Image by Clinton Steeds
Part One: Death.
Death to self is a major theme in christian theology. In the churches I grew up in this was succinctly summarised in the saying, “The trouble with sin is that it has “I” in the centre”.
The christian tradition, along with many other spiritual traditions, is hostile to greed. For those who are out only for themselves it offers a way out – but their self-interest is seen as part of the problem. St. John speaking of all that is (evil) in the world nominates: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life (greed, possessiveness and self-sufficiency). This is uncompromising stuff, to put it mildly.
And it is difficult to disagree with. So much of the misery in our world comes from greed, possessiveness and self-sufficiency. When we are greedy we care nothing for others and their needs, when possessive we are disregarding the claims of others, when self-sufficient we believe others to have no claim on us. These three form the basis of many a political policy or sterile social debate. They are dominant values in our society – each person able to fulfil their desires, regardless of the impact on others; each person able to acquire what they wish, for their own enjoyment alone; each individual (not even family any more) able to provide for themselves, without the need to relate to anyone else. In short: these values create the hell of our current society and planet-killing behaviour.
And at the core of this horror is the ego – demanding, possessing, setting itself up as ruler of it all surveys.
When Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me”, his contemporaries knew what he was talking about. The one carrying their cross was on the way to a slow, excruciatingly painful and shameful death. I imagine a modern equivalent would be: “the firing squad is booked – who wants to join me in front of it?” All of a sudden, after saying this, Jesus wasn’t so popular anymore. There is no room for egotism here.
Radical surgery is the only cure. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the need to be born again. That means setting aside all that we have learned, all social norms, our very identity – and starting again.
This is the message of the crucifixion as I understand it; death to self: it all has to go. We need to be different. To not cling to all our beloved experiences, possessions and even relationships. We need to give up our egotistical manner of life. No ifs, no buts, no compromise.