Faith & Politics

donkeyelephantcrossChurches everywhere need help with faith and politics these days.  On the one hand, partisan perspectives seep into our faith communities without us looking.  There’s really nothing we can do about it.  The animosity between “liberals” and “conservatives” is part of our culture.  (I put them in quotation marks to remind us that these are labels, not people.)   It’s impossible for “independents” and “centrists” to even state their politics without them.  The opposition inherent in partisanship defines how people speak, think, and interpret any political statement or issue.  It’s nearly impossible to navigate faith and politics without it.

Pastors and leaders can try to mitigate the tensions by reminding members to leave politics out of the pews and pulpit.  They can try to keep church a safe place, reminding parishioners that the Gospel is neutral or knows no single party.   And, to some degree, this is partially right.

The Gospel doesn’t align with any one party or political ideology exclusively.  One way to interpret the history of Israel in the bible is to see it through this lens.  Proper worship and faithfulness to God’s covenant can’t be reduced to one form of rule or ruler.  Likewise, to allow God’s Word or will to be reduced to any one party, candidate, or ideology is equally objectionable.  It would amount to idolatry.

The second commandment is clear that we’re allowed no images or representations for God…as if they were God.   The effect of this commandment is far reaching.  For people of faith, there no place the prohibition of images makes more sense than in the realm of politics.   It holds theological truth and wisdom.  No idea, image, or representation of God can replace the mystery of God and humility before faith in a living God.  Reducing proper worship of God to belief in a political party, candidate, or ideology ultimately betray God and the heart of faith.

faithpoliticsscreenshotOn the other hand, no disciple of Jesus can cooperate with the belief that the Gospel is not political.   This is simply wrong scripturally, theologically, and historically.   The Gospel is political and always was.  Christianity has much to repent for in its politics.  But, simply erasing its political dimensions and calling is not acceptable or desirable.  The deep mystery of Christian spirituality and truth of faith in Christ only make sense when understood in political terms.  Faith and politics are something every Christian must wrestle with like Jacob and the angel (Genesis 32:22-31).  Jacob emerged from this wrestling as Israel, the name given to the people of God.  (He was also in a bit of pain.)   Faith cannot escape its relationship with politics, and it shouldn’t try.

There is great temptation in Western Christianity to “spiritualize” faith, which essentially has meant to erase its concrete political, economic, and social meaning.  But, this is nearly impossible.  Terms like “Lord,” “Kingdom of God,” “Prince of Peace,” even “Christ” make little to any sense without understanding them in their historical political context, and understanding them explicitly as political terms.

The term politics is related to polis, which is the ancient Greek term for the city-state.  This is where the term get its meaning for belonging to a people and land, and living under a rule or form of governance.  Western politics is deeply influenced by political concepts that permeate biblical scripture such as the rule of law, sovereignty, and freedom.

The question is not whether Christian faith is political.  Rather, the question is how is it political.  What kind of politics does God require?  What kind of politics does the Gospel make possible?  holy_week How do we interpret the Gospel’s invitation to live under the Lordship of Jesus as our true ruler and King?  How do we interpret scripture regarding the purpose and fulfillment of creation – including all human relationships?  What does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection as Christ reveal to us regarding the way Christ’s community worships, lives, witnesses, and engages the world around it?   These questions go to the heart of the Gospel and its politics.

Ultimately, answers to these questions are not finally answerable.  What I mean is that these are not abstract questions with answers that are frozen – once and for all – in time.  Rather, these faith questions are essential for any disciple.  Asking them and answering them is a faith-task that is ongoing.

Any church that proclaims Jesus Christ or his community on earth must ask and answer these questions as a simple matter of discipleship.  In addition, Christians must ask them and answer them in the context in which they live their faith.  Political issues surround us, which call for the church’s witness.  The church must live out its own unique politics where it is.  This is the call of the Gospel and Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s community in the world and witness to what God has made possible in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the end, faith is not separate from politics.  Quite the contrary, they two are intimately related to one another.

Christ’s community is called to cultivate its own politics.  The church’s politics will be unique and related to, but ultimately different from, the world around it.  Why?  The church’s politics are founded on its best understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel, simply put, is the God’s revelation of love and grace for the world  (this world).  This is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.  In him, all can be reborn to see the truth of themselves, what new is life possible, the fulfillment 0f creation and reconciliation of human relationships.   This is the Kingdom of God’s love and justice which the world has yet to fully know.

In addition, the church’s witness of faith draws it into the world of politics.  In other words, God’s love for the world draws Christ’s body today into the world’s political issues.  This includes its partisanship with all its tensions.  Here, the church’s call is to the witness of Christ’s peace and justice in the work for a new humanity.  This means the transformation of human relations and communion with the earth.  In Christ, ethnic and racial differences, differences in station or class, even gender and sexual differences are no longer (Galatians 3:23-29) decisive.  Likewise, partisan differences aren’t either.

What is decisive is the world God has made possible.  For the prophets, just like for Christians, that has everything to do with politics.  If Christian faith means anything today, it will find its expression in human politics.  That’s the call and witness of the Good News.

The Sadness Beneath

mattsadSadness is so easily pathologized.  When it pops up unexpectedly or has no obvious reason, it can be quickly explained away as lurking depression or rejected as misplaced emotion.  Sadness, however, may also be spiritual.  Sadness is a regular, even healthy, part of life and companion of grief.  Grief can be all around us in hurt relationships, lost values, declining communities, stress, elusive success, or deep-seated heartache from the past, which haunts our everyday life.

For me, the hard part of deep sadness is not the idea of embracing or exploring it.  It’s finding the right environment – meaning the right relationships – to let the grief or sadness unfold with dignity.  There’s also the simple challenge of the time it takes.

