* 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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mark 15: Sifting Through the Crucifixion Narrative

Continuing for another couple of weeks with the Passion story as it is related in the gospel of Mark, we read of the crucifixion event and some connections with the Hebrew Scriptures made by the early church. It  bears repeating that there is very little evidence of a historical Jesus, but we wouldn't necessarily expect there to be. There is very little evidence from the first century of any single person who wasn't a powerful political or military figure, or a historian who wrote about important political and military figures. The Christian cult is mentioned in a couple of historical documents, but in these reports historians repeat what the early church believed about Jesus, rather than verify their story.

Even if there were more evidence of a historical Jesus, this would not necessarily validate any particular story about him. That a person names Nunzio exists is one kind of assertion; to say that Nunzio is manager of an Italian restaurant is another kind of assertion; and to say that Nunzio never buys wine for his restaurant because he can just turn water into alcohol whenever he wishes is yet another kind of assertion. To prove that Nunzio is a real person does not thereby lead to the conclusion that Nunzio can turn water into wine. Even to prove that Nunzio seemed to turn water into wine on one occasion does not necessarily conclude that he could do it again, or that he could perform any other amazing feat. With regard to Jesus, there is simply no way to prove the claims of the gospel narratives.

This is not a glaring indictment for most believers. Many people would say that accepting the gospel narratives requires faith, and they believe that their lives are improved by that faith. I have suggested that believing in a historical Jesus or that such a person performed miracles is rather shallow when one considers the minimal impact such belief could have in an individual's life. To believe in unicorns or dragons matters not at all (save that one may be a target for those who would take advantage of such gullibility), until one decides to quit one's job, leave one's family, and go hunting for unicorns or dragons. Then, it matters a great deal. Belief in what Jesus symbolizes -- belief to the extent that the values represented by the Jesus archetype permeate one's life -- would seem to be more vital than belief that Jesus actually existed.

Thus, when reading the Passion story in any of the gospels, one might do well to push past the question of whether something really happened and look to the symbolism as one would look at any other mythological tale. What is the wisdom being communicated? Where does one find oneself in the story? If the story is about Hercules slaying a hydra, does one identify most with the heroic role, with the role of the nephew Iolaus, with the townsfolk who were victims of the danger until someone heroic came along, or with the naysayers after the event who minimized the accomplishment? Can one learn something from every character in the story about oneself, or about what a best possible version of oneself might look like? This would seem to be a more valuable approach than blind belief that someone accomplished something unique a long time ago, and that the intangible benefits are available to anyone who just believes the story.

For the early church, it was important to set Jesus up as a unique messianic figure connected to Hebrew Scripture. This was possibly an unfortunate misinterpretation of the intentions of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, who cast vision for every individual to live into the ideal of compassionate justice. When the words of the ancient scriptures are made to be about a single person, it rather lets everyone else off the hook for living into that ideal. Several of the quotes and details of the crucifixion story are thus attributable to attempts on the part of the early church to affirm that Jesus was a unique fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. The mythologizing of the story can be seen in the wine mixed with myrrh which Jesus refuses, the fall of darkness over the land, the casting of lots (gambling -- rolling dice) for his clothing, the presence of criminals alongside him (although this would certainly not be unusual, since criminals were crucified in droves in the Roman empire), and the words that Jesus speaks, which are a reference to a psalm of lament.

An interesting feature of the story is the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom. Many have interpreted this as a symbol that the separation between God and man was no more -- that people did not have to go through priests and sacrificial rituals to connect with the divine. Others have suggested that this is a symbol that God no longer lives in houses made by human hands, which would have been a significant concept in the first century. In any case, it was certainly an indictment against the religious power structures of the time, and it was a call to a change of perspective.

The burial scene is intended to provide enough details to make the resurrection event convincing, even though that event is a bit odd as it is told in the earliest version of the gospel of Mark. The verification that Jesus is dead, the traditional appropriate Jewish treatment of the body, and the heavy stone rolled across the tomb entrance are to make resurrection reports credible and impressive. Normally, a poor man crucified as a criminal would have been tossed in a mass grave, and whether he was still there or whether he had gotten up and walked off somewhere would be very difficult to determine. Like the other seemingly historical aspects of the story, hanging one's faith on whether things happened exactly as a gospel narrative suggests is a rather shallow reading. The real value is in determining the application in one's own life, and there are more worthwhile applications that mere belief in an event.

