Archives For Cross

Does God abandon his People, Israel? That’s the question running through the entirety of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s also a question Marc Chagall, a Jew, struggled with in his art during the horrors of the 20th century.

For a recent sermon on Romans 8, I invited friend and art historian, Janet Laisch, to bring Paul’s wrestling to light by bringing Chagall’s artwork of the Crucified Christ to light.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Like the Psalmist using words to pray for God’s protection and forgiveness, Chagall one of the most famous modern artists and a Russian Jew used his art to pray to God for protection and forgiveness.

Like Paul in Romans 8, Chagall asks—through his art and poetry—if God has abandoned has abandoned the Jews.

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This is Chagall’s Vitebsk a pen and ink on paper show the Pale of Settlement or territory on the outskirts of Vitebsk, within the border of Tsarist Russia where Jews like Chagall were forced to live.

Chagall was born July 6, 1887 and created art until the night before his death in 1985.

On the right, Chagall is holding a paint palette and is out of proportion—too large—for the space. In real life, Chagall was too “large” for the Pale and eventually move to St. Petersburg to study art, then Paris, is exiled in USA and returns to France until his death.

The church dominates the horizon in this drawing and in real life even for Jews like Chagall, the church dominated his life. The church led anti-semitic pogroms where Christians raped and even murdered Jews that Chagall witnessed growing up in the Pale. The state condoned the church.

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This image, Rain, 1911, charcoal and oil, shows the compound where Chagall lived with his large family of eight surviving children; he was the oldest and his mother doted on him. Compared to Christians outside the Pale, their clapboard home was modest though compared to other Jews living on the compound, Chagall’s family lived well. His mother ran a grocery—foreground right—which supplemented his father’s job as factory worker. They rented out huts on the compound for extra income which enabled Chagall to attend school with Christians.

This led to an artistic awakening. After he first saw a classmate drawing, Chagall decided he wanted to become an artist. His mother accepted and his father gave-in to Chagall and they paid for art lessons and for him to move to St. Petersburg. He became so successful there that a benefactor paid for Chagall to move to Paris.

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After moving to Paris, Chagall painted I am My Village (1911) and is characteristic of his work. It has bright colors, expresses joy through whimsical symbols—two small figures in the center show one upright and one upside down– and folk references: Vitebsk town and a woman milking the cow. He ignores rules for realistic color and proportion in favor of whimsical designs. His friend Picasso complimented as one of the best modern artists other than Matisse and of course, Picasso himself.

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However, Chagall’s art and prayers become more sad between 1933-52 coinciding with German Aggression, WWII and the Holocaust. Like Psalm 44, Chagall paints lament poems and prayers. This photograph shows Chagall painting Solitude.

After Chagall returns from Israel, he focuses on Old Testament and other bible scenes. Chagall wrote about Israel, “I walked the very streets Jesus walked.” Thus, Chagall, a Jew, follows Christ’s footsteps.

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This image is Solitude, an oil on canvas from 1933. It marks the year Hitler becomes Chancellor. The painting like Romans 8 seems to ask God if he has abandoned the Jews. Vitebsk, in the background, is recognizable by the church steeples. In the foreground an Hasidic Jew, perhaps even Chagall, wears a prayer shawl or tallit and clutches the Torah. He looks very depressed. The fiddle beside him, if it were being played might console him. Beside it, a white cow, the original title of this work, and also a reference to Israel herself from the Old Testament. The depressing answer—Chagall feels- is given away by the angel in the night sky flying away. Chagall feels abandoned but continues to pray.

This Russian icon represents the work Chagall would have remembered and loved from sneaking into Christian churches. Chagall wrote, “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring him out in my young heart.” Crucifixion_of_Jesus,_Russian_icon_by_Dionisius,_1500

Between 1938-52, Chagall painted a series of crucifixion images. He is not the first Jewish artist to paint the crucifixion. In the late 1800s artists responded to Theologians who sought to remind Christians that Christ was a Jew. Chagall was the first Jewish modern artist though. And other followed. None painted as many. Some said he was obsessed painting more than 30 crucifixions in a span of 14 years.5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesus

White Crucifixion from 1938 is the first in the series. Chagall painted it in response to the Nights of the Broken Glass where Christians did almost nothing to stop Jews from being murdered. It is also Pope Francis’ favorite work of art.