Sadness and grief are not efficient.  They demand their own way and their own time.  The path grief takes is not always predictable.   Therefore, it often seems easier to repress sadness and push it away.  It’s certainly more efficient and rational in the short term.  In the long run, however, suppressed sadness can haunt one’s sleep, daily interactions, and consume one’s creativity.  This is when the spiritual aspect of sadness and grief makes itself known.  Sadness, when it lives inside of us, has a nagging, even irruptive, quality; it seeks not only its way and expression, but the connection it needs to see light of day.  Sadness and grief integrate us, and make us human.  They remind us of our essential relationality, and seeks the blessings of community.   It’s a reminder of our inescapable humanity, and humility.

Lamentations is a book of the Hebrew bible that we usually spend little time with.  It’s a five chapter poem of grieving before God over the fate of Israel.  Interestingly, in Lamentations, the prophet makes clear that both God and Israel are to blame.

What’s also remarkable about the text is that its writer – attributed as Jeremiah – doesn’t give up on Israel or God in the face of absolute ruin.  Rather, God remains his  interlocuter, i.e. his audience, in his grief.  It is a long song of sadness, laced with dark visions of death and desolation, that instigate complaining and pleading over the absolute loss.  Following the covenantal theme of Israel as bride and God as bridegroom, Lamentations laments the broken relationship of God and Israel – and its effects – in personal terms.  Here are the last four verses:

19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Lamentations doesn’t end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”  Because of that, I find solace and company in the prophet’s words.  Sadness is its own spiritual place.  It exists to have its way…and show the way.

While we modern folk look for a way out of grief and ways to mitigate the trouble and heartache of sadness, I find comfort in knowing that profound sadness and grief lie at the heart our relationship with God.  Sadness and grief reveal our humility and helplessness, and this ultimately is what makes us human.  Moreover, they draw us into a spiritual journey of surrender that is best lived in relationship to others.  This restores a sense of our common humanity.  For the prophets, it was precisely out of such sadness and grief that hope sprang forth for the Kingdom of God.  It was out of ruin that they imagined God’s return to human affairs.

A Walk with Jeremiah 6.1

Jeremiah 6I’ve not posted for some time.  But, Jeremiah called me back again.  I needed some time for meditation.

Once I start reading Jeremiah again, I was reminded how scripture continually calls us back.  This morning, I needed to connect to human experiences much older than my own.  I’m picking up my walk with Jeremiah with chapter six (6).

Who hasn’t felt madness listening to American politics?  It doesn’t matter which party or ideology you ascribe to.  The partisan nature of our political scene and the circus that money and media have made of public opinion and national feeling can leave anyone with this sense of grief.  Jeremiah apparently felt that way, too.

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear?  See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen.  The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it.  But, I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary holding it in.  (vs 10-11a)

Most of us hold to our political perspectives with the same fervency Jeremiah did to God’s word and its clarity.  There is a reason why religion and politics equally offend in today’s dominant norms of decency.  Jeremiah’s religious language gives some of us a false sense of difference.  Forget that this is the bible.  Remember that Jesus hadn’t been born yet.  Remember, prophets were mouthpieces for the covenant of God’s people with God.  That is the contract that birthed their nation.  Jeremiah is explicitly talking about his political point of view, which he sees in relief of God’s vision for reality.

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace…[H]ear, o nation, and know O congregation, what will happen…(vs 13-14)

It struck me that the angst and helplessness we feel for the direction and politics of our nation, even communities, is ancient.  It doesn’t matter if you see our foundation as the word of God, the Constitution, universal human rights, or Locke and Rousseau’s social contract.  Who hasn’t grieved over the injustices and corruption they see?  Who hasn’t felt the fear from signs of instability, irrational decisions, and the plight of those powerless to rise up and correct inequities?  I hear this grief from both liberal and conservative.  Each has their definition of injustice.  Each has their definition of rationality.  Each has their definition of inequity.  Each has their scapegoat and theory of inequities.

As a Christian socialist and/or social democrat, I, too, fall on this spectrum.  And, I see the folly of our partisan blame-games.

They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders…(vs 28a)

In response, Jeremiah offers a strangely prophetic counsel:

Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it an find rest for your souls.

What are those ancient ways?  What, exactly, is this crossroads?  My soul seems to know without argument or passion.  Perhaps, a still small voice might say it this way:

It’s the humble way.  Neither self-righteous nor divided, the good way is neither silent nor partisan.  It is where justice entwines you and I in a common welfare.  It is where peace is waged for the sake of the most vulnerable, among which are each others’ elderly parents and youngest children.  It is where our trust merges in the form of a covenant, in which our wealth and welfare is not in competition, but where the only win is win-win.

I’m reminded of Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants 163:4a-c:

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

Let the educational and community development endeavors of the church equip people of all ages to carry the ethics of Christ’s peace into all arenas of life. Prepare new generations of disciples to bring fresh vision to bear on the perplexing problems of poverty, disease, war, and environmental deterioration. Their contributions will be multiplied if their hearts are focused on God’s will for creation.

A Walk with Jeremiah 3.1

IMG_443463605If I continue to look through the lens of grief between estranged lovers, Jeremiah chapter 3 reads like a grief process.  There’s anger over betrayal, as well as the bargaining associated with coming to terms with a loss.  The bitterness comes through naming Israel’s and Judah’s whoredom.  Whoredom is the main theme of the chapter.  Jeremiah begins there:

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?  Would not such a land be greatly polluted?  You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (vs 1)

Interestingly, the Tanakh adds the nuances of the Masoretic text, the authoritative text Rabbinic Judaism, “Saying, If a man divorces his wife” or “I have to say, if a man divorces his wife.”   This nuance helps remind us that the prophet, speaking for God, is thinking in metaphor.