When I say that it is unfortunate that the early church appropriated Hebrew scripture to assert that Jesus was a unique messianic figure, I mean that it is very difficult to reclaim some of the ideas of those writings if one believes that they applied specifically to one particular person. Lament psalms were meant to be available to a community and to any individual who experienced the kind of suffering and pain reflected in the poem/song. Connecting a lament psalm to Jesus takes it somewhat off the market for personal expression, because, from the perspective of believers, no one suffered or felt pain like Jesus.The lament becomes about Jesus' suffering instead of our own, and our own suffering is made insignificant by comparison.

Except that our own suffering isn't insignificant. Comparing it to someone who has suffered more might seem like our preoccupation with our own pain isn't legitimate, but that doesn't keep us from feeling the pain. It just gives us reason to feel guilty or ashamed about feeling our pain. One big lesson that we could take from understanding how the gospel writers and the early church made use of well-known Hebrew scriptures is to reclaim our experience. The original intent behind much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament was for individuals and communities to be more intentional in their behavior and to have more integrity to their values. These ideas are not unique to the Old Testament. This has been a challenge in many cultures from many different perspectives throughout human history. Seen as such, the Hebrew scriptures become one resource among many resources to influence individuals toward living in a way that contributes to holistic well-being in their own lives and in the lives of their communities and neighborhoods. We need to experience our own suffering without being ashamed of feeling pain, and we need to recognize our own role in influencing our realities.

There are two symbolic results of the crucifixion that bear acknowledgment -- truths that the early church recognized and expressed as well as it could in the culture of the first century. First, there is that image of the curtain being torn in two. There is no separation between the divine and humanity. Since whatever we call divine is intrinsic to humanity, we can connect with those qualities within ourselves whenever we wish. We might become more skillful at introspection, but we are never denied access to our deepest, most noble self and we do not have to go through any particular ritual actions to connect with ourselves. God is a word people use to refer to a deep part of themselves, but we do not have to follow any linguistic protocol to connect with that part of ourselves that we could characterize as divinity.

Second, there is the idea of forgiveness. In the context of a covenant relationship between a supernatural and humanity, human beings had to somehow account for the things they did that were out of alignment with what their supernatural wanted. This is what the Jewish sacrificial system was largely about: staying in alignment with the values of their supernatural. It became something of an obsession in Jewish society. Keeping oneself pure, remaining personally in step with religious law, became more important than risky acts of justice or compassion. People were perhaps apt to disconnect from real, deep community because they didn't want to be scrutinized. Even today, a lot of people are more concerned about what they have done wrong, what other people have done wrong, what people might be thinking about doing wrong, or what wrong motives they may have had for doing something that seems quite good on the outside. It is also much easier to stay in a judgmental frame of mind when you're focused on how people are failing.

The early Christian church solved this issue, but most of them didn't seem to realize it. By inventing a dying and rising messiah figure who eliminated the need for ritual animal sacrifice, the early church essentially said, "We don't have to worry about sin anymore." This is not to imply licentiousness (although some people in the early church apparently did take it that way), but rather to say that the best thing to do when you fall short of your ideal is to get up -- hopefully with the help and embrace of a loving community of people -- and take another run at it. The idea of sinfulness is laced with shame, and it winds up not being incredibly helpful. If we were to accept that we have nothing to fear from getting something wrong, we might get past the self-obsession with where we might spend an imaginary afterlife and focus on things that matter right now -- like how we are in our relationships with the people we encounter every day.

Even for people who want to believe in the historical validity of the Passion story, then, there are these two big things that can transform the way we do life. We are not separated from whatever it is we call divine, and we are capable of making mistakes and moving on. There are often consequences when we fall out of alignment with our deep guiding principles, but those consequences don't have to come with shame or insurmountable guilt. We are human beings. We are not perfect. We will disappoint one another because we will have expectations of one another that go unmet. That's life. Our real work is not to try not to do anything wrong and to do whatever we can to make up for all of the mistakes we make. Our real work is to bring our capability into full engagement in the communities where we live.

