Whip It

According to a new book, the previous pope used to whip himself "to get closer to Jesus".

If you ask me, I think that if those who engaged in self-flagellation instead spent a little more that time improving social justice for the poor and disenfranchised, they'd find themselves a lot closer to Jesus than whipping themselves would ever accomplish.

In a way, I think kind of activity is a product of the perverse notion, exemplified by such films as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, that Jesus's suffering was in and of itself some kind of a virtue, rather than a terrible and unfortunate consequence of the power of his life and message. Perhaps one can draw a straight line from the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to people whipping themselves. Sure, I wholeheartedly agree that it was virtuous that Jesus was willing to suffer and become a martyr for what he believed in; but in no way can I see that it was a good thing that these things happened to him. The idea that God wants anyone to suffer or thinks that torture is in any way desirable--be it inflicted by Empires or by one's own hand--makes a mockery of Divine compassion.

I can see that there is value to be found in developing self-discipline and even in certain forms of self-denial. Self-denial as a growth exercise is one thing; glorifying self-torture and ritualized suffering as some kind of saintly virtue or is another thing altogether. Given all the negativity about the human body found in certain forms of Christianity to begin with, maybe this isn't surprising. Equating Mary's supposed virginity with saintliness gives the message that the human body's natural urges take us away from the Divine ideal. If you really hate the human body enough to claim that virginity is saintly, then perhaps it is a small step from that to whipping one's self and thinking that this somehow makes one holier.

God and Haiti

The disaster in Haiti is the latest in a long line of human tragedies that have led people to question what it means to believe in God. James Wood's op-ed column in today's New York Times suggests that there are only two possible responses to tragedies like these:

either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view).
Essentially Wood assumes that God can be conceived of only in two ways--as either the omnipotent interventionist deity of Christian orthodoxy, or as the God of deism. As anyone who has read my blog would expect, I find Wood's argument to be based on a false dichotomy that ignores theologies that posit God as an active but non-omnipotent presence in our lives.

What matters to me less than theology about God's nature, though, is the practical way that God is found in way we live our lives. As the hymn says, "Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est." (where there is charity and love, God is). Which is to say, when we help others, I think we are responding to God's call and God--whatever we define "God" to be--is in a sense acting through us.

I have been thinking more and more about this as I passed a recent birthday milestone and find myself as I am getting older wanting to make more of a difference in the world. I spent some time over Christmas and New Year's working on a volunteer project with a group of indigenous people in Latin America. This was the first time I have ever done this, and I found that it gave me a sense of purpose and meaning makes my own mundane life here at home seem rather empty by comparison. Even if organized religion is not a good match for me, I think there is a spirituality to be found in the love we express for humanity in concrete ways.

The Haiti tragedy is a reminder to me that it makes no sense for me to turn to divine omnipotence as our salvation in the face of human suffering. But it also reminds me all the more that the world is full of injustice, of people who are poor or otherwise suffering, and that when we are inspired to do something about these problems we are responding to something higher and greater than ourselves. I choose to call that something God, but whatever we choose to call it, the thing that matters the most is that we act.