When I was in Bible College in Regina (long ago) a couple of my friends told me about original sin. I probably hadn’t heard about this until then, but I didn’t quite buy it. We debated it in the dorm laundry room now and then. They had more background than I did, but I could not agree that we humans are fundamentally depraved and that our default is towards evil, from which we have to be redeemed. I’ve always thought that our default is towards good, and that despite mountains of horror and depravity in human history, it’s because we are basically good that our reaction has always been and continues to be … that we can barely stand to look upon the evil we see.
When Orlando (Assoc Director of MCC Alberta) returned from an MCC trip to Ethiopia a few years ago, he talked about the Eastern Orthodox church, its long history in Ethiopia (since the 4thcentury) and the belief systems they represent. There are 220 million baptized members in the Eastern Orthodox church of whom more than half live in Russia, and about 36 million in Ethiopia. (98% of the Ethiopians say religion is very important to them, and only 15% of the Russians say this.) Apparently the Eastern Orthodox think differently about some parts of the Jesus story than we do in the Western Christian world. Western Christianity has largely adopted a belief in original sin (from St Augustine) and in a transactional atonement in which a hard-to-please God needed to be appeased by the shedding of blood. There had to be an exchange. We’ve centered the Jesus story around the death and resurrection and the individual salvation narrative. I grew up around that thinking bu now, later in life am realizing that not everyone has quite that understanding. A whole part of the Christian world in fact, doesn’t.
Does it matter? Maybe not. God is God and we really know very little for sure about God, but I’ve often thought that the New Testament is deliberately inconsistent in its notes about these things. In Matthew 19 salvation is about selling what we have and giving to the poor. Jesus, in Matthew 25 says what’s required is that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In John 3 we are to be born again, and in Acts it’s simply about believing. I wonder if the Eastern Orthodox allow a bit more place for the mystery of how God really is? We westerners have liked to contain God. We define him and then we preach that God never changes.
In his book, Jesus of the East (reviewed in the Canadian Mennonite August 17) Phuc Luu writes that western Christianity has become nationalistic, oppresses the poor and teaches that God is an angry avenger. Since the time of Constantine (Roman Emperor 306 to 337), Luu writes, the western church has also had a cozy relationship with governments which, as a result, reshaped Christian theology into a tool for those in power. We don’t have to look far to see plenty of evidence of what happens, today, in 2020, when the church cashes in its soul for the temptation of power and political gain. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, but in many churches we’ve insisted on it anyway, largely disregarding how Jesus lived and instead making an idolatry out of belief systems that serve our odd and unfortunate need for power.
Luu says part of the problem is that we westerners have turned our Christian faith into something private and spiritual so that ethics and social concerns, so clearly a major part of Jesus’ teaching and of all his interactions, are considered to be less relevant to our faith. As if the spiritual and the beliefs can be somehow separated from the mundane and the ordinary. The responsibility of Christians in the Eastern understanding, says book review, is to restore the image of God in themselves, the first part of which might be to acknowledge that it’s already there. An image, a God DNA in each of us. And how we are to live with each other is more the God story than how we turn it into a transactional story of our own, individual salvation. The Eastern church, says Luu, would commonly reference the story of the prodigal son to show what Jesus believed and who he really is.
I believe in the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection and all the mystery around those events … but I’m also certain that what attracts anyone to Jesus is how he lived and what he said. The parables, his visit with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the lepers and the blind and the lame whom he healed, his in-the-tree connection with Zachaeus the tax collector, his acknowledging the woman who touched his garment hoping to be healed, intervening for the one caught in adultery whom they wanted to stone, the children who just wanted to be near him … .
So now I’m a little curious; maybe the Eastern Orthodox church does a better job of letting Jesus be Jesus, of checking the temptations of power, and of acknowledging the goodness of the God/Jesus image already inside each of us.