Reframing Christianity

What if we got it all wrong about Christianity?  What if the crucifixion and resurrection is not the cornerstone of the Christian narrative?  What if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the sacrificial lamb that has been slain for the redemption of the world?  What if there was a different meaning, a different purpose, a different narrative that Jesus was trying to teach humanity?  What if we have been distracted from that message by trying to find meaning in his death?

What if his torturous death on the cross was an attempt to kill an idea, akin to Gandhi’s assassination, or Martin Luther King’s?  When Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the late 1500’s, Sebastian Castellio wrote “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: It is to kill a man!”  It was true with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. their ideas were sought to be killed with their death. What if the ideas that Jesus taught were diminished in significance by glorifying his death on the cross?

The message that Jesus taught during his life was that God is love. Love one another. Be holy / be loving as your God in heaven is loving.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Place first the realm of heaven/ love above all else and everything shall be added unto you.  Be generous in all things; if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well.  If they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Love your enemies.

Contrast this message with God sacrificing his son to break the power of sin, the evils of the world in humanity.  God putting his beloved son in whom he is well pleased through torture, barbaric grueling torture for the salvation of humanity that is weaker, feebler, unable to measure up, unable to even come close to the love that Jesus exemplifies.

What parent would seek to punish a beloved child, perhaps a stronger, well meaning child for the wrongs committed by a younger, weaker, perhaps even physically feeble child?  What parent would then be called loving by doing such an unjust act against their children?

Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins writes:  “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”  My comment on this quote was: “We [would] do the same for a father who punishes his older, stronger, more able son for the shortcomings, the wrongs committed by the younger and feebler son.  This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified on the cross for our sins, for our wrongs committed.”

Now to be fair, the quote is taken out of context from Rob Bell’s text.  He is not talking about Jesus being punished for the sins of humanity.  He is talking about millions of people who have been taught that if someone does not accept Jesus in the ‘right’ way and they were then killed that very day, then God would have no choice but to punish them eternally with hell fire. Bell writes, “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.” Such a god who portrays as being loving that would then become vindictive at the moment of death is no loving god. I agree with Rob Bell on this point.

I remember in high school, one of my classmates dying in a horrible car accident. The story went around the school that moments before his car accident he was being witnessed to about Jesus; he became angry and stormed off and consequently died.  The moral of this story was exactly what Rob Bell is saying.  My classmate because he rejected Christ was now in hell.  See what happens? God will take us out too, if we reject his son. How in heaven is this good news?

But Rob Bell’s argument in my mind is the same.  No loving parent would punish a good child, an obedient child, a child that models the best qualities of virtue for the inabilities, the inherent flaws in the child that cannot live up to those standards. No loving parent would call that love, mercy, or grace.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The key is in how we define the word “gave.”  To be consistent with God being love, crucifixion on the cross does not fit the definition.  Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard that a king had leased out.  He sends a servant to collect his harvest and the servant is beaten.  The king sends another servant and he too is beaten. So the king sends his beloved son, and the workers at the vineyard conspire together and kill the son.  The king does not give the son to be killed; it is what the workers at the vineyard do. God did not give his son to be crucified; it is the action that the people chose to take. At best the crucifixion can be seen as humanities abusive tendencies with all of life’s gifts to us.

There is a flaw in the theology surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Now I understand how such a flawed theology could arise.  Humans are meaning makers.  We want everything to have a meaning, a purpose.  We want our lives to be meaningful and not just the drudgery of the day to day indifference.  We have incorporated this meaning making into our clichés and platitudes.  When someone dies, we hear things like “God’s ways are mysterious” or it was “God’s will”. When we go through tough times we hear that “God is working his purpose out” or “God only allows what we can endure.”   We want our lives to have purpose, to have meaning.  So here was this man who lived and taught extraordinary truths on the nature of love.  He is betrayed, he is tortured, and he is crucified on a cross.  We want this to have meaning. We need it to be filled with profound meaning.

What possible meaning could it have?  He lived in a culture that valued the notion of substitution of wrongs through sacrifice.  This is the culture of the scapegoat.  This is the culture that had stories of child sacrifices with Abraham offering up his son to God. This is the culture that believed that blood rituals could bring atonement for sins. It makes sense that this culture would seek meaning in this manner.

