Your Hero Path

The design intention of our sacred stories goes far beyond explaining the universe and our place in it. Even if for so long this intention was not self-conscious, in the sense that our first storytellers did not sit down with a plan to map reality and chart the human journey through life, the product of their creative effort provided us with precisely that.

As Joseph Campbell argued, mythology arises out of the human creative imagination like the sticky thread and web-pattern emerge from the spider’s deeper nature. It would take humans thousands of years to consciously realize and begin to really understand what we had done.

It’s necessary to make a distinction between human evolution and personal development. The first term places our species within the larger context of our planet and the history of life, while the second focuses in on a fairly late stage in that longer history, from the “moment” when we became conscious of ourselves as individuals – separate, unique, exposed, and existentially on our own.

It is with this rise of our self-conscious existence as individuals that our troubles as a species officially began.

In my diagram, a purple zig-zagging arrow traces the general path of human evolution: out of the primal consciousness of animal instinct, and into the tribal consciousness of membership identity; from there into the personal consciousness of an individual ego, and finally up into the communal consciousness of spiritual wisdom, with its outstanding virtues of compassion, enlightenment, harmony, and wellbeing.

Only a few of us have completed the course from primal to communal consciousness, for reasons we’ll explore below.

Situated inside this larger evolutionary frame is another, more meandering route, but still with a clear progression of its own, known as the Hero Path. It begins inside the second womb of tribal consciousness, in what I call the “moral frame” of traditional rules and values defining what is meant by right action and a good person. Those who abide by these rules and values of conventional morality are recognized and rewarded as insiders, whereas deviants are disciplined, punished and, if necessary, excommunicated, or even in some cases executed.

The moral frame of any tribe consists of a set of instructions for bringing the behavior and beliefs of its members into conformity with its social order. Should an individual break the moral code, a prescribed penalty will likely follow. But even if the individual is not formally found out, at the very least it is expected that he or she will suffer the subjective pain of a guilty conscience. By such measures, individuals are kept in line and securely inside the tribal fold.

Some of those moral injunctions, particularly of the “Thou shalt not” variety, are intended by the tribe to close down or at least keep off-stage certain impulses and inclinations of our animal nature that would obviously conflict with its definitions of proper conduct and character (i.e., its moral frame). These can range from aggressive impulses that could upset the social order; to talents, interests, and traits that do not align with tribal gender norms and role assignments.

Whatever is not allowed on stage, whether privately discouraged or publicly condemned, ends up supressed in the personality as our shadow. Its mere existence means that we are divided within ourselves, with one part playing outward for the recognition and approval of our audience, and the other pushed down (“suppressed”), tied up, and kept out of view.

Tragically, our shadow withholds a portion of our natural light, of the human spirit within us. In Christianity, this shadow principle is personified in the figure of Lucifer, whose name literally means “light-bearer,” the one who holds (back) our light.

A good part of what is called the Hero Path entails our individual quest for the captured light or imprisoned spirit of our authentic self. Until it can be uncovered and reintegrated with our personality, our “dark side” will continue to stoke anxiety, steal our joy, undermine our health, and sabotage our relationships.

So much human agony and social conflict is the consequence of individuals and groups projecting their shadow onto others and the world around them. The Hero Path provides us with the guidance we need to find our way through.

The basic narrative plot is simple and straightforward and consists of four essential phases: (1) a departure from our tribe’s moral frame, in search of our own “individuative-reflective” (James Fowler) philosophy of life; (2) a confrontation with the shadow, manifesting our insecurities, fears, shame and self-doubt; (3) the successful reintegration of this hidden light by a process of atonement and being restored to psychic wholeness; and finally (4) our breakthrough to the transpersonal experience of a liberated life in genuine community.

There are two critical places on the Hero Path where we can lose our way. At the very beginning, when the moral frame is no longer able to contain and control the longings of our spirit, our tribe might try to foreclose on our waking aspirations with accusations of heresy, betrayal, and a failure of faith.

For many, this doubled-down tactic of authoritarian control actually works to pull us back under the covers of membership, as the predicted loss of security among our fellowship of believers is just too high a cost for the promise of fulfillment.

If our departure is successful, then the second complication comes with our need to confront the shadow and recover our spiritual light – all that bound energy of animal faith, spontaneity, imagination, creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had to push down and out of the way for the social acceptance we needed in childhood.

For many Christians, the paradoxical identity of Lucifer as one who is against us (in his aspect as adversary or Satan) and who at the same time is holding the light we had forsaken but now need to recover in order to become whole again, is impossible to reconcile with popular portrayals of the devil as one who has nothing to give us but temptation, torment, and trouble.

Obeying the moral command to refuse and renounce the devil, believers end up rejecting (all over again) the gift of their own forsaken light.

When our once-captive light is at last recovered and the division within ourselves is healed, the at-one-ment of our whole self is ready to break through and finally leave behind the limiting beliefs and compensatory attachments that had kept our life small and safe, but spiritually stifling. Now in the wide-open space of a boundless presence, we can enjoy our creative participation in the higher wholeness of genuine community.

Joy Overflowing

“Seek first the kingdom of god …” – Luke 12:31

“The kingdom of god is within you.” – Luke 17:21

The above wisdom sayings of Jesus are part of a deeper synoptic tradition, which according to scholars derived in part from an early collection of teachings called the Quelle (“source”) gospel, or “Q” for short. Although its existence is hypothetical, Q gets us even closer to the historical Jesus than the four canonical gospels, as they are more intent on constructing the situations and timeline of Jesus’ life, whereas his teachings were earlier still and are likely more true to who he was and what he was all about.

At any rate, I’m not intending this post to be about Jesus or the Bible, but rather about this particular bit of truth-telling from his essential message.

From very early on in life we are taught that we are empty inside. We might not be given this instruction in so many words, but the belief somehow gets planted in us.

Even if our parents were mindful and provident in helping us appreciate that we are perfect – or at least good enough – just as we are, we eventually had to venture outside into society where the Great Machine of consumer marketing incessantly pumps out the message of our emptiness, deficiency, inadequacy, and competitive disadvantage among our neighbors and cohorts.

We are not happy – yet: That’s the takeaway we carry with us in pursuit of what will make us happy. But because we have also been brainwashed into believing that our emptiness is more like an appetite to satisfy than a bucket to be filled, nothing can ever satisfy us for very long and our “happiness” is always gone too soon.

