* 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, October 5, 2015

John 19: Personal Sedition and Its Consequences

Following the episode of Pontius Pilate's compromised integrity, the established community's reactivity to the message of radical love and authenticity culminates in an execution. This execution was nothing special within the context of the Roman Empire. Thousands of men were crucified for the crime of sedition, the public torture and capital punishment serving the additional purpose of dissuading other would-be insurrectionists. The Jesus character in the gospel of John is someone special, but the means of his execution is by no means unique for the time.

Like other gospel authors, the author of John can't resist telling the story so that some quips from the Hebrew scriptures seem prophetic. By the time the gospel of John was written, it was already part of Christian culture to look at their Jewish sacred texts and imagine that the earlier authors were writing about Jesus, which is to say that they imagined that the texts were about them. When the followers of a messiah claim that words written centuries ago were about the individual they revere, they are essentially asserting that they have special knowledge. "We are enlightened enough to know who these words really refer to. Everyone else is ignorant. We are special; you are not. You should listen to us, but we have no reason to listen to you."

If I looked back at something written in 1555 and decided that those words were actually referring to a twenty-first century individual, most folks would think I was a bit off my rocker. Except that, people do exactly that with the predictions of Nostradamus. Though the prophetic accuracy of Nostradamus has been debunked (along with much of his legendary biography), some people somehow think that a person living five centuries ago could see into the future and write actual predictive prophecies. At least with Nostradamus, he presumably had some idea that he was writing predictions of the future. The early Christians took things a step further and imagined that many different authors from centuries past were unknowingly writing about a particular individual, who just happened to be the legendary founder of their sect.

Thus, portions of the passion narrative in every gospel wind up being a somewhat cobbled together string of short excerpts from various authors within Hebrew Scriptures, interpreted as a sequence of events which then appear to have been prophetically predicted. It's a clever way to tell a story that legitimizes one's beliefs, and it also seems to have enough depth of meaning without digging any deeper than the appearance of prophetic fulfillment. Once you realize that what happens in the story seems to be the fulfillment of prophecy, there might seem to be no reason to look for a deeper meaning than that.

One way of seeking deeper meaning in the story is to reject the idea of a singular historical messianic figure and instead consider the personal application in our own lives. If the Jesus character here continues to be an exemplar who represents us, what does this story say about us? That we should placidly go to our death at the hands of angry and fearful religious conservatives who abdicate their violent desires to a cowardly, complicit government? Maybe not. Perhaps a more metaphorical approach will continue to serve us.

Crucifixion was the punishment primarily for sedition -- a crime which the Roman Empire considered to be worthy of public humiliation and torture, as a means of control as well as a means of execution. We know how poorly capital punishment works as a deterrent, and yet we're still strangely committed to that idea as a society. We can't really expect that the Romans could have been any more enlightened about its efficacy that we are. Sedition is rebellion against an authority, attempting to upset the balance of an existing power structure or social order. That is the explicit crime for which the Jesus character is executed. We know that the story doesn't end with the Jesus character's death, but he is effectively removed from participating fully in community in the same way he had been.

In our own lives, growth sometimes means committing acts of sedition, not against an actual government, but against some established social order or authority in our lives. Claiming our own personal power and creating a life that aligns with our deepest, most noble selves sometimes means upsetting some patterns that other people find comforting. When we act in a way that seems to threaten other people's sense of security -- especially if those people believe they are in positions of power over us -- those people are likely to react. Few people know how to manage their reactivity in a healthy way, and even fewer people are willing to do it, even if they know how. That means that our own growth and empowerment sometimes evokes fear in other people, because it seems like we're upsetting an order that they find comfortable.

Their reaction toward you may begin gently, with some effort to kindly guide you back into the patterns they find comfortable. They may escalate into threats about what will happen to you if you continue to upset the status quo. Eventually, some kind of violent reaction might close the door on your participation in that social structure. This doesn't necessarily mean that people will kill you or even physically harm you for outgrowing an established way of being, but emotional violence can still be devastating. People might kill a relationship by cutting off contact, by sowing rumors, or all sorts of other social and emotional executions. It isn't at all pleasant, but other people's reactivity is not your fault. Some relationships can heal again (which we'll consider as the gospel narrative continues), but they won't ever be quite the same. Once you leave a particular orbit, you can't quite forget all that you know from seeing things from a broader perspective.

We get into habits. It's easy to do, and it saves us having to consider every moment carefully, which could mentally incapacitate us. When we grow into a more intentional way of aligning with our deepest life-affirming values -- our personal guiding principles -- we inevitably have to examine some of the habitual ways we participate in our social structures and relationships. Living into a vision of a best possible version of ourselves may mean adopting some radically different behaviors than what we've habitually done in the past. This is not just an internal shift. When we change the dance, everyone on the dance floor with us is affected. Ultimately, we strive for our commitment to integrity and intentionality to improve the well-being of everyone around us. But change is unsettling for people, and they may not be ready for improved well-being if it means changing familiar and comfortable patterns.

Our decisions can be based on other people's anxiety. In fact, we often decide what to do based on how we think other people will react. We may be afraid of rejection, of being "unacceptable", or of losing a sense of belonging. We create limitations for ourselves based on what we think other people can handle. We play it safe. We might understandably choose the safety of familiar and comfortable patterns over the riskier path of personal empowerment. Many people seem content with conformity.

Or our decisions can be based on our own sense of self. We can prioritize our own deep values -- our own vision of a best possible version of ourselves -- over and above the anxiety of people around us. It's true that pursuing a path of greater integrity to our deepest, most noble selves might get us metaphorically crucified for sedition against an established social order. It's also true that alignment to our deepest life-affirming values creates greater wholeness not only for us, but also for the people around us. There is always more to the story than mourning what anxiety destroys.

When we dismantle our own irrational fears and live toward a vision of a best possible version of ourselves, we will necessarily connect with other human beings. We may end up finding new people to connect to, and we may connect with people differently. One way or another, though, we need connection with other human beings. It's scary to feel unwelcome, but there will be new places of welcome that we can't discover if we stay entrenched in old habits. It can be painful to be the object of other people's anxiety, but we are capable of experiencing pain and emerging on the other side of it.

Most importantly, our willingness to risk doesn't necessarily mean that we'll lose something. Sometimes, our journey toward greater integrity will actually inspire people around us rather than making them anxious. Sometimes, our commitment to our deepest values will make our bonds with other people stronger. Rather than compromising our sense of safety and familiarity, we might create something new with the people who are already a part of our tribe. It's up to us whether we're willing to risk losing comfortable patterns in order to build something better in our lives.

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