This doesn't mean permissiveness with regard to harmful behavior. It means focusing on what will create greater well-being rather than what someone has done wrong. We never just do harm to one person; our harmful acts always affect ourselves and a whole network of people -- often even people that we will never meet. The idea behind grace is not that we shrug our shoulders and say, "Ah, well, I'll do better next time," but instead to direct our focus away from our own "eternal destinies" and toward how we can positively influence the world around us right now, in this moment. This is how we move beyond our fears of scarcity, fears of embarrassment, fears of insignificance, and fears of powerlessness and move into transformational relationships with the people around us. Whether the Passion story sources that kind of focus for you or whether you draw inspiration from somewhere else, we are capable of building incredible powerful connections with other people when we are willing to set shame aside and bring our authentic selves forward.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mark 14-15: Personal Authenticity and What Happens When We Don't Have It.

I had hoped to get to the remainder of Mark before Easter, but that just didn't happen. Being a little behind the Christian holiday, though, has the advantage of not seeming like it is intended to be some sort of odd Lenten devotional reading. As we have observed, the Passion story in Mark is the earliest of the biblical Passion narratives, save perhaps for a few vague mentions in Pauline letters. Since the narratives are very different (the version in Matthew is based on the book of Isaiah and a couple of psalms), we will stick with just what appears in the gospel of Mark. This part of the story is after Jesus has been arrested, up until he is taken to be executed, so Mark 14:53-15:20.

First of all, we must recognize that this is a story that cannot be narrated by a firsthand witness. One disciple (Peter) tries to follow Jesus as far as he can, but no one follows Jesus into the assembly of Jewish priests, and the priests certainly would not have recounted the story as it appears here. It's a dramatic story, with some great stock characters, but someone is filling in a few gaps here. Likewise with the subplot involving Peter denying his association with Jesus. Very dramatic. 

Second, it is important to acknowledge that there are some cultural implications and some narrative implications. Culturally, the Jewish people could not execute anyone; only the Roman government had that authority. This is what prompts the involvement of the local Roman official, Pontius Pilate (who was an actual historical figure, although that does not mean that he did any of the things attributed to him in the biblical narrative). Also culturally, certain sects of Jewish people, namely Zealots, launched frequent rebellions against Roman rule. Every charismatic Zealot leader who could effectively organize a militia was heralded as the messiah who would free Israel from the tyranny of Rome and establish a new Jewish kingdom. This is the kind of insurrection in which Barabbas would have potentially participated. It was this sort of constant rebellion that eventually provoked the Roman military to tear down the temple in Jerusalem and scatter the Jewish people across the empire.

Narratively, however, it was important that the Roman government think favorably of the new Christian cult that was emerging in the empire. It was bad enough that Christians refused to pay homage to the emperor and allegedly had secret love feasts at which they ate flesh and drank blood (of babies, by some reports). The story of their founder had to paint the Roman official involved in the execution as blamelessly as possible. The Jewish people (who were antagonistic toward the upstart sect) needed to be the real villains of the story. It is worth mentioning that the antisemitism inherent in the Christian passion narrative contributed to oppression, violence, and genocidal acts against Jewish people through the twentieth century, and perhaps still in some places today. Historically, Roman officials didn't customarily release a murderer once a year. They didn't have to; they were very much in control with no real need to appease the populace.

Also, it was important for the early Christian church to create a dramatic and ironic contrast between the violent authoritarian leadership exhibited by Zealot militia leaders and Roman authorities and a more humble relational leadership style that sought to change external circumstances by changing internal realities of human perceptions and expectations. The abuse by the soldiers may have been a historical reality in terms of how criminals slated for crucifixion were treated, but even more importantly for the early church, it reflected something about the character of Jesus -- a character that they were supposed to emulate.

There can be no doubt that the story of Jesus' arrest and torture is emotionally charged, especially for people who think that he was a historical divine figure. Setting aside torture porn like The Passion of the Christ, however, we can draw forth something of potentially greater personal value than the unwarranted feelings of guilt or shame that some religious figures seem to want this story to evoke. Specifically, I think we can learn something from the Jesus character, from the Pilate character, something from the Jewish leaders, and something from the mob and soldiers.