Here Chagall juxtaposed Christ’s suffering with contemporary Jews’ suffering. Chagall painted a complex theology. In the center, Christ is the Christian Messiah—with a halo and the white light descending from the top of canvas represents divine light like a Russian icon.

Also, Jesus is a Jew.

He wears a tallit, the acronym INRI is written in Hebrew, “Jesus of Nazareth—King of Jews”

Above the cross, Old Testament prophets replace Christian angels and at the base of the cross the candles may reference Yom Kippur. Chagall repeatedly included symbols of Yom Kippur in the crucifixion images.

Circling Christ are the atrocities committed again Jews. A Nazi soldier is burning and desecrating a synagogue. Other recurring images: wandering Jew—who Chagall identifies with himself—refugees: woman clutching a baby, man clutching a Torah, a man with a sign “I am Jew, a boat of refugees, a burning town with a small cow, and Communists soldiers carrying the red flag march forward. We know that the communists were no better friend than the Nazis to the Jews.

 

Chagall paints these images as a prayer pleading for help from God and help from Christians.

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Another Crucifixion image, Persecution from 1941 coincides with Chagall fleeing France and escaping to America before the Nazi invasion. Chagall feels guilt that he is safe while is brothers and sisters are not.

Again, Chagall emphasizes that Christ is a Jew. He wears a tallit and the chicken at the base of the cross is a symbol of Yom Kippur.

After fleeing to USA, Chagall refers to himself as the wandering Jew, “The man in the air in my paintings…is me.. it used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I’m not fixed anyplace.” In Medieval Christian legend, the wandering Jew who was present at the crucifixion was doomed to wander the earth forever until he accepts Jesus as Messiah.

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This photograph captures an ancient Jewish folk custom that Chagall practiced. The chicken is whirled three times above their head and sins are symbolically transferred to the chicken so they are free of sin for the new year

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Another crucifixion from the war years is Descent from the Cross 1941. Here Chagall identified himself with crucified Christ. The INRI acronym is replace with Marc Ch. He is dealing with the guilt of being safe in USA while his brothers and sisters suffer. A man with a chicken head helps Chagall down—the chicken head symbolizes Yom Kippur that Chagall will be forgiven. An angel flies in from right and hands the artist a paint palette and brush—symbolizes a resurrection. Chagall wrote a poem about this and other paintings where he painted himself as a crucified Jesus.

 

The gift of painting is from God. Chagall’s prayers are answered. God does not abandon him.
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Yellow Crucifixion from 1942 is Chagall’s response to Nazis “Final Solution.” Newspapers disclose that Jews were being moved from ghettos to concentration camps for extermination. The yellow background symbolizes the yellow star of David—labeled Jude—which Jews were forced to wear. 
The yellow smoky background may symbolize the poisonous fumes of extermination—the Jews like sheep to slaughter.

The Divine Christ—halo—is a Jew. He wears the prayer bands on arm, phylactery on forehead and at the base of the cross the ladder is a symbol of Yom Kippur—as are the green torah scroll, the candle and horn.

Chagall juxtaposes suffering Jews with Christ’s suffering. On the left, the ship sinking, a drowning man and two struggling in the water may reference the tragedy SS. St. Louis—the refugee boat that after landing in Cuba only disembarked a few Jews—sending the majority back to Europe and back to the Nazis.

Next, the Holy Family on a donkey may reference their flight into Egypt and their escape from Herod who murdered Jewish babies.

A man with a sign “I am Jew” wanders while a village burns.

Chagall wants the viewer to equate the suffering Jews with Christ. They are from the same stock. They need our help—he prays and pleads.

