* 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 28, 2015

John 18-19: External Challenges to Internal Integrity

Once again, we might find ourselves relating to various characters in the next portion of the passion narrative in the gospel of John, in which the characters of Jesus and Pontius Pilate interact. This passage is very dramatic and weaves a compelling tale, and although we have noted this time and again, it bears repeating once more that there are no transcripts of a conversation between Jesus and Pilate. The dialogue here is creative license on the part of the author.

We do have a bit of evidence that Pontius Pilate was an actual historical figure (more evidence than we have that Jesus was an actual historical figure, to be frank), but at this time there is no authentic artifact reflecting what the historical Pontius Pilate thought of a historical Jesus, or even that the two interacted at all. What we know of Pilate, however, is that he became increasingly unwilling to bend to the will of Jewish mobs, preferring to have soldiers kill unruly crowds of locals who disagreed with his decisions. The pleading, reluctant procurator depicted in the gospel of John might therefore be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the author, or this depiction may have been an effort to avoid persecution from Rome, or it may have been to heap the full weight of blame on the Jewish religious leaders in the story. No one can say with certainty what the author was thinking, but we can at least be sure that the image of Pontius Pilate here is not a full picture of the man's behavior in historical reality.

Since we cannot know the full intention of the author, we might as well see what we can draw from the story for ourselves. Can the figure of Jesus still serve as the depiction of an idealized us? Is there something else for us in this passage? As we have observed, the passion story is a central element to most Christianities, but the themes and metaphors of the narrative are present in the tales of many religions and mythologies. Here, strength takes on a distinct quality when anxiety and fear are not the driving forces behind a person's decisions and behavior. The Jesus character might represent to us a self-awareness that goes beyond self-preservation -- a commitment to one's identity and principles that matters more than personal safety.

We plan much of what we do based on the risks involved. Do I say this difficult thing, if it might provoke a reaction I don't like? Is my authenticity worth facing rejection? Are my principles worth dealing with hostility? Are my needs important enough for me to be vulnerable and say them out loud to another human being? Often, our answers are No. We decide that our deepest values are not worth the risks we might face -- that we are not worth the risks we might face -- if we live with authenticity. Our integrity winds up being less important than our sense of personal safety and acceptance.

The passion story may not serve as much encouragement for us to do otherwise. After all, the character who represents us in the story winds up suffering more than we ever want to. The lesson is not that our authenticity will get us crucified, however. The complete perspective of the lesson, as we will acknowledge in the weeks ahead, is that our authenticity leads to being fully alive -- more alive than we can be when we play it safe and act based on a fear for our own safety. Fear and anxiety limit us from being fully alive in our relationships and in our actions.

Impulsive, "honest" words and behavior are not really much better. Just saying or doing the next impulsive thing that crosses our mind doesn't lead to a fully alive life. In fact, most of our impulses are still going to be driven by fear. That's just the way our minds work. The goal is to be intentional and to have integrity between our actions and what we care about most deeply. In the story, then, we see an example of a person who knows themselves so fully that there is no place for fear to drive their behavior.

You might also notice that the Jesus character doesn't insult or provoke Pilate in the dialogue. He states clearly that his purpose as a leader has nothing to do with political power (contrary to what those who claim to follow him have done with his legacy). He clarifies that he is interested in truth, unadulterated and untainted by fear. He suffers torture and abuses at the hands of those who are less emotionally mature, and even in the midst of that profound pain, he doesn't give himself over to anxiety and fear. His integrity is not just about his internal state of being, it has ramifications for how he relates to the people around him.
The author does have Jesus say something interesting, to pursue a theological rabbit trail for just a moment. The last words the Jesus character speaks to Pilate here are, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." The gist of the argument here seems to be: (1) God authorizes people in their positions of power, therefore (2) people are not culpable for exercising that authorized power, and yet (3) those who interpret their power based on biblical principles from the Hebrew scriptures are more guilty than political leaders who use their positions of power to do harm. There is no way around the conclusion that God authorizes people to do harm to others (which is really nothing new from the Old Testament), nor is there any way around the idea that those who do not use their power ethically are guilty of "sin." If the same rules apply to God, then, the only logical conclusion from this theological statement is that God is guilty of the greatest sin, authorizing harm and failing to use power ethically. Of course, none of that really matters if God is a fictional supernatural, but these theological diversions are sometimes intriguing.
What can we say about the Jewish leaders and Pilate in this story? Do we find ourselves in these characters as well? Certainly, the Jewish leaders continue to be caught up in their fear. When a more rational voice tries again and again to offer a more reasonable course of action, they dig in their heels. There are all sorts of fears that could have been fueling their drivenness. At the same time, they are anxious to be technically clean even though there is nothing life-affirming about their behavior. They want to maintain an appearance of being beyond reproach by abdicating the harmful action to someone else. They do not want ownership of their decision, but they are committed to getting what they think they want.