Should any of us decide to engage in non-violent protest, this story demonstrates a rather extreme case. Jesus is willing to state his identity as he sees it, but he doesn't resort to defending himself or arguing with anyone about his guilt. One might say he takes things a little too passively, but we might think of the character as an archetype. The early church had a few decades to develop their origin story, and the way they tell it, Jesus knew all along that he was going to get himself killed if he tried to challenge the status quo. Understanding that danger, he challenged the status quo. He spoke out against injustice, and he promoted what he believed to be a better way of building community, based on love and respect for one another rather than coveting power and hoarding wealth. He believed in his principles strongly enough that he was willing to die for them, and he was centered and grounded enough that he could stand in the face of obviously fabricated accusations and remain calm and unprovoked. How well do you know yourself and your guiding principles? 

When you don't know yourself or your guiding principles, you might wind up behaving like the Jewish mob and the soldiers, who abdicated control of their decisions to other people. If you aren't willing to be personally responsible for your actions, there will usually be someone else who will happily direct you toward their ends. We have authority in our own lives; we have responsibility for our actions and beliefs. When people give that power over to other people, we sometimes wind up with violent mobs. Granted, sometimes revolution might be necessary, and sometimes oppressed people feel so disenfranchised and powerless that violence seems like the only option available. When we know ourselves and our guiding principles well, we might just be able to see other alternatives.

The Jewish leaders were, of course, afraid. Their way of doing things was being called into question, and change terrifies us like little else. They were attached to a certain identity of power and authority, and to give up that identity was a big threat. Eventually, they had to give it up anyway, in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed the temple. They had to learn a new identity, based on something other than the potentially superficial things on which they had based their previous identity. We're talking about characters in a story in which the Jewish leaders were the bad guys, of course, so it would be a mistake to think that every historical Jewish leader behaved in the way depicted by the early Christians. Still, if we are going to derive some value from the example of these characters in the story, it might be that we not only need to know ourselves and our guiding principles, but we also need to know what we are afraid of. 

When we know what makes us anxious, when we know what that anxiety feels like, we can better manage ourselves. We can calm ourselves down and get back to the guiding principles that we care about most. When we let our anxiety determine our behavior, we stop thinking and just react, which means that we probably are not acting with our guiding principles in mind. If we want to be people of integrity, we must manage our anxiety. Had the Jewish leaders in the story managed their anxiety, they may have realized that what they most wanted was not all that different from what Jesus most wanted. They got anxious about some superficial things and missed the opportunity for connection and growth. 

Pilate had a different sort of identity problem. Again, we are looking just at the character as he was portrayed by the author(s) of Mark, and not considering the historical Pilate. Here we see a man in a very lonely leadership role, faced with a decision that he didn't want to make. More than the mob of people who were unwilling to be personally responsible for their behavior, more than the Jewish religious leaders who were so wrapped up in their anxiety that they had forgotten themselves, Pilate was in a position to decisively act on what he knew to be right. He had the political authority to make a decision and the military power to back it up. He knew that Jesus was innocent of any crime worthy of execution, and he recognized that ordering his death would be unjust. Yet, unlike Jesus, he was intimidated by a willful mob and abdicated authority to the loudest voices rather than what he knew to be right. Knowing his principles, and knowing his role in the situation, Pilate betrayed himself because of some unidentified fear. He felt helpless, even though he wasn't.

We only have some unreliable and biased stories to go on, so we aren't really trying to derive any lessons from history. We're looking at the representations of human tendencies and finding connections with our own behavior so that we might do things better in our own lives. Even if there was a historical Jesus, and even if he was actually crucified, we still don't have any guarantees that it happened as the gospel of Mark conveys. What we do know is that only one person in the story reflected the kind of personal authenticity we hold in high regard, and everybody else was being something other than the best possible version of themselves. What we do know is that when we don't know what matters most to us, and when we don't manage our anxiety, we wind up with less than satisfactory results in our lives. Introspection is the key to all of these issues, and introspection is a skill. We must get to know ourselves deeply -- what we care about, what we fear, and what we can do to support one and dismantle the other. When we know what to be intentional about, we stand a better change of creating the lives and the world we most deeply want.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Imagine All the People Living Life in Peace

