Jesus, Simon and me

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It took me long time to accept who I was. Most of my life, in fact. When I was in my late teens, I had a relationship with a young man the same age as myself. This was illegal at the time as the age of homosexual consent in the UK was 21, remaining so until the late 1990s when it became 18. (In 2004 it was finally made the same as heterosexual consent: 16.) We didn’t care. We had a lovely time and I for one was very happy. I think Sam was too. We lost touch eventually as life took us down different paths.

Not long after, I fell in among Christians. A friend – let’s call him Simon – thought it would be a good idea if we started going to the YMCA. This was long before the organisation became synonymous with the Village People and hangin’ out with all the boys. The YMCA I encountered was markedly evangelical. Once we’d visited a few times we were ‘invited’ to one of their young people’s meetings. I can’t remember what snappy title these meetings went by, but essentially they were a mixture of worship, bible reading and ‘teaching’. Sometimes there’d be a guest speaker who would tell us all about their relationship with Jesus, which, in case we had any doubts, was just marvellous. Before long I was giving my life to Jesus too, though in the long run it turned out to be only a temporary loan.

Occasionally, one of these guest speakers would talk about relationships, those with other human beings, and sex. From them I learnt that sex was almost always wrong: sex before marriage, sex outside marriage, sex with yourself – all of them were sinful. Even imagining sex and fancying someone (which qualified as lust) were wrong too. Who knew? But the most sinful, wicked and sordid sex of all was sex with someone of the same sex.

It didn’t seem it to me. The encounters I’d had with Sam were far from sordid and not at all evil. On the contrary, they were a lot of fun! But these people, these Christians, seemed to know what they were talking about. And hadn’t I given my life to Jesus? He detested homosexuality, or God did anyway, so Jesus must’ve felt the same way (actually this was all in the present tense, Jesus being alive and monitoring us from Heaven and all; Jesus detests homosexuality, they’d tell us.) Sometimes they’d read verses from the bible that proved it.

And so I started to suppress my feelings. They’d kinda got me in trouble anyway, when my body betrayed me in the showers after gym at school. Other boys would torment me about it. I wasn’t actually ‘out’, as we’d say today, and terms like ‘queer’ and ‘poof’ (the British equivalent of ‘fag’) were bandied around as general insults – they didn’t necessarily mean anyone actually thought you were gay. Nonetheless, they came a little too close to comfort. All things considered, a retreat to the back of the closet (not that I knew this terminology then either) seemed the best option. It was what Jesus wanted, or so I thought. I started to deny myself for him, as he insists his followers do, and began a life of self-deception.

Which would’ve been fine, except it’s impossible to live a lie in isolation. Others invariably become involved.

Enter Jane…

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Heaven’s Above

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I was struggling for inspiration this week with the homework assignment from my writing group. The title was ‘Heaven’s Above’ (or maybe ‘Heavens Above’, without the apostrophe) and possibly I was having difficulty with it because I don’t believe in a Heaven above, on account of there not being one.

The other night, in a local bar, this young guy came over to talk to my friends and me. He was a doctor from a nearby practice, and he started by asking how, when the time comes, we’d like to die. While perhaps not be the best way to start a consultation, his question provoked some interesting responses.

Then, having somehow detected that my friends and I had reached a certain level of maturity (we’re in our 60s), the young doctor asked what we felt was the point of life. He had, he said, a real need to know this, because having achieved all he wanted at 28, he was left wondering if there was any purpose beyond 30. I like to think we all gave him good answers. There’s life in these old dogs yet! For me, it was falling in love (yes, it happens to old people too) together with friends, lovers and other relationships, particularly those with my grown-up children and beautiful grandchildren. There’s also – though I didn’t bore him with the details – achieving authenticity, accepting yourself and living true to that self. Then there’s all the other things that make life worthwhile; being open to change, having new experiences, learning, helping others, reading, writing, conversation, music, walking… You will, I’m sure, have your own list.

I know that Sartre claimed that ‘Hell is other people’ and Lee Marvin thought much the same thing when he rumbled in Wand’rin’ Star that ‘Hell is in hello’, but Heaven is in these same things; in friendship and our other relationships. There may be some who think it’s easy for me to say all this. ‘After all,’ they say, without knowing me, ‘you have a good life. It’s pretty easy to feel positive about something that’s already going well,’ which is true. Except my life has had its share of traumas, problems and pains, and still does. But life is good and worthwhile in spite of these, and it’s purposeful too without recourse to God or Jesus. Who needs these two old frauds? We make our own Heaven here, now, in our own lives.

