* 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 The Christian cult is mentioned in a couple of historical documents, but in these reports historians repeat what the early church believed about Jesus, rather than verify their story.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.

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