Jesus healed illness not disease

I believe Jesus confronted the deep social, political, and theological illness of his society. This illness isolated and excluded those who were sick, different, and foreign. This illness created segregated poolside communities, dumping grounds for the tainted, Bantustans for the disabled... Jesus spent his life shooting holes in the philosophical and theological rationale that under-girded such segregation. He sought to bring the powerless to the powerful in order to question the nature and distribution of power. He sought to bring the labellers of illness to those so labelled in order that labels were lifted from the backs of the excluded. Jesus physically challenged and confronted the system of oppression.

Those who believe Jesus was a faith-healer who cured people’s disability have a problem. They have to believe that God physically intervenes to cure some and not others. This belief, however, apart from being irrational and immoral does not critique society at all. The disability is the man’s problem, not the society’s. The cure is fixing the man, not society. ‘There is nothing wrong with society,’ say the advocates of Jesus the faith-healer, ‘What is wrong is the man’s disability’. They paint Jesus as a healer of individuals, not a revolutionary out to change the world. He’s safer that way.

Jesus’ challenge to the lepers and disabled he met was to walk into confrontation. Following him wasn’t going to be all nice, safe, and predictable. It was going to be awkward, hard, and scary. Instead of sitting safe amongst the excluded waiting for some Benny Hinn, Jesus asked them to get up, and hobble along with Jesus into the so-called clean and able community and to challenge their prejudice. They weren’t going to be welcomed there. Sure they might find a few allies but generally they were going to be labelled anarchists, parasites, and told to go far away.


Did Jesus Heal?

Medical anthropology distinguishes between a disease and an illness. A disease is between me, my doctor, and a bug.[i] Illness is between me, my family, neighbours and society. Disease refers to the physical effects; illness refers to the social effects. AIDS then, for example, is both a disease - a bug affecting the individual, and an illness - how society relates to that individual.

Jesus healed illness by refusing to accept the ritual uncleanness and social rejection that accompanied disease in his time and culture. He forced others to either reject him from society or to include the diseased within it as well. He aligned himself with the outsiders in order to challenge the whole power structure of insider/outsider relationships.

I don’t believe that God endows particular people with the ability to go around laying their hands on those who are sick, disabled, and terminally ill, in order to instantaneously and supernaturally heal them. I don’t think that Jesus supernaturally healed diseases.

However, I do think there are people who by nature are therapeutic, and Jesus was one of them. I also think there is a lot about medicine we still don’t know and so-called alternative medicine should not be dismissed out of hand. Further, I think that prayer is often helpful and can affect both physical and social healing. There is still a lot of unknowns and mystery around healing.

On the other hand I am aware that people who are sick, and their families, are very vulnerable to charlatans and religious quackery. I am very sceptical about the antics of religious faith-healers, like Benny Hinn who has a billboard down the street. They invariably fail to answer why some are healed and some are not, and why some experience so-called ‘healing’ at the time and then regress shortly afterwards. If we believe that God is love, consistently wants the best for us, and can suspend the natural laws of the universe to effect that, then one needs to ask why some of the most loving and saintly people never heal and continue to suffer, and why some of the worst rogues seem to get a miraculous reprieve.

Benny of course, like many infamous faith-healers believes that God requires that he live as opulently as possible, including having a $49 million jet.[ii]

[i] Crossan, J. D. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, San Francisco : Harper, 1989, p.81
[ii] For further reading exposing Benny Hinn’s teachings search http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/bhinn.html


The Great Easter Deception

Like in the parable of the fire-maker, the first post-resurrection Christians found the liberating spirit of Jesus wonderful, enlightening, and world changing. However, in time, other Christians, especially some in positions of power, found it frightening. They wanted to restrain and control the Jesus spirit. They were anxious that people would take courage, turn the world upside down, and thus upset the way things are. They were anxious that their power would be reduced.

So what some leaders did was take the metaphorical language about sacrifice [that had been around awhile] and applied it definitively to the Easter stories. They turned Jesus’ death into a once-for-all blood sacrifice to cleanse us of our alleged sin. Instead of the forces of injustice killing Jesus all of us so-called sinners were responsible. His death was de-politicized. If it weren’t for our sin, so the story was re-told, he wouldn’t have had to die.

Jesus was now no longer the confrontational revolutionary prophet but a self-sacrificing lamb. Good Friday was not the Romans killing off a pestilent rebel but the assisted suicide of the forgiving martyr. Easter Sunday was not the days of new hope, determination, and resistance congealing among his followers but a 40-day power display in order to show the benefits of having Jesus forgive us.

Like in the story of the fire-maker, the religious elite believing that the spark of life, hope, and power had to be controlled turned Easter into an apolitical gratitude ritual. The elite wanted the fire-maker’s followers to feel grateful for what the fire-maker had done. The fire-maker had given his life. The fire-maker had given his life for their lives. The fire-maker had come back from the dead to prove it. The followers should always remember this and be grateful. And hopefully they’d forget how to make fire.

The Eucharistic meal, Holy Communion, was also subverted, turning it into a remembrance of Jesus’ forgiving love rather than as a challenge to take up the task of breaking open prison doors. The political status quo is quite happy to tolerate a religion of forgiving love. However a religion that is bent on literally setting captives free is both a problem and a threat.

In the parable of the fire-maker there are two villages with very different perspectives on the world. They have different understandings of fire, religion, and governance. In my experience of the Church there are two rivers. One is a river of life that flows through me, sustaining me, and challenging me to love and to liberate. That river has as one of its sources the resurrected spirit of Jesus. The other river is a river of guilt, cleansed by the blood of Jesus. People are warned that if they don’t drink from this river they will not have life.