The metaphor is riddled with patriarchal assumptions, however, and that is disturbing.  It’s not that God isn’t Holy, nor that God should be wholly understandable.  Our relationship with God is not.  The problem is that the patriarchy of the metaphor is so understandable.  Is God really ranting like a schmuck who lost his lover to another man?  Should I hold God to a patriarchal male standard, as if God’s a man’s man who always gets what he wants?  Is God the head of household who should be able to control his woman, his personal possession?  Or, is God lost in grief for the conditions of the people, with little means to express it?  Is the text grasping at ineffable, unspeakable mourning.

The reader has to critically think, listen to the text by dwelling with it, and decide.

God obviously wants reconciliation.

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (vs 15)

Maybe its a matter of God bearing more of God’s heart.  Maybe Israel’s and Judah’s infidelity to God is a matter of nurturing and ignorance, or lack of understanding.

What’s going on with us when we lose our hearts to lesser things?

No matter the reason or explanation (as if true love often has any), the grief process moves to deeper understanding.  Both God and Israel (along with Judah) are suffering in shame.  The prophet speaks the voices of both God and Israel in chapter 3.

“I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.  Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been faithless to me.” (vs 19b, 20)

gratitudeThe reality of the situation is also becoming apparent to Israel.

“Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our ancestors, from your youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.”  (vs 25)

Perhaps the parent-child metaphor is better.  Both father-child relationships and bride-bridegroom relationships are haunted by patriarchal assumptions.  But, the parent-child relationship can be more inclusive, and it explains the relentless presence of grief much better.

Having a child is like having your heart run around outside yourself.

A Walk with Jeremiah 2.1

IMG_443110490God obviously needs us.  And, apparently, we need God.

Chapter 2 of Jeremiah reads like a letter from a bitter lover – a lover who’s been taken advantage of, cheated on, then abandoned.  Many of us have been there.  Lost in love and mutual happiness, then something happens and it all falls apart.  The memories of rapturous fulfillment are still palpable, but something’s changed.  The relationship’s broken.  Your lover doesn’t need you anymore…of they don’t think they do…or they never did.

Consider God’s words to Israel through the prophet:

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride…Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest…What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they want far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?  (vs 2b, 3a, 5)

But, somehow, this abandonment God feels is more than just losing love.  Love between God and Israel isn’t limited to the metaphor of matrimony.  At least from the prophet’s perspective, there’s something wholly illogical and unjust in Israel’s infidelity.  It’s political, and goes to the heart of what it means to be in communion with one another and with God.

“[My] people have changed their glory for something that does not profit…Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in.”  (vs 11b, 34a)

In pursuit their own lusts and their own wants, they turn on each each other, including the poor.  Their lifeblood has stained their garments, though the poor are innocent.  This is also their turning from God, and it is self-defeating.

“[Where] are your gods that you made for yourself?  Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble; for you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.”  (vs 28)

Jeremiah writes when Jerusalem was under threat of being ceased.  Judah and Israel were to be conquered.  There is no greater failure of you or your gods than when someone outside comes in and takes over.  Freedom, but more specifically sovereignty, is the greatest political prize.  But, by the time the book of Jeremiah was compiled, Israel and Judah had already lost both.  This is the story Jeremiah tells.

“Why do you complain against me?  You have all rebelled against me?”  (vs 29)

Still, there’s more than a cold sense of punishment about this loss and betrayal of God by God’s people.  If Jeremiah, the prophet, speaks for God, his voice mourns.

“Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?  Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.”  (vs 32)

o-RUNAWAY-BRIDE-facebookMidst the scorn, there is also sorrow.  Beneath the deepest anger, there is almost always grief.  Grief is pain and loss.  Perhaps God’s needs us more than we realize, and we need God.  We just don’t really grasp that until we’re in trouble.

Christian Freedom, or Love

This longish post was written after a painful argument with a loved one.  Hurting, I went searching for what love meant in my context.  I felt the need to take care of myself, which may mean ultimately closing myself off to this person.  My soul searching came through this reflection and reminded me about what love is, and what being free to love really means.  That’s true freedom.  And, without God, for me it’d be impossible.

If you want to understand the freedom Christ offers, turn to Galatians 5.

Of course, there is more to a Christian understanding of freedom than one chapter of Paul’s writings.  Paul expounds on freedom in relation to the law much more in Romans.  More importantly, you can’t really understand freedom in Christianity without, first, spending time with the importance of freedom in Judaism.  The Exodus and the prophets’ word to the Jews in exile provide a much-needed backdrop to understand the depth of freedom as a central theme of Old Testament and New Testament theology.  But, taken in one sitting, Galatians 5 provides quite a bit on its own for what freedom in Christ means.  That’s what I write about.

Of course, for Paul, real freedom begins in Christ.  It begins in Christ’s relationship to the law.

Paul’s understanding of the law and Christ is among the most important themes in Christian theology, especially Protestant theology.  Paul first talks about this in Galatians 5.  Paul is writing to a group of early Christian converts who apparently adopted or began teaching that you need circumcision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.  To know Paul is to know that Paul vehemently opposes this.  Moreover, his opposition to it is central to understanding Christianity for Paul.

Understanding the tension between Christ and the law is necessary to rightly interpret Paul’s opposition of flesh and spirit which follow.  From these tensions rise life in the Spirit and Christian freedom.  What makes Paul’s message so enduring and relevant today is that he knows “the flesh” can not only enslave us by consuming our heart’s desires.  The selfishness of “the flesh,” for Paul, can also consume religion.