But this is meaning that contradicts the very teachings of Jesus.  This is meaning that makes salvation into a three minute sinner’s prayer with no more commitment than that to achieve life eternal.  Salvation becomes marketable and easy. This life is filled with grief and sorrow but there is pie in the sky with Jesus.  All the focus is on the here after and no concern on the here and now.

Rob Bell states in his book, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” 

But if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the atonement of sins to enable our safe passage into heaven, then what is his good news?  How do we make sense of his death?

Jesus saw his life to “proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4: 18-19) His life was to show the power of love, justice in the world.  His life was to offer a new way of being that was not caught up in greed, coercion, or power abuse; be it physical, emotional, psychological, or corporate abuse.

This is a harder message to absorb. It is not a quick fix salvation. It sometimes points the finger of justice directly at where we live and convicts us. But it does seek to embody love in a way that is liberating in the here and now. It proclaims that not even death can stop it from progressing forward. Love is more powerful than death.  Love will resurrect in the hearts and minds of those who seek after it. It proclaims that we can be a part of that message if we seek to love one another.

“Perhaps the story of the physical raising of a dead man to life is an allegory of something else like the hope and promise of resurrection in the living of our days.  In the days that followed the biblical story, there was a change in the people who had followed Jesus. We are told they were all in hiding, in fear of their lives when their teacher was killed.  Over the next few weeks, they began to come out of their own self imposed tombs to begin spreading a message they had learned from their teacher. They tapped into the message of Jesus’ ministry of love and justice for others and began to see new possibilities for their lives.  It was as if the words of this man began to live within their own hearts, and created a new perspective on how they viewed life.  The embodied resurrection was empowering them to create their lives anew with the message they had heard. “[From “The Silence of the Resurrection” © 2009 Rev. Fred L Hammond UUCTuscaloosa)

Our focus then should not be on the crucifixion of Jesus. It should not even be on the resurrection. These are just footnotes to the narrative that was Jesus’ teachings. Our focus in this narrative is on what Jesus taught.  How are we to live our day to day lives?  How do we help bring release to the captors and set the oppressed free?  How do we love one another? How do we embody the teachings of Jesus so that they too transform us and the world around us?  How do we love one another, especially the ones who have caused us pain?

These are the vital questions to be asking ourselves. These are the questions that will re-frame  and transform our lives in profound ways.    Blessings,

Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets

Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets

10 April 2011 © Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

“Would you harbor me?  Would I harbor you?”  This powerful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock asks some tough questions and in further reflection asks more questions.  What does this word imply?  What are we wanting in a harbor?  What are we looking to offer as a harbor?  The word can be a noun or a verb.  As a noun, it is “a place on the coast where vessels may find shelter, esp. one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures” or “a place of refuge.” As a verb, it is “Keep (a thought or feeling, typically a negative one) in one’s mind, esp. secretly” or “Give a home or shelter to” or “Shelter or hide (a criminal or wanted person)” or “Carry the germs of (a disease)”or refers to the crew of a ship that “moors in a harbor.” [i]

The harbor can be a place where sailors get some needed R and R, where boats are built or rebuilt, where ships can weather the storms.  The question becomes for what purpose do we use harbors?  Are they places where we are to remain for evermore?

The word Sanctuary also has similar connotations.  It is a place set apart, made holy for worship but it was also a place of safety, of refuge, of asylum.  In the middle ages a person could enter a sanctuary and receive immunity from being arrested or executed.

The most recent example of the word Sanctuary in this regard was in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s. This was a civil initiative of some 500 congregations including Unitarian Universalist to enforce the federal law of offering asylum to refugees from war torn Central America.  The law stated that a person would be granted asylum if they could prove well founded fear of persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The United States refused to acknowledge the proof of persecution because to do so would also mean acknowledging its role in arming the Juntas against their own people.

The goal was not to house these individuals forever in various congregations but rather to move these individuals into Canada where they could obtain political asylum and rebuild their lives until such time as they could return to their homeland or become naturalized as Canadian citizens.

