Wednesday, 3 April 2013

‘The name is Christian: Evangelical Christian’

It’s something that we all do. We read a story and try to project ourselves into the character of the hero. For instance, most young men (and quite a few older ones) will watch a Bond movie and in the foyer afterwards, assimilate the testosterone-fuelled thought-life of its hero. Perhaps, they’ll recite the memorable words: ‘Bond, James Bond’ to themselves with hands clasped together to mimic a gun and feel a surge of the character’s charm and confidence.
Okay. Maybe that last bit’s just me.  The point is that the first-century religious establishment of Judaea did exactly the same with the writings of the prophets. In reflecting on a history that recorded their ancestors as straying away from God and on the presumption that they had virtue on their side, they romanticised that they would have made better choices than the nation’s previous leaders. The hindsight of history exposed the mistakes of the past. Yet, it did not inform their present priorities. Their behaviour towards Christ proved a complete contradiction to the noble intentions they claimed to embrace.
Just like Bond moviegoers, they were just trying to own a complete moral fantasy.  This is why Christ said to them: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ You testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!’ (Matt. 23: 29 – 32)  ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors..!’ As a well-known adage states: ‘if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride’. 
The scribes fancifully supposed that they would have not nearly been as ready to harass the prophets as their predecessors were. Just like today, they held the vindicated early reformers in high esteem, remembering their great sacrifices with deep ceremonial reverence. They marked out their tombs as holy places. They asserted that they would never have gone as far as to authorise execution: they would have found a compromise. The problem that they would face is that true prophets don’t compromise. God’s message is insistent and uncompromising towards those who reject His call for change.
It’s almost a paradox that they considered those who executed the prophets to be their predecessors. It demonstrated a partial tacit collusion. Even in an era of mass defection from God, they could not abandon their love of prominence, they just thought they could do a better job in that role. The defecting nation was happy to leave them in charge. The majority were happy for leaders who would say one thing and yet live by a different code, who were more interested in themselves than those they claimed to serve. This made such leaders culpable for doing nothing to oppose the on-going rebellion. If they were more challenging of defiance, their authority would have roused slumbering consciences. 
Taking the analogy further, it’s like hearing a member of the audience claim on leaving the cinema (with not a single mention of Bond himself) that he (or she) could dream up a better Bond villain than the latest film delivered. This person blatantly resonates more with the villain, than with Bond. Of course, that’s fine when it comes to artistic fantasy. We can glorify the cinematic anti-hero. However, when it comes to real-life villains, the idea that their behaviour is either a wonderful, but poorly executed idea, or that we can learn something from them in terms of leadership techniques (Hitler), or single-mindedness (Josef Stalin) is an idle, harmful reverie.  In like manner and just as unwittingly, the scribes’ protestations of outrage showed no identification with the persecuted prophets, those who were ostracised and killed by the Jewish religious elite of that earlier era. Instead, they identified themselves as a more rational evolution of the same religious establishment that despised the prophets. They just thought that they were capable of opting out of the extremes of persecution imposed by their predecessors. 
The scribal role was intended to be beneficial. It was ordained as part of the effort approved by Artaxerxes, in the seventh year of his reign, to support the re-settlement of exiles in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. Ezra the scribe, the descendant of a priestly family, was living in Babylon when the king sent him to Jerusalem to teach the laws of God to any who did not know them. In time, after involvement in review and hand-written publication of the Law and Prophets according to very exacting standards, the more gifted learners became capable of expounding on the Torah.
They also established schools for instructing the populace, especially as part of the process of re-educating the nation in the behaviour required of their covenant with God.  500-odd years later, the scribes of Jesus’ day were more interested in distinguishing themselves as part of a divinely chosen elite, hence their identification with former rulers of Israel (even those who defected from God), rather than the outcast prophetic movements. They had built a code of judicial decisions and underpinning philosophical explanations. Many of these decisions, such as Corban, were clearly slanted to favour the richer citizens who could afford a legal means of evading parental welfare and other liabilities.

Here was a class of people who, by their education and effort in studying the scriptures, could point the way for ordinary Jewish people to attain a beneficial, meaningful and practical relationship with God and each other. However, instead of making the underlying message accessible, they made themselves into the new non-hereditary elite. In one way or another, they simply reinforced the idea that God only wanted those who were prepared to follow their every prescription and prejudice without question. They became self-serving. They believed in their time-served sense of greater ENTITLEMENT to decide that what was best for themselves was best for everyone else. This goes on today.  They still took issue with John the Baptist, calling him demented because he never drank, fasted most of the time and lived as a hermit, yet they criticized Christ for drinking and eating too much and being a bit too convivial towards lapsed members of the Jewish nation. Surprise, surprise: no-one, apart from them, had got the balance between restraint and liberty exactly right. Of course, they were politically astute enough to refrain from a complete castigation of either the prophet or His Messiah.