For Paul, freedom begins in liberating us from the requirements of any outward law.  Paul’s point comes together in verses 1, 3, and 5.

For freedom Christ has set us free… I testify to every person who lets themselves be circumcised that they are obliged to obey the entire law…[but] in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

Here is the kernel of the whole chapter.  Paul is writing to a community of the earliest Christian converts.  Unlike Paul, many early evangelists of Christ’s message taught that to accept the good news and follow Christ, one first be circumcised.  After all, Jesus was a Jew.

For Paul, circumcision entwines someone in the whole of the law and its requirements.  Circumcision is the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, from which everything follows.  This meant Gentiles had to submit to circumcision and observe the law in order to receive and follow Christ.  Paul is a Pharisee, a devout Jew.  Ironically, he sees this as completely backwards.  It’s even opposed to Christ and the good news he brings.  For Paul, Christ liberates us to something else – life in love for others and the Spirit.  This is what Paul seeks to single out and life high above all else.

Freedom in Christ does not point to ourselves, whether it’s our own justification, selfish wants, or self-righteousness.  This is where Paul’s judgment on the fruits of the law is so total and profound.  The 613 laws of the Torah were never intended to self-aggrandize the Jews or the individuals who followed them.  Quite the opposite:  The law pointed to honoring and remembering God in all things.  The Law taught to a life of disciplined devotion and humility, self-restraint and sacrifice (literally and otherwise), hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor.  It is these fruits of following the law that Paul wants to recover.   However, the logic and purpose of the law had become something else.

What Paul could not allow was any self-justification or self-righteousness before God and neighbor.  Nothing could be more antithetical to Christ and what Christ had done.  But, this is precisely what the law had become, especially by separating the righteous and sinner.   If separation and self-righteousness had become the essence of the law, Christ had totally overcome it for Paul.   For Paul, in Christ, Love of God and neighbor became the one overarching gospel that relegated and overcame all others requirements.  This Spirit testified to it.

Verses 4 and 5 make Paul’s judgment of the law clear.  He writes,

“You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”

Clearly, righteousness no longer comes from the law for Paul.   It comes from grace, through Christ, and by the Spirit.

Faith, therefore, points someone’s trust beyond the law, beyond any justification or self-righteousness that can be outwardly judged or self-expressed.  Faith is required because in Christ, there is freedom.  Love is the eternal law.  Paul reminds us of the original purpose of the law in verses 13 and 14.  He says,

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servant to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Any selfish use of the law for justification or self-righteousness is a perversion.  Love is the whole law, its requirement and commandment.  Outward fulfillment of the law can lead to self-righteousness.  The separation of self-righteousness does not justify.

By distinguishing the law and Christ, Paul theologizes the opposition of flesh and the Spirit.  The opposition of flesh and Spirit is the next step to understanding the freedom Christ offers.  But, it is easily misunderstood and misconstrued.

GalatiansThe Spirit opposes the flesh in the same way Christ frees us to move beyond justification of the law.  If God’s law can become a tool of separation, self-justification and self-righteousness, then it is no better than any other selfish work or way of life.  In such a community, the love between self and neighbor is distorted and grace-less.  This is what happens with religion becomes self-righteous or a religion of separation and justification.  Only life in the Spirit frees us from this kind of life to love God, self, and neighbor.  God in Christ reveals to us what love and self and neighbor really is.  This was the intention of the law and the message of the prophets.  It is now fulfilled in Christ.

As a matter of illustration, Paul goes on to provide a list of works of the flesh.  It’s a list of rather negative stuff.  What qualifies everything on the list is not that they are all sensuous, bodily, or break some religious moral rule.   Rather, every work of the flesh Paul lists is selfish or self-indulgent.  Works of the flesh serve immediate desires, our selfish reactions, and outward judgments of ourselves and others.  Paul suggests that these are not where the Kingdom of God is at.

In contrast, Paul also provides a list of fruits of the Spirit.  They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  What is obvious about this list is that everything on it moves us beyond our immediate wants, reactions, and outward judgments.  Moreover, these fruits are cultivated by loving ourselves and others.

What’s most profound about this list – from a religious standpoint – is these things are good beyond any law or requirement.  These fruits are good in and of themselves.  Paul is explicit:  “There’s no law against these things.”  This is life in Spirit.  We are free from any need for self-justification, religious requirement or constraint.  Life in the Spirit is possible because of God’s grace.  This is what we see in Christ.

This life is the freedom Christ offers.

Jesus’ silence before Pilate, or the politics of madness

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.  Mark 15:1-5 NRSV

ImageJesus’ silence before Pilate has always puzzled me.  It’s one of the most obscure parts of Jesus’ passion.  Kind of like Jesus, himself, that passage has begged an explanation.

I think Jesus’ silence is obscure for most Americans because it’s hard to relate to.   Americans are passionate about defending their rights.  We feel entitled before both state and law because deep in our psyche is a disgust for government.   In the passion, Pilate symbolizes such government.  Jesus is our hero because he stands silent before the powers of tyranny and ultimately overcomes them.    His victory is cosmic and his silence at trial is stoic.   We don’t question that someone had to die to free us because this is part of our belief in revolutionary freedom.  Jesus stands to die defiant before the powers.  The power of God overcomes the power of Rome, and we win.   This is Mel Gibson’s Hollywood hero, the American Jesus.

We have a hard time imagining that Jerusalem’s leaders or the jeering crowd could be us.  We drown those ideas in anti-Jewishness.  The political failures of Jesus trial have nothing to do with us.  It’s just one of those nasty moments of wrong belief and bad government.   Jesus’ win, however, has everything to do with America.  The hero’s silence is not his weakness, but a sign of his strength.  We can’t imagine Jesus either hopeless or helpless.  That would be heretically unchristian or un-American.

