Sunday, February 09, 2020

Christhood of Every Person

One afternoon a woman was gardening in her front garden, when she was approached by a stranger.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm thinking of buying the house for sale in this street, I was just wondering if you could tell me - what are the neighbours like around here?"
The woman stood up, stretched, and then said, "Well, tell me, what are your neighbours like where you live now?"
"Oh, they're terrible people," he said, "Rude, unfriendly, selfish, trouble-makers, I hate them."
"Well, I think you'll find the people around here are much the same," replied the woman.
The man thanked her, and then left, and she went back to her gardening.

An hour later she was interrupted again by a different man.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm thinking of buying the house for sale in this street, I was just wondering if you could tell me - what are the neighbours like around here?"
Again, she asked, "Well, tell me, what are your neighbours like where you live now?"
"Oh, they're lovely people," he said, "Friendly, kind, helpful, I've made some really good friends. I'm sad to be moving, but I have to."
"Well, I think you'll find the people around here are much the same," replied the woman, and then returned to her gardening.

This story hints at the power of our inner life, in shaping how we experience the world. It suggests that one person would find a place unfriendly, and another would find it friendly, because the difference was their own attitudes, their inner life, which shaped the way they interacted with the world.

And if that is true, it means that the way we change the world, is by changing ourselves.

The Islamic mystic Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Now, that doesn't mean that changing the world is not important, and it doesn't mean that everything that happens to us is our own fault. There's some New Age philosophies that suggest that if you "spiritually wish" for something in a certain way, then it comes true, and if bad things happen to you, well that's just because you're not doing it right.

You can meet that philosophy in various guises, but it's always rubbish. Bad things happen, sometimes just because of dumb luck, and often they happen unevenly because of structural injustice in the world. Oppression happens, oppression falls on the poor, and people of colour, and women, and occupied and invaded and oppressed people across the world. This is true. But it still remains true that the way we change the world is by changing ourselves.

The reason I return again and again to Jesus is because I find in him a model of how this works, a path to how this works. A way that shows what true liberation from oppression looks like. To understand that we need to understand Jesus' fundamental identity as a colonised person, as a person living under occupation of an empire. And then we've got to truly hear Jesus' words as they would be heard by colonised people. When we do that we will understand the revolutionary nature of Jesus' words.

But it is hard to do that, because the Empire is already domesticating his message within the pages of the New Testament. It's already watering down the anti-empire message in the very process of writing the story down (the most obvious place this happens is in the story of Jesus' death, which was clearly the death of a revolutionary, but the Gospel writers do their utmost to make the Roman Empire look innocent - and put the blame on Jesus' compatriots - which is actually ridiculous if you pause to think about it). But what they could never get rid of was this phrase “the kingdom of God”. He talked about it so often, it couldn't get written out of the story.

But so much depends on understanding this concept, this word. In Greek it's Basileia. It means Empire. The Romans had a Basileia. This Basileia invaded Jesus' homeland, killed his people, taxed them, oppressed their religion. And Jesus came with the message “a new empire is coming, an empire of divinity.” But the irony is so important to get. I think we should probably call it an “anti-empire” because it is in fact the exact opposite of Empire. It stands against Empire in every way. And so Jesus' message was: an anti-empire is coming to overturn the Roman Empire.

Now this was not that original. Lots of people felt like this, lots of people would have got on board with this agenda. But Jesus realised that Empire is bigger than just his current reality of the Roman Empire. And so, yeah, what if there was a war of independence, and the Jewish people had won, and got rid of the Roman Empire, and got a better Jewish king. Would things be better? Well, yes, in many ways they would. But don't you think that the Jewish king would have also been seduced by power and prestige, and used violence to achieve his aims? Jesus knew that there wasn't any point with just replacing one system of Empire with a different flavoured system of Empire. Because oppression and violence would always exist, unless you address the deep deep roots of oppression, the roots of Empire, which are the deep human anxieties that causes us to dominate one another. As spiritual writer Andrew Harvey has said, "an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions." That's true today, as it was two thousand years ago.

So unless you deal with those roots, unless you purify your liberation activism with profound spiritual self-awareness, your liberation will just create a new system of oppression. Jesus knew that a successful war of liberation would just replace one domination system with another domination system, one empire, with a different one, one with a different name, a different flag, but fundamentally the same thing. The only way things could truly change was by replacing Empire with anti-empire - with the anti-empire of heaven.

So Jesus says: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who wrong you, when someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other. Because that's what it look like when a human being becomes purified by profound spiritual self-awareness, free from the anxieties that cause us dominate one another. That's what it looks like when a human being is operating as a citizen of the anti-empire. That's what it looks like when a human being stops operating from the fear and the anger of the ego that's always seeking to be in charge, and starts operating from the divine self that exists in relationship with the rest of creation.

