The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Author: Henry Morgan (page 2 of 13)

Joining up the dots

I’m attempting here to join the dots and link a number of things I’ve written about.

When we talk about Jesus we need to know which ‘face’ of Jesus we are talking about. Is it Jesus the man from Nazareth? Is it the Risen Lord? Or is it the Cosmic Christ? In a sense they are one and the same. But in another they not. If we asked a question, we might get slightly different answers from each of them. [See ‘Which Jesus?’, ‘Which Jesus: a further thought,’ ‘The Cosmic Christ’.]

While we can in theory distinguish between them, in practice they overlap. So the earliest followers of the man from Nazareth, knew that he had been killed, but they also knew that he had overcome death because he was still present with them, appearing to them, teaching and guiding them. They knew that the man from Nazareth and their now Risen Lord were one and the same and so in the Gospels where they later wrote down Jesus’ words and actions, its not always clear whether it’s the man from Nazareth or the Risen Lord that they are speaking about. That would not have been a distinction that would have made any sense to them: to them they were one and the same.

Once those who actually knew the man from Nazareth began to die out, it became important to record his words and actions not least because otherwise those who continued to experience the presence of the Risen Lord would not be able to make the connection between the two and thus name it. Hence the Gospels were written down, where previously memory had sufficed, and they have served as a crucial reference point ever since.

Today we are faced with a similar problem. The majority of people claim to have had an experience of ‘something greater to and beyond themselves’, although most are cautious about talking about it. Many would not use religious language in describing it, but the accounts that people give sound much the same whatever language they use. My personal experience has led me to assume, using the Gospels as my reference point, that at least some of these experiences that I have had are actually encounters with the Risen Christ, and my assumption is that that must be true for others too. But it took me a long time to make that connection, and I doubt if many people do, not least because we do not expect there to be one. I believe that the Risen Christ is alive and well and appearing to people of all faiths and creeds on a regular basis, while remaining mostly unrecognised. Roy Gregory and I edited ‘The God you already know’ partly out of this conviction.

This year alongside my Bible reading I have also been using ‘The World Religions Bible’ edited by Robert van de Weyer. It contains readings from a dozen faith traditions, one for each month. I’m only half way through but already it is obvious that there is a great deal of common ground in their wisdom and teaching. We should not be surprised. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel tells of the Word of God [the Cosmic Christ] that “through him all things came to be, without him no created thing came into being. In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it………He was in the world, but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognise him.” So the Cosmic Christ is the light of every human being: the divine spark within everybody. It is not then surprising to find this common ground. The man from Nazareth, the Risen Lord, ascended back into heaven whence he came, to sit at God’s right hand as the Cosmic Christ, where He is the indwelling light of every human being. Again, the faces overlap, are one and the same, but are known across the earth by a variety of different names.

But there is more. John’s Prologue makes it clear that the Cosmic Christ is involved in the creation of everything. Every thing in the universe has the Cosmic Christ’s fingerprints all over it. So it is that the Celts argued that there are in fact two Bibles. The Good Book and Nature. The Cosmic Christ meets people of any and no religious belief system, through the natural world, again, without necessarily being recognised.

To me this is a source of wonder and awe. But everything has its downside. One of the downsides of the overlapping, is the loss of the full humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. We project the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ, back onto Jesus of Nazareth, and lose something of his humanity. It gives us the glories of John’s prologue and the Birth stories of Matthew and Luke, but we forget that he was a human being exactly like us: born like us, he grew up just like us, he faced all the problems and opportunities that we face, he faced suffering and doubt as we do, and had a faith journey just like ours.

There seems to be a human tendency to do this with any figure whom we deem to have done great things: we tend to read that greatness back into their story, as being present from their birth and childhood: and we see echoes of the greatness to come, that were almost certainly not obvious to people who knew them at the time. We put them on a pedestal, and in doing so make them different from the rest of us, when in reality they’re not. In doing so we encourage ourselves to forget that we too can do great things.

We have done that to Jesus of Nazareth. Believing him to be the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ its inevitable and to some extent right that we do that. But it comes at a price. He ceases to be a fully human being just like us. He becomes somebody who has done something for us, rather than somebody who shows us the way. Following Jesus is about living a life modelled on his. He has shown us that this is both possible and what God calls us to.

I have been mulling for some time about Jesus spiritual life. I do so as someone who tries to take my own spiritual life seriously, and who often finds himself in conversation with others about theirs. My assumption is that Jesus’ spiritual life must have been much like ours.