There are enormous problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ silence at trial.   My main problem with is that it conveniently ignores way too much, and fills Jesus’ silence with cultural assumptions that say more about American Christianity than Jesus or what the Gospel writers likely intended.

Jesus’ silence doesn’t explain why Pilate gets caught in the middle.  It doesn’t explain his confusion over Jesus’ crime.  It doesn’t explain why Jerusalem’s leaders kowtow to Rome and why they insist that Pilate eliminate Jesus for them.  It doesn’t explain why the crowd wants Barabbas over Jesus.   It doesn’t explain why Jesus doesn’t cry out to defend himself.  The teacher could’ve shared a parable or proverb to point out the absurdity of the crowd’s judgment and his situation, as he had done many times before.  He could have at least apologized to Pilate for putting him in this awkward position of spilling what seemed to be innocent blood (Matthew 27:19).   But, he doesn’t.  Jesus acts helpless, and says nothing.

ImageThere’s a better way to interpret Jesus’ silence, one that is more relevant.  Considering the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial is fruitful because they mirror our own.   Jesus’ entire trip to Jerusalem is dripping in politics.  Everything leading up to Jesus’ trial:  Jerusalem’s leaders trapping Jesus and taking him to Pilate, Pilate’s questions about being a King, the crowd’s calling for is execution, especially Jesus’ sentence and punishment, all find their significance in the political realm.  Capital punishment, particularly death by crucifixion, is an explicitly political form of control and punishment for Rome.    Jesus isn’t silent because he’s defiant, stoic or a hero.   Jesus may be silent because he has to be.  There are at least two reasons.

First, Jesus’ silence lets Pilate incriminate himself.  Empires justify themselves on violence.  They remain empires because they keep a monopoly on violence.   Jesus’ silence meant Pilate had to make a decision to fulfill his duty as Rome’s governor or release him as a matter of conscience.  Pilate doesn’t see what Jesus has done wrong.  (Mark 15:14)

The American version of Jesus’ trial is partly right.  In the passion, Pilate does represent the power of government.  But, not just government, he represents empire and all earthly power and justice.  The gospels depict Pilate as conflicted.  He tries to compromise and have Jesus flogged.  But, the crowd insists on crucifying Jesus.   They’d rather free Barabbas, a thief and rabble rouser, than face the possibility that Jesus is the messiah.  Popular opinion and group think wins out over conscience, and Pilate relents.   Empire executes its function.  Rome crucifies Jesus.  Pax Romana destroys the shalom of God.

Perhaps, the same is true of Pax Americana.

Second, Jesus is silent in the face of Pilate’s questions because God is defenseless against human foibles.  It’s hard to imagine God defenseless against humans.  But, Jesus is.  The problem is that most Christians understanding of God’s power is wrapped in worldly fantasies of power – supernatural power, instrumental power, military power, personal power.   All revolve around the idea of the will, control, and self-determination.  Jesus offers a different picture of God’s power, one not at all like these.

ImageJesus is defenselessness against our sin and human foibles.  And, this isn’t the first contradiction Jesus’ silence before Pilate exposes.  The contradictions intensifying through Jesus’ trial eventually rupture.  They rupture upon Jesus’ public and humiliating death.   But, the madness of contradictions revealed in Jesus trial and death begin in the empty void of Jesus’ silence before his accuser.  In his silence, the insanity of the whole situation begins to set in.

Jesus is innocent, but he’ll die.

The crowd condemns Jesus, but they won’t be guilty of killing him.

Pilate doesn’t know Jesus or his crime, but he authorizes his death.

Jesus came to save, but he cannot or will not save himself.

The death of God happens in Jerusalem, the city named of God’s reign and peace.

In the face of death, the Son of God says nothing.

Facing the Son’s death, God stands by and does nothing.

Nothing makes sense.  None of this intended.  The whole is absurd.

Jesus’ silence strips the sin of his world and ours completely naked, unabashed and unadorned.  The rage of madness and its contradictions must work themselves out.  After all, they are our – not God’s – creation.

This interpretation of Jesus’ silence fits better with Paul’s idea that Jesus really does lay both sin and his evil age bare.  He transforms it, and changes everything.  But, it’s still hard to imagine anyone staying quiet at a trial like that.   It’s still hard to imagine Jesus not defending himself or saying anything.   Any American would have.  At least, Jesus could have injected some reason for the insanity of it all.   He could have decried himself a victim to the crowd, or defended himself against others’ accusations as he did several times before when he spoke against the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee.  Any of these would have made more sense.  But, in Jerusalem before Pilate, he says nothing.  “You say so,” is all he says to Pilate.  Why?

Jesus, at least, shared something in common with those he was teaching and preaching.  As fellow Jews, they were his kinfolk.   They were all children of Abraham, who share a history and covenant with YHWH.  Jesus also shared a love and reverence for God’s revelation, the Law, with the lawyers and Pharisees.  But, when it came to defending himself against a world that didn’t know him and wouldn’t hear him, there was nothing to say.  Perhaps, it was futile, even pointless.  There was nothing to say because there was nothing he could say.

If Jesus would have answered that he was the messiah, he would have admitted himself as “King of the Jews” in the eyes of the crowd and Jewish leaders.   There was no other king than the ruler installed by Rome approved.  This would have condemned Jesus under Roman Law.  Pilate would not have been guilty of betraying his conscience.

If Jesus would’ve denied he was “King of the Jews,” he would have denied he was the messiah Israel longed for.   He would have admitted to being just another itinerant teacher or insurrectionist against the empire.  This would have only intensified the situation with confusion if he would have defended himself or told the truth.  His silence, instead, drew out the truth of the situation.  Jesus didn’t need to give an account for himself because it really came down to what the crowd and Pilate thought, or accepted.   “Who do you say that I am?”

