For I did not leave the Catholic Church, per se. My avoidance of the Sacrament of Confirmation in the fifth, sixth, and, miraculously, seventh and eighth grades could not have come to fruition had it not been for the faith of my mother.
She had faith that I would turn out to be a moral and upstanding member of the human community without yet another name; she had given me quite enough already. She also believed that the seeds of faith that had been sown up to that point were enough that I might reap the benefit of understanding their meaning.
For it was mythology I was exposed to during those eight years in the school of the Holy Spirit, while not specifically declared as such (at least not that I recall). [on edit: I do vaguely recall at least one teacher referring to one or more of the Old Testament stories as being a parable] And much of the meaning to that mythology, with the ritual thereabout, germinates in me still.
The Lenten sacrifice is but a microcosm of the meaning behind this season in which we find ourselves, which for the Christians culminates on this day, Easter Sunday: Plant the seed of sacrifice, reap the reward of renewal. But, of course, the cycle of life and death is more complicated than one of forty days leading into the spring, or the walk in the desert it represents.
Giving and Forgiving
The season of growth is upon us, sure. The sun rises closer to the spot upon which we sit*, the ice has melted and the water flows, and the plants grow and bloom again. This much seems automatic. But the promise of renewal is conditional as well. And the seeds we sow are the crop we reap.
The story is a recycled message. All versions of the story are about sacrifice. The seeds of this sacrifice were sown as an example to all of us that we must give first in order to receive. We must sacrifice in the present as a precondition to the world we would like in the future.
The Jesus in that version of the myth knew that he would not benefit from the sacrifice. Martin Luther King Jr likewise knew that he was risking his own life so that others might learn to live by his example.
But their risk was not for the sake of the reward of a promised land from which we automatically benefit so long as we believe in the afterlife. The benefit is dependent upon our making it so. The promised land is here, but only if we live it.
Their sacrifice was to make the point that in order to live in peace, we have to be willing to give up our lives not with a sword in our hand, but with an open hand extended to those who would cut it off.
The Least Worn Path
The message that we must love our enemies, that we must turn the other cheek, that we must go the way of truth and light, seems an impossible one to follow. With this sacrifice comes great risk, you might say.
Insofar as we lack the courage of conviction, we dilute and dismiss the message, and promote and denigrate the narrative. This all too often leads to our mirroring its absurdity. The great film ‘The Wicker Man’ (Ed Woodward, not Nic Cage) juxtaposes the absurdity of both the Pagan and Christian versions of this myth taken literally. It should be required Easter viewing. But I digress.
It may be that there was a Jesus Christ who was crucified on a cross a pair of millennia ago, it is not for me to say. But as far as the parable goes, his crime was not one of heresy, but one of peace at all costs. His courage was not believing in his own divinity, but having the guts to put down the sword for the sake of the divine. Speaking the truth cost him his life, but is supposed to be an instruction on how to break the cycle of fear and violence.
Martin Luther King, who purveyed this message, also knew he wasn’t going to reap the reward of his sacrifice. Yet he knew that for future generations to live in non-violence that we ourselves must in the present practice non-violence. He knew that we could not give in to the fear in our minds without forsaking the love in our hearts.
And we cannot claim to love our children, if we do not love those of others. We cannot sow the seeds of destruction and expect to reap the benefit of peace. It simply doesn’t work.
And while I am an atheist, I don’t believe our folly lies solely at the feet of the religious. The secular rightly point out religious hypocrisy. But simply mocking the literal interpretation of that which they don’t believe misses an opportunity to plant the seed of understanding and embraces the piety they seek to expose.
The problem with the religious and non-religious alike is that we can only get as far as paying lip-service to the message of doing no harm, if that. But we certainly don’t really believe it.
If we believed the message we would not spend human resources and lives at both ends of a weapons industry, the financial worth of which could feed, clothe, house, and educate the most needy of our nations.
We likewise would not subsidize industries which exploit the labor of those nations’ women and children for the maximization of profit and the convenience of a standard of living with which we have become accustomed.
We certainly would not sacrifice pacifism for passivity, and peace of mind for a state of somnolence.
Those who have truly believed this message of potential harmony have shouted its truth in the face of a grave danger. But we don’t have to keep sacrificing our kings if we would just wake up and follow their example.
Faith is not a belief that you will receive your just rewards. It is the undeniable conviction that you are doing the right thing. It is meant to get you through the times when you don’t see the immediate effects of sowing the seeds of peace. Again, we have to be willing to give something up and to speak that truth, and to live that truth unconditionally.
Whatever you believe regarding the nature of your existence, now is not the time to demand the destruction of your perceived enemies. Now is the time to speak the truth to its power for sure, but also to reach out, offer forgiveness, and encourage it to come into the light, and to likewise speak the unfettered truth of peace.
Of course, if this were easy, everybody’d be doing it. And paradoxically, if everybody were doing it, it’d be easy.