Sadistic. Sectarian. Barbaric. Savage. Bloodthirsty. These and many other similar words have been used recently throughout the media reporting on the current situation in the Middle East. Human nature is showing its ugly side in a dreadful and direct manner. To make it even worse, it’s all being done in the name of God and his Will by people with an extremely narrow and shallow interpretation of Islam. But let’s not be fooled – this kind of extremism is not reserved solely to one religion. A few days ago I saw in a newspaper a photo of a group of so-called Evangelical Christians at a rally in the USA, bearing placards that read ‘God hates you!’ Really?
Some people claim that religions have been the most divisive ideological powers in the history of humankind. Certainly there have been persecutions, conflicts and wars motivated and driven by religious differences. Most of them have actually used religion as a useful unitive ideology, while the real reasons were the usual suspects: the craving for power, resources and territory. The present day’s religiously brainwashed psychopaths in Syria and Iraq are no worse than those ideologically brainwashed in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Even here, in Scotland, there are some supporters of either the Yes or the No campaigns who follow suit.
I dare say that we have a sort of inclination towards evil; somehow it’s much easier to be like that. Evil comes easily, while goodness requires some considerable effort on our part. In the gospel Jesus presents what sort of effort is required: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ We could argue that this might be a recipe for Christians, but it’s hardly applicable to anyone else. But I’m sure this is a perfect way of life for everyone who wants to be a decent person, though I agree that it requires some re-wording in order to make it clear to non-Christians.
‘To renounce himself.’ In general terms we are self-centred, driven by selfishness and looking for our own benefit. Dealing with other people, we usually play a subconscious game of loss-and-gain, prepared to lose something in order to gain something else. It’s so ‘natural’ that we don’t think about it, we just do it. Going against our own selfishness, self-importance and the need to gain requires substantial mental strength and self-awareness. ‘To take up his cross.’ Over against the most common interpretation, this is not about a humble way of accepting suffering, particularly when it seems to be undeserved. But Jesus talks about active involvement, not the passive acceptance of inevitability. Taking up the cross means the active and positive use of our skills, talents, potential, and to exceed our own limitations. In Christian terms: the sky’s the limit.
‘To follow me.’ In order to understand this particular call, we have to return to the beginning of today’s gospel where Jesus announces that ‘he was destined […] to suffer grievously […] to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.’ If you think you’re the only one considering his plan foolish, listen to St Peter: ‘This must not happen to you.’ He’s as horrified by such a prospect as each one of us would be. Jesus got crucified for the sins – the wrong-doings – of the world. The literal and historical meaning of Jesus’ Passion aside, this is a call to ‘crucify’ our own twisted ideological excuses, ill-conceived motivations, and whitewashed selfishness. Jesus promises us today: ‘Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ He’s not necessarily talking about the martyrdom of blood, but rather about more demanding, but also more rewarding martyrdom of everyday selfless goodness.