Of Goldfish and the Gospel

Goldfish seemed like a good idea at the time. Somehow these things always do. After all, Nathan (my almost five-year old son) could learn about responsibility and develop empathy by having to care for other creatures that would be dependent on him. And all the experts on child-rearing seemed to think it was an imperative. Who was I to argue? Anyway, my brother-in-law had a fully-equipped tank that he wasn’t using, which would save us any major expense, so we had no excuse. And so Nathan ended up with fish.

 

For the first few days they delighted him. But inevitably much of the work fell to Megan and me. One cannot entrust the responsibility of cleaning the fish-tank every couple of weeks, of keeping the pH levels and the temperature of the water within a safe range, to a pre-schooler. Even we found it quite challenging. At one point, the fish kept getting sick and dying and we became quite good at recognising symptoms and helping fish to recover. For those of you who are tempted to buy fish, I caution you: there is a lot that can go wrong with a fish. And if you are empathetic by nature, it is not good enough to keep watching them get sick and die and then simply replace them, when it is possible to analyse the situation and correct whatever it is that is causing them to become sick in the first place. And so we learned how to keep the ammonia levels and the nitrate levels and the pH levels and the temperature and the parasites, and all the host of things that make the tank unsafe for fish, under some sort of control.

 

But the fish do not know any of this. They just swim. If the water is unsafe, they do not know it, although their bodies respond. An individual fish may well feel that something is not right, but it will not know what causes the distress. It cannot comprehend that its destruction is ensured by the very mechanism keeping it alive: it must breathe. Sometimes that very act of breathing, if the water is not right, will slowly kill the fish.

 

Theology is the same. For whatever reason, I believe that theology – how we think about God – is the key determinant in the quality of human life. And I don’t mean in a ‘Heaven or Hell’ sense. I mean in the lived experience of the here-and-now. We are a religion-prone species, and whether or not people believe in God today, I believe that the anthropological spin-offs of being descendants of religious cultures that rooted themselves in sacred violence affect society profoundly even today. As I discussed in the last post, I believe that the vestiges of this shared history manifest in our tendency to scapegoat and in our sacralisation of violence. Theology, whether or not we believe in an actual god, is – in that sense – like the water we breathe. That means that toxic theologies will have devastating consequences, whether or not we realise that. But unlike fish, we have the capacity to recognise what it is we are swimming in and to change the water.

 

This is why I believe Christianity has relevance to society as a whole, whether or not the members of said society believe in God at all. The water needs to be changed and I think Christianity offers a solution. In what I am convinced is the essential distillation of Jesus’ theology (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus makes the following statement:

 

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

 

In any age, that is a powerful teaching. However, I do think that one of the great shortcomings of the way we do theology nowadays is that we almost completely neglect context. We fail to understand the full impact of this message because we read it through a post-Reformation Penal Substitution theological framework, overlayed with a post-modern conceptualisation of the world that says that what is right for me is right and therefore – by extension – my opinion is all that matters. And we don’t even realise that this is the lens through which we are filtering our theological water because it is the only water we have ever known. Jesus is saying a lot more than: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could all be nice to one another for a change?’ So let me ask you, for a moment, to set aside your Calvinist understanding of Christianity (and I suspect this to be true even if you don’t profess to be a Christian at all), and ask you to put on a 1st Century Jewish lens.

 

The Holy Land is a political tinder-box in the 1st Century. People are deeply resentful of Roman occupation, and the Romans are particularly brutal colonists, so the sentiment is entirely understandable. There are many different groupings of people, responding to the occupation from a complex variety of ideological standpoints. For purposes of this discussion, suffice it to say that a common debate at the time, among Jewish people, is whether to oppose the Romans by force or not. A key point in this debate is the nature of Jewish identity – what it means to be set apart, and how to give expression to that. The Zealots are in favour of an armed rebellion, and already the Holy land has seen many such uprisings. It will see more of these after Jesus’ death too, culminating in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. Groups like the Pharisees, on the other hand, express the rebellion through strict adherence to the Torah – the dietary laws and the Sabbath laws take on a greater significance now that they are expressions of Jewish identity in the face of Roman oppression. The Pharisaic observance of the Torah is not about personal holiness, but about Jewish identity. It separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. This separation of ‘us’ from ‘them’ is a critical Jewish concern at the time, and often all that separates different expressions of this is the degree of willingness to engage in violence.

 

Enter Jesus. I think all of his listeners would have been pretty clear on who the “enemy” was, and who the “pagans” were, in this extract from the sermon: the Romans. Jesus’ teaching is completely radical. He is saying that even the Romans love other Romans, that if the Jews only love their fellow Jews, they are no different; if they really want to be a people set apart, they need to love the Romans too. I bet you can guess how popular that teaching was. It is positively incendiary. It is the same teaching that nearly gets him killed in Luke 4 (see my discussion here) and which drives Caiaphas to plot his death in John 11 (see my discussion here). And the teaching is simply this: if you want to “be perfect” and “be children of your Father in heaven”, then demonstrate love for even those you consider unworthy of it. In your head, lose the idea that you are better – God shows the same favour to all – and show the same love for your “enemies” as you would for your friends. You need to love the Romans.

