Exposing the agenda of hate

A recent song by American singer-songwriter Soufjan Stevens is entitled: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Today, on Good Friday, we all stand in the shadow of the Cross of Jesus. But there’s no shade in this shadow.

If you want a comfortable religion that just makes you feel good, then you dare not approach the Cross of Christ, and you dare not pray.

Encountering Jesus on the Cross is not pablum for the soul nor is it expressing mere platitude for an easy life. The cross is not an exercise of remembering something that happened long ago (and therefore doesn’t really mean anything for me today). We are not merely going through the motions, on Good Friday.

The cross, in all its bloody, bear and stark reality, exposes the darkness within each one of us, today. The cross exposes the human problem of hatred. You will not find relief here today. No shade. No comfort. Only sin. Only hate. In the world. And, within you.

The longer we live in this world, we are forced to asked the question: What makes many people so mean? What creates mean-spirited people? “I want to hurt you!” What is behind hate?

Hate – I just called it ‘mean-spiritedness’. Maybe that is what we see more often than overt hatred. Mean-spiritedness is, unfortunately, here to stay.

Hate is, for some reason, helpful. Hate works. In a lot of immediate and seemingly good ways. It unites a group very quickly. Far quicker than love, you must know that. Hate immediately and easily resolves the inner struggle between the little devil on one shoulder persuading you to do something other than what the little angel on the other shoulder is saying. 

Mean-spiritedness is formed by contraction, ‘against-ness’. Love, on the other hand, is formed by expansion. Love doesn’t come easily, because you have to let down your boundaries. And no one wants to do that.

Contraction — whereby you can eliminate another person, write them off, exclude them, torture them, expel them, ‘vote them off the island’, immediately gives one a sense of boundaried definition, boundaried superiority, even.

Hatred — mean-spiritedness — gives a person identity even if it is a negative one (“I am not that, I am not like them, I am against so-and-so, etc.”). And we’d sooner have a negative identity than feel vulnerable, like nothing, empty. Just who we are, in God.

Hatred takes away all doubt, and free-floating anxiety. Even if in a false way. It feels superior. And feels in control. Hate settles the dust, and the ambiguity that none of us likes. Hate is much more common and — I’m sad to have to say this as a pastor — it is much more immediately effective than love. Immediately.

Hate makes the world go round. Just read the front pages of morning paper this week, scroll through the news feeds on your tablet or flip the channels at 6 o’clock every day. It’s largely about who is hating whom.

You could say that Jesus came to resolve the central problem of hate — this problem that has defined humanity since the beginning of history. There’s really no other way: To save us from ourselves. To save us from one another. And to, therefore, save us.

Until and unless we are saved from our need to hate. 

That’s why people even made religion into a cover for their need to be hateful. I’m hating for Allah, and so it’s ok. And yes, I’m hating for Jesus. Christian history, too, is not free from violence (the Crusades, the witch-hunts, Protestant-Catholic European wars, the residential schools — the list goes on). “I’m hating for Christianity — so my hatred is good hatred.” It happens every day. It’s almost the name of the game.

The ultimate disguise, whereby you can remain a hateful, mean-spirited person is to do it to protect the church, or to protect the country. All those good excuses. So, you are relieved of all anxiety: “I am still a holy person.” Even though, underneath, in the deeper stream, you are a hateful person. But you don’t have to see that. That’s what Scott Peck called, years ago, “People of the Lie”.

We have done so much utopian talk about Jesus and love. But Jesus had a very hard time getting to the issue of love. First, he had to expose and destroy the phenomenon of hate. Which I think is the meaning of the Cross.

Once he exposed the lie and the illusion of hatred, love could show itself clearly. But until then, you can’t. The pattern is still the same. As Jesus shockingly put it, “Satan is the real prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

Hate, it seems, is the daily, ordinary agenda. Love is the totally enlightened, entirely non-sensical way out of the ordinary agenda. The Gospel presents the dilemma in a personal and cathartic Passion narrative that grounds the whole issue in history, and in one man’s enlightened response to that history. 

