiding principles fueled those actions.
Your foot can't cause you to miss the mark. If you step on someone as you ascend whatever ladder of success you're climbing or turn around when you see an opportunity to help someone less fortunate, your foot doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your compassion for and connection to other human beings fueled those actions.
Your eye can't cause you to miss the mark. If you see other people as objects to be manipulated or you remain willfully blind to how your actions harm the people around you, your eye doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your capacity for love fueled those actions.
So, if we're going to amputate the cause of our "sin," our physical body isn't what we need to operate on. We need to amputate our fear.

Since Spencer Johnson and Sheryl Sandberg made it famous, the question has often been asked, but bears repeating:
What would you do if you weren't afraid?

I don't know what you're afraid of. You may fear scarcity -- that there isn't enough _________ for you and everyone else, so you have to protect what you have and do everything you can to get what you deserve. You may fear that, deep down, you are selfish or worthless at your core -- that you have to do everything you possibly can to prove how generous and worthwhile you are, including pleasing everybody around you, even at the expense of your own well-being. You may fear people of a certain ethnicity, religion, or sexual identity. You may fear that you are insignificant. Anything you fear -- especially irrationally -- can distract you from what actually matters most to you. Fear can prompt you to behave in ways that simply don't line up with who you most want to be in the world. Staying immersed in our irrational fears and expecting to be principled or loving people is like putting on a concrete overcoat and expecting to be able to swim. Dismantling our irrational fears opens the way for our guiding principles to be lived out more intentionally.

I'll bet you just glossed over it a paragraph back. Think about it:

What would you do if you weren't afraid?
          What would you create?
                    What would you stand for?
                              How would you be more authentically yourself more of the time?

The author of Mark includes a few sentences about salt at the end of this scene. Many people would suggest that salt symbolized purity for a great many ancient religions. If that's what salt means in this instance, the author of Mark is saying, "Have purity in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." When we live with integrity (or purity) to our deep guiding principles, we can be more connected with the people around us -- and even with people far away from us. Fear is not wise or just or compassionate or even honest. It's hard to live at peace with people -- even people about whom we care deeply -- if we keep fear in the driver's seat. If we recognize our ability to live with integrity by meaningful guiding principles, we can be at peace with others, because we trust our deepest, most noble selves.

So, with or without any religious convictions about Jesus' identity, the words of this section of the gospel of Mark can prompt us to have some conviction about our own identities. We do not need to be people defined by fear. We can be people defined by a deeper sense of truth, beauty, and creativity inherent to all human beings. We can be people who exhibit justice and compassion without suspicion or obligation. We can be people defined by vulnerable, authentic love. Some might call that a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Some might just call it being fully human.

What will you do as a capable, authentic, beautiful, creative human being?

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