We can call that divine self, that truly human part of our humanity, the Christ-Self, the Christ Nature, The Christ Within. You don't have to call it that. I believe it's the same thing as Buddha-nature that exists within everyone. But that's how we talk about it in my tradition. Within my tradition, there is an understanding, as Unitarian Alfred Hall wrote, that “within every human being is a hidden Christ.”

Christ means “one anointed” - someone having holy anointing oil poured on their heads, as with a king or priest in Jewish practice. It came to mean an ideal king. And the early Christians adopted it as a title for Jesus. But there's always existed in the Christian tradition this idea of the Christ Power within. And within the most radical Christian traditions there is the idea we can all be Christs, just as some Buddhist traditions hold we can all become Buddhas.

That Christhood is achievable in our lives. This radical idea has never been fully developed or explored in Christian history. But it's there. This radical-mystical, minority view that believes in the Christhood of every person.

The majority view is that only Jesus is the Christ. People think only a divine being could love enemies, reject violence, reject wealth, they think that it's not possible to be that loving and transformed for us mere mortals. And so this view says we don't have to be like Christ, we only have to worship him.

We see this shift in the New Testament. John's Gospel (which nearly all historians agree doesn't bear much relation to what Jesus actually said and did) has Jesus say “I am the light of the world.” But Matthew's Gospel, one closer to Jesus' real words, says the opposite, “You are the light of the world.” 

You have that light within you, you can shine. You can be transformed. You can be that loving and compassionate. You can become Christ.

How? How does this happen? Jesus is really clear. It happens from an inner transformation. You dig deep, you lay the foundations. Because if you don't, if your house is built on sand, when life gets tough, when there's challenges, your house falls down. So to live through the difficult times in life, we need those deep foundations, your house needs to be built on rock. To remain faithful when you're in conflict with someone, you need those deep foundations. To remain compassionate, when someone's really hacking you off, you need those deep foundations. To not get triggered when there's someone who really presses your buttons, you need those deep foundations. Otherwise your house falls down.

It is OK if you house falls down. You can rebuild it. We fail, we try again. But if you want to live without the constant crisis of your house falling down, you need to build on rock.

Jesus uses different images to say the same thing. A tree is known by its fruit. An apple tree produces apples and an orange tree produces oranges. And a transformed soul produces compassion.

And another image: your eye must be healthy. If your eye is healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if it's not, your body will be full of darkness.

The eye here is a symbol of vision, of imagination. What he's saying is we need a shift in our imagination. We need to shift from the imagination of Empire to the imagination of the anti-empire of God. Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To solve the problem of Empire, we cannot use Empire thinking. To solve the problem of oppression, we cannot use oppressive thinking. To solve the problem of violence, we cannot use violent thinking. To solve the problem of climate chaos, we cannot use capitalistic colonial thinking. 

We need to shift our thinking, our imagination, our vision, to this pathway of living out of our true humanity, our Christ-Self.

The Christ Self is relational and connected. I'm not talking about a delusion in which you believe in your divine special self, and look down on everyone else. That's the exact opposite of the Christ Self. That's the ego. The ego wants to be in charge, the ego wants to be better than others, the ego constantly worries about how it compares to other people, the ego want to fit in, the ego is constantly scared of not fitting in, the ego is frightened and wants to lash out in anger to protect itself. The ego is fundamentally anxious, and operates out of a frantic energy seeking to overcome this anxiety. The ego is what happens within our souls that creates Empire in our world.

The Christ Self, the Truly Human One, is relational and connected. The Christ Self knows it's identity as a Beloved Child of God, as a citizen of the anti-empire, which looks like the garden of paradise. The Christ Self recognises that every person is also fundamentally a Christ, and operates out of a sense of kinship and sibling-hood. The Christ Self is what happens within our souls that creates paradise (the anti-empire of God) in our world.

The way we change the world is by changing ourselves. When we engage in spiritual practices that confirm us in our identity as Christs, as Beloved Children of God, then we grow in the sure sense of our true identity. We know we are connected in a deeper oneness. We are not alone, but in deep communion with all things. We have a confidence and peace that knows who we are, what we are, and we operate from that place of peace.

When we operate from our truly human identity, from our Christhood, our Belovedness, we are indeed capable of doing the kinds of things Jesus did. We are capable of non-judgement, of compassion, of totally committing to non-violence, of not being addicted to wealth, we become Christs rather than just Christians. We become people who actually act like Jesus rather than just people who praise him.

It's a path. It takes growth and commitment and forgiveness of ourselves and others when we get it wrong. It doesn't happen suddenly or all at once. But I do believe that there is Christ Nature within all of us, and that we are capable of becoming Christ, of living out of that Christ identity, of letting the Christ Breath breathe through us.

And so let's end with these words from Hafiz:

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through 
listen to this music
I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus
I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through
listen to this music.

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