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Forsaking Christian Ideology

It was a hot summer night in Texas when my family, including my grandmother, went to hear the evangelist, James Robinson.  He was holding a city-wide revival on the high school football field and had spoken in an all school assembly earlier in the week. The country had just passed through the most turbulent and traumatic year of the 20th century, with the Vietnam War heating up (with the Battle of Khe Sanh and Johnson’s increase of U.S. troop levels to half a million), with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and with the eruption of violent protests across the country. The underlying antagonisms within the culture were erupting, and though it was partly beyond my conscious awareness and seemed to be a world apart from this little town in Texas, our move from Phoenix to Dalhart had set our family into the midst of this rift. Culturally and ideologically this revival marked my point of separation from my brothers, who had not made the move to Texas. I believe the political/cultural split of 2020, is the culmination of the divide that was opening up in the country, in our family, and within myself, in 1968.  

Personally, and for the culture as a whole, the full-blown ideology of today would come gradually throughout the ensuing decades. The fusion of right-wing politics with Christianity was still a work in progress for the culture and for me personally, as I was only thirteen years old and I would remain mostly unchurched and unindoctrinated for several years. The journey of James Robinson points to the fact that the ideological trajectory we have reached was not a foregone conclusion. At age 25 in 1968, his was a powerful and ecumenical message of redemption. In the 1970’s, like many others nationally but especially in Texas, he began to focus on homosexuality (for which he was forced off his television station). By 1980 he declared he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet,” and called for “God’s people” to fight back. But then in the mid-1980’s he withdrew from this sort of rhetoric, only to be drawn back into right wing politics with the rise of Barack Obama. When I went forward at his revival, religious nationalism, the John Birch Society with its anti-communism, the anti-Civil Rights racism, were there as background but these were the days before Jerry Falwell (to say nothing of Junior) and the Moral Majority, before Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right. The religion I imbibed in the 1960’s was far from uncorrupted but in my naïveté, I remained innocent for several years of the ideology that was overtaking evangelicalism. I say this, as I presume that mine was an eventual recovery of a faith that was gradually and only partially corrupted by ideology (which I admit, may be too presumptuous).

This ideology is like every other in its basic shape, and the point of Christianity is to name this idol, not to worship it. The problem is that the very nature of ideology blinds us to the fact that we are believers and practitioners of ideology. My education in bible college and seminary had largely numbed me to any distinction between Christianity and nationalism. It was only as a missionary in Japan that I became fully aware that my religious faith had been subverted. I began to recognize that the basic elements of Christianity, the doctrines which many would claim are at the core of the faith (e.g. inerrancy, America as a Christian nation, conversion, personal faith) had been hijacked.  

This became clearest to me in my encounter with Japanese nationalism, in which I began to recognize my own religious nationalism. The religion of Japan, inclusive of Shintoism and Buddhism, was a support of Japanese nationalism and the resurgence of the Japanese economy after the War. In an oversimplified but true illustration of this, in the case of a shoe manufacturer in Tokyo, the company got its start by working young country girls, sometimes literally to death, under the guise of serving the nation. The propaganda was something like, “All good Japanese people want to better their country and it is their patriotic duty to work for low wages, seven days a week, without benefit of health insurance or benefits, so that together we might make Japan great again.” This is a simplified version of this trickle-down economy deployed throughout Japan in the postwar period. Enriching the owners of the company was equated with enriching Japan and this was part of one’s patriotic duty as a good Japanese citizen. I was familiar with this nationalistic call to work for God and country and this trickle down economy. (On my return to the States, I was surprised to see the same propaganda put out in “right to work initiatives” in Missouri. In short, the bill threatened unions and was supported by corporations in a cynical move to limit collective bargaining.) These crude ideologies point to the same basic structure.    

The simplest way to understand ideology is to take note of all of its elements as it first appears in the biblical story in Genesis 3. (The point here is illustrative, so that as we come to the ideologies which have a grip on evangelicalism, we can begin to identify the same elements.) The serpent inspired ideology in Genesis, “You will know good and evil and you will be like gods” seems to be saying something positive and grand, but of course it is a lie, and as with any lie, this one covers over what is absent in the lie. It is this negation or absence that stands at the center of ideology, and this is key. What does not appear or what is directly denied and displaced is death. Good and evil and being like God are known primarily on the basis of this absent center. So too, the “right to work” is a positive way of saying no union. It is primarily identified through what it is not.  In Stalinist Russia, the will of “the Party,” is on the order of the way “Freedom” is deployed in America, or the way “Jesus” is deployed by the National Prayer Breakfast (the “Family” – see here). A word, concept, or master signifier can be imagined to have a profound significance while it is an empty center which provides the object around which people can unite and to which they can provide their allegiance. The resulting group might be considered political or religious, but the sure sign that it is an ideology is that the signifier is so malleable as to be empty.

For example, prayer, in the National Prayer Breakfast, takes that most pious act and detaches it from any particular notion of God, Jesus, or petition, so that an all-inclusive group of believers, non believers, atheists, and concerned citizens (i.e. those seeking political influence) can be joined together under the master signifier of prayer. To whom prayer is directed or the purpose the prayer might immediately have, is secondary to the fact that this master signifier unifies. The ideological and empty core is covered by a master signifier (which might be called “I,” “freedom,” “Moloch,” or “Jesus”) which seems to promise something positive but is empty. Key elements of evangelicalism have been made to play the role of a master signifier where the faith functions ideologically. Biblical inerrancy, which displaces “mere” inspiration, is a negative statement (no errors) which signifies nothing. Accepting Jesus into your heart, devoid of ethics and church, is made into an amorphous inward event signifying nothing at all. The biblical significance is displaced with a sign unattached to its original signified (significance).[1]

The classic biblical and secular example is the signifier “I,” which might seem to be the most concrete thing in existence. In the Cartesian phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” the thinking thing, as pointed out by Kant, is an inaccessible placeholder which is only known through what it is not – thought itself. Adam is the discoverer of this absent “I” in that with the Fall, he can only identify himself through what he does: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). What this signifier “I” signifies has been lost, and the repetition tied to a verb seems to be the attempt to obtain what has gone missing. Yet, this absence is given the sign “I,” which does not appear in the Bible prior to Adams first fallen sentence. Adam is a bundle of conflict, much like Paul will describe his “I” (in Rom. 7). This antagonism or conflict is not a secondary part of ideology, the antagonism is at the core of ideology.

The knowledge of good and evil names nothing other than the fact that one thing is defined over and against the other. It is not that the original pair discover truth in their knew knowledge but just the opposite; they have relinquished access to truth (God, or the fact that life is in and from God) for a lie. Where their original relationship to God was a relationship to ontological truth, their new truth is a circulating system of differential signs. Good is known through its Other, evil, and evil is known over and against its Other, the good. The mistake would be to assume that the trauma they experience (shame, alienation, antagonism, internal dividedness) is an exposure of the emptiness of this lie. Rather, the lie, with all of its antagonism and trauma now functions as truth. Fear and insecurity, the “I” against the Other or the “we” against God, now constitutes their system of identity; so too every ideology.

The great Other for American evangelicals was communism, which posed a threat so vast that it became the primary defining element against which Christianity came to be defined. Communists are tricky, as they may pass themselves off as trade unionists, black people in favor of civil rights, liberal academics, or as women libers. The war on “cultural Marxism” (a term not coined until the new millenium) had begun in the 1950’s and 60’s with the presumption that liberalism, socialism, the civil rights movement and atheism were all part of a unified communist front opposing the Christian Nation.

A key example (but one of many) of this anti-communist form of the faith is William F. Buckley, a conservative Catholic and eventually the best-known public intellectual of his day. He accused liberal historians of a “conspiracy” and he outlined how academic freedom was a shield for left-wingers, and thus an open door for the communists. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and had written in 1957 the “advanced” white race in the South was justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” in areas where “it does not predominate numerically.” Like nearly every conservative politician of the day, Buckley defended Joseph McCarthy for recognizing that “coercive measures” were necessary to enforce a new anticommunist “conformity.” His publication, National Review, suggested the civil rights movement was communist inspired, riddled by communists and composed of communist front organizations.[2]

A few highlights of the ensuing decades makes the point which is now glaring. In 1961, the American Medical Association produced an LP by Ronald Reagan, warning that the domino effect (one country after another going communist) could also play out in the realm of ideas. Any fragment of the socialist program, such as the passage of Medicare, would lead to adopting the whole socialist program.[3] Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer (perhaps driven right by his politically conscious son), codified this religion, defined by its antagonism. The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion under Ronald Reagan (coinciding with the rise of the Christian Coalition and with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), was finalized by George W. Bush who, three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” What he meant, as indicated in his rhetoric, was the Christian Nation was now involved in a religious crusade – a literal war (as I describe it here). This is a story that could be told in multiple volumes with countless examples (e.g. the John Birch society, Anita Bryant, Robert Bork, Cecil Todd), with the characters and causes changed only slightly. The point is evangelicalism devolved into an ideology defined by its antagonisms.  

In addition to a master signifier (freedom, prayer, democracy) and the inherent antagonism between opposed poles (good/evil, communists/Americans), the real power of ideology is the force which it seems to ward off but which it unleashes. Shame and death were taken up and contained as part of the original ideology, but this is not simply the first of many kinds of ideology, this is the heart of every ideology. Death denied, negation negated, makes of an absence a seeming positive presence. The problem becomes the solution under a different name, but the inherent antagonism and the empty center cannot endure. The “I” of Adam is an empty identity; a name that refers to nothing. As Paul explains, this body of death shows itself in the struggle and the suffering. The slave, in every master/slave relationship, will struggle against normalizing this identity. The Civil Rights Protestors, the draft age youth, the veterans of the Vietnam War, erupted in the 1960’s. The failure of the ideology was made apparent and is always made apparent in its eruptions.

