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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Gatekeeper | Fourth Sunday in Easter

People's sense of ownership over shared experiences can be quite frustrating to deal with.

There's a rule in my son's youth group that you shouldn't "yuck anyone's yums." In other words, if someone says they like Nickleback, you aren't supposed to mock them. It's a good rule, and one that would be nice to have more widely accepted. It's one thing to express your displeasure with something. I, for example, despise the texture of coconut in candy, and loathe the artificial coconut flavor. It's an automatic reaction I have to either, and in a friendly conversation where it comes up, I  mentioned it. However, if someone were to say that they love coconut, I wouldn't disparage them for it. They can have my portion!

There is another level of this attitude that is even more viscous, that of gatekeeping. Here's a quick explanation of the term:
The term ‘gatekeeping’, for those unfamiliar, refers to selective entry into a space, enforced by the occupiers of that space. Gatekeeping is women being interrogated on obscure comic book knowledge for daring to express an interest in comics, or black cosplayers being told they can only cosplay black characters. It can be as blatant as a black woman in a games store being condescendingly spoken to by a group of all-white all-male TTRPG players, or as subtle – relatively speaking – as the exclusion of black and brown bodies in a fantasy genre for the sake of "historical accuracy." Whatever the shape or form of the gatekeeping, the message behind it is "This is what a TTRPG player looks like. You don't belong here." — Nick Masyk, Decolonizing the Dungeon: Gatekeeping, May 2019
Gatekeeping exists in pretty much every area of shared human experience. As I've noted elsewhere, it even exists among advocates of business and engineering management models. Perhaps the area where it is most universally obvious is in religion. According to Wahhabist Islam, most of us are infidels, just as if you listen to Independent Fundamental Baptist preachers you'll be equally assured that most of us are going to hell. Beyond such altogether too common forms of religion we find barriers between groups. To some extent this makes sense, because a specific religion can't exist without distinctive language, rituals, and beliefs. Superficially Presbyterianism and Methodism look practically the same to a lay person, but within each of those denominations exists a unique continuity of history, liturgy, and doctrine.

Some Christian denominations seem to do nothing better than split up. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives the impression of being a single monolith, the truth is that since their founding prophet's death in 1844 the tradition has experience hundreds of schisms, with splinter groups about as numerous through time and diverse as that of US Protestantism. One schism leads to another, since people cantankerous enough to leave a majority group usually have more than their share of alpha males wanting to run the show. They want control, so they magnify differences and draw lines. 
"'Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.' Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."John 10:1-10 NRSV
The Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke because it was written later than they were, and reads more like a theological treatise in narrative format (because that's what it is). The author had a very high christology, placing Jesus right up there as God. I've always found it a bit disingenuous of scholars to claim the Bible does not teach about the Trinity, just because that specific word isn't mentioned. With the 27 canonical books of the New Testament as a reference, there can in my opinion be no other conclusion than that it teaches some form of triune divinity. I write that comfortably as a Unitarian Universalist, as I question how later writings and forgeries can be accepted as standard works of a religion that claims to be anchored to history.

The passage above is rather odd if you give it much thought. The actors in the story are the gatekeeper, the gate, the Shepherd, and the sheep. Which one is Jesus? A careful reading leaves me concluding that the writer meant Jesus to be gatekeeper, gate, and shepherd, which makes the metaphor break down completely for me. However, the shepherd terminology hearkens back to the words of Hebrew prophets.
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord." Jeremiah 23:1-5  
"For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God."Ezekiel 34:11-15 
Like many others, I've noticed that Jesus is sort of a Rorschach test. How someone describes Jesus can be a window into their soul. The right wing in the United States consider Jesus as American as baseball, mom, and apple pie. Progressives read the Gospels and find a Jesus who loves everyone and overturns traditional religion and inherited taboos. Both are exclusive in the hands of their adherents, with the progressives condemning the immigrant-fearing ways of conservative Christians, and conservatives questioning the salvation of anyone who doesn't hold to their purity regulations. Granted, I favor the ethics and morality of the progressives, but that doesn't change the fact that they have like Christians of all stripes have varying concepts of Jesus.

To some extent, all have Jesus as the gatekeeper. He defines through teaching and example who is 'in' and who is 'out.' The trouble is that no one agrees on what exactly his teachings and example meant. There must come a point at which we stop looking to someone who was probably an apocalyptic prophet situated in a very difficult period, and who has been mythologized, interpreted, and reinterpreted countless times through history, when we should be looking at one another. The Jesus idol in all his forms cannot be the standard for what is acceptable, since people will always use him to confirm what they already want to think.

Now, we don't have to throw the baby Jesus out with the holy water. The Gospel narrative can give a certain rhythm to the church year, for traditions that use a lectionary format. Engaging with texts describing the legends of Jesus can stimulate us to think carefully about what loving one another means. What I'm suggesting isn't anything new. In fact, it goes back into the history of Unitarianism, when people began to think more about the religion of Jesus, than the religion about Jesus. We can renounce gatekeeping, thinking that we can tell people living in peach how they can live their lives, and we can still be on watch for the thieves and bandits who through fear and hate would cause harm to others. None of us should think we have a claim on controlling the destiny of any life other than our own.