Indonesian churches will be full this Christmas. Many will run back-to-back services and erect marquees in car parks to handle the overflow. This suggests a pious society, but Christians in this country - where almost 90 per cent are Muslim - tend to be exclusive, often evangelical and rarely progressive.
Back in Australia the secular Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has just made 409 recommendations to stop this evil recurring though some churches are already resisting change. Details of the villainy here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-15/royal-commission-child-sexual-abuse-by-the-numbers/9263800
The coupling of these events has prompted this personal reflection:
Kill the message, promote the messenger
When my teenage younger brother died from a brain tumour our mother threw a fit outside the London cemetery chapel. She erupted when the officiating minister told her Neil ‘had gone to a better place.’
‘How do you know?’ she screamed, and then shouted with the unchallengeable certainty he lacked: ‘You don’t know!’ Wisely he didn’t respond aware that no answer would satisfy. He walked on to his next funeral while my father tried to placate Mum’s anger and steer her away from the gaping mourners.
I disagreed with my mother on almost everything so still kept going to church hoping one day I’d find the answers. That never happened.
The last church I quit mid-service was on Easter Sunday about ten years ago. The denomination was Anglican, what Americans call Episcopal and the British Church of England.
The supreme governor of this undemocratic institution with 85 million adherents is a nonagenarian with a dysfunctional family and no university degrees or theological training. She has the job only because a lusty distant relative called Harry wanted a divorce. So much for divine direction.
The vicar was a robust guy, not one of the wimps who retreat into the ministry because they can’t handle the world then tell others how to live.
The upper middle-class congregation had been reasonably welcome though some Tory elders had difficulties masking their disapproval of a newcomer with an Asian wife.
The church’s Italianate style fits well into the comfortably established 19th century inner Wellington suburb, so overall a pleasant environment. But on this particular morning a Damascus Road moment arrived when we stood to recite the Nicene Creed.
As a schoolboy in Britain forced to kneel in St Albans Cathedral twice a week because holiness had to be enforced, the Profession of Faith was easily recitable; but for some curious reason a half-century later it suddenly became unacceptable.
The seeds of disillusion had been germinating for decades before they bloomed into clarity: Every time I chanted the Creed I was lying.
I did not believe in the one God, Father Almighty or the immaculate conception. My teen questions had always been flicked aside as in bad taste, sinful even.
Why was the Deity male? Did his son have the same reproductive gear I had under his drapes and been through the same pangs of puberty? How could the educated citizens of an enlightened age parrot pre-scientific nonsense on Sundays and then use reason in their lives for the rest of the week?
Like the vicar at my little brother’s funeral they had no answers.
‘Virgin births’ were a standard myth in many cultures to explain the teenage daughter’s bump to the neighbours. Nothing new here. Parthenogenesis is confined to a few plants, some fish and various bugs including water fleas. But not humans.
Disassociating Mary’s pregnancy from the passion of the carnal act which precedes the entry of everyone else to the world seemed more about prudery; it made sex unclean and not the overwhelming delight most of us experience.
Joseph meekly accepting his bride’s claim that she’d been bonked by an angel doesn’t pass the sniff test. ‘Look, Joe, you wouldn’t or couldn’t do it so I got Gabriel to come around. It’ll take a few more centuries but eventually you logheads will learn that women also have sexual needs.’
‘No worries Mary, these things happen,’ says the cuckolded hubby proving himself the most forgiving Christian. ‘Better head to Bethlehem - no-one knows us there. I’ve got the donkey fueled; we’ll pay our tax to Caesar and fill in the census at the same time’.
This shrinking from nature and turning love to abhorrence created the prohibitions on married clergy. These led to extreme agonies, evil deeds and betrayals exposed by 21st century inquiries into priestly pederasty. That explanation isn’t watertight as many perverts have been Protestants and sometimes wedded. Who screened these men when they applied to be God’s reps?
The Fathers who have sinned most egregiously have soiled the faith they taught and damned its credibility as a force for good. The threat to the church they feared was not from the pagans without but the dog-collared villains within.
Jesus would have put millstones around their necks and cast them in the sea. Fortunately for them the law had learned Christian compassion.
Despite sitting though many explanations the idea of the Holy Ghost proved unreachable. Acceptance required jumping too many chasms unbridgeable by logic.
The 17th century Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei wrote: ‘I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowleedge which we can attain by them.’
BTW, he was the geek who said the world went around the sun. The holy whitebeards claiming greater knowledge bequeathed to them by God forced him to recant or be tortured to death.
The Catholic Church maintained that condemnation till last century. And we are supposed to respect these frauds and believe their ‘wisdoms’? Any resemblance to richly-attired men performing archaic rituals in splendid cathedrals and a manger-born woodworker from a poor family offering a few universal truths is purely coincidental.
The Trinity idea had been conjured up by male theologians centuries after the death of Christ and who had then turned prayer into profit. This wall between Muslims and Christians has caused huge trouble over the ages so long overdue for demolition.
So farewell Father and Holy Ghost - how about the Son? First question for a sceptic - did he ever exist? Second question: Does it matter?
To date we know of only three written references - one false, another probably made up - leaving just one impartial account by the Roman historian Tacitus.
His original manuscript is missing, which is a worry as much might have been added or subtracted to the surviving copies. The Senator was reporting almost a century later; likewise with the Gospel Four and the misogynist apostle Paul.
Writers, not reporters
Like so many men in the Bible he seems to have been emasculated by the mystery and power of women so retreated to spurn and hate. He should have stayed a tax collector instead of focusing on Jesus rather than his wisdoms.
Paul and the other writers smothered Christ’s basic message about love it with warped histories, lies, dogma, their own sexual hang-ups and egos plus heaven knows how much superstition and revisionism. But somehow the principles survived; applying them was another matter.