The problem is that even when it erupts, even when practitioners of ideology know what they are doing, they continue to do it. Cain is a naive murderer who does not seem to understand the import of what he is doing. God exposes the murder of Cain, along with a mark to protect him from revenge. Lamech takes this promised revenge, displaces God, and enacts the divine promise. He bragged of his enactment of his own justice and his killing power, celebrating it in verse, and this led to the sociopathic killers of Noah’s generation. Those seeking revenge replace and become the new sociopaths. The slaves may revolt only to become the new masters. The Marxist exposure of capitalism as the exploitation of the working class gives rise to a new form of the ruling class, the Party elites. By the same token, the anti-communism of the Cold War culminates in the weaponizing of the world and the possibility of mutually assured destruction. The anti-brand of Christianity needs its evil enemy – the communists, the Muslims, the liberals, the homosexuals, so as to define itself, but it unleashes the antagonism which defines it, and even the awareness of this false consciousness does not bring it to a halt. A good therapist can expose the antagonism, which is preferable to the continued reinforcement of the normalizing lie, but the psychoanalytic cure is simply a manipulation of the same structure (the master signifier, the antagonism, and the reality (the real) of death).

The promise of Christ is that the blood of Abel, which cries out through the generations in the voice of all oppressed peoples, will be heard. His promise fulfilled is when the cry of those on the underside of ideology, or those who are lied about and suppressed by the antagonism, are relieved of their suffering. This is the core factor which separates Christian ideology from an authentic form of the faith. Does the form of belief challenge or support the cultural status quo? Does it side with the oppressed or the oppressors? Does it support putting people on crosses or does it identify with the crucified? Anti Communist Christianity and right-wing political Christianity have as their underside the cry of black suppression, the open oppression of immigrants, and the destruction of budding democracies and popular movements throughout the world.

Fifty-two years from the time I became a Christian, after the most turbulent year in the 20th century, the turbulence of the inherent antagonism of a false faith is decisively boiling over. Donald Trump is, in many ways, the ultimate embodiment of this long-standing antagonism and emptiness. The false center of an ideological faith will no longer serve to suppress some and comfort others. For those who can read the signs, it is time to relinquish the ideological form of the faith for the religion of the Crucified One.


[1] David Fitch demonstrates in The End of Evangelicalism? how key elements of the evangelical faith have been reduced to ideology.

[2] https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2018/how-the-right-wing-convinces-itself-that-liberals-are-evil/

[3] Ibid.

The Unraveling and Remaking of American Religion

According to the democratic party convention, America is engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the nation and a moral crusade for a return to basic decency. Eric Trump responded that the democrats are crazy and will return the country to socialism, higher taxes, and unfair trade agreements. The covid-19 crisis has only sharpened this political divide, offering focus on economic survival with Donald Trump or biological and cultural survival with a future democratic party, focused on science and common decency. In one party, the death of a few is called for by the economic welfare of the many. There are always those (according to Rusty Reno, see my piece here) who will inevitably be culled by disease, and we must offer up the susceptible for the survival of the many. The fact that black people are dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans is the price many (white?) people would allow for. The counter accusation is, democrats would reduce us to socialism and would subvert the key doctrine of American individualism. It as is if two religions or two alternative world views were vying for the soul of the nation, and maybe they are.

The brokenness reflected in this political moment reflects a personal journey for Faith and I. As the country was beginning to split more sharply four years ago, we were fired, on the same day fifteen minutes apart, from a Christian college. This college and its personnel would fall on the hard right of this political/cultural moment, but at the point we began working there this chasm was still bridgeable. Our dismissal opened a gap with former colleagues and those we once counted as friends, not of our making, which has remained firmly in place. In the intervening years, I have seen the same divide open up with several of my students (maybe my fault) and have witnessed it with acquaintances, who have lost jobs and relationships with family, not just because of politics but due to the religion which attaches to the politics. This period of division in our country reflects an expanding chasm opening up within the Christian faith (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). There are two interpretive frames, one in which economics outweigh the focus on social inequities and human welfare, and I am not referring to political parties but to two theological understandings.   

In the conservative wing of theology (and I use conservative here to refer to a failure to engage the liberal nature of the gospel), Christianity is primarily concerned with correcting a failed economy of a divine order. In this familiar story, God created everything good and human sin spoiled this goodness. The focus, though, is not upon what went wrong in the world but how sin offends the justice of God. Given his prerogative of justice, in his offended honor God could have simply wiped out the human race, but since he is also merciful, God decided to work out a solution within himself. The two-fold problem is how to meet the obligation of his offended justice, as God could not simply forgive as this would violate his justice (the controlling factor in the economy), and how to receive this payment from the quarter (within humanity) in which the offence arose (the debtor must pay the debt). Thus, the incarnation and the cross, in which humanity in Christ offers up the required infinite payment, which was an amount they could not have engineered, but which God arranges through the death of his divine Son. Those who choose or are chosen to be covered by his infinite payment meet the requirements of God’s justice and are enabled to go to heaven and miss hell. An infinite payment is made to meet the infinite debt of God’s offended honor and justice. Thus, the books are balanced in the divine economic order.

This tight focus on payment and exchange, which its inventor, Anselm, thought of and illustrated in monetary terms, becomes literally concerned with money and savings with the Protestant Reformation.  Now that all are priests, their vocations are also a calling (whether shop keeper or banker), in which the accumulation of wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Now one does not depend upon priests or the church to assign blessing, as grace comes through hard work and shows itself in accumulated wealth. That is, an economic order of salvation translated into a primary focus on economics in which the literal accrual of wealth reflects a grace that can been cashed in and credited to one’s account. Capitalism, in this very brief synopsis of its rise as outlined by Max Weber, is already interwoven with a religious belief in which economics is primary, so it should be no surprise that this form of the religion would become narrowly focused on a leader concerned with boosting the economy. The limited dimensionality of this religion, I believe, accounts for the narrow focus of its present political attachment.

The problem with this theory is that, as a theory, it allows for abstraction or a distancing from the lived-reality of what happened to Jesus and what happens to all people. It abstracts from the human circumstance and puts primacy on the heavenly economy shadowed forth in the earthly market. The fact that people crucified Christ and that it is human and not divine wrath which killed him, are rendered inconsequential. One keeps score in this system, not by correcting social injustices like crucifying or killing unjustly, but by meeting the requirements of the law which reflect God’s own character. Fighting injustice (helping the poor, ceasing to steal, cessation of war and murder) though one might choose to do such things, are not primary. In spite of the biblical depiction of the law with its death dealing letter being set aside, in this understanding the economy of salvation is according to the demands of the law. And besides, don’t the poor already bear the signs of missing God’s blessing? Aren’t they deserving of their lot in life by dent of their not doing the hard work which would show forth God’s favor? As a youth minister explained to my daughter, the poor show they are not blessed as they are poor (which seems to have bypassed one of the beatitudes).

This economy of exchange, of debt and payment, is attached to a peculiar and singular ethic: the Protestant work ethic. Virtue pays cash dividends, according to Benjamin Franklin, and the wise investment of time shows itself monetarily in a value system in which “time is money” (Franklin’s phrase). This translates directly into virtue is money and money a virtue. If every calling is a sacred calling, then every occupation deserves holy or whole or complete devotion. Piety is work and eventually one is left with work and money in place of or in conjunction with religion and blessing. This rise of a capitalistic religion seems to explain its culminating attachment to the vacuity of virtue that is Donald Trump.

In that this is the American story and religion, this may be the part we are most familiar with, but let me propose a more orthodox reading of scripture, which is not a theory so much as a direct engagement with the first order problem we face as humans. The root problem behind poverty, social injustice, war, and racism, pertains to the zero-sum economy enacted by the fact that people die. Time is money and both are valuable commodities only where there are limited amounts of each, and so too the ensuing problems of poverty, greed, racism, and injustice. The gospel is not about working within this limited economy of death, but in opening up to life in the fullness of God, creation, and other people, through the defeat of death. Rather than setting us to work to prove we are saved in an economy of death, the gospel call is to act as if death is not a final reality, which opens up an order in which we can address the real-world problems associated with the fact that people die.

James Alison pictures this contrast as that between theory (a disengagement with reality) and liturgy (a direct engagement with reality or something we can immediately grasp).[1] In his description liturgy is something “that happens to you” and it does not depend upon an intervening theory. We need not speculate about the movement or mind of God in theory, as reality is engaged. A way of approaching the difference is in contrasting pictures of sacrifice. In the artificial economy of sacrifice (shared with pagan sacrificial systems), what gets sacrificed (the enemy, slaves, or women, in paganism) saves the one who sacrifices. God’s justice, and in a sense God himself, is preserved or saved from the divide between his wrath and love, in penal substitution. Sacrifice can also depict a personal event in which it is not the other but the self that is sacrificed. Sacrifice to the economy preserves the self and the economy. Where the economy itself is sacrificed the theory of sacrifice is replaced with the reality of self-sacrifice (taking up the cross).[2] This frees up from the work of economic sacrifice so that the implements of the economy of death (i.e. swords) are utilized in a different order of reality as farm implements, the growing of food, and the welfare of people (Isaiah 2:4).

