Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I often find myself mulling over the passages of the Bible that start in Matthew chapter 5, usually known as ‘The Beatitudes‘. I wrote an extended set of poetic meditations on these at a key point of my faith journey. These poems became a large part of my book ‘Listing’.
At the time, what I thought I knew about being a follower of Jesus had been broken down, smashed, deconstructed, so I desperately wanted to engage once more with the core of what Jesus called us to- and the Beatitudes are really the best place to start.
One of the things you come up against immediately is how impossible it all seems. Who can really live like this? What on earth did Jesus mean? Yet still, for people like me, there is this soaring tingling sense of excitement every time I read Matthew chapter 5. There is something so right about it all- simple, lovely, beautiful.
However, I read these words in the context of living in our western consumer culture, and this also brings me to total dissonance, because in many ways, the words of Jesus are simply not compatible with our way of living.
We can do three things with this;
- We can decide that the words have to be read in the wider context of the Bible, and that Jesus was not really meaning it to be our manifesto for all time. He knew that it was impracticable to live like this, so merely wanted to make our sinful state clear to us, in order to accept his forgiveness.
- We could use his words as a critique of culture, seeking to understand where our system – in its pursuit of profit, wealth, ascendancy, distraction, celebrity, shallow experience – has got things wrong.
- We can really try to live according to the beatitudes.
It will be no surprise to you that I am caught between 2 and 3.
I was reminded of this by an article that Thomas posted on Facebook the other day, in which Peter Ormerod reflects on the decision by the Christian Socialist Movement to ditch the S word, and call themselves instead, Christians On The Left. He began by re writing the beatitudes to make them more culturally appropriate;
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.
“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.
“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”
It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie. And Marko Attila Hoare wrote earlier this week of the dangers in ascribing a particular view to a particular political wing. But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolence, support for outcasts and outsiders, the redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poor, forgiveness, taxation, reconciliation, figs.
He rather hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the problematic word was not necessarily ‘Socialism’, but rather that increasingly meaningless word ‘Christian’;
Many who might sympathise with the teachings of Jesus would scarper from anything Christian. Often, they’d have good reason to. It can mean judgmentalism, ludicrous doctrine and bad parties. Worse, it can mean bigotry, violence and terrible parties. The Christian right – embodied in the UK by groups like Christian Concern – has been so successful at promoting its ideology that you may well think Christians care only about what jewellerythey’re not allowed to wear, what days they’re forced to work, and gay men having big, gay sex. Christians have often done a great job of killing people who disagree with them, too, which doesn’t really help.
Probably the kindest thing one can day about “Christian” is that it’s meaningless. It somehow describes the beliefs of both the Westboro Baptist church and Desmond Tutu. It’s barely even biblical, appearing only twice in the New Testament (and one of those times merely tells where it was first said). Jesus didn’t use it ever.
In any case, it seems that Jesus cared less about what people believe than what they do. The sheep and goats are separated on account of their actions, not their beliefs. The man who said “no” but did God’s will was favoured over his brother, who said and did the opposite, and so on. Those who thought God was happy with them were brought up short, and told that actually God was happier with the people they saw as sinners. Labels weren’t his thing.
Ormerod concludes by suggesting that Christians need to have a louder voice- to shout about the beatitudes…
If we can’t do this now, in the face of a broken political and economic system as it cuts and slices its way to greater riches by attacking the poor, the sick, the refugee, then what use are we?
Talking of Christians on the Left- check this out;