On the universal necessity of our crosses

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

The faith I grew up with had a singular notion of the meaning of the cross: it was simply the necessary price that someone had to pay in order to satisfy God’s need to punish us for our sins. This “vicarious” sacrifice ensured that God’s retributive justice was satisfied so that his forgiveness could be extended on an individual basis to each sinner. As such, it was done for me as something I could not do for myself. Jesus “took your punishment,” he “lived the life he lived and died an innocent man so you don’t have to.” Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo established for us this principle: Jesus is God become human because no mere human could do what God could do, but a human must do it–hence “why God became man.” And, because he did something which was not possible for us, we reap the benefits at no personal cost.

My oversimplification here is intentional. At Forging Ploughshares, Paul and the rest of us who have contributed have written, interviewed, and podcasted extensively on the problems of penal substitutionary atonement.

To my mind, though, the brilliance of penal substitution as it is developed in the centuries post-Anselm is its simplicity and ease. The problem Jesus came to solve? Well, we’ve committed “sins,” actions God didn’t want us to do that, once done, irreversibly give us a mystical mark as “sinners,” prohibiting our entry into heaven and destining us to eternal suffering or destruction. The “defeat of death” in the resurrection spoken of throughout the New Testament is simply the promise of eternal life, post-mortem in heaven purchased entirely by someone else.

Because of the mystical nature of what this salvation is, the real question for the reformers who ran with Anselm’s initial theory was always “what then must be done to apply the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the individual sinner?” And, because of their rightful distaste for the corrupt Roman Catholic church of their day, they became convinced that nothing was required but a nebulous “faith.” Ultimately, while Luther and Calvin transitioned Anselm’s initial medieval analogies to more contemporary court analogies, the thrust remained the same: Jesus had done something for you that you are incapable of doing.

As far as I could tell from my conservative (one-step-removed-from-Reformed) Bible college education, the only issue left for the church to resolve was to kibitz over the details of who qualifies to receive the mystical “salvation.” Is it anyone who repeats the magic words “I believe?” Are there other requirements, such as baptism? How many sins can I still commit before I lose that salvation? Can it be lost? Are there just a few people who are saved? Or, does it sort of automatically apply to everyone, universally?—an idea that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past year or two. From the perspective of a Gospel predicated on something Jesus does for us, the people who argue all of these positions must feel that concepts like universalism and infernalism are polar opposite. But they are both predicated on the same assumption: that the problem of evil and death is mystical, otherworldly, and that it is defeated by someone else for you.

About fifteen years ago (around 2005, give or take a year), my friend Paul Axton began to drop hints to me that there were other ways to look at the cross. Maybe the cross wasn’t something that was done for us, but something that we were invited to share. It’s still not entirely clear to me whether to thank Paul or curse him, because the question changed everything for me—and there is no doubt in my mind, it did so at great cost to both of us.

What happened for me was a shift to what I now consider a much more practical, physical, and human understanding of the point of the cross. I no longer believe that the cross solved some mystical problem for God that prevented him from allowing us to live with him forever after we die. The removal of the sting of death has literally nothing to do with moving on to a disembodied heaven. The problem of sin isn’t that it prevents escaping the planet. The problem of sin is that it corrupts God’s good creation.

This means that the problem the cross resolves is more complicated than “going to heaven.”

In the creation narrative, we are told that humans were created to live and thrive on this planet as physical “images,” representations of the divine creator who made it. In this story, God is portrayed creating the universe through a cosmic speech act (he speaks and it comes to being). When people (the images) are created, he calls them to mimic the speech act by naming what is created. Thus, the role of the images of God is to partner with God in the ongoing work of caring for one another and that creation, to be co-participants, co-creators in the ongoing creation of the universe. As John Walton has stated, God’s “resting” on the seventh day is his sitting on his throne in his new cosmic temple so that the real work of partnering with his new friends in the joyous work of his kingdom could begin.

In the story, the created “images” weren’t satisfied with their image-hood and chose to know what was not for them to know. They chose to decide for themselves what is good and evil, to be other than little copies of God—and in fact, to make God in their own image. And, since they were no longer living as God’s images, they began naming things improperly. The earth, its creatures, and one another were all named for exploitation. For this, they were cursed—but we must carefully understand this.

The curse, of course, was death. But this was not the carrying out of some divine ultimatum or threat. He didn’t kill the people in the story. All of God’s statements in the fall narrative seem to be God’s observations about the state of things, rather than punishments. That they would now “die” seems to have deep implications: rather than having work to do, they would now have to work simply to survive. Rather than having loving relationships like the persons in the trinity, they would rule over one another. Rather than having access to the Tree of Life, their lives would be predicated on, and ruled by, their deaths. All of life had now become a competition to avoid death, a zero-sum-game of chasing power through violence. As a symbol of this new defining characteristic, they were now even clothed with death.

And there it is. The problem of sin and death isn’t some mystical problem which must be undone in the mind of God to allow entrance to heaven after we die. The problem of death is that it has become the defining characteristic in our lives. And sin is the violence we do to the world, to the people, to ourselves, and to God in order to try to get as much life lived as we can in view of our death, even if it means killing someone else, before we ourselves die. This, we call “evil.”

Again, the problem of death isn’t about what happens after. The problem of death is always the evil we are doing before because of our impending deaths. The problem of death is real world evil. Something that is intended to be resolved before we die, not after.

Enter Jesus into this understanding and you find the core problem which penal substitution attempts to resolve is dismantled. Jesus is not solving some meta-cosmic problem, but the real world problem of evil. His death on the cross is the undoing of the necessity of power by the acceptance of death made possible by the resurrection. As such, the cross was the ultimate undoing of the pursuit of power through violence. How so?

If the problem of evil is the attempt to escape death, salvation from evil is the acceptance of our own death–the acceptance of the cross and a cruciform life.

Death isn’t defeated in such a manner that we no longer have to die. No, we are promised that we all still die. Death is defeated in that it no longer rules over us while we live.

Which means, Jesus didn’t “do it [die] so that you don’t have to.” He died to restore to us the image of God by our acceptance of our death by participation in the cross. Jesus restored divine image-hood by demonstrating death’s defeat and calling us to follow. When Jesus bore the cross, he was saying, “Here is God.” When he quoted Psalm 22, crying, “why have you forsaken me” he was calling to mind the psalm’s own solution: he hasn’t forsaken the suffering one. He is here in the suffering with us because he has always been a suffering God. To be like him is to suffer, with him. And being like him is the entire point of this.

Salvation is not a status purchased for us. Salvation is the lived reality of the cross. It is the return to true human image-hood by the mimicking of God. On the cross God was showing us that this is the God he is—and to be human is to be like him. Therefore, his call for us is to pick up that cross and follow. “If you want to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross.” “You will share in his glory, if indeed you share in his suffering (Ro 8).”

Being saved is participation in the cross of Christ—undoing evil by living a cruciform life in the face of that evil. And, for this reason, it is the only real-world answer to the real-world problem of evil.

This is the entire point: dying on our crosses is salvation, not a mere eternal destination. Salvation is the lived reality of a restored image-bearing done by sharing the cross of Christ. That means that Jesus’ cross wasn’t the only one that is necessary to “be saved.” Carrying our cross is what being saved is.