In Jesus, God was on trial.  He was defenseless because God has no defense.

I think many of us can relate to Jesus’ situation.   True, we can’t relate to being accused of being a King and we can’t relate to facing crucifixion.  But, I think almost all of us can relate to the politics of his situation.  We can relate to the futility and despair of a situation in which it’s impossible to say anything.   We can relate to what it’s like to be helpless in the face of what others think.   That’s the situation Jesus faced answering Pilate’s questions.  It’s also the political climate of the U.S.

ImageIn a democracy, being able to speak freely and reason together is essential.   Our democracy is not simply a majority rule.  What makes modern democracy different from ancient democracy is its foundation on reason and belief in rational society.  It’s built on the idea that the reason that makes freedom and universal rights possible, also distributes opportunity and authority rationally.   The most important thing we can do in a democracy is talk about how we should govern and be governed.   For democracy to work, we have to talk about politics – rights, laws, and civil responsibility.   We also have to talk about religion, if religion is going to shape our moral fabric, civic virtues, and sense of responsibility.  If reason and political discussion break down, democracy grinds to a halt.  Political processes are channeled off to the privileged.  The freedom we take for granted is taken from us and usurped by those who govern.  This is the America I live in, and it’s difficult to see how the political discourse our democracy needs will get better.

Over the last five years, the best conversations I’ve had about politics and religion have been on Facebook.  Perhaps, this seems idiotic.  I don’t think it’s the norm.  But, if you find Facebook friends who read generously, think critically, and respond thoughtfully, Facebook can be an excellent medium for exchanging ideas and political discussion.    Facebook allows you to think about what you want to say before you say it.  It allows you to edit yourself before you “speak.”  You can’t interrupt others, and you can use links to cite your information.   Like most online forums, all this mitigates some of the difficulties of discussing difficult topics.  Social media can be an excellent medium for sharing perspectives and thoughtful debate if it’s conducted with care, discipline, and respect for your interlocutor and subject.

But, that’s exactly what’s become impossible.

While the internet and social media have created new possibilities and democratic space for thoughtful and invested dialogue, it has also become a platform for infotainment, conspiracy, and reactionism.  Well-funded media routinely sell distrust, contrarianism, and self-righteousness to us.   The internet has become the jeering crowd, but its pointing its fingers at everybody.  All of this has changed the nature of the internet and political discourse.  We’ve allowed American freedom to be reduced to self-interest.  We’ve allowed political discussions to become mainly divisive, toxic, and cynical.  Inject religion into any discussion that matters, and it seems to only get worse.

ImageThe politics of madness – universal self-righteousness, conspiracy, and reactionism – have become America’s political norm.  How many of us have been on Facebook, Twitter, or email and shared an honest or heartfelt perspective on current events, only to be met with emotional reaction or hostility?   No questions, no request for clarification, no attempt to understand – only offense and reaction.  Maybe you tried to reconcile or provide an explanation.  Maybe you tried to reach understanding by being open to their point of view, only to have your words came back to you empty.   We’ve let personal opinion, a sense of victimhood, and emotional reaction to stand unquestioned.  Any attempt at common ground or rational discussion is quickly torpedoed.  In a democracy, this is madness.

We can watch the news or listen to AM radio to appreciate where this widespread attitude comes from.   Self-righteousness, “us and them,” and the feeling of being attacked have become the easiest political situation to understand.  So, it is where most politics go.    Infotainment and poison politics has grown America’s capacity for feeling offended to debilitating levels.  Political self-righteous and commentary have become an industry.   It’s all become self-generating.  In both social and commercial media, it’s hard to imagine anything different.

I try to imagine God or Jesus speaking up in in this context, and the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial become very vivid.

Too many of us live in the fantasy that the truth, the real truth, will be self-evident.  Whomever has it and speaks it will silence the competition.  This is the fantasy that Jesus’ trial exposes.  In fact, the opposite is true.  In reality, the truth of any situation is fragile.  It’s easily drowned out or silenced.

I recently posted something political on Facebook.  Someone I appreciate and respect responded.   What I posted offended them.  The topic was not new to us, but my choice of words was an affront to them this time.  I tried to clarify myself, but I realized I was making it worse.  My words came back empty.  I lost control over determining what my own words meant.

I’m not god and I don’t see the world from a vantage point that makes me superior to everyone else.  But, academically, I knew my point of view on this issue was valid.   Two posts into this Facebook conversation, however, I realized my mix of topic and words were too loaded.  No response was going to convey what I wanted.   The politics surrounding this issue were too divisive.   It didn’t matter how much my political and religious convictions intersected on this issue.   The politics rendered my words useless.  I should’ve stayed silent.

I tried to think of a reply to either save the conversation or recover my point from this person’s interpretation.   But, I eventually realized I was being obsessive.  There was nothing I could say.  It was my problem.  I had to accept the futility of the discussion.  I couldn’t concede my perspective and stay true to myself.  Yet, I couldn’t accept the other person’s reaction because they were reaction to something I didn’t say.   It was all lost in interpretation.  I wanted vindication or validation for my situation, and got neither.  There was nothing more I could do.  Anything I would say was meaningless.

I’m not saying I was like Jesus.  The stakes aren’t even close to the same.  I was not accepting damnation and facing crucifixion.  But, I think my situation, like Jesus’, was futile.  Words became meaningless.  “You say so,” was all either of us could say.   There was nothing either Jesus or I could utter to escape our situation or save it from its politics, madness, and tragedy.   Telling the truth or defending ourselves would only make things worse.  Words became empty, meaningless.

