Island Lagoon, SA 2016

Seeking Healing - a personal witness

Imagining meeting the Human One a second time  A personal reflection and witness to a church divided over sexuality

My whole life in church has been lived alongside conflict between those who were part of the 'in' or right-thinking group, and those who were not. It has all been complicated by the fact that the not right-thinking group have usually been certain they are the ones who are right, and that it's the others who are the problem. These conflicts drive people from their congregations, they destroy people and congregations, and have the potential to destroy us as a denomination. How do we survive them? Could we even thrive?

I sometimes still have trouble relating to folk whose expression of faith sounds like the fundamentalism of my youth. It took me a while to realise that in my opposition to them, I sounded rather fundamentalist myself. The truth is that when we define ourselves as "not like" somebody, we mirror them. Some folk do terrible damage to others, and their behaviour should not be tolerated. But how do we do this without becoming part of the problem, simply mirroring the violence? How do we support and protect the wounded who have already borne too much? And how do we prepare ourselves so that we may recognise and seize those moments of grace where, for a short time, we feel a common humanity and faith with those who have been our enemy?

This essay shares my conviction that the healing of us requires far more than being right. There is a much deeper healing offered to us.  

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Somehow, we end up in a church. Some glimmer of the Divine catches our attention and draws us in. The Gospel of John says that if we have seen Jesus (who calls himself the Son of Man) then we have seen the Father[1]—he means we can see the essence of God in the life of the Human One[2] called Jesus. But conversion and freedom and growing into a fuller humanity is not a one off event. We find our freedom as we meet the Human One, a second time—again and again.

This is how I understand what has been happening in my life: From the moment of our birth we begin to learn and puzzle out how the world works and what it all means. Without even realising it, I formed ideas about the relative worth of farmers, prison warders, and railway workers. And of Methodists and Catholics. All before I even knew I had an opinion. Born twenty miles to the north, I would not have known much about Catholics, but would have grown up with definite ideas about Lutheran folk.

I formed a working map[3] of the world. I knew certain women and men in the nearby town were worthy of admiration, and others were less so. I knew—and didn't realise I knew this until I was well in my fifties—that if I were in trouble, some adults could be trusted and others not. I would never have asked Mr. C— for help, upstanding citizen though he was. I do not know how I knew, but looking back with adult eyes, I suspect I was correct.

I learned the world was dangerous. Some of us learned this from the local bullies. Others learned it from alcoholic fathers. At the age of eight or ten, I had a profound moment of insight, beyond anything I could articulate at that age. It was a glimpse of emptiness and alienation that grew through my teens into long moments when I could see no point in anything.

However terror comes, we survive it by clinging to the map of the world we have inherited and cobbled together with our own observations. That deep well of soul we don't know very clearly, but which is our essence, seems to know this map very well, although our surface selves don't know just how much we know. These maps for living are spectacularly successful. They mean we mostly navigate life well insulated from the fear of death[4]. Indeed, we mostly forget about the threat of our death—until we don't.

When someone lunges at us with a knife, biology and soul shriek in concert. We know death has come near. Did you ever have a cyclist scream at you because you drove too close? Often, car drivers have no idea how close they pass, they don't realise that slight noise—if they even heard it, was their wing mirror clipping the cyclist's elbow or knuckles: You just lunged at them with a knife, and they scream in terror of death. That fear seems obvious, but have you ever been in church, or a work meeting, and someone began to scream at you? Or respond to you in some other way which was "way over the top?" There was a knife there, too—something we said or did. It was slicing into the map of the world that had been keeping them safe. They, and we, when it's our turn, may have no idea why we are shouting. But the soul knows when the map has been breached, for it sees death looming through the break. It has seen enough of the greater world to know that it is lost. Its scream is self-defence. It is the fighting off of the attack. Our scream repairs the tear in the fabric of our neatly curated reality by pushing the threat away.