Thus I assume that Jesus of Nazareth must have had the equivalent of a spiritual director: someone who encouraged and nurtured his faith in God, and from whom he learnt much about the Jewish scriptures and traditions. It seems likely that this would have taken place as a member of a group of young men who met regularly together as part of their training as young Jews. I assume that at least some of the first disciples whom he called in Galilee were probably part of that group, and who had already seen him as their leader. Hence the ease with which they left everything to follow him when he called them to do so. [See ‘Did Jesus have a spiritual director?’]

I notice that Jesus rarely began his teaching of his disciples or the crowds who gathered to hear him, by quoting Scripture. He did so the few times he preached in the synagogue, but hardly ever otherwise. Instead he told stories and gave spiritual teaching. Now where did he get those stories and that wisdom from? Some of the stories have scriptural echoes, others seem to have been drawn from his observations of everyday life. But I think that good spiritual teachers, ones who speak with authority as Jesus clearly did, speak primarily not from what they’ve read, or learnt from somebody else, but from their own experience. They speak from an inner knowing that only comes from their own experience of God. Much of Jesus wisdom and insight would have come from his own experience. [See ‘The Spirituality of Jesus’.]

I remember, many years ago, reading a novel about Jesus life before he embarked on his public ministry. The writer suggested that the story of the Good Samaritan began its life as something that happened to Jesus himself. He was beaten up & robbed on the road to Jerusalem, and was rescued by a foreigner, someone he’d been taught to view as an enemy, rather than by those he’d thought would be his friends. This experience affected him deeply, and changed his view of who were his friends, who indeed were God’s friends. Subsequently he found that non-Jews were often more receptive to his teaching than fellow Jews were, and he went out of his way to be alongside people whom his community saw as outsiders. This new way of seeing the world had its origins not primarily in traditional teaching but in his own personal experience of life.

We will never know if this is historically accurate, but it seems likely to me. The story of the Good Samaritan has a lot of incidental detail that’s not essential to its meaning, and that suggests to me that it may well derive from personal experience. There is a second story that Jesus told that sounds similar. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. I suspect that this too may come from Jesus’ personal experience. I have a hunch that maybe he ran away from home as a young man, not only to escape from his family, but also maybe from God? Why else would he also talk about the story of Jonah, who fled from God’s call to preach to Nineveh? Did Jesus feel a call to preach to the Jews and wanted to avoid it? It might explain why Jesus went to John for a baptism of repentance? Why else did Jesus feel the need to repent, of what? Interestingly the words spoken to the Jesus at his baptism could well have been the words that the father said to his prodigal son.

I wonder if Jesus fled from both his earthly and heavenly Father, and was overwhelmed when he found himself loved and accepted by both in such similar fashion. Maybe that’s in part why he addresses God as Father, and taught his followers to do likewise? And if Jesus saw the story of Jonah as a model, it might explain why he expected the people of Jerusalem to repent at his preaching as the people of Nineveh did at Jonah’s preaching, and why he felt that God had abandoned him when they didn’t.

I’ve been thinking about the Beatitudes recently. Luke’s version sounds simpler and thus more original. ‘Blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep’. After his baptism we are told that Jesus was led into the wilderness for a time. He must have been poor: there’s no indication in the Gospels that he ever earned his living and he’d squandered his inheritance. So he knew what poverty was, and he must have wondered as he pondered the call he heard at his baptism, ‘how is this going to be funded?’ He must also have known hunger in the wilderness: there was no food to be found there. Its not difficult to imagine that he spent time weeping there too: both tears of repentance at his attempts to avoid God, and tears of joy at knowing himself forgiven. The temptations that we are told that he faced there speak to these words too. The temptation to rule the world and become rich, to turn stones into bread to release his hunger, and to call on God to perform a miracle as outward proof of his forgiven and accepted status. So Jesus knew all about the realities of poverty, hunger and sadness. He also knew, from experience, that they were the source of blessing for him. So he was able to speak the Beatitudes from deep personal experience. I suspect much of his teaching came from the same source.