While I had hoped to continue with the Passion story as it is told in the gospel of Mark this week, I have (of my own volition) bitten off just as much as I can possibly chew this spring. Thus, just to keep the momentum going and to stay in the habit of posting something weekly, here is a short essay I wrote for a global religions course in response to an article promoting a greater appreciation for religious pluralism. 
It is perhaps dishonest to speak about "Christianity" or "Islam" and perhaps even "Judaism" as cohesive specific belief systems. The plural "Christianities" or "Islams" may be more appropriate representations of reality. There are some Christians, for instance, who are very intolerant of anything that smacks of pluralism and who base their understanding of doctrine more on fear than hope. Christianity, as they see it, is very exclusivist. There are other Christians who would be eagerly on board with a pluralistic, universalist view of people and religion. I regularly engage with people on both sides of that spectrum and many points in between. 
With such scattered identities within religious traditions, it's difficult to imagine religious people from exclusivist iterations of those traditions finding value in interfaith dialogue of any kind. We discussed in our chavruta call the arrogance of some expressions of religion that prohibit meaningful engagement with anything that seems like Other. We also discussed the matter of religious privilege. In America, being Christian is a position of privilege, but it is never addressed in the same way that privilege of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality is addressed.
Thinking in terms of privilege, religious people are in a historical and cultural context, yet often wish to distance themselves from those contexts. People who claim the label of a particular religion must acknowledge the harm done by others with that religious identity if there is to be any hope of entering into others' universes peacefully. Twenty-first century people who claim to desire to enter into the mental and spiritual universe of another, yet dismiss the influence of religion in terms of injustice, oppression, terrorism, and genocide cannot be taken seriously. Even though a particular expression of a religious tradition is against any harmful practice, these traditions exist as parts of historical and cultural trajectories.
Thus, while it is possible to "imagine all the people living life in peace," it is easier to imagine that happening in the absence of religion than it is to imagine religious fundamentalism promoting peaceful coexistence. Perhaps the greatest hope would be for the pluralistic-minded religious people to increase in number and the fundamentalist religious people to die out (of natural causes, of course), rather than hoping for an end to any particular religious tradition. A sort of evolution of religious ideology rather than an extinction level event. This hasn't happened with racism as of yet, so this may be a long shot at best.
In any cultural change, there are innovators and early adopters, then there are the early and late majorities, and last there are the laggards. In terms of technology, early adopters already have their Google glasses and laggards are still using their land-line telephone exclusively. In terms of religious pluralism, we are perhaps in the phase of transitioning within a majority view. In the American South, is sometimes seems as though pluralism is still something of an innovation, but globally I'm not sure where things stand. The point is that there will be laggards -- people who cling to their religious exclusivism until they die or until they are forced along with an irresistible cultural tide.  
It's both challenging and easy for me to enter into the mental and spiritual universes of the Christians with whom I have seminary classes. Easy, because I am familiar with the language game, having grown up in the church, and because I enter into such engagements with an eye toward common ground. With more liberal Christians (who are usually much more open to pluralism), that common ground is often very easy to find. We can use one another's language and trust that we understand one another's meaning.
This is still a challenge for me, because I feel like an outsider to the Christian language game now. I understand the concepts, but I have rejected the idea that human beings are broken and in need of salvation from an external deity in favor of a more Humanist paradigm. Even though I can understand deeply and be close friends with Christians, I am not a Christian. They are no longer my tribe, and their language is no longer my language. Moreover, I was hurt by that tribe once upon a time, and those scars still inform my opinion of Christianities to some extent.
All that considered, I am optimistic enough to believe that the concept of God can evolve. People used to believe that supernaturals were responsible for weather events and cosmological events like the fantastic and beautiful lunar eclipse some of us had the opportunity to witness this week. Most people know better now. They better understand scientific explanations for their world and can still be filled with wonder without being filled with dread that their supernatural is trying to send them a message that they don't quite understand. The cultural role of gods has shifted. 
I would suggest that the only god that an individual can worship is a god that the individual can understand. Even monotheistic religions do not really worship a single god; every worshiper brings to the table personal ideas about the object of worship. Thus, the concept of God changes subtly with every believer and evolves as a result of cultural evolutions. For some time, I sought different language to use in the place of the word "God," settling on "deepest, most noble self." Recently, I began to reclaim the word "God" for the sake of convenience, acknowledging that "God" is a word that people use to speak about a part of themselves. So, personally, as I continue to grow in connection to myself and others, God evolves I suppose.
Mr Lennon dreamed that there might be "nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too." My dream, only slightly less ambitious, would simply be that people recognize that human beings invented their gods and their religions. They did so for very good reasons, and although those useful tools have sometimes been used as weapons, there is a place for religious practice in human culture. Perhaps it would be emotionally traumatic for some people to admit that the object of their worship was something they invented rather than the other way around, but I have confidence that -- in community -- people can adjust to the idea. This awareness could certainly contribute to a more pluralistic curiosity. After all, it is intriguing and enlightening to step into other mental and spiritual universes, and recognition that religion is a human invention can deflate some of the fear around exposure to Other. I honestly trust that people can still make use of religious ideas and practices while recognizing their own role in imagining their gods, but I doubt that many people in my lifetime will be ready for that shift.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mark 14: How to Build (and how not to build) Friendships