I wonder if people who are in church are a little more conscious of their maps than some other folk. We may not do much conscious theological reflection, but we are thinking about salvation. We know there is something dangerous about the world; we need to be saved; it's why we are here in church. At its best, church will teach us that theology is mostly fiction, as Sallie McFague said[5].  The map is an imagination which we faith, or trust; that is, we trust that the map making of the church which says the story of Jesus' Way which takes us to salvation, and to fulfilment, contains truth.  But in a good church we learn that it's tentative, that our map will need to be updated, and that it is always far short of the whole truth of life. We are too small to do more than glimpse what is. Even our hope of "the resurrection to eternal life" is something we can barely describe; the edges of the map are only sketched in. There's an anxiety with that, a vulnerability we would rather deny.

Some parts of the church think they have found a way to avoid the anxiety. They claim to guarantee grace,[6] although it won't be put quite as bluntly as that. It's what they are saying when they tell us to "just believe the bible"—and you know that the unspoken addition to this message is, believe what they tell you the bible means. Some of these folk will explicitly tell us that the bible is the inerrant word of God and that's why we can trust it, no matter how unlikely parts of it may seem.  But the map‑carrying soul of many folk who have never heard the word inerrant has carefully drawn the inference of inerrancy into their map. It means that when a preacher or someone else threatens that lying guarantee of grace, their biology and soul will shriek as if we lunged at them with a knife, for they know more theology than they knew. They lunge back with their own knives.

Over the millennia we have worked out that solving our fears with a knife, or a gun, is an unhelpful solution. Weaponised societies are unstable and at risk of falling apart. In the United States, the correlation between the visible loss of civility and respect for law, and the rise of gun worship, is no accident. 

What culture does is seek to damp down the violence[7]. We focus on an individual, or an identifiable group; folk who look mostly like us, but who have something different about them, and who can't really fight back.  And we tip our violence onto them.  This is the action of the mob who lynch a black person; it's the action of a body corporate which lawyers up and blames its rivalry and dysfunction on one individual; it's the action of someone on a bus who moves away from a Muslim woman, and the action of the people walking to work who badmouth the people queuing outside Centrelink. All this is the ameliorated violence of society, which chooses scapegoats, folk assigned to absorb our violence; that is, they are the ones who are chosen to absorb our fear of nothingness and dying.  For when we attack the common scapegoat, we combine our map with the maps of others. We find communion, and a temporary resurrection, as the tears in our maps are papered over by the solidarity of others as we attack the common enemy.

This damping down works astonishingly well. The hot rage which so frightens us all, even the enraged one, can now become a patient, scheming power play, to neutralise the threat of another person's ideas or plans.  We recognise power struggles, but perhaps do not see what lies under them: If I have more power than you, I have less need to be afraid. I am more secure, less threatened with the risk of death. Power is our attempted antidote to the threat of death[8].

As we grow up, our map making is filled with prejudices which already prescribe our scapegoats, so that when life gets out of hand, we have a readymade list.  We may never know we had such a list until we need it. And then, we may be so convicted of the guilt of the scapegoat that we may not notice—we may have no idea—that we have been prejudiced and bigoted. Prejudice hides our violence from us.

An example:

My father fought in the war against Japan, and through his work with Japanese prisoners was remarkably free of the prejudice sometimes acquired by soldiers of that war. We grew up knowing racism was wrong, and with strong examples to live by from our parents. My mum regaled us with stories of her surprisingly multicultural upbringing, including living and working with Italian POWs. At university, I made friends with students from all over the world, and had thoughts of marriage with a Chinese friend. I worked with First Nations folk whose hospitality and witness affects me to this day.

Then I came back to Adelaide for theological training, which involved subjects at Flinders University. At the time, there was a large group of students of Italian background who used to meet in a part of the campus where I was studying. I found I had a deep, visceral, dislike of Italian people. I was shocked, and ashamed. And although I deliberately shop in Adelaide's "little Italy," and visit the best Italian dessert shop in the city, I still sometimes catch myself responding with prejudice—40 years later! It appals me. The regional seaport near my hometown had Italian settlers who had become market gardeners out under the ranges.  There were no First Nations folk who had survived us living locally for us to pick on, so the go-to group to hate were the Italians. Not by my parents. They would have excoriated[9] me if I had expressed prejudice towards Italian folk. I had simply unconsciously imbibed the prejudice in the air with no awareness of doing it, and with no awareness that my being was partly built upon the inferiority and untrustworthiness of Italian folk.

