By Fred M’membe
Watching and listening to the National Day of Prayer and Fasting proceedings a number of thoughts started running through my head. The issue of Jesus and spirituality came to my mind. I started to have deep reflections on what it really means to be a Christian – to be like Christ. We see that Jesus’ spirituality was life in the spirit, within the historical conflict, in a communion of love with the Father’s gift and of his liberating commitment to the life aspirations of the oppressed, exploited, humiliated and marginalised. For Jesus the world wasn’t divided between the pure and the impure, as the Pharisees wished; it was divided between those who favoured life and those who supported death.
Everything that generates more life – from a gesture of love to social revolution – is in line with God’s scheme of things, in line with the construction of the kingdom, for life is the greatest gift given to us by God. Whoever is born is born in God to enter the sphere of life. At the same time Jesus’ spirituality contradicted that of the Pharisees, which consisted of rites, duties, asceticism and the observance of discipline. Fidelity is the centre of life for the Pharisees; the Father was the centre of life for Jesus.
The Pharisees measured spirituality by the practice of cultural rules; Jesus measured it by the filial opening to God’s love and compassion. For the Pharisees sanctity is a human conquest; for Jesus it was a gift of the Father for those who opened up to his grace. Jesus’ spiritual vigour stemmed from his intimacy with God, whom he familiarly called Abba – that is, Father (Mark 14:36). Like all who believe, Jesus had faith and spent hours in prayer to nourish it. Luke recorded those hours in which Jesus allowed his spirit to be replenished by the Father’s Spirit: “But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16); “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he continued all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12); and “Now it happened that as he was praying alone” (Luke 9:18). In that communion with the Father, he found strength for struggling for the scheme of life, challenging the forces of death, represented particularly by the Pharisees, against whom the Gospels present two violent manifestos (Matthew 23 and Luke 11:37 – 57).
And in this sense, all who struggle for life are included in God’s scheme, even if they lack faith. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirst and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me ‘”(Matthew 25:37-40).
It is your fellow human being, especially the one who lacks life and needs justice, in whom God wishes to be served and loved. They are the ones with whom Jesus identified. Therefore, there’s no contradiction between the struggle for justice and the fulfilment of God’s will. One demands the other. All who work along that line of God’s scheme for life are considered Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31-35). This is the best way to follow Jesus, especially in our country’s present situation. I prefer to say that Jesus had a spirituality of the conflict – that is, a vigour in his commitment to the poor and to the Father who granted him immense internal peace. True peace is not obtained by erecting walls; it is the result of trust in God. Courage is not the opposite of fear, faith is. That faith gave Jesus the necessary will for carrying out the scheme of life, even by sacrificing his own life in confrontation with the forces of death, such as oppression, exploitation, injustice and religion made sclerotic by rules and rights.
In the Gospels, the totality of the human being is what brings life to the spirit. Thus, spirituality isn’t the way you feel the presence of God. Nor is it the way you believe. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Thus, spirituality is a way of living life according to the spirit. Living is the best way of believing. Faith without deeds is worthless; as James stated, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead ” (James 2:14-17). Our way of life is the result of what we believe.
If we consider the Gospel accounts, we can clearly see that Jesus’ spirituality wasn’t one of withdrawal from the world, of moving away from everyday life in order to better serve God, of denying earthly realities. In John 17:15, Jesus asked his Father to keep his disciples without taking them out of the world. Jesus’ entire existence was one immersion in the ideological conflict, in the arena where different concepts and options for or against the oppressed, exploited, humiliated and marginalised were discussed. Nor was Jesus’ spirituality that of moralism. That is the spirituality of the Pharisees, who turn their moral virtues into a sort of conquest of sanctity. Many Christians have been trained along these lines and lose strength in their faith because they don’t manage to adjust to the pharisaical moralism they seek. God seems to live on top of a mountain, and spirituality is taught as a manual for mountain climbing to be used by Christians interested in scaling its steep slopes. Since we are of a fragile nature, we begin our climb over and over again – it is the constant repetition of the Sisyphus legend, rolling the stone uphill.
A religion that cares for the supposed sacredness of its objects but turns its back on those who are the real temples of the Spirit is worthless. To Jesus’ way of thinking, there’s nothing more sacred than the right to life. A religion that places its patrimonial interests ahead of the demands of justice, life and the people among whom it is inserted is certainly a religion that considers a human being less important than the sabbath and, like the Pharisees, reverses evangelical priorities. A human being’s material need, the basic foundation of life, was the most sacred thing for Jesus. For Jesus it was impossible to speak of spiritual life apart from the material conditions of existence. There’s nothing more sacred than a human being, the image and likeness of God. The hunger of that human being was an offence to the Creator himself.
I would like to conclude with
Romans 13:10: “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”