Am I saying count your blessings? Yes, I suppose I am, but not, I hope, in a glib way. There are so many good things in most of our lives; all we have to do is make them our own. ‘Lay hold on life,’ as the old hymn says, ‘and it shall be, thy joy and crown eternally.’ Maybe not eternally, but certainly beyond the age of 30.

How to spot a Christian

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What is being a Christian actually about? Do you qualify as a Christian if, like Paul seems to suggest, you believe a particular set of propositions; ‘right belief’ that ensures you’re saved and will go to heaven after you die? Do you have to sing songs about how marvellous Jesus is and how much you love him? Do you show you’re a Christian by defending God’s ‘standards’, which you know about from a very selctive reading of the bible? Does being a Christian entail arguing vociferously that Jesus is God, that he rose from the dead and that the bible is God’s inspired word? Is it insisting, with all the loving aggression you can muster, that non-believers are bound for hell, that homosexuals are disgustingly evil and that these, like every other period in the past two millennia, are the end times?

This is what a modern Christian looks like. He or she does these kinds of things, and a whole lot more, that Jesus, as he’s portrayed in the synoptic gospels, wouldn’t recognise. His idea of a Christian (not that he’d know the term) is a very different animal. Here’s what Jesus expects of one of his followers –

They:

cut themselves off from their family – hate them, in fact – just to follow him (Luke 14.26);

deny everything about themselves (Matthew 16.24-27);

forsake home, job, wealth, status, credibility and comfort to help bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mark 10.29-31 etc);

slave tirelessly in the service of others (Mark 10.43-44; Matthew 23.11 etc);

sell their possessions so that they can give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19.21; Luke 14.33);

turn the other cheek, repeatedly go the extra mile and give away the shirt and coat off their back – if they’ve still got them after giving everything away – (Matthew 5.38-40);

welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison (Matthew 25.35-40);

forgive again and again and again (Matthew 18.21-22);

don’t judge others in case they’re judged in return (Matthew 7.1-3);

love their enemies (Matthew 5.44);

regard persecution and injustices done to them as blessings (Matthew 5.11);

do miracles even more impressive than Jesus’s own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12);

heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons (Matthew 10.7-8);

are granted whatever they ask for in prayer (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22);

don’t subscribe to a magic salvation-formula (found nowhere in the synoptic gospels).

Yes, Jesus was completely insane, demanding all this, and more, of those foolish enough to align themselves with him. But demand he did.

I’m sure there are Christians today who do everything he expected… somewhere, possibly… but I don’t know any. They’re all too busy enjoying their affluent, middle-class lives, singing songs at PraiseFests, judging others and squabbling about doctrine from behind their keyboards. It makes you wonder why they call Jesus their Lord when they don’t do a thing he tells them (Matthew 7.21).

Get your false Messiahs here…

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There was this guy who said he was the Son of God and the Messiah of his people. God appeared to him in a vision that enveloped him and changed him completely. Afterwards he discovered he had a knowledge of scripture that he previously hadn’t possessed and a invigorated sense of mission: God had appointed him to redeem his people. He changed his name and began to teach his people with power and a knowledge that all of them testified they had never experienced before. He brought them close to God and showed them how the world was coming to an end and how God would soon establish his Kingdom on Earth. He prophesied too, however, that he himself would die at the hands of the authorities, but that his followers should have no fear, because God would not forsake them: they would be part of the coming Kingdom.

And so it came to pass. At the age of 33, the Messiah died at the hands of the state.

And the name of this guy? Jesus, maybe? Well, it could be, but it wasn’t. Saul/Paul perhaps? Again, possibly… but no.

This guy’s name was David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), leader of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. You may remember him from such massacres as the 1993 seige at Waco, where his church was based. He made all the claims above, just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Paul before him. None of his followers, it’s true, claimed to see him after his death, but some of those who survived the seige believe still that he will be resurrected and will return to lead them personally into the Kingdom of God.

I was watching a programme about him recently, a Storyville documentary originally broadcast in the States last year, which showed how easily we create our Messiahs and Saviours. The recipe, it turns out, is easy:

Take one charismatic individual who thinks he’s speaking for God;

Mix in an obsession with scripture;

Add some absurd self-promotion, and

Bake for a few years in the over-heated adulation of some desperate sycophants.

So – Jesus, Paul, Koresh. What’s the difference?

