Blasphemy

This is the text of a sermon written for a chapel service in a theological college; the gospel text for the day, on which it is based, is John 10:31-42.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a small child, saying “Oh God,” or “Jesus” or some such thing would have earned me a telling off for blasphemy, and the same punishment as swearing – a mouthful of chilli and five minutes before a drink.  I’m told that on the whole I was a remarkably well-spoken child.

But my mother, earnest disciplinarian though she was, I think missed the point of what blasphemy is, at least from a Scriptural point of view.  So while we might still want to avoid careless reference to God, today’s gospel, with its accusations and counter-accusations, gives us the chance to consider the question in a little more depth.

The English word blasphemy comes straight from the Greek blasphemia, and it basically means “to speak badly of.”  Blasphemy isn’t so much speaking casually about God as it is about slandering or misrepresenting God.  And this is where today’s reading gets interesting, because the accusations of blasphemy point us not so much to a clash of moral codes between Jesus and “the Jews” as a clash of theologies.  Looking at what’s at stake in their disagreement might be a useful point of reflection for us, then.

“The Jews” – or rather a subset of Jews, probably some of those associated with the political and economic system centered on the Jerusalem temple, but we’ll come back to that – took up stones to stone Jesus.  And they say that they are doing this “for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

You, though only a human being, are making yourself God.  So what?  What harm does it do or say about God if Jesus does make himself God?  It challenges the profound monotheism of Judaism, of course; and the centrality of the God who, according to Isaiah, is the first and the last, with none beside him.  So – in the eyes of his accusers – even if Jesus’ claims were true, he would be diminishing the God of Israel to make him one amongst a number of gods, and opening the possibility of idolatry.  This is serious stuff.

On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t shrink from their challenge.  He only quotes one line of the psalm, “I said, you are gods,” but the reference to the rest of the psalm would be understood, and it runs thus:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’

Here, God judges in the harshest terms; and Jesus in quoting from this text says that it pertains to those to whom his word had come; they judge unjustly, show partiality to the wicked, lack knowledge and understanding, and shall die.  Jesus responds to his accusers with an accusation of his own; you say you are those to whom the word of God has come, and yet your own Scripture condemns you as unjust and ignorant.

Listen to what Jesus says in his own defence: If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”  Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.  In Jesus’ eyes, his accusers are themselves guilty, because they claim to have God’s word and yet do not act in accordance with it.  The actions of Jesus’ accusers misrepresent God and are a form of blasphemy.

So, pondering this rather unedifying little exchange leaves us with some challenges which seem quite timely as we come to the end of Lent.

The first, and more obvious, is that of blasphemy. We here are a gathered community of people who are – or are being formed to be – public representatives of God.  We wear ourselves out with reading and essay writing and struggling to get into our heads and out onto the page just what that means.  But until it’s not just a matter of the head, but something embodied in the whole of our lives; as long as there is any mismatch between what we say and how we live, we aren’t just lacking in integrity; we aren’t just hypocritical; according to the reading today, we are blasphemous.  We misrepresent and slander God while claiming to represent him, when we act in a manner not in keeping with God’s nature.  And that’s a more serious problem than is going to be fixed with a spoonful of chilli.  So here is a challenge: to recognize and reform our own instances of hypocrisy.

But I think that beyond the question of blasphemy there is another and more subtle challenge for us as well.  And that’s the question of idolatry.

When “the Jews” accuse Jesus of blasphemy, that tells us something about what they hold sacred.  Jesus had crossed the line; he had trespassed into an area they felt he should not touch.  Earlier I said that was about their theology, and no doubt it was, but it was also about a great deal more than that.  Jesus’ claims, had they been accepted, would have marginalized the temple cult, with its system of intermediaries, its controlled forms of worship, and its economic importance to the surrounding area.  Jesus wasn’t just threatening an abstract set of ideas about God, he was threatening a whole way of life.  And it seems likely that the strong response he got, with people wanting to stone him, was because the threat he posed touched on the insecurities, the fears, and the emotional investments of his opponents.  In effect, they took up stones not just to defend the orthodoxy of Judaism, but to defend the idols of their social, cultural and economic security.

Now societies and cultures change, but people don’t change all that much.  Threaten the things in which I’m emotionally invested, and I’m just as likely to have a violent reaction as a first century Jew.  And I observe that the process of formation for ministry has a habit of threatening the things in which we are emotionally invested.  I’ve seen outbursts from students feeling this sort of pressure more than once; and some of you who have been here for a while might remember that I’ve had one or two such outbursts myself.  So I’d just like to put it out there for your consideration that perhaps these moments of anxiety or anger, when our commitments are called into question, might provide us with clues as to where our idols remain.  Here is a second challenge: not to dismiss or ignore or “manage” these emotions away but to take them as a serious prompt to reflection.

I realize that I’ve said some hard things today.  Blasphemy, idolatry; these are ugly words to have to contemplate and confront.  And yet they are such recurring problems through Scripture precisely because they are something of a human constant.  My friends, we are almost at the end of Lent.  In the busy-ness of these last days before Easter, perhaps we can find some time to take an honest account of our hearts with regard to these things, confident in God’s grace and knowing that the morning will come when they will hold no more power over us.

The Lord be with you.

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Virtue under pressure

A discussion came up amongst acquaintances recently about the question of ethical behaviour in situations of injustice.  So often the behaviour we would consider ethical outside those circumstances seems inadequate in response to oppression or wrongdoing by those in power.  I didn’t have adequate responses, so went looking for something to read, and came across Lisa Tessman’s book, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles.  I haven’t even finished it yet, but I’ve been very impressed with its clarity on issues which I have encountered intuitively but had no intellectual framework to express.  It’s a fairly scholarly read, though, and heavy going, so I thought I’d summarise some key points of interest.