None of these men had ever met Jesus; all relied on hand-me-down tales. As journalists covering courts know well, even honest and neutral onlookers to recent events can be mistaken in their recall and interpretation.
How much more so when decades had passed, written records were few and the stories embellished and censored in the recounting. It seems Jesus never put pen to papyrus which suggests he might have been illiterate. The gospels are four different accounts of the life of one man - they can’t even agree on his birth.
Then there was the problem of translation through several languages; it’s unlikely all scribes were bias-free. It’s not just authoritarian governments that re-write history.
Portrait of a stirrer
The pictures usually show Christ as a handsome, often bearded, well-assembled Caucasian who liked the company of lambs and little kids. A man like that seen near a kindergarten today would soon find Child Welfare and the Police asking questions.
All the portraits come from artists’ imagination coloured by their culture and beliefs. There are no eye-witness accounts. He could have been a swarthy Kim Jong-un lookalike with a hooked nose who would certainly get pulled aside from an LA immigration queue.
If he did return he’d need to wear a sober business suit and tie, be clean shaven, short haired and have polished shoes to be accepted among the evangelicals. But there’s going to be no second coming, no supernatural solution; the problems we have are for us to fix
Having a knockabout tradie challenging the elite who had built careers and fortunes around claiming exclusive knowledge of God’s will was not on. Prophets don’t dovetail chairs, they mount thrones. The job requires lineage, divinity and mystic skills. As these weren’t in the original version they had to be invented and the story retrofitted to match the Messiah as reported in the Old Testament.
And who’d want to hear an upstart Jew without letters after his name trying to say profound things unless he had a swag of loaves-and-fishes party tricks to draw the crowds?
Had motorbikes been invented the Gang of Twelve would be wearing big boots not sandals for these lads were outsiders and trouble-makers for sure.
They would have unsettled the colonial power and spurred complaints from Concerned Citizens of Capernaum. No wonder they called out the armed anti-terror squad which brought the boss in for questioning.
Today we don’t need to recite ancient yarns about a shunned woman with menorrhagia getting embraced, or a Samaritan giving a hit and run victim first aid to know there are moral forks in everyone’s daily road.
Like former President Jimmy Carter quitting his church because ‘women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God’. Pity he waited 60 years to find his conscience.
That leaves the last biggie in the Creed: ‘And the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father’.
Learning but not applying
Two millennia ago the natural universe was little understood. Republics had yet to be invented so rulers were kings. Women were just the soil for a man’s seed. The masses were uneducated and the administration brutal and feudal.
This was the age of prophecies drawn from the Hebrew Bible and full of yarns of a coming Messiah, the promised land, Armageddon and God knows what.
Shooting stars weren’t meteorites burning up in the atmosphere but portents of evil. Sickness was the penalty for sin - not infection from pathogens. What couldn’t be explained was labeled a curse or miracle, terms now almost extinct outside literary use.
The prophets were con artists exploiting ignorance with tales of devils and battles in heaven. Forecasters of the Second Coming with Christ on a white horse would have got claps and shekels, no matter that nothing came to pass.
Predicting the discovery of space, electricity, radio waves, smartphones, McDonald’s burgers and driverless cars would have led to being ostracised like the lepers or condemned to death.
If these sages were so smart why didn’t they foretell the industrial revolution, or if that was too secular, Martin Luther and the birth of Protestantism?
Christ’s world was small and flat and knowledge narrow; heaven was just beyond the clouds, so Jesus defying gravity would have made sense 1,700 years before Sir Isaac Newton worked out the science and the impossibility.
Not now. New Zealand theologian Sir Lloyd Geering’s comments that the bones of Jesus still lie in Palestine crazed conservatives last century.
Tomorrow we might click on a YouTube news clip of an archaeological dig uncovering a headstone marked JESVS KRISTVS RIP.
What happens next? The Nicene Creed then collapses like a jerry-built house of worship in an earthquake.
Those who’d erected their faith on fantasy tales and adulation of authority will be homeless in the rubble, calling for spiritual CPR and whispering: ‘What remains?’
Just the story of a charismatic stirrer who had the courage to confront the establishment’s chicanery, offer a code of living, got cruelly killed for his trouble yet forgave his persecutors. Now that’s a model to admire.
The problem is that JC’s simple prescriptions for peaceful living are almost indigestible: Never hate. Be tolerant, show compassion. Treat others as you’d want them to treat you. And here’s the real frightener - love thy neighbour.
Now that’s a step too far. They might be gay. There’s been a translation hiccup here, as the anti-Semitic Billy Graham (no known relative, thank God) might say:
‘Check the New International Version against the King James and you’ll see why ‘take no thought for the morrow’ doesn’t prohibit buying life insurance.’ Heaven forbid!
Let’s give this a bit of thought for, say, 20 centuries? No harm in that - rushing leads to mistakes. In the meantime better convert him into a king with feudal authority demanding to be venerated, and hire televangelists to dust away doubts.
Wear crucifixes, the bigger the better. Although the Bible is on the smartphone, prominently tout an oxblood natural grain leather-bound volume to show we’re holy and superior. Give money for the steeple-rebuild but tell the poor and needy they’ll get our prayers.
Subscribe to slick talkers explaining things differently - just don’t forget to renew. Otherwise they’ll go elsewhere and sell sub-prime mortgage bonds. Anticipate the rapture and pray that it’s exclusive to good decent law-abiding God fearing folks with licensed firearms living in gated communities.
Now that yanks us out of trouble. We can retain our membership. It’s so much easier to glorify the man and ignore what he was saying - to kill the message and promote the messenger. That is Christianity’s most grievous sin.
My mother was right: Like all in his trade, the man who buried Neil didn’t know. And neither do we.