Maybe some more of this, a larger dose of that, an updated version (“New and Improved”) of what worked once upon a time (but not really), or a different brand of the same disappointing product, occupation, spouse, or religion – maybe that will be the answer, the key to happiness we’re looking for.

The teaching of wisdom advises us to stop looking for happiness out there, even to stop looking for happiness altogether.

Happiness is not, in fact, something we can find. No shiny new possession, fancy house, late-model car, or sexy partner will make us happy. Granted, these things might bring a flash or brief season of pleasure and excitement, but the “happiness” they might bring will not last. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “This is not the happiness you’re looking for.”

Jesus’ metaphor of the “kingdom of god” was his reference to a New World and way of life where we all love each other, where each of us is filled with a joy sourced from a wellspring deep within ourselves. Indeed, it is this internally generated joy that inspires and empowers us to love each other – even our enemy, according to Jesus. Instead of looking for love (“in all the wrong places,” as the song lyrics go), we share our love with others and the world around us.

We don’t need to go find love, but rather we take it with us on the journey of life.

So there’s the first radical insight of the Sophia Perennis – the perennial tradition of wisdom teachings that predates and transcends all the name-brand religions: Joy, as essentially different from the marketing illusion of happiness, is not derived from or found in anything outside us, even in another person. Should we be lucky to find another person to love, but we bring with us an expectation that he or she will finally make us happy, the love will eventually exhaust itself and our happiness will fade.

The reason, once again, is because real love is the outflow of joy, not its source.

For the source of joy we turn to a second insight of wisdom, which is that the kingdom of god is within us. If love is the outflow of a joy that gushes up from deeper inside us, then peace is its wellspring.

By this is meant much more than a calm and relaxed nervous state. True enough, a genuine inner peace will typically induce an experience of neurophysical composure, emotional balance, and mental clarity. But the Great Machine has tricked us into believing that simply by manipulating these symptoms of inner peace we can come to possess it.

This is yet another classic example from Western medicine where treating the symptom is presumed to address its underlying (and likely systemic) cause. We may feel better for a time, but vibrant health and wellness elude us, and we might actually be worse off farther along.

Lots of behavioral, sensory, and chemical interventions can help us relax and release the strain of everyday life. They do indeed help us feel better for the most part, but their effect is relatively short-lived. In the case of chemical interventions, whether legal, illegal, over-the-counter, or by a doctor’s prescription, we tend to need increasing amounts for the desired effect, which runs the risk of dependency, addiction, and even death.

But society (including conventional religion) has so successfully pitched our expectations outside ourselves for what will save us, that it’s nearly impossible to break free from the spell.

Here’s the truth as Wisdom sees it. We will not find lasting joy if we go looking for it in love, for love is the outflow of joy and not its wellspring. For that we must go deeper into ourselves – so deep in fact that the very sense we have of ourselves as lacking something, needing something, missing something, and looking for something is surrendered on our descent of the grounding mystery within.

As the inner wellspring of joy, this peace (as we can read in many sacred writings) “surpasses all understanding” – simply because true inner peace is found in a place where no words or even thoughts can reach, where it isn’t taken into our possession as much as our ego dissolves and we become one with it.

The paradox is that we are trying to describe something that is indescribable, to put words on an experience which is effable, utterly beyond words. Nevertheless, from deep within ourselves, in the very ground of our being, the busy retail marketplace of the Great Machine is seen-through for all its deception and futility. What we’ve been looking for has been right here, inside us, all along.

An illuminating story from the canonical Gospel According to John (4:5-14) brings it all together for us.

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Ecospirituality and a New Humanity

For anything to emerge into existence and evolve over time, it needs to differentiate from the preconditions of its “womb” environment as well as from others around it. The magnificent proliferation and diversity of life on Earth has advanced not only by forming new connections and relationships, but also by this process of “differencing” or separating individuals out of the undifferentiated state of communion that precedes each new arrival.

Now, that’s a rather complicated idea, so we should take the necessary time to clarify what it means. At the largest, cosmological, level we are saying that the universe itself, regarded as a vast interconnected system, was only possible by a 14-billion-year process of matter differentiating from energy, life from matter, mind from life, ego from mind, and the mystical “I am” from the personal ego.

Without separation, in other words, there would be no relationships – no connections, no symbian partnerships, no communities, no ecosystems, no universe.

In the human story, three major separations have driven our evolutionary progress as a species. Each separation introduced what I’ll call a creative polarity, which served as a kind of progression threshold for new possibilities and innovations. The differentiation of individuals out of a primordial communion and apart from each other makes possible new relationships, interactive complexity, and optional futures.

But it also leaves the situation open to risk – particularly in our human story – for alienation, antagonism, conflict, catastrophic wars, and final extinction.

For this destructive element to take hold and drive the process instead, a creative polarity must collapse into a pernicious division, where the energy that would otherwise have been used to advance evolution now breaks it down, as differentiation descends into chaos. As I will show – but, of course, this is not news – the pernicious divisions in human evolution have brought us to the very brink of a massive catastrophe.

There may still be time for us to avert disaster, if we can only learn (or learn again) how to see ourselves in the bigger picture and start (or start again) by living with the long view in mind.

In this post we will review the major separations that have facilitated our higher human evolution over many millenniums, picking up this question each time: What, if anything, can we still do as creative agents in the process?

“Human” and “Nature” – The Ecological Threshold

Our human story formally began with the invention of various types of technical power, also known by the general category of tools. When they stopped ducking in caves and started building their own shelter against the elements; when they discovered fire and brought it into their homes; when they learned how to raise barriers to keep themselves safe from predators, our human ancestors were taking control of the climate (if only inside their huts) and differentiating themselves from the “wild” nature around them.

By such means of technical power, human culture was created.

With the proliferation of new technologies, as well as with new layers of technology, we humans have separated ourselves from nature to the extent that many today live entirely inside artificial spaces of social life.

We travel from space to space enclosed in “self-moving” spaces (automobiles), walking on pavement, taking escalators or elevators in buildings to hallways that lead to more climate-controlled, carpeted, cushioned, technologically equipped spaces where we might sit for hours working on or staring into something that is about as far away from wild nature as you can get.