If, then, as some are saying, “Jesus defeated death for all, no matter whether they share the cross of Christ or not,” they are actually saying Jesus has not defeated the problem of evil and death in this world but in the next world. If it is not necessary for us to bear our crosses, then we are left with some mystical understanding of what Jesus died for, and we are left with the same problem of real-world evil and death.

In fact, real world evil is ultimately dismissed by the universalist’s claims as nothing more than “foolishness.” This, I take to be a denial of even the necessity of the cross of Christ. Was it merely people’s foolishness that crucified Jesus? Were they just tricked? If the problem in this world was nothing more than foolishness, could it not have been cured by a divine critical thinking skills course? No, on the cross, Jesus faced true evil. And we face it as well on our crosses.

Again: to deny the necessity of carrying our cross is to deny the real-world solution to the real-world problem of sin and evil that murdered Jesus. It is to say it was not necessary for 2nd and 3rd century Christians to face the lions in the arena. It is to tell the martyrs that their sacrifice was in vain, that it was unnecessary. It is to say to me and my friends who’ve lost jobs and dreams and livelihoods that, “You didn’t have to do that. It was done for you no matter what.”

I am frequently told that unless I believe that all people are saved regardless of their participation in the cross, I am just not loving or “hopeful.” But a mystical escape from the world is simply not the kingdom my imagination has been taken captive by–I find no hope in it. My hope is in a kingdom defined by a people who are willing to bear the cross of Christ. This I take to be a beautiful kingdom of those willing to live like God by dying like God. It is a kingdom with a real solution to real evil right here in this real world. And a resurrection peopled by those who never understood the cost of this cross would be a resurrection of the fallen earth in which we currently reside.

And in this real world, where millions of people who call themselves Christians are willing to cause harm to anyone else in the name of “freedom, security, and the economy” the notion of changing that theology to one that says “You actually can be his disciple (or share the benefits of the cross) without carrying the cross,” is one I gladly, wholeheartedly, and passionately–even angrily–reject.

Theo-ecology: Western Wildfire’s Prophetic Cry

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Smoke choke. Two words I never heard before. Two words I now know intimately, like a dial on the stove top turning up the heat.  “Smoke choke” seared in me a desire for theological action regarding creation care and climate change. 

The mega-wildfires of the West had sent their foreboding herald. In the sleepiest moments of night an ominous smoke crept over the entire West Coast and into communities of the Olympic Peninsula. Our town is situated near the northwestern-most point of the contiguous United States. We were caught unaware. 

Smoke Choke, September, 11, 2020:

Setting the fan on low I welcome the cool air from nearby Salish sea. My kids will sleep well tonight. 

The morning light peeps through our window’s edge. A burning courses down the length of my throat. Stinging tears perch on the creases of my eye lids.  There is a strange haze highlighted by a 7 A.M. burnt orange sun. Our home smells slightly of some odd aroma. It smells of sharp and sweet burnt plastic. My lungs constrict. Fumbling for my inhaler, I puff the stuff of pulmonary salvation. 

Seattle’s news update explains our air quality is now hazardous. Mega fires with their own weather system send their message: Hazardous. What does it mean? It means the air my daughter and son breathe is poison. Each breath could deliver poisonous microscopic particles deep into their lungs.

September 12, 2020

Seattle’s Komo news demonstrates making homemade filters out of box fans. One HEPA filter and copious amounts of duct tape forms the makeshift adaptation. It is too little, too late for our drafty home. Words of complaint fall from my lips, “My throat is still on fire.” The asthma attack tightens its vice. “Do you think the hotel will have clean air?” Andrea asks.

Driving away, the car mirror reflects a hazy image of the neighborhood. The radio blares the height of a smoke plume on top of Western Washington–6,0000 feet. A meteorologist explains, “It’s called an inversion– meaning the clean air is trapped above 6,000 ft of smoke.” 

At the hotel Sophia and Ty spill their toys over patterned carpet. There are no advertisements regarding Quality Inn’s air quality. A few breaths in and it’s clear; we escaped the poison air.

“Hazardous,” is the message of mega-fires from the chaparral mountains in California. “Poison” is the message from the evergreen mountains of Oregon. Beyond the flames, what does the message communicate?

It communicates the prophetic witness of fire. In ecology, or the study of Eden, fire is a renewing agent. It burns through the old and worn out stands of forest–a function often thwarted by mankind’s forest management. Pioneer species and other plants dominate recently burned areas. These pioneer plants–sometimes forming wildflower meadows–renew the soil. 

As time passes, newly conditioned soil begins transitioning to larger, more nutritious plants. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when commenting, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49

Let’s lean into the interpretation of Jesus wanting fire for dramatic renewal. Consider the ecological function of forest fires coupled with the mind-boggling size of West Coast wildfires. What are the forests pleading? What is the earth asking? What is creation groaning?

The earth is asking for renewal. The forests are asking for a restart. Perhaps creation …

waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

-Romans 8:19-22

The initial devastating destruction of wildfires mirror society at large. Society is dependent upon a death-dealing transaction of negligent thinking translated into a fiery blaze of irresponsible human industry. For example, technology’s codependence on manufacturing promotes exploitive resource extraction which harms the earth and props up unsustainable carbon industry. 

It is a global societal pattern akin to the early and chaotic stages of a spreading fire. 

Wildfires also tell us that gluttonous earth consumption is hazardous and ignoring the earth is poisonous. Within the literal smoke the fate of creation and humanity become united.  The smoke is burnt particles of industry: cars, gasoline, non-renewable materials and pollutants. The smoke is also burnt homes, animals, plants and human life. Prophetic fire warns us and smoke compels us to change. 

Fire is a startling teacher and yet it heralds good news too. After the flames arrest our attention we can choose to start anew. We can choose a new relationship with creation by working with the ways of the earth (ecology), not against it. We can renew our relationship with God as cultivators instead of consumers. We can forge new relationships with each other as fellow cultivators, not destructive competitors. Yes, it’s hard work. But don’t worry; we have help.

“One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Luke 3:16

Do-ology Challenge: Get some dirt in the game! Replace smart phone time with planting real trees via a conservation app.  https://www.forestapp.cc/

What Louie Giglio Doesn’t Get in his Inadvertent Confession and Subsequent Apology: The Form is the Substance–In Other Words, “No, I think you meant it.”

When you’ve predicated your whole approach to church and the Gospel on making the cross look attractive, then you’ve given up any moral authority you had to acknowledge and speak to its inherent injustice. When you can’t speak to the injustice of the cross and our call to bear it because it’s not attractive, then you can also no longer identify with others on their own crosses, such as brown people suffering systemic injustice and violence, without attempting to make that palatable as well.

When it comes to churches, Atlanta is a fascinating place.  On the one hand, you can visit the old Ebenezer Baptist church and sit before the pulpit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cut his preaching teeth behind.  I’ve sat in that building and felt the chills of its history and choked on the lump in my throat. You can also find the small Berea Mennonite church that operates a farm in a neighborhood deep in East Atlanta.  I have worshiped with those saints as well.  And, of course, as with any town there are as many myriad other churches per capita as one might expect.

