Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some Christian Teachings From A Heathen Perspective

I would like to examine Jesus' ethical mandates from a heathen perspective that may provide a more grounded and moderate context, allowing us to turn them from extremisms into potentially useful guidelines, if used intelligently. It is, in fact, a worthy heathen project to reexamine Judaeo-Christian teachings from a heathen perspective, because heathenism always deals with things as they are, as they actually exist, and in our culture, we are steeped in Judaeo-Christian myths, and it can be helpful to reexamine these everyday myths and teachings from the unique perspective that heathenism gives. Indeed, for us to examine many of the myths, both religious and secular, that circulate in our society, is entirely appropriate from a heathen perspective, where all of the myths in society would be examined and looked at with a heathen eye to see where the Gods were present in them, and where the Gods were speaking through them, and what lessons could be drawn upon. It may sound foreign to ask where heathen Gods are working through foreign teachings, but it would not have been foreign to our ancestors who looked for wisdom whereever it could be found, and in that way demonstrated their broad tolerance and their love of wisdom in whatever form it may have come.

When Jesus says to sell all of one's movable possessions, and to give to the destitute, he's not speaking about just the poor, about people who have low income. The Greek word is ptochos, which means those who have become absolutely destitute.

If we invoke the heathen principle of scale, of social scale, we may understand that Jesus is speaking to each community, to each neighborhood, each kith. It is not saying that you have to take care of the destitute everywhere in the world, but rather that each kingdom, each neighborhood, each community should take care of its own destitute, so we're keeping things on a human scale. You aren't being required to take care of everyone, but rather that the community should be taking care of its own.

The principle that the community should be taking care of its own is a very old tribal notion that has been demonstrated by anthropologists many time to be consistent with the so-called "gentile" or clan organization of heathens everywhere. Indeed, this was also the principle of the ancient Israelites, and the fiery exhortations of the Old Testament prophets were often directed at those people who had forgotten the clan principles of mutual aid, and neglected to care for the widows and orphans. So if we think about this as speaking at the tribal level, at the community level, it may make more sense than thinking about having to care for the whole world.

Now, in this context, the idea of selling all one's goods to take care of the destitute -- Jesus here from a heathen perspective may be using a little bit of exaggeration to strike home a point, and that is, that it is a complete and utter shame that a community would even have destitute people. The fact that destitution exists at all is evidence of how far from the spirit of common charity and clan mutual-aid people have gotten. Certainly there may be people who are poor, who don't have a lot of money. That's not the Greek word that is used. The Greek word that is used is ptochos, absolute destitution, those who have been reduced to begging. Something has gone wrong with the entire system systematically if you have large numbers of destitute people. He's saying, in those circumstances, if that's the case, sell all of your goods and give to the destitute. Do everything you can to raise the destitute up from their destitute position, because it is a complete and utter shame, a stain, that they are even there. Something has gone tremendously wrong.

Now there may be an element here of a shaming custom. We must remember that the Irish have for a long time had a shaming custom of fasting upon someone's doorstep who had injured one, to shame them before the community into changing their behavior. Now if we think here that the king, or the leader of the community, was responsible for taking care of the common welfare, then if people indeed gave up and sold everything they owned in order to give to the destitute, this would constitute a shaming of the king or the leader. And the more rich and noble they were, the more of a shame it would be. Selling all their goods to help the destitute out would demonstrate the utter poverty and bankruptcy of the governmental policies of the leader or leaders.

The intent, then, would not be for everyone to impoverish themselves, but for a critical mass of people to engage in a kind of shaming ritual, which would spur the king or council to change their policies, to make sure that everyone's rights were being secured and that there weren't destitute, while at the same time distributing some help to those who were destitute. Again, we hold to the heathen principle of hof or moderation if we see this within the context of a single community rather than having to care about the destitute everywhere in the world.