Once upon a time, we were reverent, considerate, and deeply respectful of nature in all her providence and horror. We worshipped her and her many aspects for thousands of years, which gradually fell off in frequency and enthusiasm the more involved with our artificial world we became. Mostly male deities – of weapons and war, of law and order, of industry and resources, of cosmic engineering – replaced her, as their specialties were increasingly more relevant to the concerns of our everyday life.

We dig, cut, and carve into nature for the raw materials we need to maintain and expand our artificial environment – along with our customary lifestyle – or are we prisoners? By-products, waste, and other toxic leftovers are dumped into the soil, atmosphere, rivers and oceans. As a consequence of our ideology and behavior, Earth’s global mean temperature is increasing, ice shelves are melting, oceans are warming and rising, weather events are growing more extreme, the ground is becoming arid and sterile, and our planet is entering a new age of mass extinctions.

“Other” and “Self” – The Interpersonal Threshold

The differentiation of human cultural life from the natural environment set the stage for a specifically social polarity, as individual self-consciousness began to separate into its own centered existence. What’s called individuation is really just another name for differentiation, as it follows the unique pathway of our emergence as a self-conscious ego. As we separate into our center, others are coming into focus as different from us, presumably centered in their personal identities.

In this way, the human collective began to differentiate into persons, and their interactions became distinctly interpersonal: between ego-centered individuals playing their social roles on the social stages of everyday life.

The terms person and personal are taken from theater, referring to the mask (Latin persona) that an actor would “speak through” in portraying a character on stage. In using such a term we are acknowledging just how much of social life is caught up in and defined by role-plays, with each person pretending to be somebody with a name, title, position, and a very fictional (literally “made up”) identity.

The separation between persons, which is necessary and essential to their interactions as persons, is also a gap where many assumptions, misunderstandings, suspicions, and prejudices can metastacize. Instead of mutual love, a retributive reflex starts to take over, as we grow more certain that the other is taking (or about to take) advantage of us, has betrayed (or likely will betray) our trust, and needs to be punished (or repent and reform) before we are willing to trust them again.

The back-and-forth of this retributive reflex – first one and then the other feeling the need to get even, but without any mutually satisfying settlement finally being reached – has a long history in our species. It will likely be the cause of our mutually assured destruction on some future Last Day.

“Body” and “Soul” – The Psychosomatic Threshold

The individuated self prepared the way for one final differentiation, between an extroverted orientation of mind through our body and outward to the physical environment; and an introverted orientation to the ground of consciousness within and the stirrings of our soul. With its deep roots in the grounding mystery, our soul perceives by intuition the profound nature of existence – what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive” – and translates it into dance, song, art, metaphor and myth. And by its participation in the vast web of life, our body carries a sensual awareness of belonging to, communicating with, and sharing in the biosphere of Earth.

As a consequence of our deeper abruptions with nature and others, however, a feeling of exposure and loneliness generates anxiety in our body. This in turn brings on complications of restlessness, distraction or obsession, disorders, dysfunctions, and psychosomatic diseases of various sorts. Along with the fact that the body is mortal and eventually dies, this common condition may have inspired the departure narratives that became such a dominant feature of many religions.

By equating ego and soul, and then detaching this now-immortal personality from the body for deliverance to paradise, the pernicious division of body and soul compelled an even more aggressive dissociation from our physical life on Earth and all concerns for the wellbeing of our planet.

If we still have a chance, we can make work of repairing this pernicious division of body and soul, recovering a deep reverence and sacred responsibility for their creative polarity. In releasing the anxiety from our body, we will find our way again to inner peace, where we can relax into being and be fully present to our lives. No longer having to fight with others for what we believe is ours or what they owe us, this deep inner peace of soul will empower us to forgive our enemy and build genuine community, loving our neighbor as our (very) self.

And as we attune empathically to each other and to the larger community of life, our way of being on the earth will be devoted to the principles of stewardship, sustainability, inclusion, harmony, and universal wellbeing.

Let us hasten the day.

Dangerous Passage

There is a dangerous passage in human development, where the individual must traverse a kind of psychic wilderness on his or her way to becoming an adult. Not all of us make the journey successfully. For any number of reasons, the challenge of separating ourselves from Mother (and all she represents archetypally) proves too much, and we end up caught in a sucking whirlpool of insecurity.

Even now as grown-ups we continue to cling to our blankets and pacifiers, although by now these go by other, more sophisticated, names.

Our journey out of childhood requires more than the passage of time, however. Along the way we will have to learn how to rely increasingly on ourselves for comfort, assurance, and recovery from distress. The infantile state of emotional attachment to Mother – and all her surrogates, substitutes, and symbols – is where we find security in those early years. With the gradual formation of an executive center of identity, subjectivity, and self-control (ego), our personality achieves integrity and we are able psychologically to stand on our own.

In the symbolism of world mythologies, Mother represents not only the maternal caregiver who may have given birth to us, but the material ground of existence as well, connoted by the prefix “mat” (also in matter), meaning “mother” or “source.” By extension She also included the body, mother Earth, and the whole provident universe (Big Mama). “Nature” has its roots, as well, in Mother’s power of giving birth (from nāt) to all living things.

Even in early cultures where Mother in all Her forms and manifestations was worshipped, it was recognized that every human being as Her child needed at some point to separate and become an adult.

Among the higher civilizations, this progress of development into an ever more individuated and ego-centered mode of consciousness was registered in myth by the featured character of a hero whose journey involves (1) leaving the security of home, (2) entering an often perilous gauntlet of trials and dangers; securing some victory, award, or lucky find; and then (3) returning home to the community with the prize of his or her efforts. The general purpose of this vision quest was to come back as an adult – not just older but more mature, ready to take up his or her rational commitment to society.

My diagram illustrates the Hero’s Journey from emotional attachment to rational commitment, from home to society, from existential security to ethical agency, from Mother to Father. As the critical bridge and crossover figure in this mythic narrative, the hero needs to find his or her center (integrity) and begin to include others in an enlarged self-understanding. (See my meditation on the meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” in Empathy and Human Salvation.)

Unless this happens – and it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that it will happen – the perilous passage to adulthood cannot succeed.

What often happens instead is that we fall into that sucking whirlpool of insecurity, which, as I suggest in the post referenced above, has been in competition with empathy over the millenniums for the final destiny of our species. As life gradually removes us from the archetypal object of our emotional attachment (i.e., Mother), our insecurity over that loss can pitch us into a spinning vortex of neurotic attachment, where we grab hold of whatever we expect to calm us down and make us happy – which nothing can, or nothing outside ourselves.