What I hadn’t prepared myself for before I got to Atlanta was the immense popularity of the “megachurch.”  The place is loaded with them.  In a galactic analogy, it’s like a stellar nursery of red giant stars, but sick ones, always threatening to collapse in on themselves under the weight of their own structures into theological black holes of inanity…always needing to “attract more ‘butts in the seats’” (as a former colleague invested heavily in “church growth” once so eloquently put it when telling me how to solve all the problems at my church) in order to sustain themselves.  

There are white megachurches (always systematically planted in affluent, up-and-coming regions) and black megachurches.  Among both black and white megachurches, there are many who are unabashedly prosperity-oriented, and others denominationally structured.  And there are megachurches for every denomination, some having grown up organically, often with more traditional architecture, their appearances reflecting the life cycle of their surroundings.  

Others were clearly planted using the “church growth” model, having been strategically built, facilitated, and marketed based on careful market and consumer research.  This model, having been cursed to us by Donald McGavran and his disciples, has been elaborated on more fully by Paul Axton.  At its heart is a narcissistic, consumer-driven ideology, founded on growth capitalism, and modeled after the modern corporate CEO structure.  It’s intentionally designed to give religious consumers the “worship experience” they want in a competitive religious market.  Customer service can get those butts in the seats.  Corporate America can show us how.

I remember being shocked and disturbed the first time I saw a commercial for a church.  Worse yet, I remember after an experience we had where we were treated poorly in an application process, telling another minister how hurt we were and seeking solace.  I was mortified by his response. “Yeah, we did that to an applicant once.  I feel bad about it.  I guess we need to spend more time looking to the business world to figure out how to treat people.”  

I’m not making that up.  A minister of an organization claiming to follow (at the very least) the greatest ethical teacher in the history of the world recommended turning to greedy corporations to learn how we ought to treat each other in the church.  Failure.

These megachurches are all over the place, though, mammoth structures where throngs get whatever religious fix they prefer in front of the shiny lights and smoke machines and volunteer baristas, while three-chord guitar players lead them in emo-style, stupid-redundant, romance ballads to a God who calls them only to be more comfortable and fulfilled, while their kids jump on trampolines and play on McDonald’s playland gym sets.  And somehow they always leave more biblically illiterate than they entered. 

It’s why you can be a part of a “large church” doing some “good things” and not understand that Jesus wants you to care about black people being murdered.

Enter Louie Giglio, white evangelical preacher at the enormous Passion City Church, another big-box, multi-location “Six Flags over Jesus” (seriously, check out the link) that markets itself as an “inner city” church.  In the midst of what may be the most profoundly important moment for racial justice since the civil rights era, when after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and countless others, a slumbering white giant is finally starting to wake up and feel the pain of their “red and yellow and black” brothers and sisters and say, “We’ve HAD it!”  and protests are finally becoming harder to ignore, and change may finally be on the horizon again–when the time to stand with our brown brothers and sisters and let them speak and be counted with them came, Louie decided to step in.

You can’t hardly blame him.  In a moment with so much attention, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to capture some of that lime-light.  My friend posted an ad for their upcoming Sunday “panel discussion”.  Giglio, the Christian rapper Lacrae, and (of all people) Dan Cathy (white, fabulously privileged CEO of Chic-Fil-A) were going to sit with Bernice King (daughter of MLK and head of the King Center), who later (thank Christ) withdrew from the panel.  

My conversation with my friend did not go well.  The panel went worse.  At one point Giglio, free-riffing in front of the only black person on the stage revealed that, in his private conversations with Cathy (a wealthy, white, capitalist) they’ve often lamented that the term “white privilege” (being distasteful to privileged white people) is met with such resistance.  Why not call it “white blessing” so they can more readily accept that, although slavery and racism have been a blessing, they were still kind of unfair.  

He might as well have said, “I bet we could sell that.”

Giglio, when the issue rightfully exploded on him, has issued an apology.  But that damage is done.  He said it because he thought it.  But I’m glad he said it because it revealed something ugly about his version of the church.  

Giglio, on the surface of the comment, is talking about “the cross.”  He wants to call people to bear the cross.”  But the cross…it’s hard.  And in a church culture (like the church growth movement) where the goal has always been to make Christianity attractive in order to attract people to it, one’s goal in preaching the cross is going to HAVE to mean making the cross palatable.  But the cross is the cross.  “Palatable” isn’t the way it works.

Again, the church growth philosophy and the megachurches are predicated on making Christianity attractive.  The problem with the inevitable rebuttal one always hears “But what’s wrong with smoke machines and drum solos” is that it is based on the idea that the form of the message is different from the substance of the message.  It’s predicated on the idea that it doesn’t matter how we say it, it only matters that we say it.   But the question is, “what is ‘it’ that we’re trying to say?”. Is it true that the form of our lives is different than its content?

What Bruce Gorman’s work can help us see is that Christianity was never supposed to be a message that is divorced from its form.  It’s not just a set of belief statements that can be repeated like magic.  It’s not just a set of trite religious rituals to be completed to sate a bloodthirsty deity.  It’s none of that.  

What it is is a cruciform lifestyle of following Jesus.  This means that (contrary to well-meaning folks who try to overemphasize following over the content of our faith) what we believe (substance) is vitally important  but only because what we believe is what we live (form). It is both form and substance because the form is the substance.  When Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow” he wasn’t saying “yeah it might get hard sometimes if you believe in me.”  He was saying, “This is what it is like to be my disciple.  Come and die with me.” 

This means that things like wealth and comfort and self-indulgence and smoke machines and drum solos (though nice at a rock concert) are not worship of the God who submitted to the cross.  It means that consumerism and growth capitalism, both of which are contributors to and sustainers of things like injustice and racism and exploitation are absolutely antithetical to the cross.  You can’t do the cross AND base your church on a theme park.  Once you turn to capitalism (Dan Cathy?) for the answers, you lose the moral authority to talk about things like systemic racism.

Let me take that further: when you’ve predicated your whole approach to church and the Gospel on making the cross look attractive, then you’ve given up any moral authority you had to acknowledge and speak to its inherent injustice. When you can’t speak to the injustice of the cross and our call to bear it because it’s not attractive, then you can also no longer identify with others on their own crosses, such as brown people suffering systemic injustice and violence, without attempting to make that palatable as well.

I used to ask my students: how do you challenge people’s idolatry when you’re using it to attract them to the cross?  You can’t.  And what Giglio revealed in his Freudian slip was the failure of church growth: that it makes the cross incomprehensible.   

If Giglio was concerned with calling people to the cross instead of attracting them to a show, he wouldn’t need to call white privilege something else or try to turn slavery into “blessing” so that his rich white patrons could swallow the idea.  If he called people to the cross, then his white members would understand that they’re supposed to be willing to suffer and die with their brown brothers and sisters.  Because if you’re willing to die for brown brothers and sisters, then at the very least you’ll be able to bear the hurt of the notion that you have it better than them and that systemic racism and slavery were just bad–with no qualifiers.  

But telling rich white Atlantans that the culture that works so well for them is inherently evil is not attractive.  The cross isn’t attractive.  And that’s why guys like Giglio and others such as Andy Stanley, who may mean well and may even stumble on a nugget of truth every now and then, are ultimately not doing the Gospel.  They’re selling a religion that is a different form than Christianity.