Why do I think all this is so important?
I believe that ‘the God Whom we already know’ is the God whom Jesus of Nazareth knew.
I believe that what John’s Gospel says about Jesus, namely that he was with God from the beginning, that he laid that down to be born as a human being, and was then returned to God at his death, all that is also true of each of us too.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth/the Risen Lord/the Cosmic Christ has shown us that this is true, and that this is the core of the Good News of the Gospel.
I believe that we are called to imitate Jesus of Nazareth, by heeding whatever God calls us to be and do, as he did, by trusting our own experience of God as he did, by trusting the Risen Lord to guide and uphold us, and by trusting that the Cosmic Christ is present in everyone and everything we meet .
What’s different about Jesus of Nazareth, is his calling, his vocation. Each of us has a distinctive vocation from God that no-one else has. Jesus had a distinctive vocation and fulfilled it. So do each of us, and our task is to fulfil it as well as we are able.

Lost and Found

Sylvia, my wife, is assiduous in putting food out for the birds in our back garden. In the winter, when its cold and food is scarce, its like Heathrow outside our back door as our feathered friends fly in from all directions, to take on nourishment from a reliable source. Sitting in the warm, by the window we can be royally entertained for hours.

But in the spring it can be a different story. Adult birds bring their young to where food can be found and the exploration is not without its casualties. One fledgling tit flew by mistake into the glass of our back door and fell to the decking, stunned. Sylvia went out and gently picked it up in the palm of her hand and placed it safely on the bird table. It sat there for while before eventually flying off, seemingly unharmed by the experience.
A few days later, while praying in my shed, a fledgling tit, I hope not the same one, flew into one of the shed windows and fell stunned onto the path. I got up, alarmed at the noise, and saw it there. I was concerned that it could be injured, but I was reluctant to intervene unless absolutely necessary, lest I frighten it. So I held it in prayer and waited. After a time it too flew off.

I reflect that Sylvia and I had responded differently to a distressed young bird: she intervened straightaway, while I waited, but the result appeared to be the same: both birds flew away safely. I am reminded of three stories that Jesus told in Luke chapter 15. One is of a shepherd who actively seeks a sheep that is lost, and a second is of a woman who actively seeks a coin she has lost. The third story is of the Prodigal Son, and here the man who has lost his son doesn’t go searching for him, but rather waits for his son to return. The three stories are told in response to questioning about God’s response to those who are lost, and they offer different answers.The first two say that God will take the initiative in seeking them out, the third that God waits patiently for them to return. All three end happily with celebrations.

Neither Luke nor Jesus offers any explanation for the two different responses. I used to think that in the first two stories God treats us like children who need to be actively sought out when in trouble, while in the third God treats us like adults who have to take personal responsibility for the situations we find ourselves in. Now I’m not so sure. Even the most mature of adults sometimes need to be cared for as children, and the distinction between the two approaches is not as black and white as it might at first appear: you might argue that the Prodigal Son knew well enough when he came to his senses, how his loving father had cared for him as a child, and it was thus not necessary for the the father to further seek him out now.

The other thing that intrigues me is that the first two stories each only take a few verses to tell [ 4 and 3 verses respectively], while the third takes a great number [21 verses] and is full of detail in the way that the first two are not. The first two tell recognisably everyday events – sheep and coins do get lost – while the third tells of something much less common – of a son who takes his inheritance while his father is till alive, squanders it but is nevertheless welcomed home. Moreover, the notion that God seeks out Her people when they are lost is found in the Old Testament in a way that the idea that God waits patiently for those who have abandoned Him, to return to Him of their own accord, is not. This causes me to wonder if the novel notion of God in the third story derives from Jesus’ personal experience which was how he knew it to be true.

Perhaps there are three overarching simple truths here: that the Bible is happy to set varying views of a matter alongside one another without feeling it has to choose between them; that Jesus seems to have been willing to trust his own experience of God above the received wisdom of His tradition: and that however you choose to tell the story, the fact is that God knows when every sparrow falls, and that all in the end will be well.

More feral priesthood

We live quite near a river, and I can walk down a lane and across some fields to get to it in about 20 minutes. I often do so, for there is one particular spot that I recognise as a holy place, and I love to go there to sit, listen, look, and just be aware of what’s around me. I invariably come away feeling strangely blessed.

There isn’t usually much animal life to see, a swan or or two occasionally, some Canada geese flying by, and others who value the place as I do, say that they’ve seen a kingfisher but I haven’t been so lucky. Imagine my surprise then, when a month or two back I saw a small something moving on the opposite bank. Might it be a baby moorhen? Then it started out across the river in my direction at some speed and in a straight line. It reached the bank along from where I sat, but by that time I could see that it had a long dark body. Might it be an otter? My wild life recognition is of a low standard so I asked my wife when I got home and from my description she said that she thought that it was indeed an otter.

