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In my vocation, I read a lot by authors who disagree with me: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, the "New Atheists", as they are called. Realistically, they are not atheists, they are anti-theists, but that is perhaps for another blog. I read them because I want to make sure I have an informed opinion on what I do and why I do it.
One of the more irresponsible arguments they make is that religion is a force for evil, which they "back up" by pointing out all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. That's it. That's the argument.
The reason I call this argument irresponsible is that:
A: it ignores all the acts of kindness, mercy, justice and compassion which have also been done in the name of religion, and
B: it removes all responsibility from the individual for his or her actions.
Let me put it another way: do we put a gun on trial for a murder? Do we put a hammer on trial for a clubbing death? Do we put a car on trial for vehicular manslaughter? We don't, because we acknowledge that the person wielding the gun, hammer, car, etc. is actually to blame for the action, and so we put them on trial.
Religion, like a gun, like a hammer, like a car, like a political ideology, like a philosophy, has no will or consciousness. It has no life on its own. It has no knowledge of good and evil. It merely sits there, waiting to be picked up and wielded. And we choose how it is wielded.
Do you wield your religion, faith, spirituality, whatever you may call it, as a tool or as a weapon? Is it something you use to build or to destroy? Is it something you use to draw people near or to push them away? Is it something you use to level the playing field or to put yourself up on a pedestal?
Because how you wield your faith matters greatly, and this is made clear by Jesus in today's Gospel passage. In this passage, Jesus levels yet another damning indictment against the Pharisees, using language and imagery that he probably lifted from the Book of Ezekiel, particularly Chapter 34.
Remember of course that Jesus was Jewish. He was observant and was obviously very knowledgeable of Hebrew Scripture. He could and did quote it at length. So when he talks about the difference between good and bad shepherds, it is likely that he is recapturing Ezekiel's indictment against the religious leaders of his time to make his point.
Jesus rails in this Gospel passage against the Pharisees, who used their religion to deepen the chasm between the "righteous" (IE, them) and the "unrighteous" (IE everybody else). They used their religion to inflate their own importance, to impress others, to judge others. They were hypocritical and unkind, and their religion gave them the impetus to do so. Yeah, not the way you should wield that, and Jesus lets them know.
In this passage, he criticizes the Pharisees for not doing their job: they are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel. They are supposed to care for and nourish and nurture the people, but instead they were living off their backs and taking advantage of their stature.
Comparatively, Jesus makes a couple of statements that are examples of faith done right. He says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd". Now this is not a call to mass conversion. This signifies Jesus opening his mission to the Gentiles. For the Pharisees in particular, this thought would have been anathema. For the Pharisees, Israel was Yahweh's one and only chosen people. Everyone else was out of luck. But Jesus, contrary to his earlier statements that he has come for Israel and Israel alone seems now to have actually changed his mind and opened his message, ministry and gifts up to anybody and everybody who needs them.
The other statement he makes that would have shocked is that "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep". Now, I know a lot of farmers and their animals are important to them. They are their livelihood, of course, and they take care of them to the best of their ability...but only up to a certain point. Would they lay their lives down for a cow or sheep or chicken. No, not likely.
I have two dogs and two cats that I am very fond of, and I would pay a pretty substantial vet bill to save their lives. But would I give up my life for them? No. They are not my children, for crying out loud.
But this is where Jesus goes one step further. He says he would do that. Of course, the flock he is talking about actually consists of people, so the metaphor is a bit mixed, but he calls himself and other to acts of selflessness. In this statement, he is of course foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Jesus did, in fact, die for his ideals on behalf of others.
Here in Canada where I write this, the likelihood of having to literally give up my life for my ideals is unlikely, but Jesus nonetheless calls us to great acts of self-sacrifice. We are called to go out of our way for those in need. We are called to make an effort to bring healing where there is hurt, to shine light where there is darkness, to bring hope where there is none.
These are examples of faith being wielded well.
Today and every day, we must face the same choice: will our faith be a tool or a weapon?
Wield yours well.