Europe’s middle ages proceeded on two tracks. One, imposed by local warlords and kings, was the Christianization of tribes and individuals with rites and rituals not actually leading people to learn about or follow the way of Jesus. Serious intent to follow Jesus was mostly the realm of monasteries and a handful of others. The second track was unending war, with all of its atrocities, between tribes and nascent kingdoms whose leaders wanted more power and land. They may have marched against each other under the banner of the cross, but that was mainly a tool to bind the loyalty of the people to the king, not Jesus. The nations we know as modern Europe jelled eventually, but not without keeping ethnic hostilities alive. Even the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were driven more by angry self righteousness and greed for territory than anything else.
That history has led some to accuse Christianity of being a violent religion of oppression and subjugation. It’s a claim that ignores the substitution of Jesus’ discipleship for the prevalence of selfish greed and lust for power. Moreover, the same dynamic ran parallel in Asia where Buddhism became the dominant religion.
During the same historical age, Buddhism spread throughout southern and eastern Asia. Like Rome’s Constantine, kings and emperors recognized the useful tool of binding people together by displacing tribal gods. With no real regard for teachings of the Buddha, rulers incited the business of killing in pursuit of territory and power. Buddhism was simply the most efficient method to mobilize a more or less unified people behind them. Although the trajectory was different in Islam, there were also power and oppression similarities. But that’s a story for someone else to tell. The point is that rulers and peoples were capable of taking on the cloak of religion without following its teachings.
That now brings this column from the Middle Ages to our own time and to the seductive power of idolatrous dependencies. What is now ancient history hasn’t gone away, rather it has just changed its form. It’s seen in the religiously flavored armed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and among religious zealots throughout the world. We see it played out in America by an aggressive move of right wing authoritarian political movement designed to unite conservative evangelical Christians, while trampling the way of following Jesus into the dust. We see it in religious zealotry that willfully goes along with any authority that will give power to suppress all other beliefs, Christian or not. For Christians it’s a form of idolatry that occurs whenever self and corporate identity are dependent on things given greater value than God, as we know God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus taught about the way of love that includes God, self, neighbors and even enemies. To follow God in the way of love demands that it be the single guiding authority far above everything else. Not that everything else is displaced, only that it be subordinate to the way of following Jesus.
What can that mean? We have to start with a different set of questions. What makes us, us? What gives us our self identity, sense of worthiness and security? It might be to have enough money to handle every necessity, most wants, and a handful of luxuries. To have enough money is power and status, to not have it is to be vulnerable, serving even to erode one’s self worth. Sometimes it’s having possessions that announce status or valued heritage. One’s dependency on unreliable things to confer identity and worthiness can be dangerous. Dependency on others for the love needed to feel fully human can be particularly treacherous. Human love is not dependable even at its best. Even the ones who love us most let us down now and then. Sometimes needed love is not to be had. The soul withers and self worth fades in its absence. Dependency on wealth, possessions, and the love of others to provide self identity, status, and worthiness can lead to such fear of losing it all that everything else in life is subordinated to clutching what we can and keeping others from taking it.
It’s hateful to be owned by money, things and the whims of other people. Can’t we just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be enough? I think that’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about.
We are most fully free to receive the imperfect love of others, embody love in ourselves, and give our love to others when we give up dependence on things and people to affirm who we are. So who are we? We are God’s unconditionally beloved. To give up dependency on things other than that assurance is to let love flow fully, freely.
Jesus loved Roman collaborators, adulterers, and maniacs. He loved the disciples who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. He loved disease ridden lepers, the blind, crippled, sick, beggars, rich and poor, even crucified thieves. He loved them unconditionally then and he loves us now. He will never take that love away.
By giving up our dependency on others and becoming dependent on the love of God in Christ Jesus is to let love flow from us in every direction, including to those closest and dearest to us. To be fully human, to be authentically one’s own true self, is to know that we are loved by God in Christ Jesus. Dependency on anything else as more important opens the door to the corroding power of selfishness, fear and anxiety. It returns us to the mindset of the Middle Ages.
© Steven E. Woolley