In many cases, we still attempt to use the government in this way. We don't want to be responsible for making the changes we think are necessary, but we want someone to be responsible on our behalf. We don't want to be culpable for the harm that is done to others, but we are strangely comfortable with other people being harmed so that we feel safer. All the while, our own anxiety continues to soar, and our integrity is practically nonexistent. The two operate at inverse proportions. When we are committed to greater integrity and intentionality, our anxiety necessarily shifts to lower priority -- we cannot serve our fear and our deepest values at the same time. The question is whether we will be intentional about which we are serving or whether we will let our fear drive us as the Jewish leaders of this story are unequivocally driven.

Pilate, as he is characterized by the author, seems to be aware of what his values dictate and yet is still unwilling to take responsibility for living with integrity to those values. Where the Jewish leaders have completely lost touch with their deepest, most noble selves, Pilate seems to engage in sincere wrestling between his authentic, life-affirming values and the safety of pleasing other anxious people. (Again, this is a literary fictional character we're talking about and not the actual historical Pontius Pilate.) If his integrity were simply a matter of being internally aligned with deep guiding principles, he would seem to be on track. When his integrity requires managing himself in relationship to other people, however, he faces difficulty. The bizarre picture here is of a person with the greatest amount of authority and legitimate power bows to the most anxious voices in the room, because life-affirming values were given less priority than fear of the consequences of disappointing the least emotionally mature people involved.

This is clearly a picture to which we can relate. We like it when we are the most anxious voices in the room because it feels powerful to get our way. Screaming at someone until we get what we want can feel very vindicating, as long as we get what we think we want. Outrage and indignation seem to be preferred methods for people to force others to bend to their will. These are all fear-driven behaviors, however, and thus they cannot be reflective of our deepest, most noble selves. Whatever life-affirming values you think you have, these go out the window when you choose outrage and hostility as weapons of coercion.

When we fail to exercise our authority in the midst of hostility and coercion, however, we fail everyone in the scenario. Just as the Pilate character in this story, we can become so focused on making angry people go away and stop threatening us that we forget ourselves. We forget that what we care about most is not that every outraged person is mollified. We lose sight of our deepest principles because it seems risky to live with integrity to them when people are screaming at us. We become more interested in defending ourselves and being safe than we are interested in integrity.

We could spend eons peeling back the layers of Pilate's deceptively simply musing, "What is truth?" He is in the midst of an internal conflict, as we all most likely are. The Jesus character seems to know truth, however, and he is apparently calm in the midst of the chaos around him. We might assume that he experienced some internal conflict, especially as he was experiencing the pain inflicted on him. Perhaps he called himself names, as we so often do. Stubborn Fool. Idiot. Masochist. The end result, though, is that the truth he knows is more powerful than the suffering he experiences. The truth he knows is worth his integrity, and while some people assume that this truth has something to do with a supernatural, we will see next week that there is another, more useful possibility for us.

Today's passage shows us three possible points on a spectrum. The Jewish leaders are so driven by fear that they are completely unaware of their deepest life-affirming values. Pontius Pilate is aware of his deepest life-affirming values, and he tries to make them important; he foregoes integrity in the face of anxious aggression, however, and loses himself in order to appease other people. Jesus is not only aware of his deepest life-affirming values, he is unwavering in his integrity, making the moment-by-moment intentional decision to live according to the guidance of his deepest, most noble self rather than living according to other people's anxiety, even though he experiences some pain as a result.