Jesus wasn’t being a hero.  No messiah wants to die.  There was no rational argument he could make to explain the situation to Pilate or Jerusalem’s leaders.   There were no words Jesus could defend himself with.   Only silence could express his helplessness and expose the insanity of what was happening.   It wasn’t Jesus’ silence that condemned him.   Pilate did.  The crowd did.  Jesus experienced something almost all of us experience:  literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  It’s the madness of a hopeless situation.

Most can also relate to my situation on Facebook.  Maybe you avoid these situations altogether.   It’s where our democracy has headed, and it’s deeply scary to me.  I don’t think the political situation Jesus was in is much different than our own.

When self-righteousness rule both personal and public opinion…

When the politics devolve to “us against them”…

When hope is lost in a cycle of defensive reactions…

When words fail us and madness sets in…

We want what we reject, and we reject what we want.  Order is kept with violence and its victim(s) are rendered wordless.  This was the politics of Jesus’ situation.  His only hope was for someone to accept responsibility for the brokenness and severity of the situation.   But, neither the crowd nor Pilate was willing to.  So, Jesus was left defenseless.

And, it could happen all over again.  This is what America’s political environment has come to.

Separation and Presence – God in Human Experience

Christian theology begins with separation.

AloneIn Genesis, the separation is told in the story of the Fall.   The Fall is a mythical account of humankind’s separation from God.   It tells how existence is ripped from God’s immediate presence.  Separation from God precipitates into separation from one another.  This is a central aspect of the myth.   Adam and Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, Adam & Eve’s shame, then banishment, and Cain killing Abel – all tell the story of humanity’s end of innocence.  It is a divine drama about the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and the power of agency.  Ultimately, the Fall is about our discovery of a knowledge that does not forgive.  It is the knowledge of good and evil, our separation from one another, suffering and its consequences.

We moderns easily over-interpret and under-interpret the Fall.  Our celebration of science, perspectives, and individual want for control make it easy to miss or avoid its point.  If we forget that the Fall is a story about the human condition, it is easy to miss its message about our essential separation   The point is that human experience eventually reveals a profound and fatal separation at the core of our existence.  It is a separation so deep and irreparable that it can only be explained as separation from God.  More than any individual act of transgression or feeling of personal guilt, our basic separation from one another and God is the heart and soullessness of sin.  The two are entwined, coincident and reconciled together.

Focusing on the personal dimension of sin eclipses the more important claim that it is deeply embedded in our shared memory of human experience.  This is what such a myth does.  They provide a window into our shared human condition.  In a sense, the myth of the Fall is not personal.  Singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, doesn’t get lost in dogmatic doctrines or theological arguments.  Her song, “Woodstock,” conveys the Fall and its effects in simple poetic terms: “We are stardust; we are golden.  We are billion year-old carbon.  And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

The garden is the Garden of Eden.

Getting back to the garden is difficult, if not impossible.  The search for our original innocence, let along our journey back to it, is fraught with insurmountable problems.  Neither philosophy nor theology have been able to build a bridge back to the garden.  In fact, our most popular and sought after solutions to this fundamental problem of separation seem to say more about sin and its effects than its solution.  Here are two examples:

jesus_savesHistorically, evangelical Christians offer a simple formula.  They say we just need to accept Jesus as our personal savior.  Then, the breach of sin & our separation is repaired.  God repairs the human condition.  God offers both grace and judgement, and reaches to us in our helpless situation.   We are lost in sin.  We are separated from God.  But, if we have faith, all will be mended.   This is what it means to be saved.   So long as the saved believe in the bible, and interpret it the way they’re supposed to (which changes over time), the saved can return back to the garden.  The saved are heavenbound.   The way back to the garden is right religion.

One big problem with the salvation formula is that it doesn’t really work.  Sin and separation persist in the human condition even after you’re saved.   On the one hand, saved persons still experience temptation to sin on a personal level.  The formula focuses on sin and salvation in its personal dimension.  It focuses on choice and our individual want for control.  Personal piety is important when dealing with sins, before and after salvation.  The saved need a way to constantly remind themselves that sin is truly overcome and salvation is theirs.  The path back to the garden is right religion and good behavior backed by a program of constant maintenance.  This is where the persistence of sin shines through its solution.

Maintaining belief in your personal salvation means the saved will collectively project the persistence of sin out onto the world.   Sin is projected on “this evil age” and everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do.  The path back to the garden is restricted to those who understand sin and separation rightly, as well as its final solution.  To maintain exclusive rights to the way to heaven, many evangelical Christians relentlessly separate themselves from everyone who doesn’t fit their perspective.  There is always an out-group:  heathens, Catholics, Mormons, feminists, lesbians & gays, and Liberals.  Not everyone gets back to the garden.  Self-righteousness, therefore, becomes another form of our true separation.  In this brand of Christianity, sin and separation manifests in a uniquely religious form.  The evangelical formula reflects and reinforces the human condition more than its opposite.

Other kinds of contemporary spirituality deal with our separation from one another and God in other ways.  Some deny God altogether.  Atheism – professed and practical – is one way to dispose of the Fall as a myth.  Other spiritualities deny our separation from God or that sin exists.  Since I’m more concerned with clarifying faith than discarding it, I’ll focus on the latter.

higher consciousnessMany contemporary spiritualities profess that we are always already in the presence of God.   Separation is an illusion.  Focusing on sin, or the sheer negativity of sin, is the root of the problem.  God is always already here.  God is in us.  God is around us.  God is in our relationships.  God may, in fact, be our very relatedness to each other and all things.   Such spirituality is relentlessly positive.