Every gospel that was approved for inclusion in the Bible has a version of Jesus' arrest in a garden. The gospel of Matthew copies Mark in specifying the garden as a place called Gethsemane. The gospel of Luke indicates the Mount of Olives, and it is believed that the garden Gethsemane was at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The legend of Jesus' arrest is varied in a few details from one telling to the next, but the event is obviously an important piece of the Passion narrative. The version in the gospel of Mark is the one we'll focus on here.

The second half of this passage is narrative. Judas, one of the inner circle of disciples and a member of a Jewish Zealot sect, betrays Jesus to Jewish authorities, who show up with a lynch mob. One of the disciples draws steel and cuts off the ear of a high priest's slave (a story that becomes elaborated as it is retold in other gospels), and Jesus is arrested. Jesus reprimands the authorities for their cowardice, but he does not resist them. His disciples scatter, one of them fleeing naked into the night. (This story, incidentally, does not make it into other gospel accounts.) One can draw personal meaning from this narrative, but frankly it is easier to find value in the elaborations of this story as it appears in Matthew and Luke. What value there is in the tale about accepting reality, experiencing abandonment (or being the one who abandons another), and personal integrity we can also draw from the first half of this passage, the time in the garden before Judas and the authorities arrive.

When Jesus takes three of his closest disciples and spends some moments in solitude at the olive press (this is what gethsemane means), he seems to realize that things are coming to a head. He has said and done too much to be ignored by the Jewish temple authorities, who are relatively comfortable with their arrangements in the Roman empire and are not keen on upstart messiahs (of which there were many in the first century). In the story, Jesus is agitated and restless, but his companions seem unconcerned. Jesus is having a hard time accepting reality at the moment; his disciples are just oblivious.

Asking for a cup to pass or to be removed is essentially asking to be spared from one's fate, or to be spared the consequences of one's actions. Although prayer is often thought of as a way of communicating with an external supernatural, prayer is actually a way of communicating with oneself. This understanding of prayer holds despite the fact that it isn't reflected in the way some people pray or the expectations some people have of their prayers. Jesus is thus connecting with a deep part of himself, and inquiring (with great emotion) whether there is any way out of the trajectory he has set in motion.

How often do we resist reality, either by rejecting our own circumstances or trying to control other people? We are (fortunately) only able to control our own actions, beliefs, and decisions. Yet, all of us experience situations that we dread or just don't like, and in those times, we often become anxious and upset. We make demands that reality shift to something we would prefer. We insist that other people change what they are doing, in order to alleviate our anxiety. We insist that someone change our circumstances, and when it seems humanly impossible, we plead with or yell at a supernatural. Despite all the energy and passion we pour into this anxiety, our forward motion can only resume when we accept reality for what it is and determine to work with our circumstances rather than against our circumstances. This doesn't mean we can't change our circumstances; it does mean that we have to be honest about where we are starting if we want to make meaningful changes.