One man, Jesus — fully divine and fully human, accepts the religious and social judgement of hate. We have both church and state, both Caiaphas and Pilate. Both power systems declaring Jesus unworthy, declaring him a sinner, wrong, the problem. The very one that you and I call the most perfect man who ever lived is judged by power at the highest levels to in fact be the problem. 

Jesus bears the consequences of hatred, publicly. But in an utterly new way that transforms the pattern. And therefore for us, transforms the possibilities. For two thousand years, Jesus has remained the most striking icon of a possible new agenda. His death exposed the lie and the problem like never before.

His risen life told people that life could have a different story line. Jesus did not just give us textbook answers from a distance. But he personally walked through the process of being rejected and then said, ‘follow me’. And there’s something you only know having been in that position.

What is behind hate? I believe fear is almost always behind hate. It’s not easy to get to that deeper river of fear. It’s not easy to recognize the subtle fears: Afraid of not looking good. Afraid of not being in control. Afraid of not having the right word. All those are fears. But they are subtle.

And the only way to see them is to go right into your own poverty of spirit — blessed are they who do so, Jesus said (Matthew 5:3).

Sometimes it looks like it’s control that’s behind hatred. But even control freaks like myself are usually afraid of losing something. Just go deeper, and you’ll see. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk hateful response. 

Fear is hardly ever recognized as such. As Paul says in Second Corinthians — ‘the angel of darkness must always be disguised as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The best and most convincing disguise, of course, is virtue itself, or godliness. Then, it never looks like fear. 

For fear to survive, it has to look like reason, or reasonableness, prudence, common sense, intelligence, the need for social order, responsible stewardship, morality, religion, obedience, or even justice and spirituality. It always works. Just give it the nice cover, and you don’t have to face underneath it, what is craven fear.

What better way to veil vengeance, and a vengeful spirit than to call it justice. You hear it on the news every night, “I just want justice.” One wonders whether the inner need to punish the other, to hurt the other, has ever been recognized. Let’s be honest: It’s in everyone of us in this room. When someone has made you afraid, you want to hurt them back. To be trapped in our need for vengeance, is to always be afraid. It’s necessarily to be afraid. No wonder fear is the name of the game in almost all of the world. 

And that demon is not exorcised easily. Until you name the demon and admit the demon is there, you have no power of exorcising the demon. It’s clear, in Jesus’ exorcisms. You must name the demon correctly. When you pretend the demon isn’t there, you’ll never do any good exorcism. That’s largely what we do. It’s called, denial.

Only people who are honest and vulnerable about their own fear, and confess their need to control all outcomes, only those practiced in letting go, can go beyond the agenda of hate. Jesus himself prayed hanging on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This is about letting go of our opinions, our need for getting back, our need to exclude, circle the wagons, and point the finger.  

Jesus prayed, too, from the cross: “Father, forgive them — they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Only people practised in letting go will be taking the first step in the new agenda of love and forgiveness. This agenda of love, Jesus made possible for us. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture promises us (1 John 4:18).

The Cross, today on Good Friday, calls us to trust Jesus. To not have anyone that you can trust is necessarily to be afraid, to be vengeful. Christianity at its best aims to free individuals from their small, fragile, sinful selves, and points to a larger identity in Christ Jesus — the only true self — “hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3) .

Jesus is the only trustworthy lover, the only trustworthy self. Healthy Christianity, like Jesus himself, tells you that there IS someone you can trust. You do not have to create all the good. You do not have to fix all of the bad. You do not have to explain all the failures. You know you are simply in the stream we call the mystery of death and resurrection, the paschal mystery. 

What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you have to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understanding everything, I can promise you, you will never be a peaceful, loving person.

In the shadow of the cross, there is no shade. Indeed. But let’s stay awhile, and open our hearts to Jesus whose love makes us worthy and who is with us, even in the darkness.