Where are you on that spectrum? Are you aware of your deepest values? Do you place them as a higher priority than your anxiety? Do you find artificial power in using outrage and coercion to alleviate your fear in the moment? Are you prone to give in to other people's anxious demands rather than exercising your personal authority to live with integrity? Or do you live by a standard of authentic power and intention that reflects a vision of a best possible version of yourself?

Wherever you place yourself on that spectrum today, where do you want to be? When you consider what leads to long-term well-being for yourself and the people around you, in what direction would you like to move? If you want a more deeply satisfying experience of life, what will you need to do to move toward that? And what little step are you willing to take today to move in that direction?

Monday, September 21, 2015

John 18: The People Fear Makes

We arrive now at the story that all four biblical gospels hold in common, the arrest and execution of Jesus. The version of the story in the gospel of John has some distinctions from the other texts, which is perhaps striking, since it was apparently written after the other three texts were in circulation. (It could also be said that we have no idea what the original versions of any of these texts contained or omitted because the earliest complete copy we have of any of the gospels is from the third or fourth century.) For whatever reason, the author of John told a slightly different "passion story," so we can take a look and see if there is anything of value in those distinctions as we seek value in the story as it is.

The scene shifts to an unnamed garden across the Kidron Valley. The author of Mark indicates that this garden was named Gethsemane, and the author of Matthew copies him. The author of Luke places the scene at the Mount of Olives. The author of John leaves the place unnamed. He also leaves out the embarrassing story about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was in distress. In the gospel of John, there is no scene of pleading with God. It just seems to be the meeting place where Judas will bring guards. We also don't see any betrayal with a kiss, as the other gospel stories include, Judas is simply a guide for the guards and police. The author of John does include the bit where Peter slices off the ear of one of the guards -- a detail that is in every biblical version of the story, although Peter and the guard are only identified by name in the gospel of John. In this version, however, Jesus does not heal the injured man.

Once Jesus is arrested, two events are described as occurring simultaneously by all four gospel authors, although the events are not described consistently among them. Jesus is put on trial by the Jewish high priest -- a sort of religious court martial that seems to operate under different rules than one would expect from a legal proceeding. Obvious and contradictory false charges are leveled, and Jesus' words are interpreted to be evidence that he is guilty of blasphemy, an offense punishable by death according to Jewish law. (We have previously observed that a great many offenses carried a death penalty in the Hebrew Scriptures.) Interestingly, blasphemy seems not to have been a crime according to the Roman government, but the Jewish authorities didn't have the power to carry out a legal execution under Roman rule, so the religious leaders twist the story further in order to prompt Pontius Pilate, the local governing Roman authority, to pay attention to the case.

As all of this is going on, Peter, one of the disciples closest to Jesus, is questioned three times about his connection to Jesus, and he lies about their relationship all three times. Dramatically, the rooster announces dawn as Peter utters his third denial. In all four of the gospel narratives, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny their relationship three times and then the rooster will crow. Although the wording is slightly different in all four gospels, of course Jesus' prediction comes to pass in an appropriately dramatic fashion. As we will see later on, only the gospel of John takes steps to "redeem" Peter with a similarly dramatic epilogue.

Although we've acknowledged it many times, it bears repeating that any dialogue in the gospel narratives is creative license on the part of the authors. Even if the events described actually took place at some point, there were no recording devices and no transcriptions of conversations. Especially with the number of years that would have passed between historical events and the authoring of the gospel stories, there is no point in getting hung up on the actual words spoken by anyone in the story except to consider what the author was trying to get across. The author is creating a drama and chooses words that heighten that drama and convey certain qualities of the characters in that drama.

Where are we in this drama? This is a particularly low point for many characters in the story, and we might identify with various groups when we are at our most anxious and reactive.

There is Judas, who plays little role dramatically except for impotently following through with a course of action because he's started down that road. He could have thought things through at any point and decided that the eventual outcome of his actions would lead to another person's unjust execution. There would likely still have been consequences to his actions, but he could have altered his course at any point. That he didn't change direction suggests that he was in the thrall of his own fear and anxiety. He could have been driven by anger at Jesus or his cult. He could have been driven by fear that powerful people would eventually catch up to them, and he wanted to end up on the surviving side of that conflict. It doesn't really matter what the fear was that propelled him forward. The bottom line is that he never stopped to connect his actions with his deepest, life-affirming values as a human being. He allowed his fear to run him, and he went into autopilot mode.