The Jewish Temple sacrifice is often read as if it serves the economy of death, with the priests and people sacrificing animals to save themselves. According to Alison, this needs to be reversed and read in light of the sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of the Temple sacrifice, like the event of the cross, is not that something is sacrificed to God but that God is sacrificing himself. The goat, which was the Lord, is taken into the Holy of Holies and sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest puts on a phylactery when he emerges (on his forehead or wrapped around his arm) which identifies him as YHWH, the unpronounceable name of God.  In this reversal, the atonement is not about bringing the priest and people before God, but it brings God into the world. It is the Lord which the priest represents, who emerges to set the people free from the result of their sin. From out of the place before or beyond creation (represented by the Holy of Holies) the priest would emerge as God himself emerging through the veil of the material world (he would don a robe made of the same material as the veil) so as to cross the divine human divide created by humans. Then he would sprinkle the rest of the Temple, representing the cosmos itself. The life of God (“life is in the blood”) is unleashed onto creation so that the healing of redemption is not an inward and upward heavenly departure of humans but the earthly, outward movement of the arrival of God. God is acting to save his people from sin and death and they are freed up to participate in his redemptive, seventh day, activity.[3]

Of course, it is Christ who is the true high priest who fulfills God’s emergence from out of the origins of creation, before time, into the world. This is the portrayal of Hebrews and the Gospel of John, in which Christ is the true mediator, the true Temple and the true sacrifice. John pictures Jesus as sacrificed on a Thursday, during the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (without a bone being broken) but, as Alison points out, wearing the seamless robe of a priest. Here is the true sacrifice and the true high priest, who upon his death repeats the finale to the days of creation from Genesis, “It is finished.” The beginnings of creation are complete, and this culminates John’s opening chapters, with Christ portrayed as both creator and as re-inaugurating creation in the opening of his ministry. Now the eternal seventh day of rest is made an open reality for all. This is made clear as the tomb is pictured like the arc of the covenant or like the holy of holies with its mercy seat, where Mary Magdalene “saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12). The Holy of Holies has been opened up to the world.

The implication is that we have to do, not with an economy of death set in heaven and reflected on earth, but with creation and its completion in salvation. The contrast with the economy which devolves into the Protestant work ethic is passage out of the legal six-day economy of work. In the imagery of the writer of Hebrews human toil is transformed into the leisure of the seventh day of rest. The contrast between the two religions of the day, is a continued working to escape death in an economy of substitutionary sacrifice and the presumption that self-sacrifice is afforded by God as the zero-sum economy is defeated. The former demands work and consumption, presuming that the wrath of God and divine justice are primary, while the latter abandons this zero-sum game in its recognition that it is human wrath and injustice that are defeated in the death of Christ. God does not require satisfaction or substitution but only people do. It is this human wrath and violence projected onto God, which imagines human sacrifice assuages God’s anger. God does not benefit from the death of Christ; we are the beneficiaries and this is the realization taken up in an alternative form of life.

I believe, in this political/cultural moment, we are indeed faced with a religious choice. The religion of the day, joined to a politic preserving this world’s economy, has divided itself off from Christian orthodoxy. This division and the chasm that has opened up in our culture and which reflects the splintering of the Christian faith, is not entirely negative. The emptiness of heterodoxy is being revealed throughout our nation, though, at the steep price of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a clear division, however, being made between a false and true gospel. Forging Ploughshares and many other individuals and organizations are teaching the gospel of peace, without hindrance or admixture. Religious division is resulting in the emergence of a certain clarity for many. Orthodoxy is showing itself in its creation care and is revealed in its embrace of a politic aimed at human well-being in which the physical is not set apart from the spiritual. It is revealing itself in a faith that regards social justice as synonymous with the establishment of the true church, as this is the politics of Jesus. God himself has entered creation to redeem it, and as we engage this redemptive creation care we recognize salvation engages and defeats death and the death dealing nature of the human economy; it does not divinize or project this economy onto God or seek to sacrifice to preserve it, but it moves beyond it to the real-world relief and salvation of suffering humanity.   


[1] http://jamesalison.com/some-thoughts-on-the-atonement/?fbclid=IwAR088AjIDc3R1-96QWybIPTFknpWV2bZfAV5-YEJPZUZU67xqOrC1xkTqfI

[2] Murder, as René Girard has taught us, stands behind all sacrificial systems and Jesus reveals the intention of the Pharisees and priests and of all religions of sacrifice. “You are from your father the devil . . . a murderer from the beginning . . .  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44-5).

[3] Alison, Ibid.

Build the Wall/Renounce Christ

Our town, Moberly, contains the dynamic of a nearly invisible internecine hostility. The large minority are of an underclass, consisting of the underemployed and unemployed, in which the stigma of poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness are centered. The wall which separates this dispossessed underclass from the possessed and empowered is not merely money but it is an order of religion which is the religion of this place. This was recently illustrated in the fight over Medicaid expansion. Extending health care to the poor is a “moral issue,” but not in the Christian moral sense of helping the poor. As one local politician who touts his practical, conservative, Christian faith, implied, this is a moral issue because these people are undeserving of even basic health care. Though the initiative for Medicaid expansion passed, the vehement opposition to helping 300,000 in the state of Missouri who live below the poverty line (including a disproportionate number of single mothers, those with mental illness, and those most likely to suffer from the coronavirus) revealed the deep antagonism.

There needs to be a line of separation from, and hostility toward the poor and minorities as these people somehow deserve this treatment and their dispossession implies a deserved possession. One would not want to identify with or be mistaken for such people as these are the excluded. The confederate flag is flown by the almost dispossessed, so that they might clearly demarcate themselves (in this area called “Little Dixie”) but the evangelical faith sometimes functions very much like a confederate flag for those more financially able. The religion serves to create a degree of separation (a bubble of division), which with its undercurrent of racism and classism, depends upon literal and metaphorical walls.

Paul describes Christ as breaking down the dividing wall of hostility, but to grasp the significance of this broken wall, it is necessary to understand how hostility constitutes our world. It is not just that we require the immigrants be kept on the other side of the wall, or that we require the barrier to sustain the identity on this side of the wall. We live and move and have our being in identities provided by walls of hostility. This hostility resides within and is the vortex by which we are surrounded. The wall, in Paul’s explanation, is an identity which would use the law/wall as its primary mode of identity for God and for self. Where we identify with the law, there is a part of us which would become the law and a part of us against which this law is enacted. The force of the law, which we would take up into ourselves, becomes at the same time a force against us. To occupy the place of hostility, to enact the law and its ethic, is to enact the division. The divide defines what is included by what is excluded. Jews are not Gentiles but the law of the mind is set over and against the law of the body. The ego is over and against the superego. The desire of the flesh is over and against the desire of conscience. The feeling of inferiority is enacted from a supposed agent of superiority. The more the inferior is ground into the dirt the more the superior is made to feel power and position. The more the slave is made to feel the lash, to that degree the master is empowered (whether within a singular individual or between individuals). The masochistic pain is enjoyed by the agent enacting the pain. The policeman, as the agent of the law, is afforded the pleasure of inflicting the power of the law in the currency of pain. This is a psychology and a sociology.  

This wall, as Paul describes it, is not of divine construction but is constituted by human hostility, though the human tendency is to project this hostility onto God. In this, it is not a problem of the law but it is what we would do with the law. The Jewish law may be holy and good but we are not, and what we would do with the law demonstrates we would make a religion of the law as we would make a religion of hostility. In the religion of Lamech, for example, he is the embodiment of the law and presumes to enact the vengeance of God promised to Cain. Lamech puts on display the notion of a law immediately enacted within himself, in righteous murder, which is the presumption of the murderous generation of Noah. Righteous killing describes the deep satisfaction of those who have inured themselves to murder and war, those who have learned to enjoy their work (as soldiers, politicos, or enforcers of righteousness), those who have completely identified with the purposes of the state, the purposes of the mob, or who presume to embody the avenging power of the law.

In religious myth, death or hostility is the power of order and division and typically depicts the death of a god (Tiamat, Izanami etc.) as the birth of the world (see my explanation here). For example, in the Babylonian myth the cadaver of the god forms the canopy of heaven. The stars themselves exercise this power of hostility, causing sickness, disease, plague, and death, and even a sophisticate like Aristotle, presumed the stars were divine and unfriendly. The world is constituted in hostility and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God and need to appease him), or succumb to it or embrace it by identifying with the hostility. To identify with and redirect the hostility on those who deserve it, is the religion of law and order. The identification of God with the law makes hostility the power of his presence so that war (as in the worship of Mars) is worship and service. We can witness the strength of his power through the division, through the exclusion of others, and through the violence that falls upon the objects of his wrath.

Maybe in American literature and imagination it was Mark Twain, in his depiction of Huckleberry Finn, who comes closest (in spite of or due to his antagonism to the accepted religion) to describing the gospel, which would dissolve the religion of division. Huck knew from his “slender Church goin,” just as Samuel Clemens knew from his, that the weight of the religion was behind slavery. The Bible itself, the mores of the religion and the community, informed Huck that the Christian thing to do would be to turn in the runaway slave, Jim. Huck knows his soul is damned to hell should he help Jim escape. He pens a letter to Miss Watson (Jim’s “rightful owner”), explaining where Jim is and figures in this way to save himself. Then he begins to have second thoughts about the two of them “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing” and he weakens in what he knows is his Christian duty. As he examines the letter, he knows he must choose forever between two things: heaven and hell. He pauses for a minute, then declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter to pieces. Helping Jim means a betrayal of the society of Hannibal, a betrayal of the law, and ultimately a scorning of his religious duty. This is the Christian moment in the story, the moment when the wall of separation between Huck and Jim is torn down.

The problem, as Paul explains, is not with the law but with this orientation to the law. It is only the Jew who ceases to cling to the law delineating his Jewishness, the Gentile who ceases to refuse the Jew, the master who can embrace his slave as an equal, the man who can love his wife as Christ loves her, that can enter through the broken dividing wall. Those who would sustain the laws of normalcy take it as obvious that one man must die, that sacrifices are necessary, that some must be trodden on, that evil must be done that good will abound. Living within the domain of the law is intellectually satisfying as the worst evil can be accounted for and it is existentially satisfying as it separates one out, as a law-keeper or even law-enforcer, from those who experience evil. This is not God’s wall but a human wall. It is this wall of human hostility that separates from the reality of God. This is the wall Christ has torn down and to confuse this wall and its maintenance with the Christian faith must be a form of blasphemy. 

That Building a wall on our southern border mixes so easily with evangelical belief must mark a characteristic form of this faith.  It is a religion which seems to depend upon walls and is not the faith which Paul describes as breaking down this wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).

