Essay: Existential Questions, part 4: Relief of Guilt
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Essay: Existential Questions, part 4: Relief of Guilt

Last week, I posed the question: How do we resist the temptation to transfer our sense of shame and guilt onto others? This is crucial if we are avoid the temptation to scapegoat, and it is impossible to have a world in which God’s will is done “on earth as in heaven” as long as people participate in the injustice of scapegoating.
A central part of Christianity’s response to the perennial problem of scapegoating is the teaching that all our sins are forgivable. Christian writings and tradition hold that, because God loves all God’s Creation, God is willing to forgive any transgression as long as the desire for forgiveness is genuine, i.e., the person genuinely aims to avoid sin in the future. Faith in the tenet that we are forgivable quells our desire to blame other people for our shortcomings, failures, and sins. Indeed, just as Jesus said that people can distinguish between true prophets and false prophets “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16), those with strong faith are disinclined to condemn, scapegoat, or otherwise victimize other individuals. As I see it, those with strong Christian faith can and should denounce hurtful actions and take steps to prevent further damage, but they do not want to see anyone hurt or punished.
Vengeance is often self-righteous scapegoating, because vengeance presumes that we have not contributed to the conditions that have led to discord or injury. When we model our behavior of God’s forgiving ways, we are letting go of the natural desire for vengeance in favor of a faith in God’s universal love. In this way, we become open to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Herein, I think, lies the solution to the paradox that responding honestly and fully to the question of our origins focuses our concern outward, while responding honestly and fully to the question of what happens when we die focuses our concern inward. We are to love ourselves, as creations of God, and we are to love everyone and everything else, since they are also creations of God.
To love our neighbor as ourselves is a Christian answer to the third existential question: What is the purpose of my life? To show what Jesus meant by loving our neighbor, Jesus gave the example of the Good Samaritan who acted with love, compassion, and concern. Who are our neighbors? Neighbors are those whose lives can be changed by our actions and include family, friends, community-members, strangers, and animals. If we exclude anyone, we undermine our response to one or both of the first two existential questions and, in doing so, allow existential anxiety to plague our souls. This is why great spiritual leaders have almost always embraced everyone, including animals, in their circle of compassion and concern. This is also why stories about these great spiritual leaders have described them as having inner peace, even though many of these spiritual leaders experienced rejection or were even killed. I think one reason people are attracted to spiritual leaders such as Jesus is that all of us crave the inner peace they manifested. Jesus, even as he suffered on the cross, said “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” Luke 23:46) and “it is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus evidently found equanimity in the face of the profound existential challenges of life. Yet, few Christians (and likewise followers of other spiritual leaders) have the faith to fully embrace Jesus’ teaching that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Instead, many Christians gravitate toward religious “authorities” who claim that we can have the salvation that Jesus offers without giving up the egocentric benefits of exploiting and scapegoating other individuals. These, I submit, are false teachers, about whom Jesus said, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

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