 

To his countrymen, that was an unpalatable teaching. They wanted a Davidic Messiah to crush their enemies and restore their status as God’s chosen. They got a teacher who instructed them that the only way to be different was to overlook difference. The teaching is as unpalatable to many today: we expect God to smite all of those whom we regard as unclean; deep down we look forward to the day when they get what is coming to them. But God is still saying this: if you want to consider yourself perfect, and My child, forget your holiness codes – they don’t set you apart; forget your religious rituals – children of God are not made by saying the sinner’s prayer and intellectually assenting that Jesus has saved them from their sins, they are not identified by their willingness to abstain from sexual ‘impurity’ or from engaging with ‘unclean’ art or by regular church attendance. Real children of God are identifiable by their willingness to demonstrate love to their “enemies”. Can I put it another way? Being “perfect” (Jesus’ words, not mine) is a function of how you relate to the people with whom you most profoundly differ, not of what behaviours you avoid.

 

And here’s the real theological punch: the perfection Jesus calls us to, in loving those who most vehemently oppose us, is a modelling of the Father’s perfection (“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”). And who do you think most opposes God? The ones who scapegoated and crucified Hen (“Hen” is a gender-neutral pronoun invented by the Swedes in the 1960s). The implication is that God does not set Henself apart from Hens “enemies”, but chooses to love them instead. That is to respond ‘perfectly’. That is why Penal Substitution Atonement theology is so toxic: it sets God apart from us; it -essentially – rejects the perfect love (outlined here by Jesus) by insisting that God’s love for us is contingent on our worthiness of it, which can only be achieved by our fulfilling all of the Law, even if only by proxy. That was a mouthful, so let me put that into the context of this teaching on loving your enemies: if Penal Substitution (the idea that God punished Jesus for our sins) is valid, Jesus would have had to argue that Jews can only love Romans if the Romans behave like Jews, or at least if one of the Romans behaves like the perfect Jew on behalf of the other Romans. Say what you want, but you have to do some fancy semantic gymnastics to argue that Jesus is preaching that in this passage. If perfection means loving your enemies as they are, then what does such love look like? Paul gives an insightful description in the well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 13:

 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 

If you want to set yourself apart, if you want to mark yourself as God’s, then practice love. I encourage you to take Paul’s description of what love is, and think of the person or the group of people you despise the most (who are your Romans?), and frame your practical expression of this theology of love by substituting your Romans into the Corinthians passage. Let me give you an example. My “enemies” are bigots, so I would rework the passage like this, for myself:

 

Love means being patient with bigots, understanding that they will need to be treated with kindness and not feel humiliated and condemned if they are to come to embrace a way of love. Loving bigots means that I do not regard myself as either worse than nor better than them: I have no reason to either envy them nor look down on them: we are all human. If I love bigoted people, I will not treat them with disrespect: they are human too and that alone earns them the right to be treated with dignity. Loving bigots is not a means I use to make myself feel superior, or worthy, or good. It is not a PR exercise to win admiration and accolades. Loving bigots means that while I cannot condone their behaviours and attitudes, and will sometimes actively oppose their actions and ideologies, I do not let my emotions dictate how I respond to them; I will never seek the satisfaction of having my emotional and psychological needs met over my duty to love and respect them. I will not keep a tally of their wrongdoings and wield it like a weapon against them. Rather, I will choose to forgive. I will not make them responsible for all the evils of the world, using them as scapegoats so that society can achieve some sort of pseudo-peace. I will not use my differences with bigots to justify perpetuating a cycle of violence that never ends, but instead choose to work diligently towards dismantling violent and exclusive systems of power and building a peaceful Kingdom society that is founded on love. To love bigoted people means always to protect them from being scapegoated, from having their dignity as fellow humans stripped from them; it means always trusting that through love – as practically expressed through me – their hearts may soften and change, and they may repent; it means always hoping for a better world and seeking practical and peaceful ways to bring that about by showing bigoted people what the way of peace looks like; it means never giving up on them.

 

Imagine the world as a fish-tank. The theological waters are filled with toxic nitrates and parasites, and are altogether the wrong temperature. The theology we breathe asks that we accuse and divide (it is surely no coincidence that the words for the devil ha-satan and diabolos in the Bible literally translate as “the accuser” and the divider”) . Our theology asks that we set ourselves apart from others based on what religious practices we observe, what cultural practices we follow, what ideologies we defend. Our theological water makes us feel that we are better, more deserving of God’s favour, closer to holiness, and suggests to us that it is God’s will that the “enemy” be struck down and crushed. We anticipate the judgment of God on the unrighteous with a twisted sort of relish, and sometimes feel compelled to speed things along by smiting them righteously ourselves. But that theological water is toxic. Stop breathing it in. I have, to quote Paul (1 Corinthians 12: 31), shown you “the most excellent way” of love. Use that to change the water.

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