Theology After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer (often called the “father of the atomic bomb”)

Today, seventy-five years ago, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima and three days later the second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Some twenty-five years ago we visited Hiroshima on a trip to Kyushu and on the return trip we drove to Nagasaki by way of the Gotō Islands in Nagasaki prefecture, which were strikingly different than any part of Japan we had visited. Several of the island villages were built around a Catholic church, and to see church steeples towering over a Japanese village was a bit jarring. Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, is set in these islands, in which Christianity took hold and survived during two hundred years of persecution. Endō’s portrayal, focused on the insecure faith of his characters, may not capture the enduring commitment of the islanders, even when threatened with torture and martyrdom. We knew as we made our way to Nagasaki and ground zero, that Japanese Christians had not only endured one of the longest and bloodiest persecutions but they would be the victims of a martyrdom never before unleashed on humankind.  Our first evening, we camped on the beach on Nakadori island before making our way into Nagasaki, and Erin (7 years old at the time), found a bag of kittens that a local farmer had failed to completely drown.

In the Dozaki Church, which had been converted into a museum, was a display explaining how Buddhist prayers offered by a priest downstairs would be redirected by Christians hidden above him upstairs. Hidden Christians venerated Mary by creating statues that could also be taken to represent the goddess Kannon, and they hid crosses inside Buddhist statues that could be used during Christian funerals. The tea ceremony was turned into a communion-like service, by turning the tea cup three times prior to drinking (to symbolize the Trinity) and by folding napkins in such a way as to indicate the silent recital of a prayer. (Considering that the tea ceremony may trace its origins to the communion service in the first place, this reconversion of the ceremony is fitting.)  

In Nagasaki we (6 cats, 2 children, and Faith and I) made our way to the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, itself a testimony counter to Endō’s notion of weak-willed Japanese Christians.  Twenty Japanese Christians and six foreign priests were hung on 26 crosses and as they were lanced to death, one of the priests, Paul Miki, preached to the crowd from his cross. The museum contains testimony to the impact Christianity had on Japan, with entire clans taking up the faith, and it indicates that there may have been some ten thousand martyrs of the faith.  But of course, it was the “Christian Nation” (the United States), which would martyr more Japanese Christians in a day than had been killed in the 200 years of persecution, which our next stop would symbolize. We could not convince Erin to leave the cats long enough to visit the museum, but maybe it was for the best.

About half the Catholic population of Japan, around 50,000 of a total of 110,000, lived in the Nagasaki parish and were concentrated in Urakami, which was ground zero of the atomic blast. Urakami Cathedral had been erected in 1895 on the very ground where citizens were forced to trample on fumie (images of Christ or the Virgin Mary) so as to expose those who were Christians. The church had been erected to honor the resilience of Japanese Christians and the twin bell towers, completed in 1925, made it the largest cathedral in East Asia.  The atomic bomb exploded about 500 meters from the church and incinerated the building. Parish priest, Saburo Nishida entering the church to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, Curate, Fusayoshi Tamaya, who was hearing confession, along with a dozen Christians inside the church were instantly incinerated. They were among some 10,000 Christians who made up the largest proportion of the 15,000 killed in the immediate vicinity of the blast. In other words, the United States wiped out the heart of the Catholic Christian population in Japan, and the Urakami Church, symbolic of 200 years of persecution, is also the marker of the atomic holocaust. Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both atomic bombs (he was visiting Hiroshima during the first bomb and returned home to Nagasaki and experienced the second) thought the marble head of the Virgin Mary, which endured the Nagasaki blast, was emblematic of Christians destroying Christians. The eyes of the Virgin are black hollows and the side of her face bears the mark, which Yamaguchi thought looked like keloids, which appeared on victims of the blast.

It is all but established fact that the bombs played no role in Japan’s surrender. Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his 2005 book Racing the Enemy, provides evidence from primary sources within the Japanese Diet that the War ended due to the entry of the Soviets into Manchuria. American intelligence, which had broken the Japanese codes, was conveying to Truman this same conclusion: the Japanese government wanted to negotiate surrender through Moscow. Truman already knew that the expected early August Russian declaration of war would end Japanese will to fight and American intelligence confirmed this to him. He also knew that assurances that Japan’s Emperor would be allowed to stay as a powerless figurehead would bring surrender, long before a projected November US invasion could begin. The destruction of two more cities made little difference to political and military leaders, after the destruction by fire bombing of the majority of Japanese cities. In the National Museum of the US Navy is a plaque that acknowledges: “the vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military.” The Navy Museum acknowledges what Hasegawa proved and what Truman understood, it was Soviet entry into the war on the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki which moved the Japanese to surrender. Before this, Truman was being advised by most all of his generals the bomb was unnecessary.

William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . . in being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”[1] The commanding general of the US Army Air Forces, Henry Arnold, indicated his views in a public statement only eleven days after Hiroshima was attacked. Asked on August 17 by a New York Times reporter whether the atomic bomb caused Japan to surrender, Arnold said that “the Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.” According to Admiral William Halsey, “It was a mistake. . . . [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it.” Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, stated in a public address at the Washington Monument two months after the bombings that “the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” General Dwight Eisenhower,  stated in his memoirs that when notified by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the decision to use atomic weapons, he “voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” He later publicly declared “. . . it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Even the famous Major General Curtis LeMay, who had innovated new weaponry in the fire bombings of Tokyo, declared publicly a month after the bombing, “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”[2] Truman’s political advisors overruled the military, and specifically Douglas MacArthur, who would retain the emperor despite the unconditional surrender.

Two Japanese Christian doctors who experienced the bombing of Nagasaki represent the two opposed reactions of Japanese Christians. Nagai Takashi (1908–1951), who would succumb to leukemia caused by the bomb’s radiation, spent his remaining years trying to comprehend the devastation. His wife had been killed instantly in the blast and he lived in a hut in the ruins of Nagasaki. I once heard a young preacher refer to the bright light of the atomic bombs as a light from God, which may be a perverse reading of Nagai but which reflects his attempt to account for the bombs as providential. “Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole-burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” Nagai asked.[3] Akizuki Tatsuichirō (1916–2005) a colleague of Nagai, devoted himself to treating survivors, many of whom were Catholics, but could not agree with Nagai’s seeming justification of the bombing. Akizuki would join the anti-nuclear peace movement and though he respected Nagai, he would not succumb to his silent submission. He received multiple prizes for his activities both as a doctor and as an outspoken witness against nuclear arms, and in spite of his sharp departure from the thought of Nagai, he was the first recipient of the Nagai Takashi Award. This dialectic between the two doctors, silent acceptance and angry protest is characterized by a saying which arises with the reactions from the two cities: Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays. Japanese Christians would be caught up with trying to reconcile these two extremes.

It was Japanese theologian, Kitamori Kazoh, who would develop the first Japanese theology which seems to reflect the peculiar suffering of Japan and the varied response of Japanese Christians. His book, The Theology of the Pain of God, not only refuses the Western notion that the Father does not suffer, but presumes pain is part of the essence of God, constituting the peculiar nature of the love of God. How can any but a suffering God truly love and how can there be true love apart from suffering? A key verse for Kitamori is Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: Therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord” (KJV). Kitamori sees this verse as describing God in a state of turmoil, pain, and suffering. In Luther’s translation the verse describes God’s heart as broken. In the Japanese the phrase appears as, “my insides are in pain.” Kitamori concludes that there is a conflict in God between wrath and love and this produces the pain in which he embraces the sinner.

 In this he comes close to the Christ of Endō. In Silence, Father Rodrigues, is repulsed by the apostate coward, Kichijiro, and cannot imagine sharing communion with such a creature. But when he too is faced with death or stepping on the fumie, he realizes the true path to communion with Christ: “How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross!”[4] The priest argues, “But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?” Jesus answers, “I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.” As Christ explains, “There are neither strong nor weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?” As Kitamori would put it, God does not reveal himself in power and glory but in forsakenness and suffering. Christ speaks to all, sinner and saint, faithful and faithless, as his grace is unilateral.5 Is he deterred by a mud swamp faith, which ebbs and flows with the tide, which comes and goes as circumstance demands and permits?

Theologian, Noro Yoshio, protests that Kitamori does not provide room to fight evil in our political and social life and seems to suggest a passive acceptance of evil and suffering.[6] Shoji Tsutomu, likewise concludes, Kitamori’s theology is confined to the psychological and personal and provides no basis for social praxis.[7] But the fate of two hundred years of unrelenting persecution, the helplessness felt before the power and seeming inevitability of the atomic bombs, may have marked Japanese Christianity with a sensibility of ontological suffering which Kitamori captures. It is the same sort of futility expressed by Endō and, I realize, it accounts for my own theological turn.

Where Christian faith and ethics have been made to accommodate violence, each holocaust, each murder, each slaughter of innocents, will have to be argued on the merits of the case. As with all arguments against the necessity of violence, the particulars of the argument against the justification or necessity of deploying the atomic bombs may fail to convince. The problem, as it should become evident, pertains to a faith that seems to require violence, no matter the argument. There is a form of the faith in the West that seems to require that it enact violence, much as there is a form of the faith in Japan that would accept the inevitability of being subject to suffering. An all-Christian bomber crew from an all-Christian administration guilty of vaporizing, incinerating, annihilating tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a disproportionately large number of Japanese Christians, and choosing a/the Church for ground zero, shows up the meaningless of this form of religion. Of course, the Christian faith as it was practiced by these men seems not to have figured into the decision. Christianity did not cause Truman the Baptist, Byrnes the Catholic and one of Truman’s closest advisors, or Charles Sweeney (pilot of Bock’s Car) a devout Catholic, or any of the long list of Christian advisors and actors to pause or refuse. Truman reported sleeping soundly and never having a second thought. The faith simply served, it seems, to ease the consciences of its adherents. Though the image of Christian slaughtering Christian in genocidal proportions, as in Nagasaki, forever exposed the emptiness of the predominant form of the Western religion, it was precisely their faith that blinded many to this conclusion.

We made it home with our six kittens, but much like my shedding of my received understanding of the Western Christian faith, each of the kittens slowly died due to the substitute milk which provided no nourishment.  


