Those Ungodly Bastards
Romans 8.13: If you live according to your
human nature you will die; but if by the Spirit ... you will stay alive.
An Anglican bishop recently
pointed out that there is a strain of genuine cruelty in religion. In the
Christian religion it's as though people become so focused on the
spiritual that they tend to forget the frailty of the flesh.
This is not surprising. The bishop thinks that religion
is intrinsically paranoid. It splits the world into rival forces of good
and evil, insiders and outsiders, the flesh and the spirit. This outlook
may derive from the dawn of human consciousness, he thinks. Humans were
then relatively defenseless, threatened by a host of mysterious forces. It
was particularly difficult in such circumstances not to divide the world
into "us" and "them", the good and the bad.
Paul preserved this division in his theology. He opposes
"flesh" against "spirit". From corrupt "flesh" comes "no good thing". Our
transitory human nature - which is what the term "flesh" actually means -
is too weak to cope. It leads us into sin and death. Anyone living
according to human nature cannot please God.
From the more enduring Spirit, on the other hand, comes
self-control, peace, freedom and life itself. Those who live by the Spirit
are God's children. They are acceptable to Christ.
This view of the Spirit harmonises both with the Old Testament and with
traditional Christian theology. The prophets of old were those who,
inspired by God, fearlessly exposed errors into which the Hebrews and
their rulers had fallen. Similarly, early Christians tackled their fellow
Hebrews for not recognising that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah.
The Church carries on this prophetic tradition to this day. The
Archbishop of Canterbury tells off the British Prime Minister for his
policies and actions. An ex-Archbishop likewise takes Muslim countries to
task for not properly following the spirit of Islam. An evangelist slates
homosexuals for depraved sexual practices. The battle of good against
evil, of spirit against flesh, continues as it has throughout the ages.
This is all no doubt fine. Except that nowadays there is a snag not
often recognised - and if recognised, almost never acknowledged.
It is that for all the speaking and prophesying "in the Spirit" by
Christians, few outside the fold are listening. The words may be heard -
but they are seldom if ever heeded.
The Church's knee-jerk reaction to its lack of impact is to blame the
corrupt human nature of a so-called secular world. It's not our
fault that so few listen when we speak, cry the Christians. We are God's
children. Those outside must come into the holy family. They are
spiritually deaf. They have turned off their God-given hearing aids.
But let's apply a test at this point. What happens when the secular
world criticises the Church, when the prophetic process is reversed?
To take only one of many possible examples, national leaders have
pleaded with the Pope to encourage the use of condoms by Roman Catholics
to combat HIV/AIDS. What's the reaction? It is the assertion by the bulk
of the Church of absolute and perpetual rectitude in this and many other
matters. The attitude is common throughout Christendom. We are the
prophets, they are the sinners. Our human nature is redeemed, theirs is
fallen. Us and them - a great gulf fixed between.
God's lawful children, it seems, cannot tolerate the idea that their
father has other offspring. And that these others might be better able to
hear the Spirit, might have something to say about how God does things, is
rather like legitimate children discovering that their father has left
everything to his bastards.
So as Christians gather for the holy festival of Pentecost, they might
do well to consider the possibility that God is speaking to them in a
voice they find hard to hear because the dialect is strange and the tones
Their ears are sometimes deafened by loud hymns, fervent prayers and
impassioned sermons. But still, small voices speak from the slums of
Johannesburg and Delhi, from politicians in Congress and Parliament, from
economists and stock exchanges, and from those driven from the Church by
bigotry. There is also a non-Christian majority out there - bastard
children of a Father who dares sow his seed outside the family.