In the West especially, individual development beyond emotional attachment has been particularly perilous. Our neurotic insecurity has estranged us from Mother in all Her forms and manifestations: from our bodies, nature, planet Earth, and the universe. We even twisted our religions away from their age-old aspirations of healing, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing, to a very anxious fixation on subjecting nature, escaping the body, and leaving this world for an imagined paradise some place else.

It’s no wonder that so much of our life is not deeply savored but hastily consumed, not honored but ignored, not appreciated for its sacred worth but used up and cast aside on our way to what’s next.

When our journey has gone well for the most part and we are committed to the Four Disciplines of being present (security), staying centered (integrity), making room for others (empathy), and getting focused in creative purpose (agency), consciousness aligns vertically and resolves into a highly coherent state.

We now have access, by a mystical and inward path, to a deeper oneness, into the contemplative depths of soul and its release of faith to the grounding mystery of Being. Having become somebody, secure (enough) and centered in who we are, the prospect of letting go and dropping into communion is not terrifying – as it would be if we were anxiously attached; in fact, it wouldn’t even be possible – but profoundly liberating.

Worries and concerns, ambitions and beliefs, along with all the identity contracts that define us “up here,” are surrendered for a deep inner peace.

And the deeper we drop into communion, this same vertical axis of super-coherent consciousness (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”) opens out at the top, so to speak, by an ethical, outward path to higher wholeness, into the transpersonal realm of spirit and wisdom and genuine community. Having become somebody, we are finally capable of getting over ourselves.

As I explore in Empathy and Human Salvation, descending to deeper centers within awakens us to larger horizons of empathy and inclusion. Conceivably our ethical agency (i.e., loving our neighbor as our self) might inspire us to live with the whole universe in mind.

Our journey in life from the emotional attachment of childhood, through the dangerous passage of ego formation, and eventually into the rational commitment of adulthood is not an “elective” in the curriculum of human development. We don’t have a choice over whether or not to embark on this journey, but our choices all along the way will determine whether or not the journey reaches fulfillment – in the liberated life.

Making Community Work

Most of my blog posts on the topic of community make a case for seeing it as a social organism, as something that emerges, grows, flourishes, and dies, just like other living things. I typically focus my reflections on how not to interfere with or undermine its organic process, suggesting that we see ourselves more as gardeners than engineers – optimizing the conditions for its spontaneous formation, rather than bending and bolting its frame together according to some prescribed assembly instructions.

I do come closer to an “engineering” model of community in proposing a method of dialogue that can help partners find common ground and work cooperatively for solutions that matter to (and include) everyone involved. The fact is, community doesn’t just happen – despite my reference above to its “spontaneous formation.” There are things we must do, both in preparation and all along the way, for the work of community to be truly successful.

So maybe that’s where we can pick up the thread again, in making an essential distinction between the “work of community” as (1) what can be accomplished by partners working together in community, and (2) the more organic-spiritual process by which community itself comes into being. In the four-part Dialogue series and this present post, I clarify the inner workings of community, focusing specifically on the disciplines to which partners must commit themselves in order for it to be effective.

My diagram identifies four critical disciplines that partners need to practice in their work together. “Ego” (Latin for “I”) represents you or me as we engage with this process, while “other” is another person – a committee or team member, spouse or life partner, or anyone with whom we are in relationship.

My assumption is that the work before us is purposeful, perhaps something we have been given to accomplish, rather than merely “getting along.” We might be members of a task force of some kind, with the understanding that our work group will be disbanded once our assignment is completed. Or maybe our community is perennial and organized less formally, meaning that we will continue to exist even after we have concluded our work on a project.

In any case, what do you (or I) need to be committed to, in a disciplined way, to ensure as much as possible that our work together will be successful? I’ll name them the Four Disciplines for making community work.

Discipline One: “Be Present” (the Practice of Grounding)

It should be obvious that if we are not fully present to each other and to the work before us, we are not likely to make meaningful progress. As with everything else in life, 80% of success is just showing up – where “just” is not to suggest that this discipline is trivial and easy. It definitely isn’t.

Both external and internal forces frequently conspire to take us away from the here-and-now, which is the only touchpoint we have with reality. Other life concerns, environmental distractions, normal daydreaming, low energy, mental fogginess, disinterest in the work itself, doubts about our own abilities, echos and after-images of an earlier incident, or second thoughts about others at the table – these are only a sampling of forces that might pull our attention away from “here” and out of “now.”

A proven practice for helping us be present (or come back again) is using our breath as a tether back to our body. Whereas our mind is busy traveling though time and space, our body is always right where we are. By turning attention to our breath – feeling the air pass through our nostrils, feeling our abdomen expand and relax, gathering our intention with the in-breath and releasing distractions with the out-breath – we can ground ourselves again in mindful awareness.

Discipline Two: “Stay Centered” (the Practice of Integrity)

Most relationship problems are complications of the fact that one or both partners are not properly centered in themselves. A “centered” personality is neurotically stable, emotionally balanced, self-managed, and capable of responding thoughtfully to others. When we are not centered – perhaps due to situational stress, physical exhaustion, or to the chronic consequences of early life trauma – it is difficult to connect meaningfully with others or be productive in our work.

This practice of integrity includes more than staying true to our moral values, however. As a principle of psychology and personality theory, it refers to the “virtue” of ego strength, of being in possession of a self-conscious center of awareness, intention, agency, and control. Practicing the discipline of staying centered can be as simple as reminding ourselves that no one is here to do the work for us, and that we “have what it takes” to meet the situation at hand or find the assistance and resources we need.

Discipline Three: “Make Room” (the Practice of Accommodation)

Perhaps the greatest challenge of community, as well as the greatest threat to its potential, is the inability (or unwillingness) of partners to make room for their differences – and this can range from differences in temperament, background, worldview, beliefs, moral values, race, class, gender, or age. Their inability (or unwillingness) to allow and “make room” for – literally to accommodate – what’s different in/about each other will inevitably sterilize the soil where community might otherwise take root.

In my experience, the most ineffective teams and failed communities had at least one partner who couldn’t (or was unwilling to) accept the differences that others brought to the table. They were convicted in their belief that absolute agreement on all the “important” factors was necessary for the work of community to proceed. As a consequence of their stated or unspoken exclusions, others did not feel accepted for who they were and what they brought to the table, and the promise of community was cut off.

