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The Problem with Saints

November 4, 2007

Clay Nelson

All Saints' Sunday     Daniel 7:1-18     Luke 6:20-31


I have discovered there is a downside to being a non-theist Christian besides not having a heaven to go to. It makes preparing a progressive Christian sermon for All Saints’ Sunday a challenge.


While my non-theist view rejects the idea of an external all-powerful, all-knowing father figure residing in heaven mulling over whether or not to answer my prayers, All Saints’ Sunday is predicated on this theology. Today’s reading of Daniel gives a graphic picture of such a God.


While the first use of the word “saints” within the church was by Paul addressing all the living members of the church, by the third century it was a reference to those who had been martyred for their faith. Before long their relics – hair, clothing, bone – became sources of spiritual power. Not only spiritual, they were a source of economic wealth. Saints attracted devotees who built shrines and sanctuaries to attract pilgrims, who like all tourists spent money. Perhaps the most notable is in Rome, where Peter is said to be buried. It is not surprising that it didn’t hurt business if the Saint was shown to have special powers and could intervene with God in heaven on the supplicant’s behalf, especially if the supplicant was suitably generous. Saints became personal lobbyists and it is not too late to have your own. Relics are being auctioned on both eBay and TradeMe. On TradeMe right now those of you who are third order Franciscans might want to bid for a relic of St Francis contained in an ebony wood cross. If you win the auction you also get as a gift relics of St Clare of Assisi, St Anthony of Padua and St Terese of the Infant Jesus. Opening bid $100.


By the Reformation, deliberately celebrated the day before All Saints’, the veneration of the Saints was rejected as corrupt and unbiblical. Luther believed that our works could not save us and no one could intercede on our behalf, no matter how righteous they had been in their own lives. Only belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross could save us. Even our Anglican 39 Articles condemns the “Romish Doctrine concerning… the Invocation of Saints.” This didn’t stop parishes from naming their sanctuaries after them or members giving saints’ names to their children. In our defence, we tend only to give biblical figures the honorific title.


My difficulty with the saints extends beyond having to accept a worldview of a God in heaven. I also object to those in power defining who are appropriate role modes of orthodox belief, piety and righteous behaviour. When we say, “She is a saint,” we are saying more about ourselves than the person we are honouring. It reflects our own values and beliefs, if not our behaviour. When the church declares it, it is an exercise in power. It is a statement that that person’s beliefs, values and behaviour are to be emulated. Defining good versus bad, it becomes a subtle form of coercion. If you doubt it, why is the Catholic Church in such a rush to canonise John Paul II? Why are they violating their own standard that it takes generations to give someone the title of “Saint”? Could it be to strengthen his conservative imprint on the Church? On the other hand, it might be most fitting. He holds the record for making the most new saints at least in the 20th Century. During his pontificate 476 Catholics were so honoured. While not saying they weren’t worthy people, they clearly represented his political, theological and pastoral agenda.


This is not just a Roman Catholic phenomenon. While Anglicans have forsaken the beatification and canonisation process, that requires amongst other things the proof of miracles performed, they still honour the faithful of the past by giving them a feast day. Those who get a day reflect the values and theological agendas of the institutional church at the time they were added to the list.


Is that a bad thing? Is it wrong to uphold people of faith as examples? Not necessarily. Role models and heroes we respect individually can be invaluable and inspiring. I’m just on my guard when I’m told who they should be, especially by the church.


Ultimately my problem with saints is that they perpetuate the idea that the church is a club. The concept of sainthood feeds our inclination to be exclusive. Who are named saints says a lot about who is a member. I might change my mind if Gene Robinson is ever given a feast day in our lectionary, but until that day I will maintain my position that venerating people as saints is divisive. To make my point, if I were to give you a word association test asking you to give me the first word that comes into your mind, I suspect most of us would respond with the word “sinner” to the word “saint.” Sainthood is about dividing the world into the acceptable and unacceptable. I grant you that this seems to be a human trait, even Jesus is said to have done it in Luke’s story of the Sermon on the Plain, which Jesus begins with the Beatitudes.


The difference is that when Jesus does it is he throws the acceptable out of the club and opens the doors to the riff-raff. He cuts right to the chase. Those we usually think of as cursed, he says are blessed. The new members are the poor, hungry, grieving and despised, which throws out most of us here today who are not. Most of us get blackballed on economic grounds alone. “If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to are richer than 75 percent of this world of ours. If you have money in the bank, cash in your wallet and spare change in a dish are among the top 8 percent of the earth's wealthiest people.”


In case we might miss what a radical message this is Luke tells us from the start that instead of looking down on his congregation from the pulpit, he looks up at them from the plain. Even in his posture he changes the rules. It reminds me of when Groucho Marx declared he wouldn’t “join any club that will have me as a member.”


While Jesus doesn’t mention saints, his sermon offers a helpful counterpoint to the concept. He challenges the popular view that the righteous are those who live morally pure lives prescribed by the Law and are suitably rewarded. It is not about being acceptable to our neighbours. It is about neighbours being acceptable to us. It is about being transformed by the divine love and compassion instilled within us and which, Jesus revealed. Ultimately it is not about being blessed but being a blessing.


Well, I don’t just want to whinge about the problems with All Saints’ Day for progressives. It isn’t going away. We like the hymns too much even if we find the theology troubling. So what would a saint’s job description look like in a non-theist worldview? What would be the qualifications necessary to attain the position?


Needed: All people anywhere of any faith who are willing to make contact with the transcendent energy of love within themselves and others and convert it into active compassion for themselves, their neighbours and the planet. Must be willing to do so in every corner of their heart and the world. Every one is qualified; no one is ineligible. However, a high tolerance for ambiguity, chaos, relativism, cultural differences, disappointments and one’s own failings is a must. Must be willing to seek truth, lead where it may, cost what it will. Must never claim to have found it. Patience is a must.


The successful candidate must not apply. We will know you by the relics of your lives. A world where diversity is a little more accepted and honoured. A world that is a little less impoverished economically and spiritually. A world that is a little more aware that when one of us is cursed by poverty, hunger, grief, or oppression, all of us are. A world that is a little less fearful and more loving.


Number of positions to fill: Approximately six billion and growing.


Successful candidates will not be notified of their appointment.


Compensation: An abundant life.

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