A week or two later, sat in the same spot, under an overhanging tree, I was gazing at the river when I saw not one otter but three. One playing in the water to my left, a second to my right who sat up and looked at me, and a third swimming across the river towards the others. I felt myself to be richly blessed. I’ve returned to the same spot regularly since, in hope, but without another sighting. Still, each time I say a prayer for the otters who in blessing seemed to be praying for me. A bond had been established between us.

Yesterday morning I went for my familiar silent walk down to the river. It was a beautiful day and I stopped to gaze at a solitary proud oak in a field, the light gleaming on distant fields, the varying shades of blue of the sky, all around me looked green and verdant. But when I arrived at my holy place by the river I was dismayed to find that the tree where I sat and saw the otters, had been cut down, the trunk and branches littered and left across the path and the area cleared. It felt like a senseless act of desecration and made me very angry. I wondered what had became of the otter family? I walked home feeling very depressed.

But then I slowly started to make connections. Two months ago when I was praying for the dead one Sunday morning I sensed that my Dad who was a Quaker, was suggesting that I attend a local Quaker meeting. The place had some previous for me as 30 years ago I’d visited and bought a subsequently much treasured Celtic drum from the then Warden of the place. Some weeks later I attended one Sunday morning, wondering why I was there, and left glad that I’d gone but none the wiser.

Walking back from the river feeling depressed I remembered that years ago, walking in the Surrey hills with my drum, I’d come across what felt like a vast tree graveyard, where the hurricane had laid waste a section of forest. Appalled by what I saw and felt, I was impelled to drum a funeral for these trees and did so, standing or sitting on each and every broken stump. It probably took some time, but felt quite out of time. Suddenly I knew what I now had to do.

Arriving home I got out my drum and cleaned and tended to it. This Sunday morning I woke soon after 5, got up, washed dressed, and drank a cup of tea. I collected my drum from my shed and set out for the river. I sensed that I was at one with the women setting out early on Easter morning to visit the tomb. It was cloudy with a light breeze, dawn colours were appearing over the horizon. It was quiet with no sight or sound of human activity. Horses in a field I passed looked at me, knowingly I thought. The walk there was beautiful. When I reached the scene I took my drum out of its bag, and walked slowly around the area drumming quietly. I sat on the fallen tree trunk and drummed there. Then I went & sat on the bank amidst the debris & drummed briefly before stopping and listening, and becoming aware. Nature seemed to be taking the devastation in its stride, as if to say, ‘well this is what happens, and we know how to deal with it.’ God was speaking in the wind through the trees, and the water moving gracefully down the river. All was calm. The early morning light wasn’t bright, there was no direct sunshine, it was more of a pastel shade. The birds were singing: I could hear a cuckoo across the river. Canada geese were honking in the background. There was no sign of the otters. I felt very relaxed & at peace sitting on the bank just above the water: something I could not have done before. I felt myself healed, and that the natural world was very capable of healing itself, and was already doing so. I stayed there for a while, before getting up & walking slowly home. There had been a dying and there was also a rising. I had done what I felt that I had needed to do, whatever that was: I didn’t need to know. The walk back was beautiful, the horses in the field all turned to look at me as I passed. There was rain in the air as I got home.

I made coffee that I took down to my shed, where I hung up my drum and reviewed what had happened. This is feral priesthood: it began with the otters, then Dad suggesting I go to the Quakers, with their link to my drum, then seeing the desecration and remembering my drumming a funeral for the trees years ago, then my decision to visit the grave early this morning, and my realisation that I was following in the footsteps of the women on Easter morning, with a not dissimilar result, I went to a place that I knew as a place of suffering and death, and found a place bursting with new life, and healing. Wonderful. Thank you.

Why did Jesus feel the need to repent?

I recently attended a church service, where the Gospel reading was the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. The preacher noted that John proclaimed that his baptism was a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and, in passing, commented that because Jesus was without sin he would have had no need of John’s baptism.  He is not the first to be puzzled as to why Jesus felt the need to be baptised by John: Matthew in his Gospel was equally puzzled. I understand the confusion: if you are thinking of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ or the Risen Lord then you might well think of him as being without sin. [see my article ‘Which Jesus’] But it seems clear that the man Jesus of Nazareth did feel the need for John’s baptism as a sign of his repentance, and I wonder what it was that he needed to repent of?  The Gospels don’t tell us, so ultimately we’ll never know, but I find myself intrigued by the question. 