And the form is the substance.

Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet – Again

This article was originally written in 2018.  By that time, the controversy this article refers to was already over two years old and Kaepernick had already been unceremoniously “shown the door” by the NFL.  However, though Kaepernick’s football career was certainly on hiatus (if not “over” as remains to be seen), the discussion surrounding his protest against police violence (kneeling during the playing of the national anthem) was still in high gear.  

With the current state of the political climate in the US and the recent spate in police killings of black people (don’t get me wrong–it never stopped) such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks among countless others drawing more attention to this issue than ever, it seems that the piece is still relevant, if not timely.  

I suppose I wrote this article when I did because I was discouraged and annoyed (annoyance has always been a primary motivator for me) with how easily people missed the point of Kaepernick’s protest and with the hypocrisy of calls for his firing and arrest while simultaneously screeding about “freedom” (perhaps the most meaningless word in our culture).  

This piece doesn’t specifically address racism as much as it attempts to make the point that patriotism is a religion.  This means that (as I posted on social media recently) “When someone says ‘I kneel at the cross and I stand for the flag’ they are essentially saying ‘Here are my two gods.  This is how I worship each.’”* Because of this, murdering black people was an essential sacrifice for the provision of “freedom”.  

The good news in recent weeks, if it can be called that, is that the murders by the police (and in the case of Arbery, by armed civilians) have inspired near constant daily protests which have cleared the way for the removal of statues of heroes of the confederacy, and the removal of the confederate flag from NASCAR events.  The NFL even apologized (without mentioning Kaepernick) for the way it approached the “take-a-knee protests”.  And, despite the fact that the President has openly encouraged police to be MORE violent and called on the military to counter peaceful protests, there is huge bipartisan support for radical police reform.

The bad news is that this progress is decades too late.

*Anyone who wishes to counter argue on the “here are my two gods” point should ask first why the cross and the flag are mentioned in the same sentence.  Why not simply say, “I stand for the flag?”  The statement admits that flag and cross are comparable.  You should cringe when people say we should be grateful to “Jesus for saving us from sin and the American soldier for providing salvation.”  These statements both explicitly place nation and God on the same level.

Jason Rodenbeck
 ______________________________

Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made.  As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys.  Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles.

Of course, any type of protest against injustice or perceived injustice is, by nature, offensive to the bulk of those who witness it.  That is, after all, what makes it an effective tool for drawing attention to problems.  Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail illustrates, with passion, how often the prophet, standing against injustice, is told “We have no problem with what you are standing for.  What we are offended by is the manner in which you stand for it.”[i]  Most folks are all for “justice,” just so long as the call for justice does not upset the status-quo.  Justice is a nice goal and we’re all “for it.”  Just don’t make me feel guilty about the injustices that benefit me or interrupt my regularly-scheduled programming.  Don’t imply that we are all implicated in structures which produce injustice because it means that I ought to do something about it.  Don’t make me feel like it’s my fault.

Perhaps a reading of the prophet Jeremiah is in order, specifically chapter 20.  Or of Gideon and the Asherah pole in Judges 6.

Yet, the outrage against Kaepernick, and those brave players who have joined him, has surprised even as cynical of a lover of the minor prophets as me.  It ranges from friends and co-workers who have lamented the “politicization of sport” (who blindly miss the irony that the national anthem—a political statement if ever there was one—is played at every sporting event) to those who have unwittingly advocated for a type of fascism on their social media outlets as, enraged, they demand that all Americans must stand for the symbols of the nation because their freedom to do so was provided at great cost (who blindly miss the irony that to be obligated to stand because of “freedom” is not freedom).  And, as budding fascists go, the current president is no slouch as he and his vice-president have repeatedly stoked the passions of their voting base by calling for actions against these players, from taking away their jobs to even arresting them or removing them from the country.

Many of my close friends have stated the obvious racial tensions in play.  And much could and should continue to be said about this.  However, what I wish to point out is the religious implication of the NFL take-a-knee protest.  What I mean is, inasmuch as the hateful backlash against Colin Kaepernick and the other protesting players is frequently racially motivated, I wish to focus for a moment on the fact that it is also, very much, religiously motivated.

I have long held that American nationalism (especially as I’ve seen it play-out in churches and religious culture in evangelicalism) is very much a kind of civil religion.  And it is, in fact, a fairly complete one.  It has a type of salvation (freedom) provided and protected by a sort of messiah (the military and police force) which has provided that freedom through the shedding of blood.  It has a father-god figure (the president) who the messiah serves.  It has patriarchs (founding fathers), worship (anthems), and holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day)[ii] venerating its totems (flags and symbols) and honoring its messiahs.   It even has holy scriptures (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and priests (politicians) who serve the worshipers.

The reader may be thinking that my analogy is melodramatic, or a baseless exaggeration.  To my mind, no other explanation makes sense of the kind of reactions one sees when one refuses to participate in flag worship.  As someone whose theology is beholden to the Anabaptists, who feels that to pledge allegiance to the flag is to put myself in tension with the one I call Lord, stating that belief has never failed to generate offense.  “But, people (the messiah) died for your freedom (salvation).  They fight still to protect it (stated unequivocally despite the fact that no one has been able to explain to me adequately how the current wars are about my freedom).”  I attest that this is a religious reaction to a type of blasphemy. 

And that’s just it.  The outrage about Kaepernick’s protest isn’t just about race (though it is racially motivated).  It’s that Kaepernick’s protest is blasphemous to the American civil religion.   And this is why so many who, truly, aren’t racist are unable to see the point. To not worship the totem when the call to worship is announced is to dishonor the messiah who provides the salvation which the totem symbolizes.  That the protest implies injustice by the messiah compounds the issue.

In other words, what’s really bothering people isn’t just that Colin Kaepernick is a black man wanting social change for other black people.  It’s that he’s a black man knocking over their idol in protest of their idolatrous culture’s indifference to injustice.   Colin Kaepernick is fulfilling the role of a minor prophet.

Perhaps a reading of the prophet Jeremiah is in order, specifically chapter 20.  Or of Gideon and the Asherah pole in Judges 6.

Nationalism is a religion.  It’s a national civic religion.  And, for Christians, it’s idolatry.  Putting your hand on your heart for the anthem, whether you think you are putting your allegiance to the state below your love for Jesus or not, is a form of worship that is necessarily in tension with your proclamation that Jesus is “King” or “Lord.”

This is, perhaps, no different from the Roman world of the first century which inspired the writers of the New Testament to appropriate so much of the language of Caesar into Christianity.  The euangelion (the Gospel) of the New Testament is, itself, borrowed from the emperor cult intentionally: to point out that it is Jesus who brings the good news to the world, not Caesar.  The repeated claims of the Lordship of Jesus in the New Testament are, in fact, scathing political commentaries about the NON-Lordship of Caesar, who claimed Lordship.   And this is why the Romans persecuted the Christians for centuries, prior to Constantine.  I imagine that 2nd and 3rd century Christians would be mystified by the assumptions of many American Christians today who not only see no tension between patriotism and Christianity, they unreflectively seem to equate their faith in Jesus with their national patriotism.