Discipline Four: “Get Focused” (the Practice of Attunement)

When an orchestra assembles for a performance, one of the first things they do is calibrate their instruments to the same tone (worldwide this is the ‘A’ note: 440 hertz). This makes sure that every player is set on the same scale and their instruments will be in harmony. Obviously, the performance itself will not consist in the strings, horns, and woodwinds playing an ‘A’ note from start to finish. The purpose of their initial attunement is to ensure that when they do begin their performance, all the sounds are complementary and harmonious.

In the work of community it is essential for everyone at the table to focus themselves on the objective or purpose of their work. Not just at the beginning but all along the way, partners need to attune themselves to their reason for coming together. One of the services of a good leader is to invite members periodically to refresh their understanding of and commitment to the higher purpose in their work. Inspiring a shared vision, again and again, ensures that all partners are tuning their instruments to the same “tone” – to the same creative intention and ultimate goal.

The way to a healthy and productive community is no mystery, even though community itself is not something we can engineer or assemble. By practicing the Four Disciplines of Being Present, Staying Centered, Making Room, and Getting Focused, partners can nurture the conditions for its emergence. As they learn how to work together, their way of being together grows increasingly more unified and transformative – becoming a spiritual community.

Empathy and Human Salvation

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for the fracture of American society along the faultlines of race, wealth, politics, and religion. But we all know that those faultlines were already there before he brazenly sucked the soul out of the Republican party and exploited social media to seduce millions more into his “Make America Great Again” (aka “What’s in it for me?”) campaign.

Truth is, with the rise of insecurity around the planet, in our nation, and in our own neighborhoods and households, we had been primed for someone just like him to rise up and set us off.

I’ve come to see our human destiny as the contest between two forces, insecurity and empathy. Since our beginnings, and in every cultural corner of the world, these two forces have been steering us along a zig-zagging path through history: sending us into wars, or beckoning us into peace; driving our insatiable appetite for more, or finding contentment in what we have; causing us to contract and become smaller, or opening us up to larger and more inclusive identities.

The much-heralded ascent of individualism in the modern age, with its revolutionary values of freedom, autonomy, agency, and self-responsible authority, came at the expense of a lost sense of communion with and belonging to something larger than ourselves. The price paid was one of security. As our individuation advanced toward “enlightenment,” the shadow of insecurity lengthened behind us.

Gaining our separate self left us feeling exposed, isolated, and lonely – which only compelled an intensified self-obsession in our desperate search for happiness.

Insecurity motivates us to contract and withdraw inside smaller identities, where we hope to take control and manage the threats to our ever-shrinking world. We have convinced ourselves that only by pulling in our affections, putting up our defenses, and closing off more of reality will we stand a chance. And to the degree that insecurity has taken the upper hand, our capacity for empathy has been squeezed out of play.

It doesn’t even occur to us that letting down our guard and opening up to larger horizons might actually restore our lost sense of security. We emotionally reason to ourselves that including more of reality will just expose us to greater risk, taking us in the exact opposite direction we need to go.

But this is indeed the key teaching of our perennial wisdom traditions: The “way of salvation” – referring quite literally to the liberation, healing, wholeness, harmony, and wellbeing we long for as humans – is only found as we can find it in ourselves to love and care about others.

The well-known verse from the Jewish Torah (Leviticus 19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself,” has been interpreted in different ways. A narrower interpretation might be translated as, “Just as you love yourself, so you should also love others,” while the more generous reading counsels us to “Love as your very self the one who is nearby” – in your neighborhood, as it were.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what is meant by a “neighborhood,” where we and our neighbor presumably live. Does it refer primarily to a residential area containing houses or apartments in close proximity to each other? I will offer a more psychological and ‘existentialist’ definition: Our “neighborhood” is the horizon which we establish as circumference to the center we use in identifying ourselves. In other words, what we identify “as” determines the boundary containing all others who are like us in this specific way.

We naturally identify “with” those who resemble us and who share the same traits that are essential to our own self-identification (“as”).

I’ll go even farther to suggest that “naturally identifying with” a neighbor is a useful definition of what is meant by empathy. The degree in which we are grounded and properly centered in ourselves, intimately familiar with “what it’s like to be me,” to an exact corresponding degree we will resonate with the experience of others whom we recognize as essentially like us.

Our self-understanding, therefore, translates directly into a deep understanding of others, as a kind of spontaneous-intuitive knowing of what they are going through, what they long for, and how they feel.

Evolutionary theory considers all of existence – every atom, rock, cloud, plant, fish, bird, and human being – as manifestions of a single creative process, all together “turning as one”: our universe. The physical matter of our bodies is derived from stardust. We carry the same life-force that animates all living things on Earth. The consciousness that opens our minds to the complexity around us involves us also in a great community of sentient beings.

And the individual ego – that leading indicator of human evolution and lonely exile in search of a lost security – has given us each an ability to see and understand ourselves, in a paradoxically self-conscious way, somehow, somewhere in the immensity of all of this.

It should be clear by now just how we ended up where we are: removed from nature, divided from each other, and at odds with ourselves. In our desperate bid for security, we cut ourselves off from what we found threatening, until all that’s left is the smallest identity we can manage (but still we can’t).

We finally extricated ourselves from the 14-billion-year evolutionary process so that we can kill and die for some party, sect, or idol. When we identify ourselves “as” something so small, very few others, if any, remain for us to identify “with.”

Just before our species passes into extinction, the light of human empathy will go out for the last time.

But let’s hold on for some good news.

It has been proven, again and again, that as individuals are willing to drop into deeper centers of identity, their horizons expand in proportion. Their world enlarges and more “neighbors” are included, activating a correspondingly deep understanding – a love of, care for, and generosity toward those whose essential nature they share.

When our center is so deep and our horizon so large that nothing is exluded from the sense we have of ourselves and the neighbors we care about, humanity will find salvation – at last.

And, to wax biblical for a moment, on that day Earth will rejoice to have us back in the community of Life.

Moving On: A Primer on Post-Theism

As our species advances along the path of spiritual awakening, the inherited forms of religion need to change accordingly. A critical and widespread misunderstanding of this process claims that religion needs to be abandoned for our enlightenment to be realized. Religion itself is the problem, and we won’t be able to move forward until the shackles of blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are cast off and left behind.

