I read this week that biologist Nathan Lents has noted that human brains are still the same physiologically as they were 12,000 years ago, and that the primary difference now has to do with environment. Originally we lived in small bands of a few dozen hunter-gatherers but we are now connected to a global community of billions. Nevertheless he suggests that our brains are still wired to distrust whatever is outside of our group. In other words, we still perceive anything unfamiliar (them) through the narrow lens of our earliest experiences (us).
I suppose that would be okay if we could manage ourselves but we don’t seem able … or willing. Partisanship is what happens when our differences become radicalized. It is vilifying someone else to justify the familiarity of ourselves; diminishing them because we aren’t us.
And to no one’s surprise, religion is no different. We choose sides and we argue our rightness. It’s mind boggling how many people are ‘called by God’ to walk past good, needy ministries to start new ones because well-healed christians are willing to endorse them.
Or maybe you’ve seen it – a cluster of nearly-the-same churches in an area, each supported by a small core of faithful people. That’s nice … but I’ve often wondered why similar congregations don’t sell their churches, use the profits to help the needy, then arrange a schedule that would allow them all to use the most functional buildings.
Of course we all know why. We don’t really want to share, or trust each other, or maximize resources for one significant reason … us versus them. We are righter, truer, honester, safer, better than they are.
That’s why we like strong kings to lead us. Our favourite spiritual kings are those who are most adept at attacking others who are not like us. But they are modern day royalty with more influence and authority than any spiritual leaders should ever have.
You may have heard of the recent allegations against Ravi Zacharias. Zacharias was a popular christian apologist who passed away last May at the age of 74. Shortly after his death, previously hidden stories about his private life slowly began to surface, eventually forcing Ravi Zacharias International Ministries to launch an independent investigation. The investigation by Miller & Martin law firm was given to the RZIM board a few days ago then released to news outlets shortly after that.
Shockingly, it told of a regular pattern of sexual abuse against women by its founder. The women often trusted him for counsel or were reliant on him for employment. Among the discoveries was a cache of phone numbers and ‘selfies’ of many of them as well as financial irregularities providing support to his activities. In the aftermath of the report, further allegations appear to be emerging. (For an overview of the story see here, here, and here).
The RZIM Board have released a response to the findings, including this expression of regret: “We are devastated by what the investigation has shown and are filled with sorrow for the women who were hurt by this terrible abuse.” ¹
So many people are devastated, confused, and are even arguing about how blame should be allocated. But this was just the latest example of a religious leader elevated to a position of influence, protected by prestige, and hidden by the blind trust of followers.
I will say up front that I was never a big fan of Ravi’s ministry; not sure why. Somehow I couldn’t connect with his approach to apologetics: too smooth; too insular. His lectures were thinly disguised sermons wrapped in paragraphs of honeyed confidence.
Unfortunately the unraveling of RZIM didn’t happen in a vacuum. As I am writing this blog there are other ministry ‘kings’ who have been outed for all sorts of abuse: moral, financial, toxic relationships. In fact, while Protestants have been looking down on the Catholic Church for its list of scandals, there has been a widening epidemic of abuse of all sorts in our own yard.
The sadness is that the abuse is typically under the watch of partisan christians while they are admiring the abuser-king. Because when we support our kings we lose sight of the fact that they increasingly rule over us.
You see, abuse has many faces: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological. It can be as simple as connecting our salvation and acceptance with our religious performance. Abuse can begin when our insecurities are used to coerce us into putting away our questions, or shaming us into conforming with a group. Abuse distorts reality by pressing victims to set aside their own intuitions and emotions in order to protect the confident leadership of a figurehead. In other words, trust your king, he is good for our side.
Why are we so obsessed with spiritual overlords and their self-important kingdoms? Why do we keep searching for leaders to prop us up, reign over us, war on our enemies? Why are we so enthusiastic to support those who help us feel good about ourselves? And what does our need for kings (and queens) say about the condition of our fragile faith? What does it say about how we think of Jesus’ kingship?
In the following verses, Paul seems to be directing us away from partisanship and ‘kinging’. Especially notice the second verse which suggests that we – you and me – have all that’s necessary when we follow the Jesus of God.
“For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task…
“So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
– 1 Corinthians 3: 4-5, 21-23, NIV
consider the ashes
The Church has many things it needs to repent of but perhaps one of the biggest is our obsession with heroes and ‘kings’ as we search for strong images to ‘lead the charge’ on our behalf. We make kings out of all sorts of charismatic personalities and ideas, both savoury and unsavoury.
But in the end, kings too are dust.
Ash Wednesday has once again initiated the holy season of Lent for christians all around the globe. There are probably fewer dark smudges on foreheads during this covid-drenched year but it is still a good time to pause and reflect on those ashes.
The tradition hints of the Old Testament practice of using ashes as a physical aid for those in mourning – a reminder of how tenuous life is. There are more than forty references to people sitting in ashes, sprinkling them on their heads, or mixing them in their food and drink.
Ashes also served as a touchpoint to remind people that they were just as fragile as those who had already died. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” has a way of adding perspective to life; making every person equal.
And that is why ashes during the Lenten season ultimately represent repentance – the humble acknowledgement that we are all broken and needy. No better or worse than our struggling neighbour; no better or worse than a king.
Jesus is the only king who is ‘dust’ enough to understand our humanness but God enough to make us whole.
So remember the ashes of repentance. Let’s repent of our infatuation with kingly obsessions and our reliance on anything other than Jesus.
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¹ Just before posting this blog I heard that RZIM have ceased fundraising and the Canadian arm announced it will begin the process of permanent closure.