It gets worse. My map contains clear guidance about sexual behaviour. Sexual expression is to be greatly restrained in public. What was happening at the Uni was that in the quadrangle I overlooked, the girls would sit around the fountain, and the Italian lads would cock strut before them. My Methodist soul was outraged—my map was torn. Prejudice had been heaped upon prejudice, and my surface self had no idea that any of it existed. Indeed, our barber was Italian. I loved chatting to him as he cut my hair. That's the weird mix that is us human beings.

We can't just drop our prejudices, and demand the same of others. They are often too ingrained, formed too early for that. The map is so central to our sanity that we do what I did, quite unconsciously. Without even knowing it, I had made Dominic, our barber and friend for years, an honorary non-Italian.

Despite the radical example of my parents, and the wisdom of mentors in my early life as a Christian, my deep anxiety about life meant I was easily seduced by fundamentalism's[10] false promise of guaranteed grace. Even so, it didn't take very long for me to see the whole edifice of inerrancy was based upon a fiction. I could see that James McGrath[11]  is correct when he bluntly says:

Rule One: The Bible is Right.
Rule Two: When the Bible is wrong, refer to Rule One.

Not only could I see this, I also did not want to be in that place. I wanted something deeper and more authentic, yet had no idea how to get out of the trap. I think the depths of me recognised the danger involved in such a shift. My minister[12] gave me a book on church history, wisely chosen, because he knew where I was stuck. Sitting upstairs in the sunny granny flat of Alice Springs friends who had given us a room to live in, I was reading about the fundamentalist claim that all the church fathers and the reformers had been inerrantists.  And there on the page, in plain text, I read quotations from both Calvin and Luther which showed this to be absolutely untrue.

In an instant, I shifted from that sun filled room to the parapet at the top of the Grenfell Tower in Adelaide, a black glass tower which was then the highest building in that city.  And on the darkest of nights, with the wind howling, I overbalanced and began to fall off. Except that in visions, physics doesn't apply. My feet remained glued to the concrete as I teetered horizontal over the depthless darkness, and then somehow regained my balance and stood upright. And then I was sitting back in my room in Alice Springs, with the children playing in the yard below me, and their mums drinking tea, all of them unaware that I had almost lost my mind.

The map was not torn. Instead, my inflexible model of the world was absolutely shattered! I had to begin redrawing my existence without the pretence of certainty that once sustained me. The only certainty was that there is no certainty! After that experience, I can never quite condemn someone stuck in a false theology. Getting out of it can be terrifying.

Our map defines our prejudice.  And if we don't know, for some reason, that the map of our community has detailed instructions about how to relate to LGBTIQ+ folk, then the community will soon tell us. At this moment our soul self, which has stepped out of line, even only in ignorance, knows that we are ourselves close to becoming an outsider and scapegoat, so we hasten to re-join the safety of the crowd, and adopt the prejudice for ourselves. Indeed, we may be among the most savage and vociferous because, for a moment, we glimpsed the knives when it turned out we didn't have the communal map right.

So even if a prejudice is not longstanding or deep, its requirement by our community may make it equally difficult to escape. For then, it is a mark of membership, which means it is sacramental. It is the identifying mark of our communion. Lose it, or deny it, and we may lose our community. We humans know at the deepest level of our being that to lose our community means we may die. I suspect homophobia is rarely personal in the sense that it is a dislike of us. It is far deeper than that. It is a soul self's knowing that if it does not hate you then it will have to face its fear of dying. It is better to hate you.