I couldn’t agree more, except that blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions are not the essence of religion – and it’s this misunderstanding that has to be corrected before further progress can be made.

Religion itself (in essence) is a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life. It is itself this system of linkages between and among these components, not the particular components themselves.

When we move into the specific components, we are engaging with this or that religion, which is where we frequently find blind faith, superstition, and orthodox convictions that actually interfere with – or altogether undermine – the essential function of religion itself. At this essential level, spirituality and religion are not merely compatible but necessary to each other.

Any given religion (whether from among the familiar brand names or something more homegrown and personalized) must be evaluated on how well it facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life.

It happens that our current threshold of spiritual awakening and religious progress is challenging us to move beyond the general type of religion known as theism. The central feature of this type of religion is a god (or gods; from theos) who represents and personifies the supreme (or superior) power and authority in existence, often as the one who created, supports, and governs the cosmos, all of life, and most importantly the life and destiny of his (or her) people. In exchange for the god’s provident blessings, protection, and final salvation, devotees offer their worship, prayers, and obedience.

This idea of an exchange or transaction between the deity and devotees is basic to all forms of theism.

The important corollary to this centerpiece of a patron deity in theism, and serving as its counterpart in the all-important relationship of deity and devotee, is the ego. This is the individual’s sense of him- or herself as a separate person, belonging to the group and standing for the group, as well as possessing some distinct agency with respect to the group.

Ego, then, serves the two functions of centering the individual in a separate identity, and connecting him or her to other persons who are (presumably) centered in their identities. In authorizing the morality by which identity and relationship are managed, god – and let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about a religion’s personified representation of supreme power and authority – provides for the construction and maintenance of a stable society.

At some point – but really by a series of strategic revelations along the way – theistic religion helps the individual come to understand that god is not some “big guy in the sky,” that “he” is not literally a male, nor does god exist in the straightforward sense as a being up there, out there – or anywhere. (In healthy forms of theism, this doesn’t result in an existential crisis for the devotee, since he or she has never encountered god in such an objective-and-literal sense anyway. In fact, such a revelation is typically greeted with deep recognition – and some relief.)

By now the critical achievement of ego strength – with a personal identity that is securely centered and morally connected – has been fulfilled, and god is no longer needed. Spiritual awakening and development have been effectively facilitated by religion up to this point, and the individual is ready to move on to an entirely new mode of expression: the post-theistic, referring literally to religion “after (or on the other side of) god.”

Post-theism can really only “work” for and with individuals who are securely centered in themselves and empathically connected to others.

If instead, the ego is caught in a neurotic spiral of self-obsession or entangled in co-dependent relationships – and let’s admit it, this is where a lot of us are currently stuck – spirituality will not be able to advance. Some responsibility for this can be laid squarely on theistic religion, in my opinion, for not facilitating the spirituality of its members to, through, and beyond the god of orthodoxy.

But even outside of religion proper, healthy ego formation (a stable identity-in-relationship) is not well supported in today’s society.

As more of us are ready to take up the religion of post-theism – recalling my definition of religion as a system of stories, symbols, beliefs, and practices that facilitates the awakening, development, and expression of spirituality in everyday life – new dimensions of experience and understanding open up to us.

From our centered self, we can drop from the separate ego and into the existential ground of our being. This is the dimension of soul, which invites us to the contemplative experience of sacred solitude, inner peace, boundless presence, and deep communion. The descending path to this place-that-is-no-place, the now-and-here that is nowhere, is the mystical way of surrender and release. Here in the soul-space of our inner life we are reverently silent, for the mystery of being lies far below what thoughts and words can grasp.

And from our connections with others, we can leap beyond our mutual bonds and into the inclusive unity of all beings. This is the dimension of spirit, which invites us to the transpersonal experience of a hidden wholeness, universal harmony, higher purpose, and genuine community. The ascending path to this transcendent unity is the ethical way of love and service. Here in the “household of spirit” we are compassionately engaged with our neighbors (even our enemies), with all sentient beings, with Earth and the whole living universe.

At this point, religion has transformed from a conservative tradition and holy institution dedicated to the glory of god and the salvation of his people, to a unified vision and way of life that includes everyone and honors the divinity in all things.

Plato and the Collapse of the Republican Party

When political leaders are elected in a democracy, their constituents expect them to represent and promote their interests, safeguard their freedoms, and protect their rights. Quite frequently, as candidates, those seeking office tell their constituents what they want to hear, and, once elected, they might follow through on some of those promises.

If an elected leader should utterly disregard the will of the people who put him or her in office, we would regard that as a breakdown of democracy.

In American democracy, elected leaders also have a constitutional obligation to help steer the nation in the direction of what the Framers called a more perfect union – “one nation, indivisible” as recited in The Pledge of Allegiance. The Republic they envisioned is a place where people of different backgrounds, religious beliefs, and economic ambitions can live together in a kind of covenant fidelity to the principles of individual liberty and equal justice – for everyone.

Elected leaders, then, need to not only represent their constituents but also help align the nation with the transcendent ideal of genuine community. By organizing geographical populations into cities, counties, and states, it was believed that the will of the majority would have its voice heard at the highest levels of government.

And if it happened that this general will of the people was out of alignment with the principles of an ever more perfect union, the civic and moral duty of a leader would be to choose the Republic over his or her constituents.

That’s what we might hope would happen, but the Greek philosopher Plato had little confidence in the self-correcting conscience of democracy, and for two main reasons. First, the people themselves are notoriously temperamental and capricious, driven by the urgency of their appetites and passions. Their animal nature frequently undermines and corrupts clear thinking and the ability to discriminate between truth and illusion, between what is truly good and what only feels good.

Because of this, they are especially susceptible to being deceived – by their senses, by the broken logic and subjective certainty of their own beliefs, and by others who mislead them with seductive rhetoric, emotional reasoning, fake news and conspiracy theories.

It’s important to understand that Plato didn’t just regard “the people” in this way, but all people – any person and every human being has this part of them which is moved by compulsions that are neither rational, reasonable, or all that socially responsible. Even political leaders are included, of course, leading to Plato’s second reason for doubting the long-term viability of democracy.

