From time to time I hear from some people that they were brought up in terror of God and to expect punishment from him for the smallest transgression. Along the same lines they fearfully respected their priests and ministers, who in return were keeping that ‘divine’ fear alive. The massive social changes of the 1960s and 70s rendered this kind of approach ineffective and, for many, repellent. Churches have emptied, congregations have shrunk, and Christian moral values have minimal impact on society. Remnants of that ‘glorious past’ are busy complaining about current immorality, and daydreaming of a return to the past.

Today’s gospel seems to support such a fearful approach. We see John the Baptist fiercely rebuking those coming to him, calling them to repentance in a rather impolite way: ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming?’ Applying similar tactics today would simply put most people off, turning their backs and leaving. In order to justify losing people in this way, some would quote another sentence from today’s gospel: ‘God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.’ The problem with the Bible, or rather, with its handlers, is that it can be used to justify virtually any claim, even the most non-evangelical. Sadly it’s the same story with the Quran and with other sacred books, as recently displayed in the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists in Burma.

If we look at today’s readings a bit more diligently, we can find that their message is about peace, reconciliation and happiness, and not about fear and punishment. The prophet Isaiah firstly presents God as a just judge, full of wisdom and insight, wrapped in integrity and faithfulness; then follows a vision of animal predators and their natural victims living in peace together side by side. Read literally, this vision doesn’t make much sense; I suppose nobody can believe that one day venomous snakes or fearsome lions will lose their killer instinct. As in many fables over the millennia, animals in this vision depict our attitudes; these are the ‘animals’ living in each one of us. The life of the late Nelson Mandela shows this biblical vision to be possible, as the once awfully divided and separated parties, fiercely and mercilessly fighting each other, now live quite peacefully together as one nation sharing the same country.

It’s all about changing our own attitudes. It’s incredible to see how non-violent approaches have led to peaceful solutions, from Gandhi in India, the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, to Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. When John the Baptist mentions that ‘God can raise children for Abraham from these stones’, he’s not talking about pebbles lying on the bank of the Jordan, but about our own hearts of stone. God can turn them into flesh, making them sensitive and sympathetic, when we let him do so.