Perhaps you have noticed my use of the word communion. All people seek a place of communion, a sacrament of acceptance or belonging. We cannot live without it; we become ill. Jesus' first words in Mark[13] were "proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." One way to understand this is to see that he is proclaiming a radically different communion. He is proclaiming a communion which does not deal with the fear of death by tipping it onto other people.  A communion where all people are welcome at the same table, with the same acceptance as all other people. Not a place and a culture where violence, prejudice, and scapegoating are forbidden, but a place and culture where they are simply... not. That is, where they are a meaningless bunch of letters because they have no existence or reality... anywhere. That is the kingdom/culture of God we are invited to seek. And it is, I think, the glimmer of God, our first hint of the Human One, which we feel in those first moments when it seems maybe there is something in church for us.

The problem is that our entire map, the map of every last one of us, is built upon layers of prejudice and violence. And we all bring that with us as we come to communion.

In Romans 1:18-32 Paul builds up a list of outrage.  He speaks out of his own first century prejudice that anything other than traditional Jewish male-female relationships and sexual expression is idolatry. Remarkably, he then says in Romans 2:1, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

The irony of this passage is tragic and enormous. Firstly, many of his current readers seem not to understand that he is condemning hatred and violence, for they use him to justify their homophobic violence. Second, the way he sets up the rhetorical trap that is Romans 2:1, betrays that when it comes to LGBTIQ+ folk he had not learned his own lesson[14]. But worst of all, I read Romans 2:1 as grace but then go and condemn folk from Generate Presbytery for their homophobia and bigotry. I miss the point that when I condemn them (because they condemn me) I am no different. I abandon the table of the Human One and set up my own table as a perverse parody of the Communion of Christ, based on the solidarity of the scapegoat and my hatred of the people I condemn.

I cannot be freed from being the scapegoat by creating another scapegoat. I cannot heal a person's hatred by hating them. I cannot be healed of my rejection and wounding by wounding another. I cannot escape my fear by making another afraid.

Where then is there a way through this?

The map needs to be remade all over again.  The map has been drawn to enable me to avoid the fear of my dying. It has been drawn to damp down and deflect all that threatens me. I need to find a Way, draw a map, which allows me to walk towards my fear rather than fleeing it.  And that means I need to stop fleeing death and walk towards it. Is there a map which would help me to practise dying rather than denying my dying which is in any case slowly progressing, and which as an older person, I can feel in my bones?

There is an astonishing story in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the last parable before the narrative of Jesus' dying. (Matthew 25:31-46) This placement means Matthew sees this story as among his most important for understanding the nature and message of Jesus. The story begins with a familiar image for Matthew's people: the idea that there would be a gathering together of people for judgement. It continues with the separation of people into two groups; those who were righteous and those who were not. This is also expected, and people knew who would be in which group. The righteous would be those who kept the law, and the unrighteous would be those who had not... except that suddenly the story goes off-script. Beginning at verse 34 it says of the righteous

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Nothing about tithes and food laws and sacrifices and having the right theology. Instead, it's all about how you related to those people that popular sentiment said were being punished by God for their failures. Otherwise, they wouldn't be naked, or sick, or unemployed, or refugees... (Have you noticed that we often draw our scapegoats from among those we think God doesn't like?)

We could leave the lesson there; it's radical enough to occupy us for a long time! But then he says that when outsiders come to us, Jesus comes with them. In some way, He is them. So, there is a lot more here than swapping religious observance for social justice in order to be righteous.

Matthew saw that The Human One[15], the one who, if we have seen him[16], shows us the very essence of God's nature, comes to us in the outcast, in the scapegoat. He's not saying that we do not meet Christ in the life of the church and through those to whom we are close. But he is saying something to which I can witness: My most profound learning and blessing seems to have come through my relationship with those who are not my natural friends, who are outcasts; it has come through those my map suggests I should adopt as my scapegoats. It has come from embracing 'that and those' that most frighten me and most clearly confront me with my vulnerability. I am left wounded, traumatised and scarred, and yet surprisingly healed. I want more of this even it sometimes terrifies me.

And then I remember that my scapegoats also include Generate Presbytery. When I offer communion to these folk, I offer it to the Human One. When I reject and judge them, I refuse Him.