Virtue ethics is an approach to ethical thinking going back to Aristotle.  The tradition of virtue ethics assumes that the pursuit of human flourishing – one’s own and that of others – is morally good.  This implies that, as oppressive systems provide barriers to human flourishing, the struggle for personal and political liberation is a moral good.  However, oppressive systems can impede the development of the virtues needed for human flourishing, and particularly the virtues that would enable people to resist such subordination.

Further, oppressive systems can create an environment in which the exercise of virtue may be morally good, but may come at a cost to the person concerned, rather than there being a neatly positive outcome.  This cost may come about due to unresolvable moral conflict “where doing what is best falls far short of what one would have chosen given better conditions,” in which it is not possible to be completely moral and the person carries an emotional burden as a result, or because moral behaviours in this system might “forfeit their bearer’s well-being because they are self-sacrificial or corrosive or crowd out other valuable traits.”

This introduces a tension between those values which are ethical from the perspective of liberation, and the perspective of the dominant oppressive system.  A certain limited flourishing may be possible within the system of oppression.  Yet those who are trying to transform – and liberate – themselves do so because they recognize that this is a necessary part of making healthy human flourishing a possibility available to all, even at their own personal cost.

More than that, systemic injustice may shape the decisions a person is able to make, and also the resources available to them with which to pursue their choices.  Taking this injustice into account does not excuse any person from responsibility, but does affect the field in which that responsibility is in play.  That is, “anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not…  Responsibilities outrun control.”

Personal integrity – responsible moral agency – depends on the ability to gain insight into the formation of one’s dispositions, and to change them as appropriate.  This level of integrity is particularly difficult for those who experience the personal fragmentation of being formed under conditions of oppression.  The oppressed “are likely to be sites of seriously warring inclinations, moods, likes and dislikes elicited by the double-binds of oppressive institutions….The task of acquiring integrity is necessary for resisting oppression and taking responsibility for whom one becomes, but it is a task that in turn requires discovering which of one’s character traits are constitutive of moral damage and should be forgone in favour of a disposition that consistently supports one’s own – and others’ – flourishing.”

Tessman suggests traits which may indicate unrecognized oppression: misplaced gratitude, low self-esteem, ingratiation, affiliation with oppressors, a tendency to dissemble, and fear of being conspicuous /chameleonism.  These often begin as survival mechanisms, but left unchecked they may become habits which cause oppressed people to fail to realise their full potential as moral agents.  Where they are recognised, then, she suggests they ought to be examined and their causes better integrated in a person’s psyche.

Being able to do this requires, in part, “the deliberate construction of friendly space and a monitoring of what is permitted inside.”  Although she does not take her argument in this direction, it occurs to me that this might be part of what the church is called to be; the friendly space in which outside powers lose their grip for long enough to allow people to test their freedom.

 

Prophetic worship

Recently, I read an article which mentioned Pussy Riot, the Russian…well, Wikipedia describes them as a “feminist punk-rock collective.”  That’ll do.  Anyway.  The article I was reading – here, on page 3 – brought into highlight the irony that although Pussy Riot got into so much trouble for protesting in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Cathedral itself – and its liturgical life – ought to stand as protest against any human misuse of authority.  That it does so at the moment apparently only by implication is a matter for prayer, but it doesn’t change the fact that acts in which a community of people so consciously and explicitly orient themselves to the reign of God ought to bear fruit beyond the limits of that communal celebration.

It left me wondering why Christians in my context so often seem reluctant to take up the prophetic mantle offered to them.  Are we too individualistic, understanding what we do in public worship as a private transaction between each person and God, with no implications for communal and social life?  Perhaps that’s a problem too (individualism is a bugbear of mine).

But another piece of reading provided a different insight.  Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, in their book “Being a Priest Today” make the observation that “Perhaps the hardest challenge for the presider” (at the Eucharist) “is to keep people’s hearts open to the challenge of Christ’s invitation to share his life and his work.”

And it seems to me, as I ponder that, that there’s something here about the way so many of us compartmentalise our lives.  There’s the professional role, and the relational roles as spouse/parent/sibling/friend,  and perhaps an online persona or two, and so forth.  And to that, the devout believer might add the role of churchgoer.  Might join the congregation, volunteer in some capacity, chat with others over a cup of tea after the service, and see that as totally separate from any other part of his or her life.

There’s a problem with that.  It misunderstands what it really means to be Church, to be the people called out of the world to participate in the mission of God.  It also, then, misunderstands the Church’s acts of public worship.  They’re not meant to be a segregated holy hour or so during the week (or even daily for the devout).  They’re meant to be a constant thread interwoven with all the other elements of life; and the things which we say and do in worship, the God to whom we commit ourselves and by whom we are refashioned, are meant to shape all that we do beyond the times and places set aside for “church.”  They also provide a standard for a sharp critique of all the other areas of our lives.

We have three options when confronted by that critique.  We can ignore it (this seems a popular choice).  We can avoid it, rationalising the evils and injustices of society.  Or we can embody it.  We can live and act and speak such that there is no doubt that the reign of God relativises all other claims to authority.  Ultimately, it is our choice.  Nobody is holding a gun to our heads, and forcing us to find the courage, faithfulness and integrity to really live as our acts of worship imply that we will.  But if we don’t, we should not be surprised to find that a bunch of angry secular activists seem to know more about the imperatives of the gospel than we do.