Jesus often taught people by telling them stories. I wonder where he got the ideas for his stories? Some appear to be derived from images in the Old Testament, like those about a vineyard. Others seem to have been drawn from everyday life in Galilee, like those about a sower, the giving of a party, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or the gathering of crops at harvest.  But in my experience the best stories are often derived from personal experience and I wonder if some of Jesus’ stories might have been?  The story of his baptism, which only he could have told, must be one but I wonder if there might be more?  I am thinking of two other stories that stand out for me, because they are seem more focused and detailed than the rest. 

I remember, many years ago, reading the suggestion that the story of The Good Samaritan’ may have had its origins in an event that happened to Jesus himself: that he had been attacked and beaten up while on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and that it was his experience of being ignored by religious people whom he’d expected to help him, and looked after by a man whom he’d viewed as his enemy. that caused him to rethink his views about who his neighbour is.  The suggestion was that eventually he told the story in order to challenge the conventional view about who was one’s neighbour, hoping that what had changed him might well change others too. As indeed it has. 

I find that suggestion very plausible. Not least because there is at least one other story in the Gospels that tells of how a personal experience persuaded Jesus to change his mind about a conventionally held view. I refer to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged for Jesus to heal her child and whom Jesus initially refused to help because she was not a Jew, until her persistence changed his mind. Again it was a foreigner who was the catalyst, and in this case a woman.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus was often surprised by the faith shown by foreigners, and even remarked that they showed more faith than his fellow Jews. It seems that God taught him things through them that he hadn’t learnt from his Jewish inheritance. 

It was while I was pondering the preacher’s words about Jesus having no need for John’s baptism of repentance, that I found myself drawn to his story of ‘The Prodigal Son’, and suddenly the lights came on. Again it’s a story with quite a bit of detail, it has no obvious Old Testament antecedents, and its unlikely to have been an everyday occurrence in Palestine.  Might this also be a story from Jesus’ own experience?  Might it be that he had left home as a young man taking with him his share of his inheritance?, that he subsequently squandered it and so had to undertake the ritually unclean work of looking after pigs owned by a non Jew, before coming to his senses and returning to his father where to his surprise he found forgiveness and a celebratory welcome he had not anticipated?  Clearly this is conjecture, and we’ll never know what the origins of this story actually were. But again it does seem plausible to me, and it would make sense of a number of other things as well. 

[1]. Crucially, it could explain why Jesus felt the need for the repentance offered by John’s baptism. He had received his father’s forgiveness, but his behaviour had resulted in him being ritually unclean and he no doubt felt the need for God’s forgiveness too. 

[2]. The words that God spoke to him at his baptism ‘you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’ could easily be imagined as the gist of what the father said to the returning prodigal. The message is likely to have been the same.  If so, it would be overwhelmingly powerful for Jesus to be received and welcomed by God in exactly the way his earthly father had received him. It could be the reason why he spoke of God as ‘Abba’, a Jewish child’s familiar name for its father.  No wonder he had to go away by himself into the wilderness to ponder the implications of this. Was what he had learnt to be true for him also true for others too?  And if so did his Heavenly Father want him to share what he’d learnt ? Was not this the essence of the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he left the wilderness to preach about? 

[3]. It could lie behind Jesus insistence that we sort out our personal relationship problems before asking for God’s forgiveness, because that had been his experience. 

[4]. It might explain why Jesus consistently sought out those whose life experience left them as outsiders in the Jewish community, and his concern, in God’s name, to include them. By his behaviour he had made himself an outsider, but he had then found himself graciously accepted, included and affirmed. 

[5]. It might lie behind his realisation that humans are not made unclean in God’s sight by external matters like working with pigs, but only by what lies in the human heart. 

[6]. It might lie behind the visit Jesus made to the country of the Gerasenes, where he cured a man and sent the evil spirits that had possessed him into a herd of pigs. Maybe this was where Jesus went when he left home, maybe he knew this herd of pigs, these people, and this man who was possessed. Maybe that was why he felt the need to go there? 

[7]. It might also in part explain those scenes in the Gospels when Jesus’ family clearly think that he’s not in his right mind and want to take him away, and which lead to him disowning them, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’  If Jesus had behaved like the prodigal son it is easy to see that this might not have gone down well with the rest of his family, whatever his father might have thought, and especially his brothers. And if he then capped that by claiming a religious experience at his baptism, in which God also delighted in him as His beloved Son, you can see how they might have been concerned. 

