1 Corinthians 1.18 The message about Christ's death on the
cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being
saved it is God's power.
Apartheid seems natural to human
societies. That is, the separation of people into superior and inferior
seems to happen everywhere in all times.
In southern Africa, separation was until recently on the
grounds of race. In the United Kingdom it's common to rank people on the
basis of upper and lower social class. In the United States degrees of
wealth seem to determine position on the social ladder. In Northern
Ireland an accident of birth into so-called religious camps can spell
discrimination or even death.
The culture into which Jesus was born took one-upmanship
to the limit. Hebrews claimed to have been chosen as extra-special by none
other than God. The Gentiles - that is, everyone else - "walked in
Even Paul, who declared that separation between Hebrew
and Gentile had ended (1 Corinthians 12.13), seems to have slipped
unawares into a yet deeper separation. He thought that those who make
sense of the cross are better than those who don't.
For two thousand years these two strands have competed
for the attention of the Church. One has proclaimed that all are
acceptable, that separation into top-dogs and under-dogs isn't God's
intention. Another strand has insisted that humanity is separated into the
saved and the not-saved, the heavenly and the hellish.
A powerful lobby today looks at nature and observes that
humans are at the top of the food chain. Just as we dominate and exploit
other beings, so there are those who rightly dominate other humans. That
there are top-dogs and under-dogs is merely a fact of nature, they say.
If we look at the New Testament we find the same curious
mix. Sometimes Jesus is portrayed as the light of the world without whom
people walk in darkness (John 8.12) and don't have access to true life. He
can consign people to God's judgement (John 3.36) and has authority over
everyone (John 17.2).
Some parts of the Gospels are not history but the
teaching of the early Church. That is, they don't tell us what really
happened. Many reputable scholars now acknowledge that parts of the
Gospels (and especially John's Gospel) are not what Jesus actually said
and did. They are the ancient equivalent of PR images created to explain
what the leaders of the early Church thought about Jesus.
But some parts of the Gospels do tell us what actually
happened. There the picture is crystal clear. Everyone, without exception,
is acceptable to God (Mark 2.15). Jesus defied convention and freely
associated both with the dregs of society and with high-ranking
socialites. He refused, it seems, to live by values which rank some people
as intrinsically better or worse than others.
We each have to choose which of the two strands to
follow. It hasn't been decided for us by some infallible authority. It's
up to us to choose how we live our lives.
I suppose we can feel superior (saved) only if we're
certain beyond doubt that we can see the light and others can't. One of
the greatest Christian teachers, the author of John's Gospel, told the
cautionary story of the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned to
death. In his story, Jesus says, "Whoever is innocent can cast the first
stone" (John 8.7).
Perhaps, then, we may not judge others as better or
worse than ourselves. If I attend church worship and try to stay on the
straight and narrow, does that make me better than anyone else? If I boast
about Jesus' role in giving meaning to my life, perhaps that's no licence
to claim that those who don't give him the identical role are in some way
inferior to me.