I have recently been reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s latest book titled “The Sins of Scripture.” Though I am not quite finished with it (only a few pages left now), what he brings up towards the end of the book has sparked an interesting insight for meditation. I’d like to share that here.
Bishop Spong does an excellent job placing the creation of the Hebrew scriptures into its historical context. Ultimately, he shows the evolution of these historical and politcal works as they were written to reflect and shape the cultural bliefs of the Hebrew people. Chronologically, there is a very distinct progression and transformation of identity, especially in regards to interaction with other non-Jewish peoples. To crudely summarize, the Hebraic texts begin with a very self-centered and isolating mentality, grow further in self-definition during the reign of the kings and tension between the northern and southern Jewish kingdons, grow further into self-imposed isolation within other cultures during the exile periods for the purpose of survival, but finally grow into a strong personal identity that not only allows but even calls for integration and acceptance of other peoples. As Bishop Spong describes it, they went from a strict self-preserving tribal mentality to an inclusive social justice mentality.
Ultimately, the lesson prescribed is that God is Love, and as such humans have no right to draw boundaries where God has drawn none. The Jewish people were (and still are) a commmunity whose identity was religious and they were defined by their religous beliefs and practices. Out of fear of losing that identity, boudnaries were made to cast away others that differed. It was a fear that the Jewish identity would be lost in assimilation during the Diasporas. This same fear of loosing a communal religous identity is found througout Christianity and is deeply invested in its history.
I find it saddening that Jewish religious identity had progressed to the point of acceptance and tolerance if not even a full embrace of other peoples at the time of Jesus, only to see that progression completely erased by those who would later shape the religion that would claim to be based on the example of Jesus as Christ. The problem in Christianity is not even necessarily Christians vs. everyone else. Even worse than that for so many, it has come to “my” version of Christianity vs. everyone else. There are demoninations that won’t even sit at the same table as other denominations because they are not “true Christians” in their eyes. How utterly absurd this is!
Rather than look at the history of the religion that claims to be based on the Christ and has been defined by one drawing of boundaries after another, let us take a brief moment to look at the example of Jesus in his life time.
Jesus taught, feasted, partied with and even celebrated people of differing religious backgrounds from his own. He lauded the outcast samaritans. He did not go to them and tell them to be his kind of Jew. He ate with the “unclean” non jews. He did not tell them to change to his kind of Jew before he could sit with them. He healed non-Jews. He did not say they had to be Jewish before he would help them or even after helping them tell them to go be Jewish. In fact, what he was most often reported to have said was “Go and sin no more,” not go and convert! He taught Jews and non-Jews alike. He did not say in any of the lessons that are passed down in the Gospels that they have to be Jewish let alone a certain kind of Jew. Jesus was secure enough in his own religious identity that he was not afraid of someone of differing beliefs being around him. Even among his apostles, his closests students, confidants and friends he had quite the diversity.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb, but I would say that Jesus understood the value of diversity. We are called to grow in love. Growth is change. There can be no change when we are all the same. In uniformity there is no alternative view that allows us the greatest gift we could imagine – the opportunity to question ourselves in a new light.
And here we see the distinction. Jesus prays that we all will be one in God. That is an act of unity. Jesus does not pray that we all will be the same in God. He does not call for an act of uniformity. God celebrates in diversity. His creation proves that. But people, it seems, have a great deal of difficulty doing the same. Instead, people tend to react out of personal fears of insecurity and strike out (usually violently; either physically, economically, or emotionaly) at others that are differnt. These fears are deeply rooted and very VERY sensative to the touch.
But these fears must be addressed and overcome. That is what the progression of the Hebraic texts calls for and the example of Jesus offers. Keep in mind that at no point did these lessons teach that allowing differences would have to mean giving up one’s own beliefs. Respecting and even celebrating differences does not automatically preclude that one’s own beliefs will be shattered. They may be challenged. They may even be changed in same way. But brothers and sisters, this is what God calls us to do. We can find greater depth in our own faiths by drawing from the experience of others, even if they aren’t the same as ours.
I did not become less of a Christian when I took classed from a Sufi Muslim. I did not loose my belief in God when I was taught by a Buddhist. I did not loose my Christian identity when I sat a table of very dear Jewish friends and celebrated Passover with them. Quite the contrary. I found a far greater and deeper connection with God when I took part in that diversity.
I did loose something though. I lost a stuck up, elitest and yes even prejudiced attitude. I lost previous views that were not grounded in Love. I give thanks to God every day for having had the opportunity to loose that baggage. I also pray to God everday that I will find myself in more opportunities like that.
My brothers and sisters, let us find unity in mutual respect and Love for each other while working to set aside those terrible fears that cause us to fight for uniformity at the cost of others. Let us ask ourselves this question and meditate in response: Does God call us into union with one another or uniformity? Amen.