I understand that we call him the Human One not because he is fully human like us, but because I am not yet fully human,[17] and He shows me the Way, the route on the map, to come closer to full humanity. How can I condemn Generate Presbytery, for this is to refuse the Human One as he comes to me.

Years ago, I stopped going to Synod. Never happy in large gatherings, I had so much else happening in my life that Synod was unhealthy for me. Eventually, I came back, wounded, defensive, judgemental, and combative. We were sent to table groups, where I found one member of my group was a significant figure in what became Generate Presbytery. I decided to make my opinion on the issue under discussion (not sexuality, for once,) very clear. I suspect I was less than subtle. My colleague replied with a gentleness, acceptance of my opinion, and compassion, which broke my hard heart. Jesus came to me in that man.  I sometimes wonder how much his actions enabled me to continue in ministry. At a later synod table group, led gently by another colleague, someone erupted in rage and abuse, and stormed off as we discussed issues around same sex marriage. I can't see how we two could relate successfully. But the first colleague?

What could happen if I went to this man who so warmed my heart? Could we find a way to relate that might step around our disagreements and celebrate what we have in common. The prospect frightens me, but it is the only way Christian way I can see in which we might reconcile our differing maps of Creation. It can only happen if I seek to relate to him as a colleague and perhaps a friend without the agenda of converting him to my point of view.  I don't think we change people's minds on issues like this. Our hearts are changed by the action of the Spirit, despite ourselves, and independent of those who seek to persuade us.

Andrew Prior (Oct 2022)

  

[1] John 14:9 

[2] Son of Man is a title Jesus gives himself, but it can also be translated as Human One. 

[3] My  post here from around 1997 may be a good way of exploring the image of the map. https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/mean_mudmap1.html 

[4] An excellent and readable exploration of our human fear of death, and how it drives so much of our cultural existence is Richard Beck's The Slavery of Death. (2013) Cascade Books Beck draws on the work of Earnest Becker, who suggested that the fear of death is the beginning of culture.  He is a difficult read, not least because of his negative understanding of LGBTIQ+ people. But his essential insight is critical.  

[5] McFague, Sallie (1987) Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, ppxi 

[6] "Not only have we been searching for grace, but underlying our cyclical Uniting Church arguments has been an attempt to guarantee grace. Our struggles with each other have been a search for the power and authority to know objectively— to know for sure— that "we are saved." We preach that "by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God," (Eph 2:8) but our human frailty can never quite believe this, much less live with the reality that a gift does not have guarantees, but is… a grace we must trust! Grace flickers in and out of focus. We glimpse grace, and then fear that we will lose sight of it in all the noise and contradiction of the world. We glimpse grace and then fear God will withdraw it from us." Andrew Prior. https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/what-just-happened.html 

[7] An excellent introduction to this area is James Alison's “Concilium” 2013(4) article "We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight" which can also be found at https://jamesalison.com/we-didnt-invent-sacrifice/ 

[8] More on power and weakness. https://www.onemansweb.org/weakness.html 

[9] (I still remember the incandescent blast from my Methodist mother when I said something derogatory about a couple of Josephite nuns as they walked down from the local convent in pre-Vatican 2 garb!)

[10] Some background for the development of my thinking can be found in this post: https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/fundamentalism.html 

[11] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2008/12/inerrancy-in-poster-form-2.html 

[12] Rev John Lamont, to whom I am always grateful. 

[13] Mark 1:15 

[14] See for example Bill Loader: "They took Gen 1:27 (God made male and female) seriously as their science and so concluded that all people were by nature heterosexual and that people having an orientation, and feelings, let alone acting on them towards members of their own gender, were acting contrary to their nature and to how God made them. They took the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20 and applied them more widely to condemn all such same-sex behaviour." Sex then and now, pp129 Paul was conducting a sting operation, but not because he disagreed with the common prejudice of the time. 

[15] This is another translation of the son of man 

[16] John 14:9 

[17] Walter Wink Just Jesus: My Struggle to become Human pp 102 says 

"God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human."


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