I grew up reciting the Apostle’s Creed in church. We read it aloud so often that I memorized it without conscious effort, but by my early teen years I began to doubt many of its assertions. Now that I’m in my sixties, the only parts of this ancient text which I can still affirm are as follows:
I believe . . . Jesus . . . was . . . born of . . . Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, [and died].
What remains is not exactly a stirring declaration, but that is not my fault. The statement is so underwhelming for the simple reason that the original authors of the Creed left out all that is meaningful—at least to me—about Jesus. The comma between the words “Mary” and “suffered” is the only thing those bishops of the early church saw fit to say about Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry which he offered in love to all mankind.
In order to build on a strong foundation, I will further shorten the now tattered creed to what I think is most basic: “I believe . . . Jesus.” Of course, this now raises the question of what I believe from all that Jesus is supposed to have said. A number of the many verbal declarations attributed to Jesus in the four New Testament gospels really resonate with me. When I read or hear one of them, some part of my mind or heart tells me there is deep meaning here, even if I don’t fully grasp it. Here are a few of those sayings:
• When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also
• Go the second mile; give the shirt off your back
• Give to everyone who begs from you; give without expecting anything in return
• Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
• Let him who is without sin cast the first stone
• Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me
• The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath
• Those not against us are for us
• Love your neighbor as yourself
• Love your enemies and bless them that persecute you
Allow me to take just one of these and expand on it a bit. I believe that “turn the other cheek” is near the heart of Jesus’ message to his followers. However, placed in its first century Judean context, it clearly does not mean what most people today think it means. To be struck on one’s right cheek implies a backhanded slap from a superior, as, for example, a master striking a slave, a parent striking a child, or a Roman striking a Jew. To forestall further abuse, the victim was expected to make a gesture of submission and an apology; but instead of this, Jesus advises turning the other cheek, thus inviting another blow. Far from backing down, turning the other cheek is revealed as open defiance, or what we now call nonviolent direct action. The response Jesus recommends is what Rosa Parks did when she was ordered to move to the back of the bus; it is what the Freedom Riders did on longer—and bloodier—bus rides; it is what Mohandas Gandhi did again and again in South Africa and India. Though counterintuitive to a species accustomed to answering an attack with either flight or fight, Jesus’ third way has, over the years, proven to be emotionally satisfying and politically effective. It seizes the initiative from the attacker and holds the moral high ground by threatening no one with harm, while endangering only the one who turns the other cheek.
So my first attempt at a creed or statement of faith looks like this: I believe that Jesus was in touch with the sacred when he said to turn the other cheek. Of course, this is only the beginning. Many of Jesus’ admonitions deserve careful study and implementation in my life. If done properly, this development of a creed one statement at a time will turn into a lifelong endeavor, but already some features which distinguish it from the old Apostle’s Creed are glaringly evident:
• It does not consist of propositions of fact regarding what happened long ago or will happen in the future, but rather offers moral guidance for today. It’s not about what is, was, or will be, but instead concerns what should be.
• There is no mention of anything supernatural. It does not promise an eternal afterlife, but rather suggests ways to enhance this earthly life.
• Its purpose is not to identify the “saved” by specifying propositions to which they must intellectually assent. It is more about how I should behave than about what I should believe.
• It is not about what God has done or will do for me, but about how I can honor the sacred mystery we call God.
• It’s not finished and never will be. It is not an end in itself, but points the way on a never-ending journey.
Here is another feature of this evolving creed:
because the focus is on meaningful aphorisms, admonitions, parables, and other sayings, it is not required that they be attributed to Jesus. If a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, etc. were to affirm the gist of one or more of them, I would embrace that person as a fellow believer. After all, those not against us are for us. Moreover, it is certainly possible that important moral advice may come from someone other than Jesus of Nazareth. For example, in July of 1924 Gandhi wrote in Young India, “As the means, so the end. There is no wall of separation between means and end. Indeed the Creator has given us control (and that too very limited) over means, none over the end.” Thus, another part of my evolving creed runs as follows: I believe with Gandhi that even laudable ends cannot justify ignoble means.
One last comment I would like to make is that my gradually emerging creed is just that—mine. I have to decide for myself what to include and how to phrase it using terms which are meaningful to me. I would have difficulty unequivocally affirming someone else’s formulation and so I will try not to be overly offended when other people have problems with mine. As a result, I do not propose that any group of us agree on a creed for the whole group.