A picture tells a story

uppsalaMy wife and I have recently returned from Sweden after a few days holiday. While in the country we spent a day in Uppsala, an old mediaeval city which boasts a fine cathedral. Next to this very impressive cathedral, the mother church of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, is another smaller church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. We both found this older simpler building more impressive than its larger neighbour. On some walls were 14th century wall paintings, many of them depicting angels. There was also one particular painting over the west door which I puzzled about. I was not able to establish whether this painting, one depicting the story of the Good Samaritan, was part of the original scheme or not. But whether 14th or 19th century in origin, the placing of this scene over the West Door tells us something about the attitudes of the church that commissioned it.

I should remind my readers of the way that many mediaeval churches in Britain possessing a complete cycle of paintings would normally have a picture of the Last Judgement placed over the West Door. This would be viewed every time the worshippers left the church. A typical representation of the scene would show the contrast between the saved and the damned. The former would be seen ascending to heaven assisted by angels while the latter would be seen to be going headlong into a place of fire and torment. The message to the departing worshippers from such a painting was clear. Some are destined for heaven while many, even the majority, are doomed, because of their sin, to everlasting torment. In short the worshipper was encouraged, every time he left church, to feel a frisson of fear.

I have said more than once before on this blog that any version of the Christian faith which engenders fear in its followers is failing to reflect much of what Jesus seems to have been trying to communicate. While we could focus on the story of Dives and Lazarus as indicating a belief in a terrifying come-uppance for the wealthy and those lacking in compassion, there is comparatively little else to show that Jesus spoke a great deal on the subject. We certainly have no evidence that Jesus, even when apparently talking about punishment, was ever trying to terrify his followers into behaving in a particular way. Far more typical of the message of Jesus is the invitation to follow him and serve others. This is well articulated in the fictional account of a Samaritan caring for a stranger. The only fear to be found in the story was that of the Scribe and Pharisee who passed by on the other side. The account in Matthew of a judgement scene when sheep are separated from goats is also about a failure of compassion, not doing what love required. The tasks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison are seen to be the priority for Jesus’ followers. ‘Entering the joy of the Lord’ is seen as the reward for this love and service of others. Such actions are more highly valued than simply avoiding sin. Following Jesus in this way was far more important than obeying numerous laws which mostly contained the word ‘not’ as part of their formulation.

The practice of Christianity which focusses on a keeping of rules and avoiding anything deemed to be impure is often described as legalistic. This legalism is what many conservative Christian groups seem to demand of their followers. The present unhealthy obsession with same-sex marriage as being contrary to the Gospel is an example of the way that rules are deemed to be more important than love and service. The practice of love and service will of course require honesty and integrity in our dealing with others but that does not require us to condemn a group who seek to find integrity in the context of a same sex relationship. Jesus called us into expressing our lives in a joyful abandonment to the generosity, forgiveness and care of God. It is hard to see how anyone can fulfil this law of love while permanently in a fearful state or a dread of being condemned to eternal punishment. The Christian who is responding to God’s love and forgiveness will need to spend little time worrying about rules and regulations. If he has truly tuned himself into the law of love as proclaimed by Jesus, then he will have little time for the controlling kind of faith as inculcated by Christians who thrive on and peddle a message of fear.

The painting of the Good Samaritan over the west door at Holy Trinity Uppsala had the words ‘go and do likewise’ below it. Whether 14th century or from modern times, this painting tunes in with a compassionate non-legalistic kind of faith that this blog articulates. A Christian, having completed a time of worship and praise, would then be going out into daily life. There was no sense in the painting of any threat of punishment. Rather the worshipper was being encouraged to go out and seek opportunities for generous love. The implication was that acting in this way would resonate with the compassionate reality of God that had been met with through the act of worship.

When I was active in parishes trying to teach people about the Christian faith, I would always be reluctant to use negative words to describe what is required of us as Christians. I did not, for example, start any teaching on behaviour with an exposition of the Ten Commandments, though they would, of course, have to be mentioned at some point. Negativity, forbidding things, is also what dominates one school of thought about the rearing of children. It is thought that the young mind can only learn good behaviour when it is taught within an atmosphere of control and fear. More humane methods centre around providing examples of good and generous behaviour. The summary of Christian ethics that I follow is simply ‘love as you are loved and forgive as you are forgiven’. These injunctions could be applied both to the bringing up of children and the formation of disciples within the Christian tradition. Although we know that evil exists and has to be confronted with robust energy, it is still important that the society or individual defending itself against violence uses the minimum force in return. Sometimes it would seem that Christians, motivated by the violent imagery of some parts of the Bible, have completely lost a sense of how to be gentle in their dealing with evil and power abuse. The rhetoric of the Christian Right appears to be far too familiar with the language of destroying and wiping out enemies whether these enemies are those of God or the particular nation to which the Christian happens to belong.

To return to the small mediaeval church in Uppsala. On a wall where we might have expected to see a violent representation of the fate of the damned, my wife and I saw a gentle reminder of the words of Jesus that we must serve the stranger in whatever way we can. Perhaps we can add to those words others spoken by Jesus to the apostles when they went fishing in Mark 6. ‘It is I, do not be afraid.’ Encouragement to serve, to have confidence in the goodness and compassion of God provides a far more healthy and acceptable message to share with people. This is far better than the implicit message given to so many that the Christian is defined only by his or her obsessive concern with the rights and wrongs of sexuality. It is hard to see that particular message being internalised by any Christian stepping through that particular west door of the church in Sweden.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “A picture tells a story

  1. How lovely. What a great thought to be “sent out” with.
    May I make a comment that anyone who is not CofE might not recognise “Dives” as the rich man?
    The problem with abuse, of course, is that “love as you are loved” can be interpreted locally. And these folk do not feel loved. Not by the church anyway. And the church seeks to represent God.

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