[1] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/

[2] Ibid. What was the point? Was it Truman’s attempt to intimidate Stalin? Secretary of State James Byrnes, we know, believed a demonstration of atomic power would help the United States dominate in the postwar era – and it was the Soviets, America’s ally, he was most concerned to impress. According to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, “[Byrnes] was concerned about Russia’s postwar behavior. . . [and thought] that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.” In the event it did not work, as the bombs and Truman’s threatening distrust initiated the Cold War arms race. Truman, baffled by the science, assumed no one else could duplicate the technology. He told Oppenheimer the Soviet Union would never acquire the technology, though Oppenheimer presumed they would shortly have the weapon, which they did.

[3] The citation of Nagai’s passage was taken from his Nagasaki no Kane [The bells of Nagasaki] and is quoted from https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/4258.

[4] Silence, 171.

[5] Ibid, 191, quoted from Ethan Richardson https://mbird.com/2012/03/the-christ-of-silence-part-two-kichijiro-or-the-judas-everyman/

[6] Yoshio Noro. Impassibiliats Dei (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1955), p. 99. Quoted from https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item?id=NQ52205&op=pdf&app=Library

[7] Tsutomu Shoji, “The Church’s Struggle for Freedom of Belief– An Aspect of Christian Mission.” in Living Theology in Asia, Edited by John C. England New York: Orbis Books. 1982). p. 56. Ibid.

The Gospel of John Lewis Versus the Gospel of Trump and Barr

As John Lewis lay in state, steps away Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive treatment of protestors by federal law enforcement officers. The accusation of the judiciary committee, before which Barr was defending himself, is that he and Trump are acting unconstitutionally in suppressing protests and fomenting their own violence. It is not at all clear that in the world of Barr there is room for peaceful protest (he seemed to equate protest with violence) of the kind which Lewis spent his life leveraging to expose injustice. Barr claimed the force used against peaceful protesters (he acknowledged some were peaceful but nonetheless deserving of violent suppression), using pepper spray and clubbing protestors, was warranted. The methods of the civil rights icon and the methods of the President and Attorney General are of two different worlds. The way the New Testament characterizes these two worlds is through the two logics on display in the Capital: in one world we must do evil that good may come (peace is obtained through violence), and in the other the end and the means are tied together.

Lewis taught that the means of violence and peace will bring about their own end. The means of violence fosters violence and the means of peace fosters peace. According to this understanding, the turn to violent protest and violent suppression of protest dilutes the message of peaceful protest – and this may be the goal of some. Extremists on the right or the left (or perhaps both) may have reasons to foment violence, and it may be that the Attorney General and President would prefer undiluted violence. The goal, as is evident in their method, is not peace. As Lewis maintained, there is one “immutable principle that you cannot deviate from. If you want to have a good end, your means must be good and noble. Somehow, some way, the end must be caught up in the means.”

This most obvious principle may be the least noticed and least practiced tenet of the gospel. The way of the world, the necessary logic which orders politics, nations, and individuals, is the presumption that peace can only be obtained by war, that violence can only be halted with more extreme violence, and that force must be meant with more force. This, let us do evil so as to achieve a good end, is the counter-gospel. The method of Trump and Barr is the message of the world and the message of history. In this understanding, if the enemy bombs civilians than we will drop bigger and better bombs on civilian populations. If the enemy resorts to cruel torture we will duplicate and exceed this torture. The federal agents escalating the violence on the streets are following the logic of their masters and their forebears. It is this logic that set state troopers to clubbing and bloodying Lewis on the Edmund Pettus bridge. It is this logic by which we arrive at the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and the destruction of civilian populations – even by those who had only a few short years before forsworn such action.

The one thing world history should teach but the lesson it cannot get across, is the message of John Lewis: war does not end war and violence does not stop violence. What is most obvious is that violence begets violence and is most dangerous when it seems to succeed, as it becomes the lure to imitation. The way in which we have arrived at mutually assured destruction, the way which would club down the John Lewises of the world, is the way of world destruction. The truth of Lewis is the living exposure of the contradiction toward which history has been moving. Barr is part of a long history in his escalation of violence. It is this logic in which we are grounded personally and corporately by dint of being enculturated into this world. The dominant force in the world, religious and personal, is not that which animated the life of John Lewis, but the opposite: violence and evil are the way to peace and goodness.

In this world human beings are thought to be incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must be violently imposed: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, the elite over commoners, rulers over people, and the police over citizens. It is necessary to dominate (“We must dominate the streets,” according to Trump) as to do anything less is weakness. The powers of state, of religion, of logic, call for dominance and unquestioning acquiescence. To cause trouble is by definition bad trouble, as the highest virtue, the supreme religious value, is obedience to the dominance of the powers. In this world, there is no such thing as Lewis’s “good trouble.” We are trained not to resist, not to challenge, as the dominating system is thought to be God’s system. We are not to exercise dominion but we are called to serve it, die for it, sacrifice our sons and daughters for it. In serving the dominating system, after all, don’t we serve God and his earthly representatives? Where violence is the norm, in the words of Walter Wink, “The tasks of humanity are to till the soil, to produce foods for sacrifice to the gods (represented by the king and the priestly caste), to build the sacred city Babylon, and to fight and, if necessary, die in the king’s wars.”[1] Where the President is God’s chosen representative, in the characterization of Barr, there is no other legitimate or legal force.  Peaceful protest against the powers is an oxymoron in this world.

This singular world of legal violence is not new, as the myth of redemptive violence constitutes the oldest form of religion and is the organizing principle, according to René Girard, of human society. For example, in the Babylonian creation myth violence is the primordial condition from which life arises. The god, Marduk, murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. Order arises from a primordial disorder and chaos. Evil precedes the good and the gods themselves are violent. This basic structure is shared by the myths of Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, Japan, and China. Girard maintains that the violence of the myth, whether hidden or obvious, is what generates the mythic form and it constitutes the violent organization of society. As Wink describes it, “Typically, a male war god residing in the sky— Wotan, Zeus, or Indra, for example— fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element).” Once the enemy is vanquished by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. In Japan (a myth with which I became acquainted partly because I lived at the base of the Mountain where the gods descended) the various gods are formed from the body parts of Izanagi while Izanami was shut up in to the place of the dead. As Wink notes, “Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.”[2] Girard’s point is that myth, or the very structure of religion, is framed around the notion of redemptive violence and murder. The murder mythologized channels violence and organizes society around sacrifice and oppression. The murdered scapegoat becomes the redeeming mythological deity, making all things possible (warding off the chaos of violence and its various representations).

This tendency toward murderous myth indicates the deep psychological ties to the necessity of violence. It constitutes religion because it is already the substance in which we seem to live and move and have our being. It is the personal necessity, Paul describes, in which we experience our own ego. We are continually subject to an agonistic struggle apart from which we cannot imagine our own existence. We are set over and against ourselves, doing what we would not and incapable of doing what we would, and this reality seems to define us. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, to resolve the conflict would be to destroy personhood, as we are born and have our being in chaos and conflict.  The myth and logic of redemptive violence, the world of Barr and Trump, speaks with the voice of God and cannot possibly recognize a prophet, such as Lewis. The deep grammar of deploying evil and violence to gain peace finds the message of peace incomprehensible and totally impractical.

Christianity, rightly realized, is the counter to the world constituted by violence and the logic of doing evil to gain the good. Once violence is identified as the force which would rule and destroy us, biblical redemption can be read as the counter to this all-pervasive dominating force. Beginning with an alternative creation, not by means of chaos but the good ordering the chaos, the anti-myth of Genesis can be read as a direct rebuttal and counter to Babylonian myth and all creation myths. Rather than a primordial chaos and violence, the Bible portrays a good God who creates from an original peace and goodness (he is the good and peaceful origin). God pronounces creation good and this goodness reigns prior to the existence of evil, murder, and violence. Violence is not the means to something else in Genesis but is a product of the Fall and is posed as the primary problem.  

The culmination of the gospel, like the powers that presently divide this country, pits the religion, the law, the powers, of the world against the religion of Jesus. The war that is still being waged is between those who put Jesus on the cross in the name of power and religion (“to save the nation, for the greater good, our religion requires it”) and those willing to take up crosses (to counter the religion and powers of the day). It was the equivalent of the president and the attorney general, not rabble rousers, not protesters, but the religious and political powers, who put Jesus on the cross. What we can now perceive, because of Christ, is that the violence done to Jesus follows the age-old rule of redemptive violence. This violence has always been an attack on God, which would displace him with the god of violence. The peace of the gospel is the counteraction of God, in which the war on God is exposed and is being defeated, through the cross and its warriors.

It is this reality which Lewis’s principle puts into play. Paul describes the enactment of peace, truth, and righteousness, as their own weapons their own means and end. The armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20) does not consist of secondary means or material: truth, righteousness, and peace, are their own armor. The movement called “salvation” is the deployment of weapons of nonviolence which constitute the word of God. These are not simply defensive weapons but are part of the offense against the lie, the unrighteousness, the way of violence which Paul describes in Romans 3. In this world, understanding is obscured as all have given themselves over to the lie of violence. The organs of speech deal in death: throats are graves, tongues deceive, and lips spew poison, and this culminates in the shedding of blood and mutually assured destruction (Ro. 3:10-18). Paul sums up this deadly logic as the perversity of doing evil for the good (Ro. 3:8), establishing the law through sin (Ro. 7:1), and committing transgressions to gain grace (Ro. 6:1). Where the undergirding logic, the feet or the moving force of this way, is bloodshed, Paul describes the gospel of peace as its own moving force (an inherent “readiness”). Only peace can counter the contagion and logic that has gripped the world and only peace brings together means and end. It is not by evil that good shall come but the means to the good – peace, righteousness, truth – foster the end through the means.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (47). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 45-46.  