Ultimately, Jesus determines that there is no way to reject reality, and that his deepest, most noble self requires him to maintain integrity to the same principles he has held throughout the story. He cannot escape into the darkness and become a fugitive, and still remain faithful to himself. Meanwhile, his best friends are falling asleep. In his time of greatest anxiety and agitation, his closest companions can't keep their eyes open. After waking them up a few times, the story suggests that Jesus gets fed up and acquiesces to his impending arrest. The disciples are not intentionally insensitive to their teacher and mentor; they just don't seem to understand the magnitude of the moment. And why should they? They are characters in a story that is unfolding. We don't know what major events will wind up being important turning points in our lives until after the fact. The disciples in the story are no different.

Still, it's hard to feel cared for when people seem unimpressed with your agitation, and it's frustrating for someone to be agitated when you can't quite understand the problem. Once the mob shows up, we see that the disciples haven't really learned all that much from following Jesus around. One of them cuts off a slave's ear, and all of them run from the scene instead of sticking with their leader. Self preservation is a powerful motivator in times of high anxiety.

For people who hold Jesus up as a superhuman, nearly omniscient savior, it would be difficult to ask what he could have done differently. As people who can accept that the Jesus myth is a story from which we might learn something about the way we relate to ourselves and others, we can potentially see room for improvement in Jesus' behavior. This is not to critique the story, but to see how we might correct some possible missteps in our relationships with others.

First of all, Jesus has never asked for care from his disciples, and now suddenly he wants them to care for him by staying up with him in his agitation. We also might expect people to read our minds and know what we want and how they can provide it, even though many of us are not really good at asking for what we need or want in our relationships. If we want to cultivate mutually meaningful relationships, we have to be vulnerable enough to let people know what we want and need, and we have to be willing to listen when other people express what they want and need. It's obvious that the disciples were unaccustomed to Jesus really needing or wanting anything personally, and when he finally needed them to come through as friends, they were completely unprepared.

So, secondly, we cannot exist as islands. Even if we are highly skilled and capable individuals, none of us can experience holistic well-being without meaningful relationships with other people. We need community. We need connection. Sometimes, it might be more important to let other people do things that we could do for ourselves, just to establish and reinforce the human connection we need.

Third, it never pays to keep things from people who are important to us. We might think that we are strong enough to carry the burden of our secret fears and anxieties, but we only set ourselves up for frustration when we keep to ourselves the things that most concern us. Based on the reactions that he was getting from certain powerful people, and given that he knew Judas' intentions, Jesus had quite a bit to be concerned about. That his closest friends didn't really get it suggests that they were either dumber than dirt, or that Jesus hadn't really allowed them to share his burden. When we are most fearful and anxious is when we most need other people -- not so that they can become anxious with us, but so they can help us gain perspective, so they can communicate that we are not alone. Sometimes all we really need is for someone to stay up with us and remind us that they care about us.

Which leads to a fourth lesson: We need equality in our relationships. If one person is always staying up late and comforting the other, there is an imbalance in the relationship that might not be able to withstand the test of time. Although the gospel narratives never depict Jesus staying up late to comfort the disciples when they are anxious, it's fair to say that there is a certain imbalance to the relationship dynamics as they are presented. When we ask other people to meet some of our needs, it's important that we are willing to hear what they need from the relationship as well. This means that we have to be committed to growing in our emotional maturity, becoming (as much as we are able) a non-anxious presence in the midst of stressful circumstances. The point of relying on other people is not that we give ourselves permission to be immature and anxious all the time, but that we recognize that, even as we grow and develop toward the best possible versions of ourselves, we can't do everything alone.

In this story, Jesus is an exemplar of making a difficult adjustment into alignment with reality and acting with integrity to one's deepest most noble self. He also provides an example of what not to do in terms of the friendships we cultivate. We have to trust others and foster mutual vulnerability if we want meaningful relationships. As we build meaningful, balanced relationships, we learn that it is in community with other people that we truly understand our values and guiding principles. It is in relationship with others that we come to envision the best possible version of ourselves.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mark 14: Snapshot of Community

The Passion narrative begins in Mark 14, with a description of a Passover meal between Jesus and his disciples. This meal and the Passover holiday in general are characteristic and essential to Jewish religious identity, and all of the nuances of the particular significance of that meal are not as valuable in terms of application as they are in terms of interpretation. Jesus and his disciples were Jews, doing what Jews did. Jesus as depicted in the gospel stories was not instituting a new religion, but was attempting to interpret a stale tradition that was failing to provide the societal benefits that it had the potential to offer. Thus, the Passover meal takes on new connotation for the early Christian church. This story is described similarly in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the gospel of John portrays an extended version of the evening with some lengthy speeches by Jesus. Paul also describes the Eucharistic rite that evolved from this tradition, in what is probably the earliest recorded indication of the ceremony practiced by the early church.

