I recently read about a movie that won awards at Cannes and is up for an Oscar (category: Short Film) called Ave Maria. The title is meant to be somewhat ironic as the film is about a group of Orthodox Jewish settlers in Palestine that crash their car in front of a monastery of nuns. As I understand the story from what I have read the plot develops around the fact that the settlers can’t use the phone as it is the Sabbath and the nuns can’t talk because they have a vow of silence. Now, actually, no Catholic Order has a vow where their members can’t talk: that is a myth, but it works the plot apparently and it does introduce my point: religion, when it becomes an end in itself, goes toxic. If Jews cannot use the phone in a genuine emergency or nuns can’t speak in order to help others in a crisis, there is something wrong. As I just said, this story has a bit of an artificial set-up as the strictest of rabbis would agree that in an emergency a phone-call could be made and no Catholic Order, no matter how contemplative, is bound to a total silence. But the fact of the matter is that from the radical jihadists of Islam to the tea-evangelists of Christianity, there are those who trump common decency with a toxic religiosity. When settlers use some claim that God allegedly gave them sovereignty over a land and use that claim to justify bulldozing the houses and the orchards of people who have lived on that land long before the days when Joshua led the children of Israel into the Promised Land—that is toxic religion. When Buddhists persecute the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) that is toxic religion. When Hindus attack Christian churches and faithful in India that is toxic religion. When Pakistani Muslims use charges of blasphemy against their Christian neighbors to justify violence and plunder, that is toxic religion. And when “Christians” use their religious beliefs to justify discrimination against others because they are Muslims or immigrants or over LGBT issues then those “religious” beliefs are not longer authentically Christian but are a toxic corruption of our Christian faith.
I think that it is time for us Christians to move beyond religion and for us Catholics to lead the way. As a historian it is clear from the available sources, including the New Testament, that Christ did not intend to establish a new religion. He founded a community of people whom he called to lead a new and different sort of life. As a historian I am used to reading how Christianity was one religion among many in the later Roman Empire. I disagree with that. From reading Paul or the Gospels, I don’t see any indication that the Christians saw themselves as a religion. The followed “The Way” (see Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 24:14;24:42). At that time they were still within the embrace of Judaism—it was only with the composure of the twelfth of the Eighteen Benedictions, the proscription of the minim or heretics, around the year 80 AD that the Christians were expelled from the Synagogue and Christianity began to develop separately from Judaism. “The Way” was not meant to be a religion per se but a Way of Life, a path of discipleship that transcends any notion of “religion.”
Now before I get accused of heresy by the krazies who troll this site, let me distinguish between “religion” and “Church.” According to the gospels, Christ invited together a community, an ἐκκλησία of disciples. Εκκλησία of course is the Greek word for “Church” (as a community of people, not as a building). Yes Jesus came to establish a “Church” but that does not mean he came to establish the “Roman Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church (Roman and otherwise) is certainly a principal heir of the ecclesial legacy of Christ’s disciples, but is also the product of an evolutionary process that has historically developed into something quite more institutionally complex than the original communities of disciples. By institutionally complex I mean that it historically developed doctrinally, liturgically, and governmentally (though perhaps guided by the Holy Spirit) according to human design. So while I do not think that Jesus intended to establish a new religion, I do think he established an ἐκκλησία, a Church, a community of those who were consecrated to live according to his way. I think it might be time to move beyond the consciousness of “religion” and refocus on being a community of such disciples.
What do I mean by a “community of disciples?” I am not a huge fan of George Weigel or even of his book Evangelical Catholicism but I do think in that book Weigel gives us the focus for a genuine Catholic renewal when he writes
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord.
I think that disciples are those who develop that genuine friendship with the Risen Lord through—and this is crucial—through the Scriptures, the Sacraments, Prayer, and one aspect that Weigel (in his American individualism) overlooked: community. In the Church, the community of disciples, we together delve into the scriptures, break the Bread of Christ’s Body, and nourish our lives of intimate prayer with Christ. If we do that genuinely and with sincerity there is no room for prejudice, no room for hatred. We remember the commandment: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. If you love those who love you: what merit is there in that: even the pagans do as much.
There are those in our society who take to themselves the appellation “evangelicals” but for the most part they are deceivers and frauds. By their fruits will you know them. They incite division and fear; they divide and set people against one another. And they do so in the name of Jesus. All Christians, including us Catholics, are called to be evangelicals: witnesses to the Gospel. By this will all people know you are my disciples: by the love that you have for one another. It is not by our self-righteous looking down on those who are different from us, whom we judge to be sinners or non-believers that we are witnesses. It is not by encouraging fear and hatred, by calling for people to be “sent back to where they came from,” or denies housing or education or jobs because they “aren’t like us” that we are witnesses. When we buy into the current climate of anger and fear and prejudice we cease to be witnesses to Christ and his Gospel. We become “evangelists” of a false gospel, the word of the Father of Lies rather than the Word of God.