Monday, July 29, 2013

Anyone Who Is Not Against You Is For You

John said to Jesus, "Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn't in our group." But Jesus said, "Don't stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you."
This passage illustrates beautifully the way that religion, as properly expressed, flips priorities and expectations upside down. The ways of the world are not those of God, though humans have made them over in their own image in flagrant violation of their intent. Misplaced priorities have wounded many and led others away for years, sometimes forever. I often address a chorus of wounded skeptics, who are burning with a desire to believe while being simultaneously pulled in the opposite direction. 

We must consider our own very human flaws before condemning those who are in need of a lesson. The twelve Disciples were ordinary, average people who had been chosen at random to form an inner circle. They had stayed at Jesus' side for the whole of his ministry and as Jesus' star began to grow larger and larger, they began to argue within themselves. Who would be the greatest when, as they were certain, their Master began a rebellion and successfully kicked out the Roman occupiers?

These men had witnessed miraculous acts, which confirmed the importance of the journey and their role in it. Some of the same powers at their master's command were granted to them. They'd observed how Jesus raised up the dead, healed the sick, and performed the impossible over and over again. So when someone else was using the name of their Master to accomplish the same noble ends, they were jealous and indignant. They and they alone deserved the right to use these powers.

They were missing the point, anticipating greater glory to lie ahead. The Disciples were already arguing about their eventual placement next to King Jesus' throne. They failed to understand that this Kingdom their leader kept alluding to mysteriously was not an earthly one based on military conquest. There would be no armed insurrection leading to the reestablishment of Palestine under its own leadership.

We know how the story ends. When everything was said and done, the task of those left behind would be to work to build upon the legacy they helped to establish. Dreams of great power and influence would be set aside in place of the hard work of setting strangers right with God. In time, they recognized their folly, but it took self-reflection and a proper way of seeing the world first.

I include this verse to show how many religious group stray from what is right, ignoring or skirting past this passage altogether. Scripture does not place walls around people, rather, the people who interpret it for their own selfish reasons twist it around and make it that way. Seeking to copyright or patent a particular means of achieving Eternal Life is precisely why we have as many denominations within Christianity and religious groups as we do today. People have, through their own pride and covetousness, set forth the idea that their theology is superior to others.

I live in Washington, DC, a city that creates ideas. Beyond Capitol Hill, its own universe, a myriad, often disconnected network of non-profits, PACs, and NGOs are found. Their existence is often a result of some peoples' pet concepts and schemes for making the world a better place. The pool is small and the players are often elbow-to-elbow. Misplaced priorities lead many to feel defensive, afraid that someone will encroach upon their turf, or steal their ideas. And yet, nevertheless we are told that anyone who is not against us is for us.

When I was in grad school, I was told that no idea or academic theory was beyond improvement. Nothing is worse than an idea which is not in debate. Either it is perfect and needs no further revision (unlikely), or it merits no further analysis (most likely). Theories wilt away and began collecting dust when others find nothing worthy or helpful about them. We are indebted and emotionally connected to what we have conceived with our own effort. Criticism does indeed sting. But it is far better than being irrelevant and not part of the game.

Beyond the ivory tower is the world most of us inhabit. Many might argue that it doesn't make good business sense to believe that anyone who is not against us is for us. Millions, if not billions, are made by people who are highly covetous of their own creations and inventions. In this day of competition, fears, and scarcity suspicion exists because, in a perversion of the passage with which I opened this post, the reverse is true. Everyone who is not with us is against us.

If we are religious people, or even people with religious pretenses, we ask ourselves once again how we can live in this world and not be of this world. I know people who feel no strong draw towards religion, yet are still trying to figure out that very conundrum for themselves. It is the same reason why the Amish isolate themselves deliberately from this fallen world and why hippies lived in communes. Some find the taint of our civilization corrupting, regardless of how they seek to side-step it.

Though its foundation is ancient, this question could not be more modern. Some people disgusted with the warped values systems of daily life withdraw altogether. Some engage as little as is necessary, and even more find it a thoroughly impossible task. But though our decisions may differ, our conflicted attitudes never do. Instead, we face a lifetime's worth of second-guessing, trying to span the gap between two very different mindsets.

Religion is meant to challenge, not to fling insults or be the justification for abrasive put-downs. The real words, printed on the page, are controversial, but not in the way you may have been led to believe. Not all criticism is meant to tear down. The very best is designed to make us think.

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