An elected leader is someone who must be sufficiently wise in the virtues of community and the skills of diplomacy, but also wise to his or her own baser inclinations, including their secret or not-so-secret ambitions for popularity, power, and re-election. How can the rest of us know that an elected leader is in possession of such an honest self-awareness and the enlightened devotion to what it will take for all of us to reach the promised land? Listen to what they say and watch what they do, and perhaps their true character will become evident.

Because we are all pretty good at faking that, at least for a while, Plato wasn’t too sure. Even an all-wise philosopher-king will need to prove himself.

Plato’s doubts over democracy are just now (and once again) proving prophetic. Republican leaders across all three branches of government are pandering to their constituents, and quite willfully not only disregarding but acting in brazen opposition to the principles of democracy itself.

Lingering and resurgent white supremacist values in their voter base are compelling the interference of these politicians in civil rights legislation for people of color. Republican leaders are unwilling to condemn bizarre conspiracy theories as nonsense and call out those who spread them on social media.

Even after “the will of the people” erupted in a mob insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 – incited by Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss and his exhortation to “take back your country” – an overwhelming majority of Republican leaders gave it their quiet endorsement; in some cases even their outspoken support.

In just days from this writing, the US Senate will hear the House’s impeachment case against former president Trump. However, despite overwhelming video evidence (which all Americans saw on their televisions), numerous killed during or dying as a result of the attack, and even the fact that members of Congress were themselves its intended victims, Republican leadership is not likely to indict Trump and thereby controvert the will of their constituents.

They’re hoping for re-election in 2022 and maybe 2024, after all. Isn’t that what politics is all about?

Nevertheless, the Republican party is currently in the throes of collapsing under its own hypocrisy, division, and lack of leadership. A few may emerge on the other side, repentant and resolved to take up the cause of “one nation, indivisible” – but we’ll have to wait and see. If they do find their souls again and take their place as true leaders, their future re-election by the “will of the people” may well be at risk.

But isn’t that the challenge of leadership? After the election, you will at times have to choose between doing what the people want and doing what is best for them.

By their wisdom, courage, and devotion to a nation for all of us, such leaders can inspire the rest of us to live by the light of our higher nature as well.

In such fashion, a more perfect union slowly becomes our reality.

The Social Challenge of Jesus

In Insurrection and Epiphany I tried to explain what was truly revolutionary about Jesus of Nazareth, focusing on his message and revelation of “unconditional forgiveness.” That exact term wasn’t used by him, but the gospel stories about him and the stories he told (called parables) both imply and explicitly declare a new understanding – grounded in a truly transforming experience – of God’s forgiveness as already accomplished and universally granted to human beings, everywhere and without exception.

The conventional model in which forgiveness played an important part was, and still is, transactional in nature. According to its logic, the offender (or sinner) has to satisfy some basic conditions before the one who was offended, injured, exploited or betrayed has the prerogative to grant or withhold forgiveness. As encouragement to the would-be forgiver, as well as acknowledgment of a reasonable limit, the Judaism of Jesus’ day had counseled the pardon of such a repentant offender up to but not exceeding three repeated offenses. Beyond that, the offender’s sincerity is clearly in question and no more mercy should be expected.

Jesus was enough of a realist, and sufficiently in touch with his own human inclinations, to observe how this transactional model of forgiveness could never really resolve the key challenge of relationships.

This challenge is centered in the fact of persistent festering feelings in the heart of one who has been offended, injured, exploited or betrayed. Those manipulated conditions of repentance – acknowledging the sin, confessing one’s guilt, petitioning for mercy, and making amends – can be satisfied in their prescribed and proper sequence, with even “religious” scrupulosity, but still leave the offended one unpersuaded and internally unchanged.

In other words, for Jesus forgiveness had to be about more than a conciliatory transaction between the offender and offended, where the ritual of repentance is presumed to satisfy conditions that make it finally possible for the offended one to forgive. “Checking the boxes” of steps taken cannot really touch – and it certainly can’t resolve – the feelings of profound disappointment, justified anger, and vengeful desire in the heart of the one whose dignity, honor, and trust have been violated.

Sooner or later, the need to retaliate and exact retribution will take over – if only as a “therapeutic” vent for all that pent-up frustration. Thus will the wheel of suffering be turned 180°, as the offender-turned-offended one now feels that the balance has been tipped against him. If his enemy doesn’t follow all the steps to satisfy him – which, as Jesus understood, is impossible if emotional appeasement is what he’s really after – the newly offended one will seek his opportunity to put things back to rights.

This is what I call the “retributive reflex,” which in both Jesus’ day and our own is the impulse that divides us and predictably destroys community.

All of that is a necessary preamble for an appreciation of what Jesus taught about forgiveness and exemplified in his own life. In contrast to the familiar transactional model of relationships, he advocated for a transformational one, where the rupture of trust caused by the offender’s betrayal is acknowledged as fundamentally beyond the “repair” of following steps and satisfying the conditions of a formal pardon.

Jesus realized that genuine liberation from the retributive reflex and its perpetual wheel of suffering can come only as the offended one is willing to “let go” (the literally meaning of forgive) of the need for revenge and appeasement.

It’s important to note that such an unconditional forgiveness (granted without preconditions) does not necessarily excuse the offender from accountability for his or her actions. Reparations may still be required in order to make up for the damage, theft, or injury that was caused.

The difference – and it is indeed a transformational difference – is that the drive for vengeance and its corresponding demand for propitiation are inwardly resolved and preemptively released by the offended one.

Such a move allows for a form of justice that is truly restorative: treating partners as responsible co-operators, holding them accountable for their actions, resolving conflict and misunderstandings, working for compromise, and restoring both sides to equal partnership in the ongoing work of making their relationship and the community around them stronger.

When Jesus said, in effect, that humanity’s debt to God was forgiven, that God had released them from the work of having to appease and satisfy God’s wrath before they could enjoy the fullness of God’s love in perfect freedom, he was dropping a seed of spiritual transformation in the soil of our collective consciousness.

In his day, such a radical (literally “at the roots”) insight and teaching was not only incompatible with the dominant ideology and everyday assumptions of social life, it was revolutionary – as it still is in our own.

The institutional religion that eventually formed in his name failed, for the most part, to incorporate and procreate his insight into its identity and mission – even to the point of cancelling it completely in its doctrine of salvation. Jesus had to die on a cross (so goes the theory) in order that God’s wrath against a sinful humanity could be placated and we could be made acceptable by his vicarious punishment on our behalf.