The word closet means a place where to store things or hang clothes.  But in England a closet was a small room where a person could read in private and in India, a closet referred to a toilet.  The term water closet referred to a room with a flushable toilet.  The word began to take on figurative meanings as well, such as a place to hide things like family secrets. I once dated someone who described his family by saying, “Not all of the skeletons in my family’s closet are dead.”   He was born into the Mafia.  And for those who were gay being in the closet was a form of self preservation.

When I was first starting Interfaith AIDS Ministry, the office was in a converted church closet with louvered doors that I would unlock and open wide.  One of my volunteers made a sign when I was not in the office that stated “Fred has just left the closet.”  The agency spent its first five years in that closet.  Somehow this beginning all seemed very fitting.

So back to our question:  What do the words Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets imply for us here?  Here we are living in the Deep South where the words Christian and Baptist are conflated as one and the same.  All other denominations are suspect of heresy and are surely going to hell. And when going to hell is the starting point for every other Christian denomination, then what about the person who does not even claim the Christian nomenclature but perhaps is Jewish, or Muslim, or Unitarian Universalist, or even something all together different?

When I lived in Mississippi, I would be invited to Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg to speak with the social work students about Unitarian Universalists.  The professor wanted to make sure that her students knew that not everyone was a Baptist.  So I would sit on a panel with other clergy representing Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Wiccan.  Many of the students had no idea that there were Mississippians who practiced another religion other than Baptist. I am not being ugly when I say this; they admitted never having met anyone who was not Baptist.  It was as if we had all been under lock and key, hidden away to not embarrass the company like Harry Potter at his aunt’s house.

So when we come here on Sunday, are we coming to leave our closet to be with others who are in some ways like us?  When I was in the gay closet my best moments were when I was with friends where I could simply relax and be myself.  These moments were so refreshing, so rejuvenating like removing a tight corset and being able to breathe even for a little while. And so is this place like that for you?  A place where you do not have to watch every liberal word that comes out of your mouth in conversations.  A place where Baptist platitudes will not be heard and do not need to be politely ignored or defended against?  I fully understand the attraction.

When I came out of the closet, I had a cousin claim that he did not know any gay people and so I would be the first. Well, it turns out that we have another cousin who is gay so that makes two. While I did not entirely believe my cousin that he did not know anyone who was gay, I did believe that those who were gay around him might stay in the closet because they are unsure of how he might respond. I believed that his knowing at least one openly gay person who, if I may be so bold, does not fit the gay stereotype and the negativity it generates would in time erode whatever homophobic milieu he absorbed from his environment.  In short, his knowing me and later our cousin might begin to make it safe for others around him to also come out of the closet.

I am frequently told by people in the Deep South that they either have never heard of Unitarian Universalists or of the parent faiths of Unitarians and Universalists that begat us or what they have heard is grossly misinformed. This is not the case in New England where Unitarian Universalist congregations are almost as common as Baptist congregations here.

What I also discover when talking with these individuals is that they frequently do indeed know Unitarian Universalists in their lives or Unitarians and Universalists from history but for whatever reason the living Unitarian Universalists in their lives did not feel safe to come out to them.  Much like my cousin, they claimed they did not know any Unitarian Universalists when all the time we were working side by side with them but hiding in our closet.

I wonder what would happen if we were open to listening to our colleagues at work when they begin talking about their faith to gently engage them with talking about ours.  What would happen if we came out of the Unitarian Universalist closet and people began to see that we are not the Satan worshippers or the cult they have been told.  I wonder what would happen if they began to see that what we value in our lives are similar to the values they share.  Perhaps there are differences in expression of those values but for people to recognize that others share similar values is the start towards building a better community.

There are sanctuaries where we are safe from the pressures pushing in on our lives. Sanctuaries do not need to be simply this place but could be the places where we gather.  When I was speaking in Montgomery on the recent bills presented to the house and senate, I felt sanctuary knowing that there were Unitarian Universalist clergy and others in the room urging me on.  There is a sense of safety when two or more are gathered. This too is a form of sanctuary.