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This image, The Crucified from 1944, depicts a horrific nightmarish street scene where three crucifixions line the streets and three more Jews die in the snow. The only living person is the fiddler on the roof. It coincides with the German occupation of Chagall’s boyhood home, Vitebsk. Chagall is very explicit. Contemporary Holocaust victims are suffering like Christ suffered. Like Christ they are innocent.

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Chagall painted Apocalypse (shown above) in 1945, the same year when pictures of concentration camp victims were published. Like the title implies Chagall saw the Holocaust as great battle between good and evil. He seems to pray that God must see Jews on the right side? Christ is naked. He is completely exposed and humiliated like the victims. He is no longer shown divine but Jewish. He wears phylactery—mini prayer book—on his forehead, his tallit is nailed to the cross. The Nazi soldier like a monster from the apocalypse has a tail. Chagall laments the loss of humanity—that nothing was done.

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This crucifixion image is much more hopeful. Exodus from 1952 captures the postwar return of the Jews to what is left of their homes. The flame on the bottom, left indicates that homes do not offer much. They are still in need of our help. Christ as a Messiah—with halo—lights the way. The crowd moving looks happy and hopeful. Some smile and talk. At the top right, a rooster—symbolizes forgiveness. The Jews must move forward with their lives. The woman in a wedding dress is Chagall’s beloved wife and Moses—Chagall’s birth name– at the bottom right may be the artist himselfreuniting with his fellow Jews.

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After the war, Chagall continues to explore religious Old Testament stories and crucifixions though the colors are brighter and more cheerful. In Romans 8, Paul referenced the sacrifice of Issac as an Old Testament event that prefigures the crucifixion. The subject is hopeful. God does not abandon us, the angel intercedes before Abraham sacrifices his son.

Chagall also designed many stained glass images for Cathedrals throughout Europe and America.

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Chagall’s stained glass offers a beautiful expression of God’s love. Chagall depicts the crucifixion on the top left. In the center, a couple embraces and is surrounded by flowers. Chagall in this image designs a crucifixion image as Christians understand it—God’s ultimate sign of love. Chagall here creates an answer to his prayers.

God never abandons his people.

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

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Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

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She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

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    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

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     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the earlier installments here.

Here are questions 27-28

I. The Father

27. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then what is evil?

There are two kinds of evil: evil suffered and evil done.

To evil suffered we give the name ‘creation.’

To evil done we give the name ‘no-thing.’

Evil suffered is what comes to a creature from outside it, the evil that happens to a thing for which it is not itself responsible.

Evil suffered is relative in that the suffering of one creature comes about by the flourishing of another; for example, when a lion eats a lamb the evil suffered by the lamb is real but it comes about by the lion simply fulfilling its lion-ness.

Evil done is particular to responsible beings, as in, wickedness.

Evil done is ‘nothing,’ meaning it’s an absence or privation within a person.

A wicked person does not possess within them something called wickedness. There’s no such thing as ‘wickedness’ in and of itself. Rather a wicked person is someone with an absence of good, a person who fails to be fully human.

If we were ‘free’ in terms of being independent from God, then evil suffered would present the only problem of evil, for God, having no control over our free actions, would not be able to prevent evil done.

However, since God is the cause of all things, both evil suffered and evil done present problems for believers in God.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”    

– Matthew 5.45

28. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, is God responsible for evil and suffering?

Responsible? Yes.

But guilty? No.

If God is the cause of all our actions, even our ‘free’ acts, then God is the cause behind both evil suffered and evil done in that God has created all things in the world and continually holds all things in existence.

In the case of evil suffered, God has created and continually holds in existence a world in which the flourishing and fulfillment of one creature leads to the suffering of another. A tumor flourishing as a tumor leads to the suffering of the person with cancer.

A lion fulfilling it’s lioness leads to the suffering of the lamb.

So God is responsible for much of the evil suffered in the world, but God is not ‘guilty’because there is not another kind of world God should have created. A world where God stops the lion from eating the lamb, for example, would be a world where God prevents the lion from fulfilling its lioness. In other words, a world of machines rather than a world of creatures.