In other words, forgiveness is conditional and transactional. The gospel or “good news” that Jesus announced to the world was effectively cut from its roots.

One wonders how Jesus would fit into a social, political, and economic system like ours. Would he endorse capitalism with its values of a free market and private property? Would he promote a form of socialism with its priority of protecting equal access to public goods for all citizens? Or would he advocate for a communist society instead, where the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Marx) governs the nation?

Would Jesus be a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent? Conservative, Liberal, Progressive or Nostalgic? Given that a favorite metaphor of his was the monarchical “kingdom of God,” would he even commend our democratic ideals and sensibilities?

I think we are asking the wrong questions. It’s not about where Jesus would fit in our existing systems, what kind of society he would be happiest in, or which way he would vote. The question we should be asking is, What would happen to the world as we know it, if his transformational insight of unconditional forgiveness were given a chance to grow? When it comes down to it, Jesus wasn’t so interested in social, political, or economic systems as much as he was in human relationships.

When human relationships change, so goes the world.

Other posts like this:

Insurrection and Epiphany

On January 6, 2021, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. They had been assembled at a staging area some blocks from the Capitol, called the Ellipse, to hear Republican party leaders and President Trump rehearse their grievances over the November 3 election results (Trump lost). Trump had persuaded them to believe that, in fact, the election had been “stolen” from him, and further that they should “fight” for their country.

After he exhorted their march on the Capitol to interfere with the congressional certification of Electoral College results, the crowd-turned-mob invaded the building, vandalized its sacred interiors, hunted for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and called for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence. They also inflicted violence on Capitol police that left one officer and four civilians dead.

Inside the lower chamber of the House of Representatives, the charismatic “shaman” of the conspiracy movement QAnon removed his bison-horned hat and offered a prayer, in Jesus’ name, for the success of their effort and Trump’s legitimate reign.

Others with him in the chamber bowed their heads and uplifted their hands in the Pentecostal posture of worship.

This date happened to be the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” also known as Epiphany, celebrated by many Christians as the day when Three Kings came to visit the Carpenters in Bethlehem and the baby Jesus was thereupon revealed (epiphany refers to an appearance or manifestation) to the Gentile world.

It’s not just curious but deeply concerning how often Jesus is invoked by some people to bless and grant victory to their campaigns of violence, and then to receive their worship and thanksgiving when the objective has been achieved.

After his retinue of police brutally pushed aside Black Lives Matter protestors in Lafayette Square with batons and flash-bang grenades on June 1, 2020, President Trump made his way past the steps of a Christian church, stood solemnly and held up a Bible – the same holy book upon which every congress person swears an oath of service to our Constitution.

Granted, the Bible and Jesus are not exactly equivalent – except in some popular forms of Christianity where the Bible is literally God-in-words and Jesus is the Word-in-flesh, and both are close enough to God to be essentially the same. Whereas the Bible is really a collection of writings produced over a period of nearly 1,200 years and reflecting very different (even contradictory) conceptions of God, there is deeper agreement among scholars about the historical figure of Jesus.

So, what do we know about him? And how does the profile of certain or near-certain facts about Jesus square with the beliefs held by many Americans, even Christians, and also by those QAnon seditionists who praised his name on the Day of Epiphany?

Well, we know that Jesus wasn’t white, obviously not Anglo-Saxon, and certainly not a Christian in the sense of belonging to a church and believing in himself as an article of orthodox doctrine. He wasn’t wealthy, not a capitalist, nor did he own a house or property. And although he appears to have started his ministry with a focus on restoring the spirit of his own Jewish people, Jesus wasn’t a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, or a xenophobe.

Also, contrary to some later christological definitions of Christian orthodoxy, Jesus wasn’t God in disguise, the endtime destroyer of sinners, the warrior-king of the Crusades, or the patron deity of our American prosperity gospel. These are later reconstructions that were used to ordain and justify actions, worldviews, and ways of life that take us in the exact opposite direction from where Jesus himself stood and intended to go.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the insurrectionists on Epiphany 2021 were devoted to such an amalgamated makeover of Jesus in their own image.

We can do more than separate Jesus from qualities, associations, and beliefs that he certainly didn’t hold, however. What then do we know?

We know that Jesus was a Jew of the peasant class, from a small city in Lower Galilee called Nazareth, born and raised in a household of seven siblings, the son of an artisan named Joseph and his wife, Mary. In early adulthood, he became an erstwhile disciple of a prophet named John, whose Riverside Baptist community attracted many who were seeking a fresh start and a new direction in life. John’s message was a threat of punishment against sinners, along with the promise of forgiveness for any who would repent (“turn back” to God) and clean up their act.

Jesus soon departed for his own ministry and began proclaiming an almost unbelievable message, one that turned John’s inside-out.

At his first synagogue sermon and in subsequent teachings, Jesus declared that God’s forgiveness was already a done deal – given preemptively and universally, to everyone. John’s turn-around of repentance was now reconceived as a turn of astonished joy and gratitude for this truly unconditional (and undeserved because no “confession of sin” was required beforehand) act of forgiveness.

This resolution of love for one’s enemy, releasing vengeance – to forgive means “to let go” – and returning the transforming power of kindness to another’s hurtful intention, is the center of Jesus’ gospel and what he was all about. He expected that anyone who really accepts God’s unconditional forgiveness will become in turn a liberative force in their personal relationships and in society as a whole. He saw the human future through a completely new lens.

Other people through the centuries since – not murderous mobs, white supremacists, or dogmatic bigots – have gotten the message and committed themselves to living in the “way of Jesus.”

They aren’t perfect, and never have been or claimed to be. And if Jesus expected perfection from his disciples and friends, it was to be perfect (i.e., absolute and uncompromising) in their love for each other and for their enemies – “as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; but also see the parallel passage of Luke 6:36 where the word is “merciful”).

With that historically grounded and revolutionary picture of Jesus before us, we can now take up the question of whether Jesus was behind and on the side of those who spun false narratives leading up to January 6 and used deadly violence against their enemies. Of course, our answer will apply also to those who even today continue with the same campaign, in Jesus’ name.

Whomever may have received the worship of those with bowed heads and raised hands in the House chamber that day, we can be sure it wasn’t Jesus.