Peter Mayer, Unitarian Universalists singer/song writer has a song that declares everything is holy now.  If sanctuaries are places made holy then Peter Mayer is telling us that every where is a sanctuary, everywhere and every moment has the potential to amaze us, transform us, and inform us of the holy. It is not just this place where we gather on Sunday morn but everywhere we gather.

What else happened in the sanctuaries of old?  There were prayers, rituals, and means in which to strengthen bonds to one another and to the faith such as the Eucharist also known as communion.

In a few weeks we will celebrate a communion of sorts.  We will have a flower communion where we honor the diversity of flowers of our planet as a metaphor to the diversity of our humanity.  Each one of us is beautiful; each one of us is an unfolding blossom of great potential to seed the world with love and justice. We will exchange the flowers that we bring with a flower that another has brought to remember that it is in giving and receiving that we are blessed with this love.

These rituals, both traditional and new, happened not just to soothe the heart or release the burdens that press down upon us but also to equip the faithful to go back out and engage the world.  Engage the world not just as individuals but as a community of faith.

There is something powerful when a group of people do an activity in the community.  When hundreds of Unitarian Universalists went to Phoenix, Arizona last July wearing our deep yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts we were recognized as a religious movement that is making a statement on justice in this country. It was a more powerful statement than if we just showed up as individuals, albeit people of faith.

I am excited that a number of us are participating in the One Tuscaloosa project which is addressing racism in our community structures.  But at the same time, I am puzzled that we are not doing this as a group of Unitarian Universalists but rather as individuals where affiliation to our faith can remain hidden, remain closeted.

Could we be meeting here at the church as a group to discuss and reflect upon our experiences that we are having within One Tuscaloosa?  If our faith is a transformative faith it is in the sharing of our values to change the world with one another in a manner that is supportive of one another in this journey we are on.  There is no shame in someone noticing that as a group we Unitarian Universalists live by our principles and honor the integrity of those we meet.

What makes creating justice important to me as a Unitarian Universalist is not the small hard won victories but rather the reflecting on these experiences either alone or with others. Both are needed.  If we do not pause and reflect on how we are supporting our values and simply “rage, rage against the dying of the light” then we will burn out and unable to continue to love our neighbors as our selves. It is in the coming back together again in the sanctuary of our shared mutual hearts, in the sanctuary of where we are safe to cry, safe to laugh, safe to express our grief, our loss, our pain and accept the salve of love from our community that allows us to go back out and engage the world again.

Harbors.  Will you harbor me?  Will I harbor you?  I am beginning to see these words as being much larger and more powerful than before.  Harboring someone is more than just providing shelter from the storm.  It is also enabling rejuvenation to occur within the person.  After being tossed to and fro on the stormy seas of life, it might be expected that there is need to rest, to regain our strength.

Living in the Deep South, we can be bombarded with harsh dogmatic statements regarding all sorts of positions: women’s right to choose, marriage equality rights, Sharia Law, and Separation of Church and State. We can be bombarded with people concerned with our eternal wellbeing while appearing to not care very much for our physical and emotional wellbeing. These statements can wear us down after a while especially if they are colleagues or members of our family.

So coming to a Unitarian Universalist congregation can be a harbor where we will not seek to coerce another to accept any doctrine but rather give each person the breathing room to explore the doctrine and come to one’s own conclusion.

When I first began attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was still reeling from a charismatic catholic prayer community that I had attended for many years.  While I learned a lot from this prayer community being exiled for my sexuality was painful.  So I warily attended the Unitarian Universalists.   I was allowed breathing room.  I could ask my questions without feeling judged or receive comments like “how could you believe that?”  And slowly I became more at ease and just like an abused animal who eventually no longer cowers in the presence of others, I began to gain the strength to call this place my harbor, my refuge; a place where I could build my ship for my spiritual journey.

A quote with multiple attributions is “A ship in a harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.”  It is true for our faith as well.  It is safe to be a Unitarian Universalist within this harbor, this sanctuary, and within this closet but that is not what our faith is for.  Our faith is to be engaged with the world, to be the salt that adds flavor, to be the beacon light on the hill, to help build the city of joy where all people are honored for who they are on this beautiful blue boat home.   Blessed Be.

Published in: on April 10, 2011 at 3:11 pm  Comments Off on Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets  
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