In the case of evil done, God has created and continually holds in existence every person who commits evil. Even as those people commit evil, God holds them in existence. Their evil acts are never ‘free’ in the sense of being independent from God so in this sense God is responsible for evil done.

However, God is not ‘guilty’ of evil done for evil is not a thing which God has created. Evil is a privation, an absence, identifiable only in relation to the good God has made. Evil is a defect, the failure of people to flourish and fulfill their humanness.

Whereas there does not seem to be another world free of evil suffered that God should have created, it does seem possible that God could have created a world where humans do not fail to fulfill their humanity.

That God did not create such a world is a deep mystery to which we can only reply by way of the Cross.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12.21

Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.

The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

 

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Dear Tyler and Parker,

 

In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.

Sorry.

By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.

     ‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’ is still another choice.

 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

     Therefore, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.

They make you odd.

By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.

Tyler, Parker-

I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.

True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.

     By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.

You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts and your habits too) shaped by Christ.

How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself?

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Tyler, Parker-

I realize telling you you don’t have minds worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

When engaged couples tell me they’re going to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions.

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves.

Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction.

A lie.

     It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.

It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing your parents go against the grain of the culture.

     It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

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Tyler and Parker-

You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you.

After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?

Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.

When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

     Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out.

It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.

     For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

     As you’ll learn in confirmation Tyler and Parker, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts.

What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come.

Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Tyler and Parker-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.

Nothing could be further off the mark.

Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos- the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.

Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.

By Torah Paul means Scripture.

By Scripture Paul means Revelation.

And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.

     Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.

     All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

     Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’ 

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     Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:

The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

     And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

     It’s about following after Jesus.

     It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

     Immerse.

     Tyler, Parker-

     What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:

     That the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor.

     The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

     If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been.

 

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’

Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

 

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross.

But the way of the Cross is the path we commit you to today.

 

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

 

On the other hand, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

 

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

Sincerely,

Jason

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images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

- One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

- Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

hobby_lobbyWhile corporations are now considered people- religious people- under the law (I hope all corporations start tithing now), prisoners on death row continue to be deemed less than creatures under the law.

They can be killed.

To teach us that killing is wrong (let’s hope they were guilty).

For profit entities that bring you cheap wicker baskets made possible by child labor (not to mention population-control policies which incentivize abortion) are now more of a ‘person’ than the flesh-and-blood people behind bars, the former eliciting more of our empathy and moral outrage than the latter.

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison a morally afflicted CEO and you came to visit me.”

You wouldn’t know- at all- from the media coverage, but while SCOTUS handed down the Hobby Lobby decision activists, Christians and clergy gathered this week on the front steps of the Court to protest the death penalty.

Chances are you’ve heard plenty about the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby and how they’ve been praised for taking a principled stand for Christ.

RNS-CLAIBORNE-COLUMNChances are you haven’t heard anything about this Christian quietly walking across Texas to show his solidarity with those his state plans to kill in the coming months and years.

That you might have only heard about the protest here speaks volumes about the holes in our Christ-centered compassion.

Christian culture is sex-obsessed, singling out a few discrete issues around which to hoist the banner of ‘life.’

Protestants would do well to learn from our Catholic friends who insist that disparate issues like abortion, poverty , healthcare and executions all belong to a single ‘seamless garment’ of life.

My own United Methodist tradition nears schism fighting over our official language labeling homosexuality as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Little commented upon is the fact that our Discipline also views the death penalty as black-and-white at odds with the Gospel, for the death penalty

“denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.” 

Translation:

In the death penalty we stop God from doing what God wants to do in people.

Change them.

That half of all United Methodists and many of its clergy support state-sanctioned killing in violation of our Discipline receives not one iota of the indignant moral outrage these days reserved for clergy presiding at same-sex unions.

Pastors aren’t brought up on charges for supporting the death penalty in the face of church teaching.

Sex is just sexier.