Then we have the police and guards loyal to the religious authorities. They are, of course, just following orders. This can be a convenient excuse, or it can reflect a level of trust for the existing power structure. These people probably had little opportunity to evaluate the situation and think things through for themselves. They knew only what they were told.

The disciples, on the other hand, supposedly had plenty of reason to trust the example they had seen lived out in the life of their teacher. The author frames the flight of the disciples as all part of the plan, but wouldn't emotionally mature, principled individuals remain calm and accept the consequences of their choices rather than running off into the night? Or drawing steel and attacking? They are the very epitome of fight or flight reaction in this scene. As things progress, Peter even resists multiple opportunities to authentically express his convictions, presumably due to fear of hostile reactions from the people around him. The disciples literally figuratively hide themselves away.

Whether we choose to see them as the villains of the story or just human beings who felt threatened, the religious leaders demonstrate another anxious reaction. They are unwilling to consider a challenging perspective because they are already convinced that they know all they need to know. They are comfortable enough with things the way they are that they don't have a compelling reason to consider a different way of being. They respond with lies and violence to a perceived threat to their comfort, compromising their principles (and their religious laws) in order to preserve a sense of security and familiarity. They misuse their authority and power because they are insecure in their authority and power.

And why shouldn't they be insecure? The Roman government was already making exceptions and bending its own policies in order to appease the Jewish people, and still there was one uprising after the next. "Messiahs" came along pretty regularly and raised militias to fight futile battles against the Romans. The ease with which Jewish rabbles were roused to violence eventually provoked Roman officials to order the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and scatter the Jewish people throughout the empire so they couldn't wreak more havoc. The religious authorities, comfortable in their relationship with the Roman officials, must have seen this possibility on the horizon. Anyone in their position would feel anxious. Their response to anxiety, however, was to forget themselves and their values in order to make a problem go away.

Finally, there is the Jesus character. While there are some aspects of the Jesus legend that kick in with the passion narrative, up until this point we have taken the gospel of John's portrayal of Jesus as an example for what it is to be a fully alive human being. Continuing in that perspective, Jesus maintains his own sense of personal authority and self-differentiation throughout the scene. The author of John likes to play with the language of having Jesus say "I am," since that is the translation of the name of the god of the Hebrew scriptures. The Jesus character speaks and embodies this sense of self so fully that the people who come to arrest him are taken aback. He speaks openly and directly to his accusers, perhaps with a bit of an edge to his tone as the author of John depicts it. We don't see any sign of a flight or flight or freeze instinct driving Jesus' behavior. He maintains his sense of self in the midst of the rampant anxiety around him, even though that leads toward devastating consequences.

We can probably recall points in our lives in which our anxious responses looked like several members of the cast in this drama. We have continued to follow courses of action despite realizing that they were in conflict with our deepest values. We have remained ignorant of situations in order to limit our responsibility. We have run away from challenging situations, literally or figuratively, and hidden our true selves safely out of sight. We have become so driven about a goal that we stopped caring whether our means of reaching that goal had integrity. Hopefully, we also can find moments when we have calmly and confidently stood in the midst of chaos and maintained our sense of self. If not, it is certainly a target we can move toward.

It may not seem like it when we are driven or fear-filled, but we always have choices. We might be headed down a path that is completely contrary to what we really want to stand for, but we don't have to continue down a road just because we took a step in a particular direction. How often do people change careers or employers, change relationships, change diets and exercise patterns? We are wonderfully capable of change. The moment we realize that we are headed off course from where we really want our lives to lead, we have the opportunity to change direction. There may be consequences, and it may not be the easiest thing to do, but change is possible.

Likewise, we have choices about how we take responsibility for our role in things. It's easy to exonerate the guards in this story perhaps. They really had no way of knowing anything different than what they were told. In our lives, we are told a lot of things. We know enough to recognize that everything we are told is filtered through someone's biases. At least some of what we are told is patently not true. We can find some comfort in remembering that we can only act on what we know, even though what we know is sometimes inaccurate. However, it's also our responsibility to test what we think we know -- to verify the information we receive as much as possible -- so that we can continue to act with integrity to our deepest values as much as possible.

