It’s not a time for business as usual. It’s a time for outbursts of horror, for open-throated cries for justice – a time for sackcloth and ashes, for fasting and floggings of repentance – a time to cease celebrating, singing, canonizing and collecting money – a time to call a halt to ordinary business, to close the shop, to stop preaching and declare a time of silence during which the religious leaders will cover their celibate loins and prostrate themselves before the community – a time to embrace the victims and their wounded families.
True religion – What is it?
Ceremonial and sacrament – vestments and sacred vessels – rules and regulations – dogmas and traditions – male priests, bishops and archbishops – getting into bed in red pyjamas and chastity belts with the establishment.
What did it mean for Jesus to live a genuine religious life?
We know what it meant for the Jewish elite and the Pharisees who imagined or pretended that they were obeying the law and serving Yahweh, and were puzzled by the fact that they were fasting and God didn’t show any sign of appreciating their efforts.
“Why have we fasted and you don’t even see it?” (Is. 58:4)
According to Isaiah and the other great prophets, the fast that God wanted to see, the religion he condoned consisted in the deeds of those who loosed the bonds of wickedness, who let the oppressed go free, who smashed yokes and lifted burdens, of those who shared their bread with the hungry and invited the homeless into their houses, who clothed the naked and rapped their alms around the destitute.
In a word, religion for Jesus (and for those prophets who were commissioned to reveal God’s secret to the world) was to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth rather than worship false gods and carry on endlessly in castles constructed by men for their own glorification.
Jesus’ God was not hanging around waiting to be honoured, looking for sacrifices, counting prayers and demanding satisfaction. He wasn’t blessing armies or demanding human sacrifices. And this mysterious being was not standing by to answer pious petitions even if the president of the United States believed that his American god had delayed the rain to allow him to deliver his inaugural address to the nation and to an assembly which he claimed, as “an alternative fact”, was larger than his black predecessor’s. Any decent god would not be gratified or appeased by a string of masses or a monastery full of celibate monks chanting celestial songs. That god has long since taken his leave and disappeared off the face of the earth.
Yet, even in the face of the terrifying facts which have been painfully extracted by the Royal Commission’s investigation into the private lives of members of the clergy, the church of Rome continues to conduct its business as usual. The clergy continue to dress up in ceremonial clothes, process around and preside at regular Sunday celebrations. The choirs chant, the attendants collect the money and the altar-boys continue to spread smoke to create an atmosphere of undisturbed prayer – while the victims and their families suffer, and the believers who are trying to hang onto their faith by their fingertips are fuming. It’s not a time for business as usual. It’s a time for outbursts of horror, for open-throated cries for justice – a time for sackcloth and ashes, for fasting and floggings of repentance – a time to cease celebrating, singing, canonizing and collecting money – a time to call a halt to ordinary business, to close the shop, to stop preaching and declare a time of silence during which the religious leaders will cover their celibate loins and prostrate themselves before the community – a time to embrace the victims and their wounded families.
Once this protracted act of public purging has worked itself out, perhaps the church can begin again to engage in a genuine form of religion in accordance with the dictates of Jesus and the prophets. That may mean taking on board the cause of the homeless, educating the children of the poor, caring for refugees, advocating for asylum seekers, getting involved in the national movement to advance the lives of those with severe disabilities and supporting the victims of crime, especially of pedophilia. Episcopal and clerical hands dirty. Many more scholarships for needy families; presbyteries and convents opening their vacant rooms to the homeless; and a national institute for victims of clerical crimes with a raft of services to support them; leaders of the churches talking publicly about the attack on the wages of the poor and about rich people too greedy to pay a reasonable tax even though doubling or tripling their tax “burden” would not cause an itch to the soft tissue of their luxury lifestyle.
Jesus was a gifted religious presence in the world. The God he served and preached was a mysterious presence at the heart of reality who wanted the creatures he loved like a mother to get on with their lives, to be their better selves, to live together with his spirit of generosity and transparency, with integrity and in peace. The being Jesus was contacting in prayer had a kingdom that was “coming” and a will that was “to be done”. He wanted his men and women to celebrate their lives, to dance and sing together, to remember their blessings and to plan their future. Real, earth-bound stuff.
If we are to attend to Jesus’ message, the genuine religious life is being lived out elsewhere, far away from churches and clergy, in orphanages and prisons, in hospitals and schools for the poor, in hidden places, in little parishes and by faceless believers.
In Jesus’ lifetime, the priest, the scribes and Pharisees were the leaders in charge of administering the religious institutions, interpreting of the law, the preserving the system of beliefs and practices. But according to the Preacher, they were leading God’s children astray, poisoning their minds, exploiting their powerful position for their own material benefit. While these parasites and white-washed sepulchres went about their daily routine and argued theology and the law, Jesus was travelling up and down the country, preaching, teaching, revealing the secrets of the kingdom – a kingdom for the poor and oppressed, for the victims of crime, for the homeless, for those at the bottom of the heap, for those struggling to survive, to put food on the table, pay the rent or the mortgage, the unemployed and those on low wages. No matter how hard Jesus tried, his male disciples never really understood this kingdom message he was preaching. The penny never dropped. They never got it.
And now I can’t help but think that Jesus’ religious dream of justice for the oppressed has been abandoned by the churches and is being prosecuted by the members of the CFMEU.
Chris Geraghty is a retired NSW District Court Judge and formerly a Catholic Priest.