That would incite a revolt among the masses who revered John as a martyr and Christ’s miracles as proof of His heavenly calling. No, they preferred to drip feed dismissive contempt, hostility and ostracism in small doses, using any chance they could to undermine their ministries. We see their efforts backfiring over and over again throughout the gospels. They were simply dismissive of anyone who stole the limelight and thwarted their own starring role in God’s redemptive work. This also goes on today.  ‘But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” (Matt. 9:34) - while never casting such aspersions upon the exorcisms conducted by their own followers. They also wanted Him to prove his authority to challenge their teachings by causing a conclusive portent to appear in the heavens (which He claimed as His rightful abode). ‘Give us a sign’, they exclaimed.  They insisted to a Christ-sympathiser of their number, Nicodemus ‘Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee." (John 7:52) and taunted Christ by saying ‘"Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" (John 8:48)  All this means that the love of their prominent career trajectory, competitive jealousy and character assassination will always precede, but won’t preclude physical hostility.
Ministry of any kind will always hold this threat of forming an exclusive elite unless it is constantly democratised. Without the empowerment of those we claim to have a desire to help, they will remain dependent and fawningly obedient. It’s just a few short steps from an unyielding code of conformity on externalisms to the tyrannical obsession with style over substance to the hostile despotic contempt for all non-conformists as treacherous. Open contradiction is not treachery. Abandoning the central cause of Christ to focus on bureaucracy, elitism, political manoeuvring and pet causes is the real treachery. 
Tilda Swinton, in Oscar-winning form, delivered a fantastic portrayal of this sort of lethal ambition in the film, ‘Michael Clayton’. She has nothing against anyone personally. In fact, she is a model corporate climber. Nevertheless, she does want to advance her credentials by proving that no business dilemma is too big for her to solve. She hires an ex-military surveillance team to protect her law firm from the financial impact of one of their lawyers involved in a multi-billion dollar class action law-suit. He’s had a breakdown caused by the guilt of defending an agricultural chemicals conglomerate that has produced a weed-killer that they knew to be carcinogenic. She fears an exposé that would end all hope of an out-of-court settlement, all public confidence and wipe billions off their stock price.  It was only after her character understands that his plan to salve his conscience involves publishing the secret memo authorising production in spite of test results showing the blatant threat to human life, that she quietly orders those bugging his office, to have him ‘permanently incapacitated’. They make it look like a suicide. 
For John the Baptist, this ultimate sanction was precipitated by a direct criticism of Herodias’ unlawful marriage. For Jesus, it was prompted by his exposure of the focus on empty ritual and the selective self-promoting ‘servanthood’ of the Pharisees and Chief Priests as fake. This falsehood was at the expense of unassuming compassion. For Paul, it was ending the business opportunity established by slave-owners in Philippi derived by public interest in the mysterious rants of their fortune-teller slave-girl. He also attracted a larger audience than his Jewish rivals who imposed a raft of rituals before a convert could experience the assurance of forgiveness from God. Try exposing a corrupt business, unnecessary prohibitions, trickery or the misappropriation of funds with the very real threat of a fall from public favour and see if they don’t try to get rid of you. 
So, what will it be today, that propels ambitious pillars of the community to impose life-threatening sanctions on today’s prophets? No-one can know exactly. In fact, as long as apathy continues, the new religious elite can remain inflexibly driven by their love of outward ritual, ceremonial visibility, pet causes, public status and the inevitable pecking order dictating who will do anything from coffee rotas to running the church meeting protocol. True Christians will instead wash and clean the suppurating abscesses of those wounded by church indifference to their real-world problems. 
Start challenging the priorities that a church is prepared to fund and those causes it ignores and you will become a marked man. You will become someone to be silenced, rather than simply ignored. Meanwhile, the challenge to those holding high religious office will continue unabated: that their carefully constructed hierarchies of admirers are meaningless, that their lack of lasting personal empathy towards ex-members betrays a moral vacuum. It will continue until the fakery is exposed as no less fraudulent than that of those who ‘permanently incapacitated’ the prophets. It will continue until those moved towards the truth pay the ultimate price for their loyalty to Christ: ‘Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’ (Luke 11:49 – 51)
We may reassure our consciences by claiming that our more rational and caring world and first-century Judaea are poles apart, but God does promise to turn the heat up on complacency among our religious elite. Let’s see how they react.