The writers of the New Testament understood that to call Jesus “King” or “Lord” meant they couldn’t call Caesar “King” or “Lord.”  American Christians struggle to understand this.  Perhaps it is because we don’t use those terms politically anymore.  This is why contemporary writers such as Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne have advocated for using the word “President” with Jesus, instead of “Lord” or “King” in an effort to reestablish in the minds of those who claim to follow Jesus the inherent tension between the nation and the Kingdom of God.

As for my part, I kneel with Colin Kaepernick for many reasons.  I think he’s fiercely courageous.  I believe he is a faithful follower of Jesus who has devoted much of his life to loving under-privileged kids and helping them.  I support (as all Christians should) the call to racial justice that his protest is about.  But, also, I kneel because I cannot venerate the American flag, anyhow.  It is a bloody totem idol of a false religion and I am a follower of the true President and a citizen of the Nation of God.

[i] Myself, I cannot count the number of times I have been told, “The problem isn’t what you say, but how you say it.”  As if there is any nice way to say that “treating people unjustly is wrong.”

[ii] What I claim here is, undoubtedly, offensive to many sensibilities. Make no mistake, I have nothing but compassion and concern for members of the military and for those who have served.  I truly believe that a country that calls men and women to go to war for its interests, owes it to those it calls to take care of them later—if only this country were as concerned with that as it is with new weapons and new wars, perhaps this nation would, at some point, be at peace.  That said, I believe that in order to truly love those who serve, one ought to wish they weren’t fighting.   I hold that it is only those who hold a commitment to the rejection of violence who can truly love those who fight.

Renouncing the Way of Violence

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Bible portrays God as intervening in human evil and putting sacrifice and violence to an end, through Christ (as Daniel 9:27 prophesied) and it is this continuing nonviolent intervention into violence to which the followers of Jesus are called. In other words, Jesus’ death is not a violent sacrifice for God, nor is it a sacrifice bringing to a climax the plan required by God to forgive mankind.

What God requires is self-denial, since “the sacrifice of the heart is the atonement for which alone he cares.”[1] To think God required or needed a sacrificial death is to succumb to the lie that God requires violence and, therefore, to cover up the evil that the Gospel tries to annul. A Christianity which needs sacrifice would fall under the critique of Regina Schwartz and others, which would suggest monotheistic religion is inherently violent, an abomination in its promotion of violence and exclusion. In reality, authentic Christianity is a critique of violence and is the singular means of ending it.  

Violent atonement theories, such as penal substitution, have prolonged violence in the world, reducing large portions of Western Christianity to a reaffirmation or means of violence – a vehicle for Satan’s lie which requires bloodshed. The force at work undermining an authentic Christianity is the error of Israel, the darkness of the nations, the delusion of the world, that is characterized by violence. A violent Christianity has succumbed to or even embraced the world’s darkness, while the authentic Christian life is an intervention into this system.  

In a biblical-historical recapitulation, when humanity becomes its own god (Genesis 3; cf. Romans 1:21-23), it begins to depend on itself for its survival, because without God, humanity stops living and begins to survive. Violence becomes the means of survival. As Darwin would describe it, survival is only for the fittest (or strongest), but in order to survive, it must destroy its surroundings, that is, creation itself (including the neighbor). The problem is, that by wiping out the resources that surround it, survival entails self-destruction.

Revelation presents the alternative; a peaceful alternative, an alternative in which the harmony that was in the original design is restored. In this alternative, the human being must retake his place as a gardener. Only by loving God, loving the neighbor, and caring for the Garden, can humanity not only survive, but truly live, truly be a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).

Likewise, the violence of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:18-28), Saul (1 Samuel 18:7-11, etc.); Judah (Ezekiel 8:17), the one imposed on the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-22), and that of the rest of humanity, is reversed through Christ and His followers by loving the brother (Matthew 22:39) instead of murdering him as Cain did, by forgiving 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:22) instead of taking revenge 70 times 7 like Lamech, by reconciling with the brother even if he provokes one to anger (Matthew 5:23-24). By submitting to the King of kings the follower of Christ reverses evil (Ephesians 5:24a; Revelations 19:16) instead of perpetuating it as Joseph’s brothers did. Instead of wanting a position of power as Saul did, instead of committing violence as Judah did and humanity does, the follower of Jesus seeks peace with all (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

This is the path of peace that God had been presenting gradually from the beginnings of the Old Testament, but that had its fulfillment in Christ and in His Church. Pacifism is the quality that makes Christians unique in this world full of violence. Being a pacifist like Jesus, is not only to imitate Him, but it is the true sacrifice that God requires. Sacrificing the violence that dwells in the human heart and replacing it with the peace of Christ is the way to eternal life.

Pacifism is controversial since, as mentioned above, a large part of Western Christianity has adopted violence as part of its interpretation of atonement. In other words, under this wrong perspective, God requires violence to end violence. But violence only gives birth to more violence; it does not eliminate it. Rather, violence as the means of combating violence, is the degenerate perspective by which humanity is governed, and it is the one that God seeks to eliminate in a redeemed cosmic order.

This is why the Sermon on the Mount is controversial, Jesus not only wanted humanity to love those who are easy to love, but also the enemy. And how many wars has humanity started in the name of God? Many, but Jesus taught, it is impossible for a person to genuinely love another and at the same time seek to murder him. “Just war” does not make “Christians” of those who subscribe to this theory, it makes zealots – people willing to attack the enemy for a “good reason.”

Jesus precisely rejected the zealot option because it was not radical enough. Attacking the enemy does not require much, it is easy to get angry and seek to do evil to the other. What is radical and extremely difficult is to forgive the enemy; and not only that, but love him too. In his omnipotence, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified by His enemies, and hanging on the cross forgave them (Luke 23:43). The call is for the Christian to do so as well! For Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). “Jesus’s death on the cross instructs us to self-sacrificially absorb violence instead of forcefully resisting it, or worse, inflicting it. It tells us to suffer violence, to allow it to do its worst to us, rather than to use it ourselves.”[2]

As Mathew C. Fleischer describes it, Christian pacifism is not passive or inactive, but just the opposite, it is active non-violent peacemaking. While violence hurts, destroys and tears down, Christian love serves, restores, and edifies.

There is no verse in which Jesus commands violent action, not even for a righteous cause. “What is a more righteous reason than defending the Master?!” Peter thought as he cut off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10). And Jesus’ answer was “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him (Luke 22:51). Not only were Jesus’ commandments non-violent, they were anti-violence, as the example of His arrest demonstrates. Jesus fought valiantly, not violently. He subjected Himself to the worst form of violence, and triumphed over the violence that killed him in his resurrection.  This is the King who offers eternal life; a life where there is no more death, because there is no more violence. While human governments reign by force, Christ reigns by peace. His Kingdom is not forced on mankind, for this would make Him violent. Jesus does not force His entrance into the human heart, He knocks on the door, He does not knock it down (Revelation 3:20), because violence has no place in His Kingdom.