The “Good Trouble” of John Lewis and Jesus

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis

In seeking to cause “good trouble” John Lewis (the civil rights activist and one of the last surviving members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle) deployed Christ-like challenges to evil. He understood that the Gospel does not teach non-resistance to evil, though this is often the interpretation given to Jesus’ words (in Matt. 5:38-41), in spite of the fact that everything about Christ is resistance to evil. What we have in the life of Lewis is the embodiment of Jesus’ mode of “nonviolent resistance” (the correct translation – and in accord with Paul’s direct command in Ephesians to resist evil). In this verse Christ provides the sort of examples Lewis would employ in his 40 odd arrests and in being nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

As Walter Wink notes, each of Jesus’ three examples is a specific mode of exposing the underside of an unjust law or an evil situation.  In the first, “By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way.” The shame and degradation are absorbed and overcome by the unyielding servant standing firm. “The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists . . . and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.” This is no passive acceptance but a form of defiance which renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance.[1] Or in Paul’s description, here is one standing firm and resisting evil, not through violence, but through the armor of nonviolence. Paul explains, if one takes up this full armor of God, they will be able to resist evil (Eph 6:13).

The master could do what the police did to the civil rights marchers (beat the slave), but the violence is itself a defeat (the slave is not cowed and the marchers cause is proved just). The violence done to the civil rights marchers exposed to the world the inherent racism of this legal violence. Troopers swinging clubs and throwing tear gas canisters, charged the marchers and ran them over as they broke bones and cracked skulls, Lewis’s among them. Yet, less than ten days later, and after the world witnessed the horrific lengths racists would go to, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The Act banned the use of literacy tests and poll taxes – the goal of the protest.

The nonviolent movement for civil rights, like the nonviolent movement of Mahatma Gandhi, discovered the form of resistance inherent in going the second mile, turning the other cheek, giving both cloak and undergarment, and culminating in taking up the cross.  If a creditor takes a poor man to court over an unpaid loan, he had the right to take his outer robe as collateral (Deuteronomy 24:10-13). Jesus is not suggesting people should simply confound their problem in offering the undergarment as well; rather he is suggesting that the injustice of being stripped naked exposes the inherent injustice of the situation. Here is the legal equivalent of letting the blow land and turning the other cheek. “He is telling impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.” Exorbitant interest on loans (25 to 250 percent), and high taxation levied by Herod Antipas, was being used by the powerful to dispossess Galilean peasants of their land. Jesus counsels them to give over their undergarments as this would mean being left naked in court. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell primarily on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9: 20–27). By stripping, the debtor exposes the injustice of the situation and brings shame on the creditor.[2]

So too, the civil rights marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, forced the authorities to decide between allowing the blacks to march and thus acknowledging the legitimacy of their protest; or they could violently stop it, thus exposing their own race hatred to all the world. The equivalent of turning the other cheek and allowing them to expose their helplessness or the equivalent of being stripped naked of their rights, simultaneously exposed the ugly underside of those who covered themselves with the law. Far from the usual interpretation, that Christians do not use the law to their advantage, this reading accords with Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship to extract an apology from city officials, or Christ’s exposure of the perverseness of the law on the cross. There is a way of “suspending the law” (in Paul’s description of the work of Christ) and exposing its perverse underside. There is an excess to the law that brings about sin, but this is at once a personal and corporate predicament, exposed and relieved by the love of Christ.

Lewis devoted his life to exposing the perverse underside of racist laws by deploying both Christ’s nonviolent resistance and love, with the aim of creating what he called the “Beloved Community.” This sort of challenge to evil is not for the faint of heart or cowardly. As Gandhi pointed out, it is easy enough to make a violent person nonviolent but it is impossible to teach a coward nonviolent resistance. Perhaps one of Lewis’s greatest acts though, and one that confirmed the effectiveness of his love of enemies (he cautioned against becoming hostile or bitter toward enemies) was his acceptance of repentance and granting of forgiveness to a former Klansmen.

In 1961, Lewis as part of the Freedom Riders, entered the white waiting area in the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to protest segregation. Elwin Wilson was one of a group of white men who beat Lewis upon this infraction. Lewis did not fight back and declined to press charges. According to Wilson, “What happened was, after he was beat and bloody and all, the policeman came up and asked him, he said, ‘Do y’all want to take out warrants? [Press charges].'” “He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘We’re not here to cause trouble.’ He said, ‘We’re here for people to love each other.'” Wilson would never forget the statement and he would eventually discover the man he had beaten had become a congressman and he would seek him out to ask for forgiveness. Years later, Lewis and Wilson appeared together in an interview with Oprah, and in the still of the interview Lewis has his hand gently resting on Wilson’s.

Perhaps this is an instance of Jesus example of going the second mile. Any bystander could be pressed into service, with the only limitation being one of distance. Carrying the pack or burden a second mile was an infraction of Roman military code and the offending soldier could be flogged, receive reduced rations, forced to camp outside the fortifications, or forced to stand all day before the general’s tent clutching a clod of earth. The oppressor has opened himself to punishment should the civilian file a complaint. The very possibility means that the one oppressed by the law has turned the tables, not to oppress in turn, though Lewis or the anonymous citizen could act vindictively. But in Jesus command and in Lewis’s example, love is the final arbiter. Love is not averse to turning round the oppressive momentum, but not for revenge but to create the mutual recognition of humanity (perhaps fostering uncertainty and anxiety in the oppressor) and creating the possibility for repentance.[3]  

The great dignity and love of John Lewis demonstrate that nonviolent resistance works toward justice through a heart overflowing with love – up to and including love of enemy. This is a hard love and is in no way otherworldly or impractical. As Wink concludes, Jesus is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual transcendence. His is a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of power learn to recover their humanity through nonviolent resistance.[4]

 John Lewis devoted a lifetime to demonstrating and modeling the power of nonviolent resistance to defeat evil. In his own words, which indicate his legacy, “The irony is that a bridge named after a man who inflamed racial hatred (Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan) is now known worldwide as a symbol of equality and justice. It is biblical—what was meant for evil, God used for good.” Lewis’s deployment of Christ’s nonviolent resistance insured he could be so used for God’s good purposes.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 102. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 104.

[3] Wink, 108.

[4] Wink, 108.

Is the Law Inherently Racist?

Critical race theory (CRT), the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of colour.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Two articles were brought to my attention this week on critical race theory; one a decent if incomplete engagement with the issues by Kelly Hamren[1] and the other a disturbing explanation of “how Christians ought to think” on this issue (they should reject it completely).  The second article was disturbing, not so much in its portrayal of critical race theory (which was disturbing enough), but in its portrayal of a Christianity which cannot begin to interact with the potential insights of critical theory in general or any insights outside of its own narrow view of reality. The author pits critical race theory against Christianity as two competing worldviews, closed off to one another, with critical race theory seeking liberation from oppression, and Christianity seeking to save from sin (no mention is made of the liberating motifs of Scripture). Sin, in this understanding has nothing to do with real-world oppression but with the fact that we “stand condemned before a holy God.” The author presumes his authority derives from the Bible and that oppressed groups (minorities, women, etc.) cannot claim any particular insight over and against those who would oppress (white men?). If we allow for this claim, he argues, we subtract from biblical authority and rational understanding. The author portrays a complete incapacity to question his own access to reason and the Bible “as the final arbiter of truth.”

It is precisely this truncated version of Christianity that Kelly Hamren critiques in her more balanced article defending certain aspects of critical race theory. Her article brings a breath of fresh air into the discussion and my critique may seem to be quibbling, but seeks to address a key missing element in her article. She imagines that the primary contrast between Christianity and Marxism pertains to belief in a soul and what she means by soul is an entity separable from its environment or circumstance. She is working with the notion (I presume both authors are working within the same broad evangelical (Augustinian and Calvinist) framework) that sin, in her description, “originates in the human heart” or the notion that “circumstances don’t cause sin.” While she wants to allow for a more in-depth engagement with social structures, she shares the understanding that the heart and soul are primary and social structures are secondary (as if inward and outward or soul and body can be arranged in this way). She does not see Christianity as directly addressing societal issues as part of salvation but she sees Christianity as requiring that Christians, once they are saved, be “good stewards of the society in which we live.”

The initial question is whether Christ came to change the human heart or whether he came to change the human circumstance? That is, can hearts can be changed apart from a holistic change in circumstance? If hearts or souls can be redeemed apart from their circumstance, then what is the necessity of Christ intervening historically, culturally, bodily, in the human condition? In the view that the soul is isolated, one need not be saved from bigotry or racism (or any other outward manifestation of the inward problem) as these only indirectly pertain to the main problem in the heart. In this understanding, if one is saved it is proper to be anti-racist but this anti-racism is not itself part of salvation. In Hamren’s depiction, one should be a good steward of society but society and its redemption are not integral to salvation.

This understanding passes over the entire historical, socio-political sweep of biblical history, and does not fit with Paul’s picture of a unified nation (bringing together Jews and Gentiles or all people) as synonymous with the work of the Gospel. Salvation through the body of Christ, the Church, is social in that it pertains to a new economy, a new politic, and a new culture. This social salvation certainly addresses the reconstitution of the soul. Christianity, however, does not skip right to the private soul (a notion lacking in the Bible) and bypass social structures but it presumes that God’s kingdom work, first through Israel and then through the Church, shapes the individual (the soul) through a renewed social and corporate entity – the Body of Christ, the Church, the Kingdom of God. This understanding is an opening to the insights of critical race theory and to a variety of fields pertaining to the human condition.

Critical race theory works from a Marxist framework in assuming that the way to change people is to change society (the project of Lenin and Mao) but this is not reason enough, as Hamren points out, to reject it in its entirety. The error of Marxism is to imagine that human manipulation alone can engineer this utopia. Marxism is unbiblical or un-Christian in the absolute weight that it lends to human social structure, in the final trust it extends to human powers to engineer and manipulate, and in its materialistic determinism, but Marxism and critical race theory are most biblical in linking oppression (whether that of class or race) to the deep structures of legal theory. In fact, I would suggest that this is something on the order of a theological recognition, borrowed from a biblical insight, into the working of law.

