Guido Brunetti, Commissario of Police in Venice, Italy, does not believe in God and has a very low opinion of all religion. However, one evening, in pursuit of a case, he found himself in a small house church in Venice listening to Brother Leonardo. The record of Leonardo’s talk to the group, in Donna Leon’s fictional account, is fairly extensive. However one part in the talk particularly caught my attention; he said – ‘The simple fact is we can’t force people to be good; we can’t beat them with a stick, the way we can a donkey or a horse. Well, of course we can force them to do some things: we can get children to do their homework, or we can make people give us money and we can give that money to charity. But what happens when we put the stick away?’
What happens when the stick is put away indeed?
The use of ‘the stick’ or if you like ‘fear’ is far from uncommon in the religious tradition in which I was brought up. Some may flippantly refer to it as ‘hell fire and damnation’ preaching’ but they are not far off the mark. And the irreparable damage this has done to generations in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (which is my personal source of reference) is, I believe, incalculable.
A short time ago I sat with a couple of people who had been brought up in such a way. Neither were what would be called in our culture ‘professing Christians’ although both were respectful and sympathetic to the Christian faith in general. However, as I spoke of a God who was loving, caring and forgiving I could almost see the veil over their eyes. It simply did not compute for them – and again and again they returned to ‘the way we were brought up’.
I recall a crofter friend of mine who got in to an argument many years ago with a minister of this persuasion. He asked the minister if he thought it was easier to get a cow to go home by beating it with a stick or leading it with some tempting straw? The minister had no answer to that question!
Interestingly, I have never met a married couple who were attracted to each other initially because they feared one another. Granted there are cultures where marriages are forced – but the biblical picture of marriage is always one of love resulting in a union of covenant love, honour and respect.
All of this forces me to consider what really is at the heart of what we call ‘the gospel’ the ‘good news’ spoken about so often in the New Testament. Is it a big stick or is it something attractive, desirable and to be sought out.
I have no doubt that the real meaning of ‘The Gospel’ in the New Testament is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God had come to earth. We are about to celebrate that event. Furthermore the King and his Kingdom are founded on love. It must be for the essence of God is love. And if that is true, and it is one of the things about which I have no doubt, then I am forced to ask if many of my neighbours, friends, and fellow countryman and women have ever truly heard ‘the gospel’. Have they ever heard of a God who loves them with a passion so great words fail to express that love in an adequate way? And if they have never heard such a thing – what does that mean for their eternal future?
I know there is a debate to be had regarding the original meaning, use and understanding of the word ‘fear’ used in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament – but that is a subject for another day and does not, I believe, detract in any way from what I have written here.