Self-Love, Self-Belief, and a Burning Desire for Freedom
April 11, 2009
As was recently printed in the New Zealand Herald, my understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus is in part shaped by the motif of freedom. Jesus was a free man. Free in his mind and spirit. Those affronted by freedom killed him. The resurrection celebrates that freedom actually can’t be killed. When freedom is repressed it goes underground only to emerge later in the lives and actions of others. The spirit of freedom is more powerful than all the machinations and weapons of human control and repression.
What are called ‘The Appearance Stories’, those post-Easter encounters that Mary, Peter, Thomas and other disciples had with a form of Jesus, address primarily the issue of fear. The ‘form of Jesus’ that the disciples and Paul encountered was not a resuscitated corpse. It was a symbolic representation of the power of God’s freedom over the bondage of oppression’s fear. This ‘re-present Jesus’ engaged with disciples like Mary, Peter, and Thomas calling them into the spirit of freedom (their ‘resurrection’) and out of fear (their ‘tomb’). Another way of talking about this – and a point where conservatives and I can use a similar metaphorical language – is that ‘Jesus’ lived on in his followers, and continues to do so today.
The hope of Easter therefore is not in the revivification of dead people in some sort of afterlife but in the irrepressible spirit of freedom, as revealed in Jesus, that triumphs over self-serving religious and political systems of domination. St Paul encouraged his Galatian converts to abide in their Easter faith when he said, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherein Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” [Gal 5:1].
The question then arises, ‘How?’ How do we ‘stand fast’? How do we encourage ourselves and others into freedom? Tonight my response hinges around three words: love, believe, and rebel.
You’ve heard it said by the Church to ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. How often have you been told to love your self? Indeed the notion of self love has been so derided by the Church it has become a euphemism for egotism or masturbation.
The seeds of freedom are planted every time you encourage someone or thank someone. They are planted every time you tell someone they are a wonderful, beautiful human being worthy of respect, dignity, and praise. They are planted every time you encourage someone to be proud of who they are.
Pride is another one of those words derided by the Church. Yet pride in one’s self and one’s achievements is very important, as hopefully every parent and school teacher knows. Every movement of liberation has started with pride – black pride, gay pride – pride in the wonderful person you are.
For freedom to flower and thrive we need to nurture people’s sense of self worth. We also need to love and care for our selves. We need to be kind to our selves. We need to look in the mirror and give thanks for all that we are – for we are a precious part of God’s body.
You have heard it said by the Church to ‘Believe in God, believe in Jesus’. How often have you been told to believe in your self? Time and again the Church has put down and derided humanity - ‘the flesh’, ‘the world’ - as sinful, corrupt, or evil. Time and again the Church has told people they are worthless and in its liturgies told people to recite the same. Time and again the Church has devalued the human body and the natural environment which is its home.
Enough! It has gone on long enough. We have had enough – more than enough! We are sick and tired of hearing our humanity devalued.
Believe in your humanity. At its best the doctrine of the incarnation is not about an external saviour coming to earth to rescue us, but about the presence of God being in our humanity. We have life-giving strands, threads of hope and grace, woven into our DNA. These are God threads. We are God-enriched, God-infused. Jesus said in effect, ‘Here I am, no different from you, a human being who is aware of God in and through me’. The incarnation is an affirmation of divinity being indivisible from humanity.
We don’t need to believe in saviours from outer space, nor in the dictates of an unaccountable king-god, neither in that god’s self-appointed messengers who want our minds and usually our money. We can instead believe in our own self and trust in our own self, the same one in whom God already dwells, believes and trusts in. Then we can use our self-belief to create the conditions for others’ self-belief to emerge and be emboldened.
You have heard it said by the Church, ‘Trust and obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus’. How often have you been told to disobey and rebel?
If you older than 20 and have received a Sunday School education you will in all likelihood have been raised to obey. Religious education used to involve writing down from the blackboard all the things your teacher told you. ‘God is our Father’ you would write. You were meant to believe this, not to question it. Questioning was seen as a sign of disobedience. I remember in the 1970s one of the trainee priests at St John’s Theological College was dismissed by his bishop because he had the temerity to question the appropriateness of his accommodation. The bishop, when asked about this, said he did not want argumentative priests. When I was involved in Land Rights protests in the 1980s the Bishop of Wellington sent a letter to all his theological students telling them not to associate with me. He saw me as a rebellious anarchist. Depending on your definitions the Bishop was probably right.
On a gloomy day I am tempted to think that the whole purpose of religious education is to tame, to channel, and to control the fiery unpredictable spirit of God. When Baxter says the spirit ‘blows inside and outside the fences’ the institution’s response is to build a bigger fence and try to ignore what’s beyond it.
I long for a day when all are taught to not only question our teachers and institutions but to practise disobedience. I long for the day when students are rewarded for courage of thought and deed. I long for the day when we are taught about all our rebellious forebears who dreamed and wrote and marched and suffered. I long for the day when prayer will not be thought of as a bow-your-head-to-the-boss recite-what-you-are-told exercise but a preparatory discipline for the unleashing of love/justice infested change.
In the meantime these three remain: self-love, self-belief, and burning desire for freedom.