Adapted and transcribed from Richard Rohr, “The Central Problem of Hate” track 8 on CD ‘Action & Contemplation’, Meditatio Talk Series 2015

Toward Discovering the True Self

The true self, as Thomas Merton described, is like a deer. It doesn’t really want to be seen, noticed. It is somewhat elusive. We cannot easily identify and claim it as we would a car, computer or fashion. In other words, it cannot be objectified.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus, according to Luke, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue proclaiming the good news, he confesses his purpose: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

So, where is this kingdom?

English translations will render the original Greek concerning where the kingdom of God resides, in 17:21, “among you” or “within you”. Jesus says about the kingdom — you cannot say to it, “It is over there, or over here.” The kingdom of heaven, our true identity — who we are — is only discovered deep within us.

When I catch myself concentrating on something, am I really concentrating? When I say I am humble, am I exercising humility? Saint Benedict said that when a monk knows he is praying, he isn’t really praying.

Self-consiousness is the bain of the contemplative life. Self-consciousness is a sure sign that we are not being our true selves in whatever we are and do: when we worry how we appear before others; when we try to please others; when we speak and are thinking not feeling into the moment; when we show off who we think we are to others – we are likely further away from our true selves, our place in the kingdom of God.

Personal liberation cannot even be the goal of the true self. Being free cannot stand as the ultimate end-game in our devotion and spiritual practice. If you engage in Christian Meditation, for example, because you want to experience personal freedom in who you are, be careful. Because Christian Meditation is not a self-help program whose ultimate goal is the self, self-fulfilment, self-realization, self-glorification.

The goal of Christian Meditation is counter-intuitive and paradoxical: Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus opens his sermon on the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3), echoing Luke’s version in 6:20. And here’s the trick: If poverty is the goal, then the liberation of our true selves is often a consequential benefit. We need to work towards poverty of self; then the paradox: We will discover our true selves when we lose our self-conceived, self-created identity.

Imagine the shape and form of a typical hour glass. What is important here is not the function of the time piece; that is, merely keeping time as the grains of sand funnel through the narrow centre and spill out into the bottom of the glass in chronological time. What is important to hold as a guiding image of the hour glass are both the direction and the form in describing the process of Christian Meditation.

The direction is downward, signifying the call to go deeper into prayer, deeper – initially – into the self (in the top half of the glass) toward the centre (the focal, still point) and finally farther downward into the broad space beyond the centre. The form leads us – beginning with gathering all that we are: our personal, unique, individual expressions of character and activity, passions and occupations, needs and strengths, our ego compulsions, our fear, our anxiety, our shame and guilt, our anger; in other words, what is visible and easily apparent in our identities, on the surface, so to speak.

Then, into the focal, impoverished centre point: in silence and stillness into the singular prayer of Jesus — the silent and still hub at the centre of the prayer wheel. It is here where we discover the starting and end point of all that we are in the poverty of prayer, in our own personal poverty, in stripping away all our ego compulsions and repeating, concentratively a simple word, mantra, or prayer phrase. The important spiritual practice here can be summarized in the art of “letting go”, releasing, simplifying, surrendering all that we have and are. Each time we meditate we experience this process.

The journey is toward the centre, which is not completely the self, because it leads beyond the self to engage the world in a renewed way. The aim of all prayer is the poverty of the self at the centre, where all we find is the human conciousness of Jesus praying to Abba. This is our soul, the quiet, still centre of our being, that leads us into communion with God, into our true self.

At the National Conference of the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, held in Ottawa in June 2011, Rev. Glenda Meakin was asked a question dealing with our soul. I am told she responded by saying (I am paraphrasing): “The soul is that part of me that nothing can touch. It is so of God it cannot be taken away from me. My centre. My true self is coming in touch with the way God created us. When we meditate we learn who we really are.”

Here, we participate in the kingdom of God — our true selves — and then engage the world to “…proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.”