Some have looked at the Jesus mythology as a vessel for astrological symbolism, theorizing that the twelve disciples represent the full zodiac, and so on. In such a theoretical reading, the water bearer in Mark 14:13 is seen as Aquarius, the age that would follow the age of Pisces, which Jesus could be seen to usher in. The rampant symbolism of fish (the symbol of Pisces) and fishermen in the Jesus narrative is used as evidence of this interpretation, although the value of such an understanding is unclear aside from removing the story from the realm of historical validity. Astrological ages are about 2160 years, so no one alive in Jesus' time or even today will experience crossing the threshold into the "Age of Aquarius," but it is curious that the Gregorian calendar shifts to year 1 of the Current Era right around the time when the sun moved from Aries into Pisces. Not that there is anything applicable to day-to-day life in any of that.

Scholarly research into the practices of Judaism in the first century also inform some readings of the Passion story and the so-called "last supper." That there was a common practice does not lend any validity to a fictionalized account of the practice, although there are some who believe that proof of historical validity is more important than personal application. Some of the story, such as the identification of Judas and the pronouncement of woe upon him, is obviously commentary that developed in early church tradition. Likewise, the prediction of Peter's denial has the quality of folklore, particularly since it could only have been related by Peter, and Peter isn't telling the story. As the first "pope," or head of the Christian cult, a lot of mythology rose about Peter, some of which exalts him and some of which criticizes him; both types of Peter stories are found in the gospel narratives.

What does one do with such a tale, then, aside from read it as the mythology of another culture with an exclusive purpose to relate the story of their god-man figure? One might interpret the universal value of ritual in the lives of human beings. One might recognize the value of community. Some people develop doctrinal statements from this account, but there honestly isn't enough here to warrant any doctrines. The Jesus of the gospel of Mark doesn't even mention "the forgiveness of sins," as some of the later narratives amend; to read this narrative is to glimpse a theology and mythology of early Christianity that is still developing. It is interesting that the quote from Zechariah about striking the shepherd and scattering the sheep was originally in the context of striking down religious leaders that promoted idolatry, thus equating Jesus with a bad priest and his followers as idolaters. Perhaps the authors of Mark were clumsily attempting to frame the quote in a new context.

Honestly, I don't know what you do with the story, aside from call it a story and move on. We all do things out of fear, like the character of Judas. We all promise things we really shouldn't promise, like the character of Peter. Many of us wind up listening to those well-intentioned promises, knowing they aren't trustworthy, like the character of Jesus. Even though we can relate to various characters in a story, we run into trouble when we attempt to extrapolate precise behaviors from mythology, because we will never be in the precise positions of anyone in the narrative. Instead, the importance may simply be in recognizing the nature of community, something we all need and for which we all search, but rarely devote the necessary time and energy to fully develop.

This band of people represented in the story of the "last supper" are a community in the process of becoming. Only the visionary leader understands the value of deep community with any fullness, and he is about to disappear. He has prepared the people around him through his examples for a period of time, demonstrating that character and values are more important than rules and appearances. The Passion story in Mark begins to narrate the end of that biography, but this is only an introduction to the life of a community. Community is hard work, and it requires sacrificing some things that have become comfortable. Ultimately, that is what this story is about. Not the Jesus character, but the community that was inspired by him.

That doesn't have to be your community; there may some really good reasons for it not to be your community. Yet we all need some kind of community, and meaningful, deep connection with other people always requires a bit of investment from us. We will make promises we can't keep, we will sit dumbfounded while other people take action, we will experience disillusionment, and we will participate in disagreements. We will have the opportunity to extend forgiveness, take action, inspire, and be peace makers. The values we hold will always be more important than the rules we follow, and the inward character we cultivate will always be more valuable than the outward appearances we invent. Our lives are interdependent, and we are worth one another's deep commitment to community.