Two villages. Two rivers. Two theologies. Our choice.


What the Church did to Easter - Part 2

“I’ve got a river of life flowing out through me…” goes the song, “opens prison doors sets the captives free…” The tune gets inside one’s head, and the theology isn’t too bad either. The truth of the resurrection is found not so much in a historic time and place but in the present reality of breaking open prison doors and setting captives free. Jesus is risen when we break the chains of oppression. Jesus stays dead when life and liberty are locked up.

In Anthony De Mello’s parable, the fire-maker is the Christ figure bringing light and warmth to those without. He is not concerned about personal glory but simply wants to share what he knows with others. In the first village, once he has taught the art of fire, he disappears. He does not want to patent it, profit from it, or use it to exercise power. Such was Jesus’ approach.

However in the second village the leaders know about power. They think everyone is competing for it, and therefore the stranger is a competitor. The knowledge the fire-maker has fuels his popularity and threatens their own. So, in the time-honoured tradition of weak people in leadership they turn on the stranger and dispose of him. The leaders then create a new religion out of his memory, while making sure people forget the radical way that could bring light and warmth to all.

De Mello’s parable is a critique of religion’s propensity to protect itself from new insights, especially those outside the elite’s control. Bad religion spins the stranger into a sinner or a saviour rather than takes seriously anything revolutionary the stranger did or said. Bad religion is not good news for the powerless.


What the Church did to Easter - Part 1

The Parable of the Fire-Maker by Anthony De Mello

After many years of labour an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tools to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefited from his discovery.

The next he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great Inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined within a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith.

The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a Life of the Inventor. This became the Holy book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate, his glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death.

Caught up as they were in these religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.


Entombed Theology

The seduction of living in the tomb is that the conventional God is there too. You can sit in your comfortable grave clothes and talk to the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. You can sing “Our God reigns”, soak up the acoustics, and feel all holy. You can memorise verses that affirm that God as the way, the truth and the life. It’s all very nice in the tomb.

Out of the tomb however it is not nice. The God of liberation is not a pleasant puppet you can sing to and feel all holy with. God, like truth, is bigger than our experiences and projections. Even our convictions are tempered by the disturbing thought that maybe God isn’t on our side. Out of the tomb we discover that people are complex, life is complex, and God, like love, manifests itself in a variety of forms and relationships. God is out of our control.

Trapped in the grave, the churches have invented all sorts of theological nonsense. In the desire to keep God small, predictable and safe, a plethora of so-called miracles have been manufactured to suit the pre-modernism of the entombed mind. There’s a windup literal devil - he’s the bad guy. There’s a literal seven-day creation – nothing is impossible when you create your own truth. There’s a literal virgin birth - fairyland doesn’t have to follow any biological rules. Here supernatural miracles happen in the wink of the eye, without even using a wand. Even the dead literally come back to life depending on what’s on the barbeque.

When churches only talk to themselves, those who agree with them, and their marionette God, it’s not long before tomb reality becomes the only reality.

The God of the Risen Jesus however is very different. This is a God of whom we need to be afraid. This God breaks open our tombs. This God disturbs our thinking. This God allows niggly questions to visit us in the small hours of the night. This God drives prayer from our lips and peace from our soul. This God blows us into the furnace of unrest, change, and freedom. This God compels us to shred the trappings of death and break free of the grave.

This is the God we celebrate at Easter.


Escaping From The Tomb

We live in a time in the history of the Church when a great deal of entombed thinking, and its accompanying solidified structures, are being broken open by people who want to be free.

A photograph taken of the Auckland Synod in the 1950s, compared with a photograph of that body today, is remarkable for two things – the number of ties, and the total absence of women. Those were the days when old white men were in charge. Autocracy was the norm, paternalism was expected, and accountability was negligible. In many parts of Anglicanism, let alone other denominations or religions, this pattern continues. It is a pattern of oppression.

Since the 1970s in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been trying to exhibit a form of leadership where women and men, laity and clergy, form partnerships; where power is both transparent and accountable; and where those without power have avenues of redress. This is a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. Mistakes are made. Systems can easily turn sour. But we have travelled a significant distance from the oppressive structures and thinking of the past.

I once told my children that it wasn’t so long ago that teachers caned pupils. They looked at me incredulously. ‘Oh Dad you’re making up stories again!’ My children have no experience of the violence that was endemic in New Zealand High Schools. Similarly when we come into contact with the hierarchies of the English or Central African Anglican churches we are incredulous. We can’t believe that ecclesiastical feudalism is still alive.

The walls of the tomb are solid rock. They have been there for generations and have the word ‘immovable’ scrawled upon them.

Of course the political and social structures affect, for better or for worse, the theology. Where the male is God, God is male. Where the hierarchy is God, God is hierarchical. Where the all-powerful are God, God is all-powerful. ‘Convention, comfort and civility’ disguise autocracy, sexism, and oppression.

On the other hand however where God is more below than above, more feminine than masculine, more dirty than clean, more uncontained and surprising than restrained and boring… there is hope, change, and justice to be found. The tomb-breaking God chooses the foolish, the weak, the rebels, and outsiders. Truth is not the sole preserve of powerful men, nor the wisdom of what’s always been.

Are our prayers, worship, preaching, and theology entombing us in yesteryear or inviting us to break free? Is worship emancipating? Or are we slowly being seduced by the formulas of old, pickled and placed with the other preserves on the shelf, there to collect dust and wait? Are we cementing convention or stimulating change?