Jewish law and the formation of the Jewish people cannot be extracted from one another, as Jews are a people established through Jewish law (circumcision, the laws surrounding the tabernacle, etc.). But in establishing the Jews, Jewish law is necessarily not adequate for universal justice or adequate to establish universal egalitarianism. Of course the Jewish problem (ethnocentrism, exclusiveness, the notion they alone are saved) is the human problem.  The Jewish error, the archetype of the universal error, is to imagine that law alone makes them right (righteous or that law establishes justice). Or to state it in Pauline terms, the human error is to imagine there is life in the law, when the law is inherently unstable (it was never meant to be an end in itself or a foundation) and ultimately deals only in death. Paul (in Romans 7) depicts his encounter with law as giving rise to sin and death and depicts the law as giving rise to an internal hostility within him (he is against himself). In Ephesians and Galatians he depicts a social hostility between Jews and Gentiles as a result of the law. In the Gospels, Roman and Jewish legal authorities converged in their agreement that killing Christ was a necessity (that the nation might be saved according to Caiaphas). The very source of life was crucified by those who would gain life through the law. So on both a corporate and an individual level there is a structural problem which pertains to the law and human orientation to the law.

The recognition that this country’s law and legal institutions not only privilege one race but serve to establish that race is simply another manifestation of the biblical depiction of the function and malfunction of the law. Jewish privilege and Gentile exclusion constitutes a hostility built into the law (the wall in the temple was a concrete representation of the law as a dividing wall of hostility). White privilege (or receiving unwarranted advantage) and black and brown exclusion from privilege, it should not be a surprise, is structural and legal. It is not those who receive the privilege but those who are denied it (Gentiles, slaves, and women, in Paul’s description) or those made to suffer under the law which notice its disparities. As long as the Jews insisted on law keeping, entailing their privileged position, and as long as they insisted on the primacy of the law, this excluded them from Christian salvation (freedom from the law). Christians should be most sensitive to the hostile divisions incorporated into law undone only in Christ. The notion that justice and righteousness (life) are enshrined in law in this country, the very definition of sin in Paul’s depiction, is a case in point of the universal deception. Christians are those who are no longer deceived by this sin in regard to the law (Romans 7:8).

In summary and conclusion, critical race theory, like Marxism, may be misguided in the absolute weight that it lends to human social structure but this is not in contrast to belief in an isolated soul, rather, it is in contrast with belief in God. That is, the choice is not between social redemption or the salvation of souls. Both Christianity and critical race theory recognize the primacy of the social, with the obvious difference that for Christians the social includes the spiritual and the divine. Marxism and critical race theory contrast with Christianity, not in embrace of the social but in privileging law, to the exclusion of God, as foundational to the social.  The Christian God is Trinitarian and social so that invitation into participation in Trinity is invitation into an eternally grounded society which suspends the law. Salvation is not private or pertaining only to isolated souls but neither is it simply a manipulation of human society through law. Salvation grounds human relations in the divine society, so that to be formed by the law or, what is the same thing, to be racist or ethnocentric, entails exclusion from this ultimate and universal social relation.


[1] Kelly Hamren, “Social Justice, Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and Biblical Ethics Looking at Marxism and Critical Race Theory in light of the problem of racism in America” in Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2020/june/reflections-from-christian-scholar-on-social-justice-critic.html?fbclid=IwAR0ta2KlaisOzYLg1u1MwqBa9PkBeMvUQxZ

Exposing the “Powers”: Japan, Germany, and the United or Confederate States

I have long wanted to write a fact-based novel portraying what Walter Wink calls the “powers.”[1] The “powers” refers to the spirit or personality of a country or group of people which is larger than the sum total of its parts. The peculiar “spirit” or power I have encountered in both Japan and the United States is remarkable in its capacity to shape and blind people to their history (e.g. war crimes, the enslavement of other peoples) and as a result of this blindness to continue to oppress (and, of course, I am thinking of the present moment in this country in which the blindness to racism is being made evident).

Japanese citizens resemble those in post war Germany, in counting themselves the primary victims of their military and governmental leaders during World War II. Very few admit to any sort of guilt on the part of the Emperor, their own family, or within themselves. Though Germany also experienced this victim mentality, counting themselves the ultimate and worst victims of the war and portraying a blindness to the near universal support of Hitler, the philosopher, Susan Neiman, describes how Germans, over a period of decades, have confronted their past through memorials, official acts of remembrance, and reparations.[2] Otherwise Germans might see themselves as victims, on the order of Southerners who continue to imagine the lost cause of the Confederacy was just and heroic.

Even slight acquaintance with the history of the Confederate States dispels the pervasive narrative that the Civil War was about States’ Rights. The point of secession was, according to the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens, to correct the United States Constitution: “The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” Stephens deploys biblical language, referring to Christ, to describe slavery as the cornerstone of Southern States: “This stone which was rejected by the first builders ‘is become the chief of the corner’—the real ‘corner-stone’—in our new edifice.” The reason for secession and the resulting war was to establish “a new government . . . upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” The Christian language deployed lends the strongest of terms to the religious-like commitment to slavery, which stood at the heart of the Confederacy.

Perhaps we would also witness defense of Nazi statuary and Nazi memorials, rather than holocaust memorials, if it weren’t for the particular history in East and West Germany which required the deconstruction of German history. Neiman traces the efforts of clergy, the publication of memoirs of survivors, the production of films and books, and the pressure of various government officials in efforts to change the narrative of “Germans as victims.” A growing self-awareness and broad German acknowledgment of complicity in the rise of Hitler has required a decades long struggle.

This self-awareness or any acknowledgement of corporate guilt is mostly missing in Japan, a blindness which is also intimately connected to the dominance of right-wing politics and attitudes in educational institutions and in the culture as a whole. The Japanese equivalent of Nazi memorials or Confederate statues is the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating Hideki Tojo (the wartime prime minister) and 13 other war criminals (along with millions of war dead) as Japanese deities. Nearly every government, since the end of the war, has worshipped at this shrine, marking the right leaning nationalism of post-war Japan. These same governments have continued to cover up war crimes, and have resisted text book entries which include “aggression in” China (it was, government representatives insist, an “advance”) and have instead focused on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[3] While we were in Japan the Ministry of Education mandated the singing of the Kimigayo (the national anthem indicating the deity of the Emperor) before the Hinomaru (the national flag) at graduation and entrance ceremonies (which fits with right wing goals and a nationalist slant on Japanese history). State powers are at work in institutions, in corporate culture, often marked by peculiar cruelties in schools and in the workplace. The point being that personal attitudes, corporate attitudes, and the political reality of the country, are all quite interconnected and traceable in people’s daily lives.

 In my would be historical fictional portrayal of my real experience of a small town, a psychoanalytic researcher is dispatched to Hartdale, Texas to diagnose how an entire community has become subject to a mysterious malign force. The specific phenomena developed in the research pertains to “research on violence and identity as a corporate and learned process.” What our intrepid researcher discovers, is that while the community imagines itself built on the redemptive act destroying the Bloody Benders (this part of the story is true – the Benders and their demise), this final act of violence, the very act related to the establishment of Hartdale, had a corporate and individual impact. The violence that “saved” Hartdale and the myths that surround this violence turns out to have slowly impacted the lives of many its citizens.

The point of this book that will never be written is that, given the right tools, I believe the story could be told of how the corporate personalities, the schools, the churches, the communities, in which we have our life can also be exposed in the ways they would destroy life. There is a hidden center, an idolatrous violence, which corruptly organizes the powers. This is most obvious among the “possessed,” those suffering PTSD, or those who commit acts of violence, as those subjected to violence and oppression bear traceable marks of their trauma. Lonnie Athens, in his doctoral studies, interviewed hundreds of violent criminals to arrive at a pattern which he calls “violentization.” He discovered that those who commit the worst forms of violence have themselves been exposed to consistent and predictable levels of violence as children. Would this not hold true for corporate personalities or to what Paul refers to as the principalities and powers, or those corporate personalities of states, towns, and smaller groups of people? They must bear a peculiar history that explains how they may have gone bad or become either good or demonic.

In Japan, religion is at stake in the worship at Yasukuni Shrine and in the peculiar religious nationalism surrounding the Hinomaru and Kimigayo. In Germany, it was clearly something on the order of a religious blindness that refused corporate acceptance of national complicity in the rise of National Socialism. In my real-fictional Hartdale it becomes possible to trace the genealogy of violence in a community founded on originary violence in individual lives. We want and perhaps, require heroic ancestors, a heroic nation, or a heroic history. At the very least, we would see ourselves as victims of violence, rather than its perpetrators. Confrontation with this lie we would tell ourselves about our identity must be the essential part of what Paul describes as the exposure and witness to the principalities and powers.

The debate over Confederate statues and the Confederate flag concerns founding myths and how we order our lives and it raises the question of whether that history will be confronted and exposed or whether it will continue to support an ethos of violence and oppression.


[1] C.S. Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength, may be the sort of work I am thinking of but in my story the spiritual and fantastic would be replaced by more ordinary developments (which probably would not make for a very good novel).

[2] Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, See https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-to-confront-a-racist-national-history

[3] Through the life-long efforts of Saburo Ienaga the most widely used Japanese textbooks in the mid- and late-1990s contained references to the Nanjing Massacre, anti-Japanese resistance movements in Korea, forced suicide in Okinawa, comfort women, and Unit 731 (responsible for conducting medical experiments on prisoners of war)—all issues raised in Ienaga’s suits.

Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the American Holocaust.

It was 16-year-old James Cameron, accused and strung up with Shipp and Smith and then given a last-minute reprieve, who would found America’s Black Holocaust Museum. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, echoes the poem in his concerted attempt to view the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” Cone’s Theology has been criticized for its too narrow focus and exclusion, but in this time in which Christians seems to be supporting widespread oppression of the poor and oppressed, Cone points us in a definitive direction away from evil.

