People always say that all religions are the same or they say “basically” the same. Some people, usually Christians, disagree (Christianity tends to be exclusive, as I have grown up understanding it). I understand both sides. There are commonalities, specifically in ethics and morals between many religions. But the framing narrative of religions is different and the goals of the many religions are different.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston professor, wrote a book by the title “God Is Not One” about 8 of the world’s religions. He says in Islam, the problem is pride, and the solution is submission; in Buddhism, the problem is suffering, and the solution is awakening; in Judaism, the problem is exile, the solution is returning to God; Confucianism, the problem is chaos and the solution is social order; in Christianity, the problem is sin, and the solution is salvation. Though I liked his realization that there are different narratives in each of these religions, I disagreed with his framing of Christianity. I think he did a great job with understanding traditional Christianity but if it’s about following Jesus, I’m pretty sure that is way more than just about sin and “salvation.” It’s a common and prevalent misinterpretation of Jesus in the West. I think Christianity, if it is following Jesus, is probably closer to the Jewish framework--can you imagine that! We don’t call it the Judeo-Christian tradition for nothing. But I would still word it differently. I’m in a story-mood during this update. So let me share one.
In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity, you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court.
You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, read and re-read this sacred text many times.
Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings, you have lost all confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case.
The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak.
“Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.
Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.
“What evidence?” he replies in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you reply.
“They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.”
“But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long sleepless nights of prayer?”
“Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.”
“But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!”
“Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great, long-forgotten secret.
“The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artist who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down their brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and his followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.”
Here, I hesitate to interpret or comment as I might lead you one way; there are many layers. I almost added to the story, but I know the author of the story, a philosopher named Peter Rollins, would not object. I could have added that the person, the defendant, had been a righteous (really blameless man) or that people who had been convicted had been people who had sinned (I guess we all have according to the definition). But my point is that the court (in this story) isn’t interested in personal, private piety. The judge might say, “That just shows you’re a personally good person with morals but not Christlike in that you are systematically against systems, communing with the excluded and the least of these.” Great story.
That is the first story in a book of modern-day (I call them parables) stories by Peter Rollins. It’s called “Orthodox Heretic.”