What characterizes alot of popular spirituality is the way it rejects the wisdom of the Christian tradition.  It stays with the positive while avoiding or being elusive with regard to its negative aspects.  The myth of the Fall is either a relic of irrelevant religion, or sin is rejected because it receives so much emphasis.  Between these two, our experience of deep separation becomes psychological problem, an medical issue, or a matter of perception.  It is not  shared human experience of universal condition.  Such claims are antiquated, or simply not pleasant.

Because evangelical Christianity dominates so many people’s understanding of what Christianity is, I can see why people look for something different.   I, too, have often wondered if the Garden is really here, all around us.  Life is a tremendous gift.  Creation is wondrous and awe-inspiring.  Our relationships have moments of perfection and are life-giving.  Perhaps, the problem of sin boils down to our perceptions and egoism.  Maybe there is just a profound veil over our spiritual eyes.

But, what I keep coming back to is that this veil of separation has real and material human consequences.  They, too, are all around us.  Perception and human action continue to create injustice and reproduce gross inequalities.  Such things are systemic.  Evidence of sin and separation are everywhere.  Controlling our awareness of others’ suffering or exposure to  inhumane conditions reflects our basic separation more than remedies sin as a human condition.  This spirituality, too, is counterfeit.

Not to mention, no matter how sharp our God-consciouness is, our awareness of God’s presence is easily undermined or distracted.  Life ensures it.  The feeling of union with God or communion with all things doesn’t last.  The rhythm of life, and the demands of those sacred relationships we seek and treasure knock us off kilter.  There is too much need and want both within and around us.  There is too much busyness.  We have uncooperative feelings.  We still have deep moments to isolation, separation (there it is again!), even feelings of being abandoned, out on our own.  Insurmountable ethical dilemmas remain.  Why is there suffering?  Why am I suffering?  Isn’t there an end to this conflict?  Why can’t the human family share and just get along?  Is the path back to the garden avoiding these conflicts or go through them?

We manage these issues on a personal level most days.  They, by nature, are spiritual.

We can address all these problems by focusing ourselves on God and in God.  But, it takes relentless effort.  The problems of personal, interpersonal, and collective life defy simple solutions.  We can retreat into spiritual practices, self-help, positive psychology, meditation, and higher consciousness.  Of course, none of this is wrongheaded.   We should not give them  up.   But, sin-as-separation persists and remains essential to our collective life.  Our relentless need to overcome it, or even deny it spiritually, are evidence of it.  The presence of God is often elusive in life.  At least, our individualism makes separation a belief system.  Sin – or whatever you want to call it – lurks, exists.

We want to get ourselves back to the garden.  But, can we?

I don’t believe we can get back to the garden.  If we do, we do so individually or in isolation from others, which only demonstrates how enduring the problem of sin and separation is in the human condition.  We can’t get back to the Garden of Eden because there is no path back.  The knowledge of human suffering, our basic separation from one another, and suffering its consequences do not forgive.  They endure, passed on through the actions of human beings and structures of society .  Society is the living memory of our shared past, the collective memory of past generations.  Escaping into our selves is not a solution, but evidence of the separation the Fall reveals to us.

There is no path back to the Garden of Eden because it is a place of moral and experiential innocence.  It is mythical. It is utopian.  It doesn’t exist.  The garden, like the myth of the Fall intends, is an imagined place.

The value of this myth is not that it conveys how bad, we, human beings essentially are.  I don’t believe that’s the point of the Fall.  Nor is it intended to scare us into believing for the sake of salvation.   The myth of the Fall preserves a profound and ancient human memory.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanavasilj/8469984203/

“Together Alone” by Ivana Vasilj

On the one hand, the myth of the Garden preserves a memory of our essential relatedness.  Remembering the garden brings us back to an imagined place – beyond history and out of time – where humanity’s essential communion with one another and creation once existed.  Such communion is basic to our existence, so basic that it is best imagined in mythical proportions – pristine, pure, and created by a common creator.

On the other hand, the Fall remembers the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and power of our agency.  It preserves an understanding about our knowledge about good and evil.  It is a knowledge that does not forgive.   Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting human suffering, but remembering it.  It also means remembering what is possible by recalling what is was like before the need to forgive.

As Joni Mitchell recognized, getting back to the garden is important for framing one of humanity’s basic longings.  It is longing for a human condition other than suffering and separation.  It is a longing for redemption and restoration midst the human condition.  It is hoping for a place for peace and harmony between human beings midst creation.

Getting back to the garden can be a metaphor for creating a better world.   It doesn’t mean returning to a place that never existed, but preserving the memory of our essential union with God, with creation, and one another in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

The Garden of Eden may not be real.  But, as a metaphor, it points to something very real.  The Garden points to the presence of God in human experience, even midst our separation.  It is a presence so profound, it is more than an experience.  It is place within our historical common memory.

God’s presence may be fleeting, unwieldy, even wild and irrational in human experience.  But, it is also as essential to being human as separation and suffering.    The presence of God is often more difficult to define or describe than sin and separation.  Experiencing God has been described as terrifying (Rudolf Otto), ecstatic (the mystics), indescribable (negative theology) and beyond our ability to directly communicate (Kierkegaard).  That is why this experience belongs to spirituality, and its memory is preserved in its myths.  God’s presence is an experience that is dynamic and open to interpretation.  God’s absence attests to our separation as much as experiencing God in suffering and separation attest to God in human experience.

If Christian theology begins with separation, theology continues as a testament to God’s presence midst this condition.  If sin points to separation in human experience, experiencing God is equally a part of human existence.  Faith cannot overcome separation anymore than spirituality can immunize us from its consequences.  But, if both embrace all life’s experience, both affirm God’s presence and work within it.

…and, if this true, sin has already begun to die its own death.

The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.

God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.