The Christian who denies this pacifism and adopts violence as a resource, not only denies the teachings of Christ, but denies Christ Himself. “Jesus did not renounce the way of violence for the way of peace so that we could renounce the way of peace for the way of violence.”[3]

Man is made perfect in his faith when he lets his violence, his desires, his aspirations of power, his sinful thoughts, his failures, his negligence, his grudges, etc., die. Loving the enemy requires a true sacrifice from the Christian. It is to go against what he feels in his guts, it is to go against his strongest instincts. But it is the way to a full life. It is extremely easy to kill the enemy, but very difficult to forgive him. However, that is the living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. Instead of the Christian adapting himself to this world and its violence, he must allow himself to be transformed by God by the renewing of his mind, so that he may verify what the will of God is: what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).[4]


[1] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I., II., and II. (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.

[2] Matthew Curtis Fleischer. Jesus the Pacifist: A Concise Guide to His Radical Nonviolence (Kindle Locations 1061-1063). Epic Octavius The Triumphant, LLC.

[3] Brian Zahnd, A farewell to mars: an evangelical pastor’s journey toward the biblical gospel of peace (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014).

[4] The above is an excerpt of the last chapter of the book I’m writing: The Sacrifice God Requires.

The Death of Death

The following is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

Although its origins are subject to debate, ancient Aztec religious practices might serve as a background to explaining the cult of Santa Muerte (Spanish for “Our Lady of Holy Death”), a cult of the dead illustrative of and typifying how death has a hold on us all. The lord and lady of Mictlán (region of the dead), Mictlantecuhtli y Mictecacíhuatl were the gods of death, reigning over those who died of natural causes. When someone died, they had to present themselves to these gods, but in order to do that they had to go through nine obstacles or infernos. Some of these obstacles included two hills crashing against each other continuously, a place with a lot of snow, arrows, wild beasts, water, etc. Luckily, a hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintle – pictured above) was sacrificed during the funeral rites and buried with the deceased to help the person through these obstacles.

Fast-forward to 1795, a group of indigenes worshiped a skeleton whom they called Death in a town located in what is now central Mexico. Testimony indicates that this cult remained hidden for at least two centuries. But this popular myth, which was transmitted word of mouth, came out into the open in the 1960’s when a man in Catemaco, Veracruz saw an image of Death painted on the boards of his hut. The man ran to ask the local priest to verify and canonize this image, but the priest refused to do so and called it a Satanic ritual.

After President Carlos Salinas de Gortari undertook reforms to the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship in order to improve relations between the state and different religions, greater freedoms were granted that allowed many religions to rise. In the year 2000 the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA (ISCAT)[1] solicited a formal registration for their Death worship, and although it was granted in 2003, it was revoked in 2005.  But it was through this that the Santa Muerte religion became more popular in Mexico and in some places in the USA.

Santa Muerte has become a representative idol of death within Mexican and Mexican-American culture. It is a personification of death, usually associated with healing, protection, and a guardian of the afterlife (some even call her a “mother”). And although many of the leaders of the Catholic Church have condemned her worship, she is adored by many Roman Catholic congregants, and it is spreading into other Christian denominations. But the worship of death is nothing new, as explained before. Probably, every culture has had some sort of worship or veneration of death. It just takes a quick search of Wikipedia to find a long list of ancient death deities.

What might sound incongruent is her worship within the Christian community. But is it really that strange? Afterall, there is a huge emphasis on death within Churches holding to a contractual theory of atonement. Even the Israelites pursued a relationship with death. Although forbidden by God, many Israelites looked for help from violent gods instead of the God of peace; death gods, instead of the God of life.

Necromancy was banned in the Old Testament, punishable by death itself to necromancers (Leviticus 19:31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11), but that did not eradicate the practice in Israel completely. King Saul is a good example of this, in 1 Samuel 28 he searches for a medium in Endor in order to talk to the prophet Samuel.[2] The Israelites seem to have adopted this practice from neighboring countries along with other idolatrous inclinations. They were quick to exchange God for any lifeless idol, such as the golden calf during the Wandering (Exodus 32).

Isaiah 28:15 characterizes the practice as entry into a “covenant with death”:

“Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, For we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception (emphasis added).’”

This covenant with death has been interpreted in at least two ways:

  1. A possible allusion to necromancy and idol worship (Isaiah 8:19).
  2. An alliance with Egypt that supposedly would protect them from Assyria (Isaiah 20:6).

For the purpose of this blog, it does not matter which interpretation is favored. This does not mean that it is not important, it means that whether someone agrees with interpretations 1 or 2, the fact is that Israel was searching for help from anything and anyone other than God Himself. As Isaiah 8:19 says, “…should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”

The problem was, they did prefer to consult the dead instead of God.

This covenant with death has a deeper meaning than the two interpretations mentioned above, which goes back to my initial point: humanity has made a covenant with death. When? During the Fall and thereafter. In the attempt to avoid death (death-resistance), humanity has made a pact with Sheol. And as the verse makes clear, this death-resistance amounts to a pact between humans and deception (constituting the original lie or the very ground of deception). The human predicament in Genesis 3 (entry into the lie in order to avoid death) is then repeated by all humans in all cultures. The fear of death creates a respect for death which results in deifying death itself, therefore, they keep this covenant going.

But there is hope. Isaiah 28:18 says: “Your covenant with death will be canceled. And your pact with Sheol will not stand.”

Although, in its original context, this verse held out no hope for the Jews. Death was going to visit them soon if they kept this covenant active. The false idea that death can protect you from death needed to end, and that is the hope found in Christ. Only through Christ’s resurrection could this covenant with death be annulled.

The ultimate evil, death, could not defeat Jesus. John describes this battle between death and God in terms in which death is easily overpowered: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it (1:5).”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed out of death into life (5:24).”

There is an obvious contrast between the covenant with death and the covenant with God; the first one brings death, the second one brings life; the first one is based on deception, the second is based on truth.

Paul also contrasts the two covenants in Romans 3 and Romans 10:

 Romans 3 Romans 10
10There is none righteous.10Resulting in righteousness.
11There is none who understands.10With the heart a person believes.
11There is none who seeks for God.20I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.
12All have turned aside.13Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
13Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.8The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.8 10The word is…in your mouth. With the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
15Their feet are swift to shed blood.15How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!

Scripture teaches that death does not win over life. As in Genesis 1, darkness, the nothingness, is a canvas upon which God creates His best work. God did not become human to make bad people morally good, he became a human to make dead people alive.

Death, like Santa Muerte, is personified in the book of Revelation. And in this book, the death of death is described when John writes: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire (20:14).”

Whoever makes a covenant with death should expect death. But whoever makes a covenant with the God of life will enjoy life. The resurrection is Santa Muerte’s death, it is the death of death itself. Jesus has defeated death through life; trust Him who overcame the final enemy!


[1] The Roman Catholic Church still does not consider Death a Saint or even agree with the description “Holy.” While Roman Catholics worship Jesus and Guadalupe in México, the ISCAT worships Jesus and Santa Muerte.