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*Actually, the quote in the picture up top is not Jesus at all; its Koresh, from an interview with the FBI (see first link above.) John 14.6 says ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me,’ which is much the same.

Woe to you hypocrites!

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Independent Fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Donnie Romero, an associate of Steven Anderson’s, resigned from his church this week after he was discovered paying prostitutes for sex, smoking weed and gambling.

Well, who cares really what such a pathetic little man gets up to in his spare time – apart, maybe, from his wife – except that Romero, like Anderson, is virulently anti-gay. He preaches that LGBTQ people are filthy animals who prey on children and calls for the state-sanctioned execution of all ‘homos’. He rejoiced when LGBT people were killed in the Pulse shooting a few years ago.

Christians can argue all they like that the bible is the Word of God™, that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that he was the Son of God come to save us, but even if all this were true, which it isn’t, it makes not the slightest bit of difference. Romero and his predilection for ‘sin’ demonstrate, once again, that Christianity does not work.

According to the bible, those who are born again are washed in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 1.5) and are cleansed and purified (1 John 1.7). They cannot sin (1 John 3.6), being possessed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19- 20) who changes their nature (John 3.3–7; Titus 3.5) and gives them victory over sin (Romans 6.1–10). So how do Christians explain believers like Romero, and the multitude of others who fornicate, abuse, steal, bear false witness and even, sometimes, resort to murder? Were such people ever really Christians in the first place?

IFB doctrine says they were; once a Christian always a Christian. Despite what Romero has done, he will be going to heaven.

Others say not; a Christian who visits prostitutes is not and never has been a real follower of Jesus, because visiting prostitutes is not something a real follower, one who has the indwelling Holy Spirit would do. Yet Paul admonishes some of the early church (1 Corinthians 6.15-18) for doing just this, without, strangely enough, tell them they were never true believers. Looks like Christians with prostitutes has been a problem from the very start.

Perhaps believers who cheat and fornicate are redeemed a second time, once they’ve sought forgiveness for their trespasses. The comments on the YouTube version of Romero’s resignation speech speak of how noble he is for confessing his sins, making him ‘a true man’ according to one. They seem to miss the fact that he does nothing of the sort. He leaves fellow zealot Anderson to explain what has happened. Is it scriptural that a believer can fuck up (literally) as many times as he likes, and so long as he admits it he’ll still be one of the Chosen? Hardly. Still, there’s got to be a free get-out of jail card for today’s fornicating minister, and this is as good as any. How long until Romero is back in front of a gullible and duped forgiving congregation? In the meantime his place has been taken at the ironically named ‘Stedfast church’ by an ignorant jerk who is every bit as hate-filled.

By their fruits shall ye know them, Jesus is made to say. I can’t help but think that prostitute sex, cannabis, gambling, homophobic rants and bare-faced hypocrisy weren’t quite what he had in mind.

 

Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.

The Incarnate Deity?

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Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

This, according to Charles Wesley’ hymn, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, is what Christmas is all about: God manifesting himself on Earth as a child and subsequently a man.

What a disaster this whole idea is. The stories of Jesus’ birth do serious damage to two key elements of the Christian message:

First, they detract significantly from the good news the adult Jesus proclaimed and which survives to some extent in the synoptic gospels: the Kingdom of God was coming to the Earth very soon and people – Jewish people – should mend their ways accordingly. Instead, the nativity stories, which occur only in Matthew and Luke, are a reflection of what had happened to the faith by the time these gospels were written. The message had changed. It was less about what Jesus had to say and more about how he himself should be worshipped. He had, after all, as early Christians had started to believe, come from Heaven to save everyone from their sins.

Second, the nativity stories negate the resurrection. If a mortal Jesus rose from the dead, then we might conceivably have a miracle on our hands. But for an ‘incarnate deity’ to have accomplished the same thing – well, that’s no big deal. It’s what gods do all the time. The resurrection experiences, whatever they were, are invalidated by the gospel writers when, at the start of his story, they suggest Jesus is somehow divine. (John is even more emphatic; Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.) So there’s nothing special about the resurrection, it’s just a god doing what gods do.

The nativity stories represent the confusion within early Christianity. Its adherents wanted it both ways, to have their cake and eat it. Maybe today’s believers can help us out of the dilemma: is it Jesus’ birth – his incarnation – that matters, or is it his death? Because it cannot be both. If Jesus was God in human form from the very beginning, then there’s nothing particularly special about his death and resurrection. Gods can’t really die, especially when none of them, including Yahweh, are alive in the first place.