There are times, though, when that feels like more trouble than it's worth. Maintaining integrity to our guiding principles in the face of hostility may be the hardest thing we have ever considered doing. We may feel content just to sit back and stay comfortable, avoiding any external conflict. At some point, though, we will have to deal with the internal conflict of living in ways that are not congruent with our deepest life-affirming values. Our greatest hope of being fully alive human beings is to fully inhabit ourselves -- to be incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves in the world -- to live into a vision of a best possible version of ourselves. This takes consistent and disciplined effort over time, but it is possible for us to stand in the midst of chaos and remain calm and centered, clearly expressing who we are and what matters most to us.

It may be easy to live a complacent life, to keep coasting on autopilot and let things be just as they are. It's even easy to live life under the illusion that you are helpless victim of the way things are. It's unpleasant, but it doesn't require much effort. What you may not expect, though, is that being fully alive is also easy. Once you have habits and practices in place that keep you grounded in your principles and focused on a vision of a best possible version of yourself, engaging fully in life is not constant hard work. The hard work is in shifting from one to the other, moving from one set of complacent, autopilot habits to a new set of intentional, fully alive habits.

The real decision, then, might actually be whether you are content to be the person fear makes you, or whether you are willing to be the person you most want to be.

Monday, September 7, 2015

John 17: We Are All Self-Authorizing

The gospel of John was written for a specific community of people, and there are clues that some of the book was more about recording the beliefs of that community than it was about recording a historical biographical tale. John 17 is one instance where a desire to record the beliefs and creeds of the community are prominently on display. In fact, the first several verses refer to Jesus in the third person by name or by pronoun. This is more the language of a community's common creed than it is the language of an individuals speaking about himself.

No one can say with certainty what the author meant by some of the phrases in this "prayer," but believers from various Christian sects interpret it as they see fit. They actually must do so, because otherwise the words have no value aside from a slightly cryptic historical reflection of a first-century community's beliefs and concerns. Moreover, various Christian readers interpret the words differently based on their own individual understanding of Christianity. Thus, we can confidently take the same liberties as other readers, interpreting the words to fit our deeply held convictions.

Before we get to a full interpretation, however, there are a few features of the chapter that bear mentioning. Some of these may seem tedious in isolation, but in the context of interpreting the entire chapter, they may have greater significance. We will also keep in mind that, for our interpretive scheme, the character of Jesus in the gospel of John is representative of us -- of the idealized best possible version of ourselves.

First, most English translations have verse 2 reading that Jesus has been given authority over all people. The actual translation here would be power or authority over all flesh. This does not necessarily mean power of individual people, but could instead mean power to overcome the "fleshly" fears and beliefs that distract us from living with integrity to our most deeply held values.

It may also bear noticing that Jesus is made to say here that he has completed the work that was intended for him (verse 4). In the narrative, this is clearly before the crucifixion. Many Christians seem to focus on the crucifixion of Jesus as being the real significant "work" of Jesus. If this passage is to be interpreted in the context of the narrative, however, the Jesus character claims that his work is done prior to being arrested and killed. Thus, we must conclude that whatever the author of John considered Jesus' work to be had more to do with his life than it did with his death.

We also see a trace of evidence that reflects an idea of destiny, that people do not truly have control over the outcome of their lives, by the way Judas is described in verse 12. This is more a function of later editors and translators than the more ancient "son of destruction" or "one worthy of destruction" that seem to more closely match the original text -- which, I'll just remind you, we do not have. There is no known "original" of the gospel of John, just a variety of copies with some contradictions among them from which translations are created.

Regardless of translation, verses 6-20 are clearly about the community for which the author of John wrote. Their unity is also a topic of the biblical letters attributed to the same author. We might conclude that the community had considerable strife and drama and that the author was attempting to give voice to a need for unity, or we might conclude that the community was proud of this unified quality of their relationships that set them apart from other communities. Either way, this middle portion is clearly intended as a blessing on the author's community, and a somewhat exclusive one based on verse 9.