[2] Whether Samuel showed up or not is a matter of debate. But there are many reasons to remain skeptical about Samuel actually showing up:

  1. Mediums are deceitful.
  2. Saul asked for Samuel, a man who was famous during those days, specially after his recent death. Because of his death, Saul removed all the mediums and spiritists, this would include this woman.
  3. Verse 12 says the woman saw Samuel (which could be part of the deceit), but no verse says Saul saw him. Many assume Saul saw him because he starts to speak to him, but it is not specified in the text. When mediums bring up the spirit, people “speak to the spirit” through the medium as if the medium is being possessed by the spirit, therefore, they “speak to the spirit.”
  4. For those who believe that heaven is the final resting place right after death, Samuel is coming up, not coming down. Did Samuel not make it to heaven?
  5. Samuel says “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” A prophecy that was not fulfilled as such. Was Samuel a false prophet?
    1. First of all, in chapter 30, three days (3 tomorrows) have passed by and they have not died yet.
    1. During the battle against the Philistines, Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua were killed. But Ish-bosheth is alive and was made king over Israel during David’s rule (not all sons were killed).

Manic Muse: Metaphysical Disruption as Deliverance

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

A hard break, at one point or another, is needed for all people. Such a disruption results in an arresting divorce from daily experience and imperceptible illusions. Illness, relational discord and victimization all serve as solid metaphysical disruptors. Much like an earthquake, disruptors shake us humans to the core. Powerful ruptures in “reality” undermine knowledge. Our original grounding dissolves.

My own disruptor came in the form of untreated bipolar (2008-2012). The manic psychosis of bipolar proved too much for churches, college, jobs etc. Indeed, society had no language, no imagination, no recourse for my odd behavior and expressiveness. Few people had patience for my dull, myopic depression. Almost none had the presence available to endure my suicidal fixations. The churning of society’s wheel spared no time for an existential dialogue with death.

Societal reality broke apart in the kaleidoscope of mania. I discovered the power of unbridled creativity—I still recall its intoxicating liberation. I remember no distance between my dreams and eyes, no space between my thoughts and lips, no pause between my desire and touch. All reality was to be experienced in the now and I was to be experienced by all reality. Such experience of holistic integration changed me. (Interestingly, many people with bipolar quit meds to escape reality for a dose of unreality. Or conversely, one could argue their escape is to a more extensive reality.)

Nevertheless, I also discovered the destructive fire of anger and fears unchecked by a lack of prefrontal cortex inhibitors.  This sort of unbridled and candid behavior wreaked havoc on my relationships and societal standing. Looking back, people may not have feared me as much as themselves. The torch of manic depression had shone into my inner corridors. Darkness flew from me, stripping me bare. I was an open book. Having no shame I was freed from shame–a reality which drove normal people mad into their corners of gossip.  People seemed like closed books and wanted others to remain the same. Absent existential disruptors, what fears lurked in their own pages?

The experience I lived was utterly alternative. Thus, my way of knowing reality, no longer held beneath my feet. When my brain returned to a state of “normal” nothing looked normal any longer. It was as if the earth had been kicked like a soccer ball at recess—her contents spilled in every direction. This dynamic created an opportunity for salvific reorientation as Paul encouraged in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

In 2012 the fog settled and my reality found no articulation in the dominate cultures of America.  My experience did not fit in the square holes of cultural narratives. It turned out, I had been clothed in the stinky garments of a sojourner—traveling in a place once called home.

Perhaps this was my “call” akin to Abraham’s metaphysical disruptor: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

I knew not where I was going. No doubt, Manic-depressive illness provided exquisite metaphysical disruption for me. But disruption alone does not equate existential liberation. People need a salvific substitute for illusion.  Jesus depicted this in the parable of the empty house in Luke 11. The empty room must be used. The broken heart and mind reborn.

Salvation from a broken system is Paul’s call to be transformed by an alternative reality. Humans find solidarity with Abraham in his choice to endure disorientation. And when life empties us of all attachments, we can choose to hear Jesus’ admonition by filling the space with God’s reality. Yes, metaphysical disruptors hurt deeply. They also provide opportunity for God to speak reality in us.

How has God called you to awareness of broken reality?

For me, bipolar suffering grew into opportunity. Opportunity to be freed from the mindset of modern man. Opportunity to wake up and see God’s reality. Opportunity to learn a simple truth: Earthquakes shake and make cracks of vulnerability. In cracks seeds germinate. Roots grow and supplant idols. A new world grows.

I believe God cultivates a vision in the soil of our hearts, as we cultivate God’s vision in the soil of our world.  And from season to season, we become enamored by what is growing around us and in us…

Spend some time with this imagery: Describe the world God is growing in you and around you.               

The next blog explores a new lens of alternative reality.

our willowness

(Jason is that friend who has never failed to be present, to speak a word, that has rescued me from the dark night of the soul. In his poetry he extends this rescue to all of us. This is a selection from Jason’s newest book of poetry Being a Willow.)

I have, in those
comfortable moments,
thought too much of
my own fortitude,
imagining myself
tall, held fast,
and strong of mind,
stretching firm
oaken arms and
rooting deep
with walnut feet–

only to find myself
blown about by the
slightest winds of
circumstance,
and fear strikes my trunk
like the woodsman’s axe,
chipping that strength away
with violent blows until,
with a great creak and snap,
I fall crashing
into that dark place
where my heavy heart
aches sore and sinks
into despair

and I think I could
fail to imagine
a way of living on

despondent, I stare
into that darkness,
lost in the outer quiet which
belies the fearful screams
inside my broken soul

I close my eyes and
turn my face to the sun,
breathe in the air and
remember…

I am no oak
I am no great walnut

I am a willow tree,
small and drooped,
dangling delicate,
flowing branches
into the cool stream
I am planted near
which carries away
the tender leaves I drop
in my weakness

and joy comes in
being aware of my place,
in trusting that my
strength is not found
in my own trunk,
or my own branches,
but in the
earth beneath me,
and the sky above

it is found in the birds
and the grass, the deer
and the fish in the waters

it is found in friendship,
and the commonness
we who acknowledge
our willowness
share together, and
the love descending
from the Maker into
our hearts which
finds its fulfillment
only in the sharing

Order your copy of Jason’s newest book here.

On the Resurrection of the Earth

To live a life of peace is to be committed to the pursuit of rightness, of what is just and good.  This is because there can be no peace outside of equality of concern for one another’s needs and well-being.  This is a reality that many who prescribe to the prevailing false gospel simply cannot understand, which may be why it was so sensible to adopt the Trumpian “America-first” mantra–or why his insistence that the world is better served if everyone in it is looking out for their own interests only (which can only perpetuate a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle against one another and the world itself) didn’t raise any alarms with so many who claim to follow the man who said “love your neighbor as yourself” or his apostle who said, 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[i]

If the life and actions of Jesus are to be considered the highest ideal, I suppose the religious culture of our day (like that of centuries past) has some explaining to do.  Its love of power and comfort over and against the needs of its neighbors seems to have accepted that the reality of our world is exactly the one mentioned parenthetically earlier–a world of ceaseless conflict and struggle.  The rightness (think “righteousness” of Jesus’ claim “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “) that we truly hunger for which can just as easily be translated (in this context and in the beatitudes) as “justice” is one which is intended to produce the opposite: a world without conflict and struggle against one another.  A world that is free to exist in peace.

This is the world I take to be promised in Romans 8.  In this passage, I believe Paul is teaching that we (if we have shared in his suffering[ii]) may look forward to sharing in Jesus’ resurrection and that of the entire earth (kosmos), which has also shared in his suffering (just not by its own will).  That this good earth is awaiting a final restoration that will take place when these bodies are restored as well indicates to me that the justice (rightness, righteousness) which is a promise of the Kingdom of God is his promise to restore this creation’s intended order.  And it is our call as followers to live a life in this time which bears witness to that resurrected order.