It may be difficult to place ourselves amidst the crowd at the foot of the lynching tree. Difficult, not in the sense that we can never imagine doing such a thing but precisely because this is near enough that we understand this crowd. Living in Little Dixie here in Missouri, the rebel flag is still proudly displayed, racists abound, and the majority of white Christians are stumped as to why the emphasis should be on black lives. One can hear the echo of Caiaphas in the comeback: rather than “all lives” or “blue lives” how about “Roman lives” or “Pharisee lives” matter – therefore this man must die. It is possible to imagine the sway of the crowd and being caught up in the moment – the blind hatred is too near not to recognize its potential. As Ted Peters has stated it, “What is there about striking out violently and killing others that makes us think we can quell the pangs of anxiety, overcome our frustrations. Relieve our rage, regain a sense of self-worth, and thereby conquer death? Killing others seems to relieve our own fear of being killed.”3 When the crowd turns, in a moment of scapegoating, the cowardice and instinct for survival may be strong – but stronger yet is the blind hatred for this victim who is disrupting our lives, harming our religion, and threatening our nation. Through this “righteous slaughter” we can attain some eternal, universal form of the good.4 “Lynch him so that our nation might be saved! Lynch him so that law and order will return and righteousness be served!”

It may be that we have to equate the two – the lynching tree and the Cross – to recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose.

In a strange twist, “Christian” hatred of the stranger, the refugee, and the oppressed, silences the one who exposes the reality of this hatred: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). While we often sing and theologize about being at the foot of the Cross, our theology is such that the horror of the occasion is mitigated by the imagined fact that God is pulling the strings. We might, in a cavalier fashion, place ourselves at the foot of the cross but the lynching tree does not afford easy association. Cone’s point is that Christians, who so easily stand with the oppressors and cannot identify with the oppressed, have been desensitized by their Christianity. Instead of curing blind hatred this Christianity seems to induce it.

Christianity, with the lynchings of African Americans, the crusades, American slavery, Nazi genocide, oppression of women and minorities, etc, has been implicated in evil. Christians have not just been innocent by-standers but have many times been a force for evil.5 I believe, with Cone, that it is time to begin to definitively identify this false Christianity (which even the Apostle John calls the religion of the Antichrist) and distinguish it from an authentic Christianity. Can we can locate the evil, which is not part of an authentic Christianity? Can Christians identify and rid themselves of evil?

Our theology has so tamed the event of the crucifixion that preachers are forced to go to excruciating lengths to recount the pain of the Cross. No one needs to explain the humiliation and suffering of Shipp and Smith. Details only add to the horror of the photograph: both of the arms of Abram Smith were broken to keep him from trying to free himself; police officers participated in the lynching; there was no rape; none of the crowd were ever convicted of a crime. Even without commentary, the photograph conveys the evil. The lynching tree is a revolting horror from which we would turn away. The Cross, on the other hand, is a common piece of jewelry. Equating the lynching tree and the Cross focuses the attention on the evil and violence. The question is, how does the Cross address the evil of the lynching tree? Cone’s work brings out the specific role of atonement theology in disabling this equation (though he has not, I believe, given a full explanation to this question).

In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction, has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that this is not an equation we normally come to. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 6

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constanitinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate. As I will demonstrate in this series of blogs, Anselm’s “logic” building toward the need for the death of Christ is the logic of those who killed him. God is in one accord with Christ’s executioners. He does not refuse or resist the violence but is the ultimate perpetrator and the one who reinforces or generates its structure.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”7 

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community. Sign up here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings)  

1 Written by Abel Meeropol.

2 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

3 Ted Peters, Sin and Radical Evil, 41.

4 After extensive interviewing and analysis sociologist Jack Katz concludes that criminals in general and killers in particular seek to embody, “through the practice of ‘righteous slaughter,’ some eternal, universal form of the Good.” The form it typically takes is that of righteous rage to which someone else has to be sacrificed.

5This is not to argue, with the New Atheists, that Christianity and religion are to blame for all evil and violence in the world. 20th Century secularism, Marxism and Fascism, have unleashed a radical evil that outdoes the problematic history of Christianity. What is clear is that the human heart is evil and where Christianity is so perverted so as not to address or confront this evil it has become complicit with evil.

6 J. Denny Weaver. The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 144-145). Kindle Edition.

7Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 101.

Why “All Lives Matter” Misses the Cross

In the tension between the particularism of James Cone’s theology (which might be characterized by the phrase, “black lives matter”), with its focus on black experience, and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its focus on abstract and unattainable universals (which might be summed up as “all lives matter”) reside the problem of universals and particulars. The question is, if you can get to the former (“all lives matter” or the universal) without prior and exclusive focus on the latter (“black lives matter” or the particular)?

Those who blithely intone, what must seem to them the higher principle – the universal, “all lives matter,” are clearly prone to be blind to the particular. The danger, as demonstrated in the past hundred years, is that the leap to the universal conceals the particular vested interest, the forms of exclusion which have given rise to imperialism, death camps, exploitation of the 3rd world by the first world, or the bloodiest period in all of human history. The direct move to the universal (the enlightenment?) is the root cause of suppression and exclusion of differences. The question is, in an order where “all lives matter” in general, will some lives in particular have to be sacrificed, overlooked, or suppressed for the universal (as in the logic that “one man must die that the nation would be saved)?  

Historically, it is clear that where the universal precedes the particular there is a wink and a nod, perhaps unconscious or suppressed, as to which group does not fit the universal. In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction of which life matters, this supposed universal condition (the condition of law, the condition of the state) is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life” from Aristotle onward.

 The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[1] Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside of the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to only bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.  

The point of the Gospel is that the universal (God) is not to be had apart from the particular (the incarnate Christ) and the most pertinent particular of this Christ is that he was lynched outside the city gates. In John Milbank’s description, Christ as homo sacer is the exception beyond exception. He exposes the place of exception as the place of God.  It was those who presumed to overlook the man (the realism, in Niebuhr’s terms, of the particular) that are responsible for his lynching and every lynching.

In this establishment of human sovereignty, the true Sovereign is excluded. God is on the lynching tree and is excluded by those who would gain life by killing him. There is no mystery as to who might be most prone to dispense with a particular life (a bare life, a biological life that has none of the qualities of “good life”). It will be those who presume to be able to distill the universal without reference to an overlooked sort of particular.

To make the point that American theological perspective begins and ends in a peculiar blindness, Cone cites the example of Niebuhr, America’s favorite theologian. His “Christian realism” was admired by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter and in the present time, President Barack Obama has called Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr’s Christian realism presumes that self-interest must always be figured into the justice that will be implemented and this justice will always fall short of love. Because of humanity’s natural tendency to deny sin, we can never fully reach the ethical standard of agape love. The best that we can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, or a balance of power among competing groups. He leaves room for the reality of faith, hope and love only as a future possibility.

Niebuhr claims the 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of “separate but equal,” which made Jim Crow segregation legal in the South, was a positive move, allowing for gradual change. He praised the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation, yet he was also pleased by the Court’s added phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” which “wisely” gave the white South “time to adjust” (while also opening a loophole to delay integration). Cone says, “Niebuhr’s call for gradualism, patience, and prudence during the decade when Willie McGee (1951), Emmett Till (1955), M. C. “Mack” Parker (1959), and other blacks were lynched sounds like that of a southern moderate more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice for black people.”[2] When Martin Luther King asked Niebuhr to sign a petition appealing to President Eisenhower to protect black children involved in integrating schools in the South, Niebuhr declined.

In the end, Niebuhr would seem to fall among those sort of liberals King counted more insidious to blocking civil rights than overt racists. Niebuhr, in his silence on lynching displays his own blindness and the inherent problem of beginning with a presumed shared knowledge or agreed upon universal. In his theology, ever focused on an abstract future universal, he is willing to continually delay justice.

Though Cone credits Karl Barth for his turn to the Word (rather than the given human reality) as his own escape from this Niebuhrian/American form of theology, nonetheless he insists this encounter with the Word is very particular. He pits his starting point against that of Barth and focus on the “objective word”: “I am black first—and everything else comes after that. This means that I read the Bible through the lens of a black tradition of struggle and not as the objective Word of God.” Cone’s experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow era in Arkansas, is the singular, particular approach to his understanding of the word of the cross.

 He concludes his long theological career with the realization the lynching tree, the definitive symbol of black fear and subjugation and white supremacy, is the singular access he has to rightly understanding the cross.  They put Christ to death by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:39), excluding his life as one of those that mattered. The power elites, who order the valuation of life in the polis, required this death outside of the city. So too, every universal human organization of “lives that matter” will necessarily make this demarcation with the blood of those that do not.

 Cone references the work of Paula Frederickson to note that that description of the cross perfectly describes lynching in the United States. “Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”[3]

Though Golgotha was the sight of a first century lynching and it would seem only natural to draw out the parallel, yet there is no place for the lynching tree in American theological reflection. Isn’t this silence a telling condemnation of the value of this theological tradition? As Cone poses the question: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”[4] The silence in regard to lynching, the very possibility of lynching, but the inability to see the cross in the lynching tree must mean that the reality of the cross remains invisible. Those who oppress and lynch in the name of Christ have undoubtedly been guilty of the worst apostasy, but those that cannot name this apostasy continue in the same blindness.

The point of the cross and the point of the Gospel is not to validate the way our culture, nation, and cities organize and value life but it is to upset this order. Where “all lives matter” is the starting point, the danger is that some lives matter more immediately while others matter theoretically, and one can thus be satisfied with future or theoretical equality and justice. In other words, where “all lives matter” or where the universal is the starting point, the life extinguished on the lynching tree, the life of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and the uncounted others, clearly do not count as lives that matter but serve to affirm the life that “really counts” (the life of the lynch mob or the representatives of the culture that have carried out the murders).

What “all lives matter” misses is focus on the particularity – the particulars of black lives and the particularity of the cross. Much like a negative theology which cannot predicate any determinate qualities of God, the “all life” is simply bare life, undistinguished life, so that what is excluded from the “all” is the suffering and humiliation of the particular life of Christ or of black lives. To miss the fact that God, in Christ, identifies with the particular, with suffering lives, outcast lives, is to miss the life that matters.

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community.)  


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.

[2] Ibid, p. 48.

[3] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 43). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.