Plus, it requires less of us where Jesus’ requisites are concerned: that we love sinners.

Or at least begrudgingly admit that Jesus loves them.

On the front steps of the Court today you’ll find people who hold many moral and legal reasons they oppose the death penalty:

There is no way to remedy mistakes. 

There is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. 

Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary 

The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

The death penalty is an expression/confession of the absolute power of the State. 

Even the guilty have a right to life. 

CrucifixionThe reasons are many but for Christians there’s a single primary motivating view.

It’s a view, I would argue, that cuts closer to the quick of the Gospel than do the drivers behind the other competing issues which preoccupy Church and Culture:

The New Testament teaching that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.

It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness.

God says in the Old Testament that vengeance belongs to him.

Only in the New Testament do we see how literal God meant it.

For in Jesus Christ God bears the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross.

Here’s my sermon interview with a friend and death penalty attorney, in case you missed it:

 

16 CARAVAGGIO 02 THE SERMPON OF STEPHEN

 * The Stoning of Stephen

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* The Beheading of St. Paul

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* The (Upside Down) Crucifixion of Peter

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The Woman Jesus Refuses to Condemn to a Legal Execution

(aka: The Woman Caught in Adultery )

St Andrew Apostle

* The Whipping and Crucifixion (on an X-Shaped Cross) of Andrew

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* The Stoning (and Clubbing) of James, Jesus’ Brother

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* The Execution (by Arrows) of Jude

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* The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

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* The Hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

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God’s Mercy for Cain by God (Following the First Murder)

 

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* The Execution of Jesus (aka: God Incarnate)

* = Lawful executions of innocents carried out by the official governing bodies of the time

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s my sermon for Memorial Day weekend. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I highly recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in there sermon.

You can listen to the sermon here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

     It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

     But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill. For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not- that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died- making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen- to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again- when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

Jesus-the-Prisoner‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

I first heard those words from Brother Alois, the prior of the Taize monastic community, last May during a pilgrimage to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

His words hit me with converting clarity.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

imagesI thought about those words again last week at Pub Theology as I listened to a friend and lawyer in my church, Brian Stolarz, reflect on his experience of working for nearly a decade to get an innocent off death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

At one point in his story, Brian shared a memory of meeting with Brown on death row and afterwards coming upon:

“a church group passing out bibles. They were also passing out fish platters for the prison staff because they were “doing God’s work,” according to a banner draped over a table.

I didn’t want to debate the fact that God would probably not be cool with an innocent man being executed, or probably executions at all, and they should check themselves a bit. I just took the bible and said thank you. I grabbed one and remember reading some Psalms and some of the New Testament on the plane ride home.” 

- One Big Setup, 222

Brian went on to mention the dubious reaction from the Christians when he suggested to them that maybe he too was doing God’s work by advocating for the condemned.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that those same Christians believed their ‘Christian duty’ was to prepare the prisoners (vis a vis the sinner’s prayer) for eternity, not accompanying them in the present.

Here’s what hit me about what Brian shared:

The ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Alfred Dewayne Brown, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when as I listened to Brian the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ has made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about those innocents wrongly condemned to die at the hands of the State- just like, it’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, Jesus?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.

We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brian’s words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Put differently, there’s something profoundly wrong about any ‘theory’ of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross that doesn’t lead straightaway to Christian solidarity with modern-day prisoners.

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By making the cross theologically ‘necessary’ for atonement, penal substitution obscures the real, messy, historical fact that Jesus’ indictment, sentencing and death were all unjust.

When we abstract Jesus’ execution out of its historical context, it becomes too easy for us to stop identifying with those in Jesus’ place in our own contemporary context.

That 100% of Christians in America worship a God who was executed by the State but the majority of Christians in America support execution suggests that we’ve so theologized the story that we’ve lost the plot.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Houston. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

Listening to Brian, I realized again that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies

A) because of us and

B) as one of us.

With us. In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears, even if it’s from behind bars. That’s what I realized again listening to Brian.

The cross is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.