It is that witness that, I believe, is vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  And this has little to do with regular church attendance and completing religious rituals.  It has more to do with living together in a community in which we look out for one another’s needs and care for one another.  Where we share the body and blood of Christ and take these into ourselves, bearing them in our own bodies.  

It also means that we reject the values of the world: its idolatries and violence.  If we are a people who believe that God has something better for those who follow, then we are free to refrain from killing one another to protect our own lives.  

These idolatries include not just the violence we do to one another, but that done to the earth itself, its exploitation and destruction.  The earth is a gift that we were intended to live within and care for, according to the earliest stories of our scriptures.  Importantly, Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that the earth suffers not because of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it to suffering, bears another clue.  For some time I have taken “the will of the one who subjected it” not to be God’s, but to be Adam’s (humanity’s).  We are the ones who have subjected and continue to subject one another and the earth to suffering.  And it is the peacefulness of the Kingdom of God that is intended to alleviate that suffering in anticipation of the resurrection.

In about a week, we’ll be starting a new class at Ploughshares Bible Institute.  In this class, we’ll be discussing these issues specifically: the tie between peacefulness with one another and peacefulness with the earth itself.  I’ve written about this in greater length here.  The course is called THE 310 Christian Community in the World.  It is a study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  We’ll be reading some beautiful works of fiction and poetry, essays and scripture, and having some amazing discussions about the Gospel’s burden for Christian community and the place in which that community lives.  We’ll even witness some examples of hints of resurrection in our world now.

Join us!


Click here to register.


[i] Philippians 2: 3-11 (NIV)

[ii] It’s become increasingly fashionable to wear the title “Universalist.”  For my part, while I applaud the desire for inclusivity and share it, I cannot help but feel that this must mean, first, an inclusivity to share the cross of Jesus.  I, myself, would bar no one from the invitation to participate in the Kingdom for any reason.  But I cannot escape that this seems to be the prerequisite of enjoying the resurrection in my reading.  It seems to me that Universalism is only reasonable if one holds to a substitutionary (penal) understanding of Jesus’ work of atonement.

Rereading Sacrifice in the Old Testament

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

What alternative is there to atonement theories that do not seem to grasp or be grasped by what God did through Jesus? A shift needs to be made, if God is not violent, who is? If God did not come up with the idea of a sacrifice, who did? To find an answer, the story of the first sacrifice and the story of Cain and Abel will be analyzed below that will challenge the presumption that God requires sacrifice of a deadly kind; that God is angry and is violent. Could it be that humans are the author of sacrifices, and it is humans who are angry and violent?

This question challenges another popular misconception: “If it is in the Bible, God wanted it.” It is important to state that just because something is in the Bible does not mean that God requires it, or that it is a need of His, or that He agrees with it. There are many sinful things written in the Bible, there for the purpose of teaching humankind to practice the opposite. [1] Given the question of the origin of violence and the challenge to this basic presupposition, let me propose an alternative reading to the first sacrifice and the first murder.

Sacrifices Before the Law And God’s Sacrifice

To demonstrate the consequence of evil initiated by Adam, God makes the first sacrifice in order to clothe them (Genesis 3:21) because they are ashamed.[2] This is important theologically because, “The garment given them is special…. A kuttōnet is always worn by one in authority (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31–33; Exodus 28:4, 29–30 … [15 x in all]; 2 Samuel 13:18–19; 15:32; Isaiah 22:21; Job 30:16; Song of Solomon 5:3).”[3] God covers their nakedness (shame) with something better than what they could do on their own (Genesis 3:7). In Galatians 3:27 Paul says “all of you who were baptized (Romans 6) into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).”

It is important to see that the first sacrifice made was by God in order to cover humankind’s shame. God had to appease a soon-to-come wrathful humanity (the next chapter, in Genesis 4). This is the complete opposite of what most atonement theories teach.

Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice

Cain and Abel brought an offering to God. Cain gave from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. Things get complicated when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In a traditional reading, God seems to be demonstrating favoritism toward Abel. And many Apologists give several explanations of why this is so, some of these explanations include:

  • Cain brings what he wants, Abel brings the best.
  • The soil was cursed by God (Cain is offering from what is cursed).
  • Cain brings less than what he is supposed to. Abel brings the exact amount.
  •  God required a sacrifice of blood, not fruits

What is never asked and answered is, when did God ask them to bring an offering or sacrifice? What were God’s requirements? Hebrews 11:4 only says that “Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did.” But nowhere in Genesis 4 – or the rest of the Bible – is there any request from God to do such a thing. So, why did Abel conceive this idea of an animal sacrifice? The only previous recorded example was when God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. As suggested previously, given a retrospective view, perhaps it was God appeasing humanity’s wrath, not humanity appeasing his wrath. Both brothers may have had a mistaken assumption.

Abel brings a sacrifice to a God who did not ask for one, because in reality there is no wrathful God to appease.  On the positive side, at least he demonstrates a willingness to please God, and so the Lord had regard for Abel. On the other hand, Cain sacrifices Abel since his previous sacrifice was not pleasant to God. Abel found an outlet in the bloodletting of the sacrifice for the violence inherent in all human beings, Cain had no such outlet and so killed his brother instead.[4]

If we follow this logic, the significance of the sacrifice takes on a completely different meaning than that found under the logic of traditional atonement theories.

A mistake is made; the lie of sin and death remains intact. Abel offers an animal’s blood to appease God’s wrath (the lie of sin), something God did not ask for. Cain, in turn, offers his brother’s blood (the lie of death), even with God’s forewarning against such an act, the murder was committed. Two options arise: kill your brother or love your brother. These are the two options open to humankind. Unfortunately, humankind chooses – frequently – to murder the brother.

Given this understanding, Jesus mission does not begin in His death. In order to expose the lie projected onto God (that it is divine anger that requires sacrifice), Jesus exposes the source of anger in his encounters with the leading Jews. With His death the exposure of the lie is complete as is his absorption of human anger. With His resurrection there is an overcoming of the worst that human anger can mete out. He exposes and displaces the lie with the truth of love for the brother. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).


[1] For example, many people in the Old Testament were polygamists, even many of the key characters (heroes of the Bible), but God did not want this or looked at it as if it was right (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:3-12). The Bible is written not to tell humankind God’s needs, it is written to tell humankind what humankind needs in order to be the “image-bearer of God.

[2] This is an assumption; Genesis 3 does not specifically describe a sacrifice. “…but immediately in chapter 4, Abel knows to bring an animal sacrifice to God. And the Israelite reader would think of sacrifice, as well, because in the Tabernacle the skins of the animals went to the priests for clothing and additional income. (Allen Ross y John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 57.)”

[3] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 35–36. N. T. Wright explains in The Day the Revolution Began, “Humans were made to be ‘image bearers,’ to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator…. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity.” After the Fall, humans “abdicated their vocation to ‘rule’ in the way that they, as image-bearers, were supposed to.” Humans had authority, and even after they exchanged it for a lie, God covers them with an authoritative garment.

[4] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, y David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 42.