Now that Jesus could not have intended for everyone to sell everything they had is implied in the very structure of what he asks his immediate disciples to do. He basically urges them to live like the ancient Greek Cynics who lived as beggars, and he tells them to sell everything they have, give it to the poor, and then to travel from town to town invoking the laws of hospitality, staying with those who would render hospitality, and sharing good news with them in exchange for temporary room and board as well as fellowship, and moving on, ad infinitum. The idea of skalds, poets, or priests to be engaged in visiting customs is quite in accord with heathenism. But it implies, of course, that there are a class of people who have kept their property, who have kept their food stores, who have kept their houses intact. Again, we must point out that when Jesus says "sell all your goods", it does seem apparent from the Greek that he is referring to Feoh, to chattel, to movable goods, and not necessarily to odal, or family homelands. Indeed, given how much Esau in the Bible was criticized for giving up his entire heritage for a bowl of lentils, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have advised people to give up their homelands, their very family property and heritage, which it was the job of the Jubilee custom to restore to each family.

There's another way to look at Jesus' statement about selling all that one owns and giving it to the poor, and that is to look at it through Essene eyes. Now the Essenes were a group of religious folk living in monastic communities in Israel who were widely known, and it's been argued over whether Jesus was an Essene or wasn't an Essene, but really, that doesn't matter, because if Jesus was a real, historical figure of that time, then he would have been steeped in a context rich with knowledge of the Essenes, in which case his language could properly be interpreted in that light ; and if Jesus was not a real historical figure but was in fact a mythical mascot who was created by a community of Jews and Gentiles living in the area who were in resistance to the Empire, and through their literate skills aimed at a synthesis between the Old Testament prophetic ideas of clan solidarity and the pagan figure of the resurrecting God of the Spring, they, too, being a community concerned with justice, and living in the area, would have called upon, and been familiar with the Essene ideas. So either way, the Essene context is an extremely strong attractor for interpreting the words of Jesus.

Now within the Essene context, they always refer to themselves as the poor. Now why did they do that? They did that because they themselves had given up all property individually, and had amalgamated it into their union, into their community, in which they then gained usufruct rights. They maintained their user rights, but it was the community as a whole that actually owned things. Through this, everyone was enriched, because the common pot was full of the riches everyone had given up, and was available to help anyone who needed it in the community. So selling everything you had to give it to the poor meant joining this kind of voluntary union and mutual-aid insurance policy, which is a very different thing than giving everything away to random strangers. It's a whole different way of organizing the community itself, in which the community can feed itself.

We come to the issue of scale again when we consider Jesus' missionary policies. Firstly, we find that he recommends his disciples to become like the old wandering philosophers and give up their possessions, and he tells them to go to towns, and then later on he tells them to go to the ethnos, the tribal peoples, the tribes of the entire world, and actually the word used there is kosmos, a Greek word which is basically coeval with the Empire. Whereever there is Empire, whereever the fundamental rights have been overthrown through tyranny, go town to town, tribe to tribe, and teach the good news.

Since Jesus himself says I have not come to abrogate the old customary laws or the prophets, but to fulfill them, we may assume that this was the philosophy behind the missionary work as well. Thus, the good news or message which would have been brought from town to town, and then from tribe to tribe, would have been : restore the old customs which have become corrupted through time and through Empire. This renewal from within is, of course, very different than the imperialistically imposed missionaries that have characterized, with great misfortune, the history of the Christian Church. The good news is, restore your old customs so that no one is destitute, so that you can take care of your own, and that, in the end, is a very heathen notion.

For most people, take care of your own in your own communities, and leave it at that, but for those who have a more noble sense, wanting to take on more responsibility, go out, stay in people's homes through hospitality, and teach the good news.

In other words, each community is responsible for itself, but those who want to go above and beyond the call of duty, who feel a certain pull of higher responsibility, may visit neighboring communities and remind them to take care of their own. So if the world is filled with the destitute, if the world is filled with peoples who have forgotten the old ways of caring for each other, then go as an ambassador of this good news, of the freedom, peace, and prosperity that Frodi brings, and deliver it to the nations so that they might, from within, liberate themselves. A very different concept than anything we're familiar with. But ultimately, a very Dionysian one, and quite in accord with Frodi's "conquests" of all the known world with restoration of rights and peace in that great age known as Frodi's Frith.


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