Some readers would like to suggest that this prayer for unity extends to the whole of Christianity, and not just the author's own community. It may be a nice idea, but Christianities have never embraced unity with one another. There have been differences of opinion since the earliest documentation of the Christian church. Once the church gained more political power, the differing minority opinions were labeled heresies and the church persecuted individuals who held those differing opinions.

Even with a seemingly monolithic Roman Catholic Church for centuries, there were always schisms and conflicts up until the Protestant Reformation, which spawned a number of different Christian sects. Now, the most recent estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity place the number of distinct Christian sects at over 40,000. How's that for unity? Even within the bounds of a single Christian congregation, one will find differences of belief and practice, and those differences lead to conflict, and that conflict often causes schisms within the community. In two thousand years, one thing the Christian church seems to have perfected is disunity.

Criticism is easy, though. What usefulness can we draw from this chapter, should we choose to do so? There is some language about the "name" and the "power of the name." Name here connotes authority; to know something's name in the ancient world was to have power over it, even back to the story about Adam getting to name all the animals in Genesis. If "God" is really our deepest, most noble self, then this is where our authority comes from. We are self-authorizing. Actually, every person is. Some people just pretend that their authority comes from something external to them. Ultimately, though, human beings are self-authorizing entities.

There is also some talk about "evil," and "the world" as the unenlightened practitioners of evil. We have suggested before that "evil" and "sin" are the outcomes of mismanaged fear. If this is the case, the protection from evil would be the ability to dismantle irrational fear. "The world" would reflect those people who behave as victims of fear, and based on casual observation, there are an awful lot of those folks running around. Fear, whether it manifests as shame, hatred, greed, oppression, apathy, or some other nuanced form, is churning within all of us. We self-authorize our reaction to that fear or our dismantling of it.

One way that we dismantle irrational fear is by telling the truth. The truth empowers us (verse 17). The consecration language of this passage reflects the transformative potential of every person. The author of John portrays Jesus essentially passing the torch here, indicating to his disciples (and thus vicariously to the readers) that they have the same ability that he has to live boldly intentional lives of integrity and authenticity. That is a message worth carrying forward.

Thus, a re-envisioned Humanist commissioning of John 17 is still high-minded and idealistic, but it may offer some resources for us that the creed of an ancient community does not:

Then, the Exemplar looked at each of them and said, "Now I am speaking to your deepest, most noble selves. The time has come for you to embrace your own capability. I have honored my deepest, most noble self, and in so doing I have shone a light on my authentic self. I have recognized my power to dismantle my fear and live with integrity, and in so doing, I have made clear a way for others to be fully alive. And this is what it is to be fully alive: that you know your deepest, most noble self -- the root of your deepest life-affirming values and principles -- and that you know your own capability to live with integrity to those values and principles, through connection with your deepest, most noble self. People have always been capable of this, but you have now seen it in action.

"I may have awakened you to connection with your deepest, most noble selves, but you have been the ones to nurture that connection and live into a deeper sense of your authentic selves. You now know that all of your power comes from within you. You understand something that many people do not, and you must live with integrity to your life-affirming guiding principles even as the world around you continues to react to its incessant fear. Your authentic life is the embodiment of your deepest, most noble self. You are the incarnation of yourself. You have the power to dismantle your irrational fear, and you have the power to remain calm in the midst of other people's fear.

"May your lives be full of exuberant joy, even as you continue to live among people who don't understand what you are doing. Other people will resent you for not going along with their anxiety, but don't run away from relationships with others just to feel safe. That would be giving power to your fear. Continue to do the work of connecting with your deepest, most noble self, so that you can dismantle your own fears and be a model for others. Other people's beliefs and decisions and reactions are going to look very different from yours. Continue to seek the truth and base your lives on truth rather than irrational anxiety. In this way, you will serve others and build a better world, just by living with integrity.

"Remember that every person is capable of this kind of connection, to some degree. Every person has inherent worth and dignity. This unites us all as human beings. We are all diverse, and our differences are something to celebrate. Yet, we hold in common our humanity, and thus our intrinsic value. May you find connection with other people, even those who seem different from you. May you recognize the empowerment that flows from meaningful relationship, and may you take responsibility for forming mutually empowering relationships. Then, you will connect with others with the same level of authenticity as you connect with your self. That is the essence and the power of genuine love."