The more I ponder the above, the more I sense that there is truth in it, and if that’s correct, several things seem to follow: 

[1]. It rehabilitates Joseph from being a peripheral figure in Jesus’ story, to being a vital & central one. Certainly as important as Mary. 

[2]. Jesus whole life-story becomes a powerful example of the truth that ‘nothing can separate us from the Love of God’, not even what looks like failure and humiliation.  In that it prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

[3]. It becomes not just a piece of abstract theological truth but the direct consequence of Jesus’ lived experience.   

[4]. It encourages us to treat our own experience as one of the most powerful ways through which God can and does speak to us.   

[5]. More: an acknowledged sense of failure has the potential to be the best thing that’s happened to us. And beware those who seems to have no acknowledged sense of failure. 

As I’ve said, this is all conjecture. There are alternative hypothesises which could explain all the points I’ve made, but they’re conjecture too. We will never know the truth of it.  But the question of why Jesus went to be baptised by John remains intriguing, and surely merits exploration, not least because it challenges many of our assumptions about Jesus.   So I apply the criteria ‘If this is true does it enhance and deepen my understanding of Jesus? And does it deepen and enhance my own relationship with God? For me the answer is ‘Yes’ to both, and so I intuitively sense that there is truth in it.   

The Scapegoat

Some Conservative MPs want to assassinate the Prime Minister. Not literally of course, they don’t wish her dead. But they do wish her gone. ‘If only we can get rid of her, then our problems will be resolved. It is all her fault.’ That is their view. No matter that most people point out that removing the Prime Minister will do nothing to solve the issue we’re facing, indeed, will probably make it harder to manage. Its not actually the Prime Minister who is the prime problem here

It’s a painfully familiar cry. Every time I hear it I know that something nasty, maybe even ‘evil’, is being proposed: placing all the blame for something, on one person, or group of people, for if we can only get rid of ‘them’ then the problem will go away. Hitler did it to the Jews. Many today, like Mr Trump, are doing it to immigrants, as nationalists everywhere, are prone to do. Its never true of course, but its a simple way of placing responsibility for an uncomfortable issue, on someone else, so that we can avoid our own responsibility for dealing with it. Its called ‘Scapegoating’ and the individual or group scapegoated are Scapegoats. There’s always a nasty smell in the air: massive injustice lurks and is about to be perpetrated on somebody, somebodies, who are deemed to be vulnerable and disposable.

It’s a process that has a long history. It began in the Old Testament, where the Jews were worried that their sins might provoke God’s wrath upon them. They had a list of likely sins with sacrifices that should be offered to God in penitence. But there was concern that some sins might not have been recognised or adequately atoned for, so, once a year an innocent goat was sent off into the desert, symbolically bearing those un-atoned sins of the people, to wander and die, as a sacrifice. It was known as the scapegoat and was seen, centuries later, by some early Christians as being a good image for Jesus and for explaining what they knew from experience had occurred as a result of His innocent death. Its an image that doesn’t make much sense to me with respect to Jesus, but there’s no doubt as to its continuing power, and of the willingness of people feeling themselves to be guilty and under threat, to use it to divert attention and responsibility somewhere else. ‘We’re not to blame, its not our fault, its nothing we’ve done, its all down to him/her or them, over there. Its all their fault, they’re responsible. Anybody but us. Just get rid of him/her/them, and everything will be alright.’

As I said, its not an image that I find at all helpful for Jesus. Its an image for an action which most of us can see with hindsight to have been abhorrent. Yet it continues to be recognisable in all walks of life, from the personal to the public.
Even the church has a line on it: the Roman Catholic Church is currently coming under fire, and rightly so, for the abusive behaviour of some of its priests, and the church is punishing the guilty ones. But the real responsibility, it seems to me, lies with the institution itself, which demands that all priests be celibate. A demand that makes the abusive behaviour all but inevitable. Rather than acknowledge that and reform itself the church scapegoats the expendable individuals. Society at large is little better, many of those languishing in prisons, in poverty, or in deprivation are being punished by society for it’s failure to care and provide adequately for all of its members.

Sadly, we seem to be less skilled at recognising it in the present, especially when we ourselves are doing the scapegoating: whether its individuals, groups, nations, religions or races who are involved. And of course, its always those judged to be weak and vulnerable who are picked on, rarely the powerful.

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