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What Can A Donkey Teach Us About Jesus?

5 October 2017: 7 Comments »

      By Eric Alexander   This series begins an exploration into the real Jesus. By which I mean, that character historically known as Yeshua of Nazareth. Which is in contrast of course to the other character more popularly known as Jesus Christ. I make a distinction there because I think Yeshua of Nazareth …

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Question & Answer

Evelyn from Wayzata, MN writes:


Do you have any reliable estimates of the number of Christians worldwide who do not subscribe to the viewpoint that "salvation comes only through Jesus Christ”?

I just wrote a letter to the editor (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) challenging such a statement, but then wondered how many of the >2 million Christians in the world (2011 Pew Research estimate) share a less conservative belief.

Thank you for your attention, and thank you for your witness in the world!




By Fred C. Plumer

Dear Evelyn,

You ask a very difficult question that I do not think anyone can answer accurately. There are a several things that get in the way, but let me try.

First, there is the general challenge of people not wanting to talk about their religious beliefs, regardless of what they are, unless they are evangelical and believe it is their mission to share the gospel from their own perspective.

Secondarily, there is the complicated issue of terminology. What do you mean by “salvation,” or being “saved?” If I was leading a difficult or maybe a self-destructive life, and I read a book about Jesus, maybe I would change my self-destructiveness. The book or books might be by a progressive author that made no promise of an afterlife, but focused on Jesus teachings about loving our neighbor, or about not being afraid to live life, or about sharing or maybe about learning there are no enemies, or…well, you get the idea. Maybe there was something about those teachings that gave me new insight and I changed my life. Have I been saved? I might think so. But most people who call themselves Christian would want something more.

Thirdly, how far do you take that question? For example, after forty years of serious study, I no longer hold the belief that Jesus died for my sins or that believing something like that can purify or “take away” my sins.  However, I view Jesus as a fully human being who lived in the history of his time and was one of several enlightened beings throughout the ages, who left us with some amazing life lessons. Does that make me a Christian? Does that make me a believer? I believe in what Jesus taught but not the 3rd century idea of personal salvation. For example, I am a follower of Jesus, but how would I show up in the PEW report?

That being said, your numbers are a little skewed. Christians remained the largest religious group in the world in 2015, making up nearly a third (31%) of Earth’s 7.3 billion people, according to a new Pew Research Center demographic analysis. (In the last two years, the Muslim faith has slight outdistanced Christianity). A large percentage of Christians, roughly a 1/3, live in the African and Asian countries. The African, and I suspect the Asian, slant on Christianity is often like nothing we have seen in modern USA. Most likely this is true for developing nations. However, Christians make up roughly 70% of the USA population. That is a drop from 80% a little over ten years ago. Now of course we have to ask, “What do they mean by calling themselves, Christians.” For example less than 45% of those claiming to be Christian attend church on a regular basis. Then, of course, we have to ask what church do you attend? What do they believe? And are you saved?

Now I can tell you that there are more people like me who no longer attend church. In fact church attendance has dropped so much that they are closing churches every week, all over the country. Right now less than twenty percent of the population go to church on a regular basis and researchers are telling us that only 7% of the millennials will be attending church in the future. That does not bode well for Christianity or any of the institutional religions in our country.

How many people are like me and the numerous authors we post on our website regularly? How many people are like the authors we pay to write for us weekly? There really is no way to tell, but our website attracts over 300,000 people a year, we have 11,000 people on our mailing list and our Progressing Spirit (previously called John Shelby Spong) weekly goes out to over 5,000 people every week. Bishop Spong wrote a book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, in 1998. I think that says it all.

Thank you for writing,

Fred C. Plumer, President



Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 1


"He who spares the rod, hates his son; but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Prov. 13:24)."

"Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with a rod, you will save his life from Sheol (Prov. 23:13,14)."

"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Prov. 22:15)."

"Spare the rod and spoil the child" is the typical way that these texts are usually quoted. This shorthand version has become a popular saying, referred to often enough to enable it to be passed on to the next generation as self-authenticating folk wisdom. Most people do not know either its source or its literal form. That is not surprising. These texts are located in a seldom-read part of the Old Testament called Proverbs, which is quite frankly a rather boring book and is generally ignored by most Ecclesiastical Lectionaries.

A few sayings from Proverbs are, however, still quoted by people, who usually have no idea of the source: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10);" "A soft answer turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1);" and calling a friend "closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24)." The great film, focused on the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, bore the title Inherit the Wind, which was a phrase, lifted from Proverbs (11:29).

When Paul wrote in the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (v.20), "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him drink, for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head," he was quoting Proverbs 25:21,22. The author of the Fourth Gospel, when composing his opening hymn to the divine logos or the "word," appears to be leaning on a text from the 8th chapter of Proverbs (v.22-31). So the book had its influence in Christian history.

Yet the words that affirm the rightness of corporal punishment are still the best-known part of this book. They seem to touch something deep in either the human psyche or the human experience. If one is the victim of corporal punishment, these words suggest 'deserving' and they seem to play into a self-negativity that rises from a definition of humanity that is deemed sinful or fallen. If one is a perpetrator of corporal punishment, these words seem to feed a human need to control, to exercise authority or even to demonstrate that forced submission is a virtue. If a child is assumed to have been born in sin, it is clearly the duty of parents or their surrogates to curb that tendency toward evil. It matters not that child psychologists and child development experts generally condemn this style of parenting. Since the responsibility to punish children for their misdeeds fits comfortably into a view of God who is also perceived as a parental figure ready to punish sinful adults, it becomes easy to justify. It is of interest that Christians from the very beginning have applied the image of the "Suffering Servant" from II Isaiah to the story of Jesus, so that it is said of him, "With his stripes we are healed," (Isa.53: 5) and that "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6.)" It sounds very much as if God has a heavenly woodshed reserved for the physical disciplining of God's "wayward children," or at least for Jesus, our surrogate.

Physical discipline has been supported through the centuries by a variety of pious claims, allowing it to wear the mask of intellectual credibility. Only in recent decades has Western consciousness been raised on this subject, and corporal punishment has begun its inevitable retreat into the past. Yet the glorification of physical discipline for children still lingers in those pockets of our culture that, not coincidentally I believe, are identified with conservative Christian churches. Parochial schools are notorious for their use of physical discipline. The nuns were quite clearly feared by the students. When that reality is augmented by the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests that now appears to have been present in almost epidemic abundance, the sickness present in the attitude of the Church toward children becomes very clear. Not to be outdone in this evil by the Roman Catholic tradition, we discover that corporal punishment is still defended today in Protestant fundamentalist circles in the United States by such people as Dr. James Dobson and his "Focus on the Family" organization. To press the connection one step further, Philip J. Greven, a Rutgers University professor, has written a book entitled, Spare the Child, in which he seeks to demonstrate that, almost to a person, the popular radio and television evangelists in American history have revealed approvingly in their preaching or in autobiographies that they were physically punished as children. Dr. Greven has suggested that this life experience is not just coincidentally related to their message, which portrays an angry God standing ready to punish sinful people through all eternity unless they repent. It is rather part and parcel of their thinking.

During the late 90's a task force on children in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, made a report to the Diocesan Convention. This report included the following resolution offered for adoption: "Resolved, that there are no circumstances in which corporal punishment is appropriate as a method of disciplining children." The news of this report and its resolution began to circulate through the pre-convention meetings designed to inform delegates of the issues coming before them. We then discovered that the secular press wanted to follow this debate quite enthusiastically. Covering the typical church convention is not normally on the agenda of most daily newspapers unless there is some hint of scandal.

When the resolution was placed before the assembly, the debate was quite revealing. It was for me, as the presiding officer, like watching over 600 people engaged in group therapy. We had people justifying publicly their own behavior as parents by praising their methods of discipline and the ways their own parents had disciplined them. "My father beat me regularly," said one gentleman well in his 70's, "and it made a man out of me." Another said, "My children have said to me that the discipline I meted out to them was the best thing I ever did for them." Still another used the old cliché, which attempts to turn violence into virtue by insisting "I did it for their own good and it always hurt me more than it hurt my children."

Other delegates to this convention, however, spoke with very different tones, as childhood memories emerged through adult voices, to speak of their sense of being violated and humiliated in ways that were so deep they had never spoken of it publicly before. They told of the psychic damage they had sustained, the rage they had felt and the residual anger they still felt. They shared openly feelings of being humiliated a second time when their parents would speak of this disciplining session to their friends and family in a casual manner, as they sought to gain approval for their form of parenting.

The debate was interesting in one other detail. This was a relatively well-educated, socially prominent assembly of approximately 150 clergy and 450 lay people. Yet, no consensus ever emerged and they were not willing to vote the resolution up or down. Finally, in a face-saving leap toward easing the assembly out of this dilemma, one priest offered an amendment. For the words "corporal punishment," he moved to substitute the words "injurious or humiliating treatments" so that the resolution then read: "Resolved, that there are no circumstances in which injurious or humiliating treatments are appropriate as a method for disciplining children." No one thought their use of corporal punishment was either "injurious or humiliating," and amendment passed almost unanimously, which in church gatherings means that it falls into the same category as resolutions opposing sin and extolling virtue or what politicians call, "God, motherhood and apple pie" resolutions. It committed, to use an improper but expressive double negative, "no one to nothing." Yet the emotions expressed, the anecdotal stories shared, the anguish and anger that were revealed painted an unforgettable portrait of inner conflict and provided insight into unresolved feelings. It also revealed a deep cultural ambiguity about who we are as human beings, what it is that we think we deserve from God, and why it is that we are taught that the physical punishment of children is somehow validated in a book we call the "Word of God."

Violence is a constant presence in our world. What begins with helpless children facing their parents expands to helpless students facing their teachers or principals, then stretches to include helpless adults facing authority figures. Finally it confronts us with the picture of helpless sinners facing an angry God.

The journey into this text will continue next week.

~ John Shelby Spong

Originally published June 16, 2004



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