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.

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.

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.

A Gospel for the Earth and its Creatures

A friend who writes a lot about gender equality admitted that someone once said to him, “Stop worrying about women and concentrate on the gospel!”  The assumption, of course, is that whatever one takes to be “the gospel”[i] has nothing to do with whether women are treated as human beings.  It’s just about getting your “sins” erased so that you can “go to heaven.”  And any time we spend worrying about anything other than getting people to heaven is a distraction.

The problem, of course, is that the actual Gospel[ii] has next to nothing to do with “getting our sins erased so we can go to heaven” and everything to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  As the Lord said in his prayer, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.  In other words, being saved from sin means being saved to live differently according to a very different set of values and assumptions.  These assumptions are shocking to the world.

The religious dualism that convinces people the Gospel has nothing to say about systems of power, injustice, and oppression is the same one that has convinced many that it also has nothing to do with “economy” or “economics.”   I use “economy” here broadly, not just (but including) the concept of money.  Economy is bigger than money. It’s about how everyone and everything survives, how resources are used, and how things, creatures, and people are taken care of.

It’s no coincidence that after the Pentecost event and the establishment of the church in Acts 2, the first description of what the church did included worship, prayer, teaching, and the establishment of an alternative economy within the body that looked very different from the power-driven, exploitative, military-checked capitalism of the Roman empire—an economy which most folks back then assumed to be necessary.  It was just the way things worked.  There were poor classes and rich classes and slave classes, merchants and consumers, everyone in their place under Caesar.    

It’s not much different for 21st century Christians whose thinking about things like shopping, how much we consume, what we throw away, what we eat and drink, and where we get our food (and whether or not slaves are involved) is captivated by the central assumption that our economic values are “necessary,”[iii] that they require no reflection and are morally and theologically neutral.  Shopping is a form of entertainment, food comes in throw-away plastic containers, and what does going to heaven have to do with any of that?

It’s similar to asking the question (even without assuming the answer), “should Christians serve in the military?” Frequently, one is met with, “What do you mean ‘should?’  Of course they do!  You want a bunch of pagans fighting your wars?”  The lack of ambiguity is simply a forgone conclusion.

When pressed, though, the person asked will, invariably, become irritated and, eventually, offended.  And it’s precisely because assumptions formed by the teaching of Jesus about something like violence undermine the assumptions that people use to make sense of the world around them—assumptions which help them feel safe and secure.  There simply are “bad people” who want to harm “us” and must be killed.  We prepare to kill them if they ever enter our homes and we send our children to kill them overseas on the world scale.  That some of them will certainly die doing so is the “sacrifice” that makes our “freedom” noble.  To begin to rethink this reality calls into question every other assumption one has about what is true and right.  To consider the possibility that it’s wrong is deeply unsettling.

I have found the same incredulity of response when questioning American consumerism.  In a conversation a few months ago I made a statement that made sense to me but just bewildered a friend of a friend.  I said, “I think we have to learn to stop treating the earth like it’s a source of resources.”  I thought it was obvious that I meant we ought to think of the world as more than a source of resources and that those resources are limited and meant to be shared—that we should treat it like it’s our home and like it requires our carefulness.  This person, clearly astonished that I could be so naïve, responded, “Where else are we going to get our resources, Mars?”  His next comment implied he had serious doubts about my intelligence.  I was the guy who was against killing cows but thought hamburger was ok because it “came from the store.”

The exchange would have been humorous if it weren’t so sad.  His incredulity was due to his unwillingness (perhaps inability) to consider that the ways and rates at which we consume “resources” (a useful reductionist euphemism for the land, creatures, trees, and people around us) has moral and even theological implications.  “Hell, we gotta get our resources from somewhere!”  What I was presenting him with was so different and so challenging that it undermined his central assumption about how economies work.  It was outside of anything he had ever thought about and was unsettling for him.  And he responded the way people do when their core assumptions are called into question.

On a larger scale, one sees this in the phenomenon of climate change denial.  For some time, I’ve wondered why the notion that our lifestyle has affected the climate generates such passionate screeds and accusations of “liberal agendas.”  Why is clean water a political agenda?  Well, it’s actually obvious.  When people respond to data suggesting CO2 emissions are harming the earth, it implies that driving cars and clearcut logging are no longer morally neutral things.  Pointing to plastic islands in the Pacific and plastic crises in third world or developing countries implies that our greedy, throw-away lifestyle is ruining other people’s lives and we have an obligation to stop. 

Think of it this way: the accusation that being concerned about climate change is tantamount to “socialism” is an admission that western rampant capitalism is destroying the planet.[iv]  Even Donald Trump understands this.  In a recent press conference, when asked whether he still rejected the data on climate change, Trump claimed he wasn’t interested in losing American wealth on dreams and windmills.  He understands (I make no claims on how explicitly) that love for our neighbors, plants, creatures, and the earth means changing the values of the economy.  And he (explicitly) chooses greed over love.  That “believers in Jesus” applaud this reveals just how dualistic and simplistic the faith they’ve been taught actually is.

This is what becomes evident when one examines it in much detail.  These economies (I want to speak more broadly than just American capitalism) are inherently violent and unjust.  They exploit and use up and destroy without concern for neighbors, fish, trees, and birds.  The way we set up and live in our societies are, in fact, extensions of the way we view one another and the world.  They are contingent on the minds and imaginations of sinful, greedy, and violent people.  They are founded on a lie that we are all individual consumers in a land of unlimited resources, tasked by God to use up as much as we can before we die. 

But the Gospel of Jesus presents an alternative.  This is the alternative we hope to understand in our class, THE 310-Christian Community in the World.  The description is: A study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  You can listen to Vangie Rodenbeck and me talk about it here. We’ll be reading together one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, one that puts feet on some of the remarkable values we’ll be discussing, a book called Jayber CrowIf you’re interested in the author, Wendell Berry, the best introduction to his work I’ve ever read is here.  For myself, I can tell you that this perspective has affected me deeply, and I’ve written extensively about it.  Here is one of my more meaningful attempts.

These are the questions which will be informing the dialogue of our class:

  1. What does peace look like when it comes to how cantankerous people live near and with one another?
  2. How does peaceful community challenge the myth of western individualism?
  3. What values shape Christian thinking about economy and consumption?
  4. Where does our food come from and why does that matter?
  5. What does a life shaped by these values look like?
  6. What does our theology have to say about the land and waters, the plants and creatures that live in these, the value of humans and their relationship to all of it?
  7. What does it mean to exercise the image of God in his creation?
  8. What is the eschatological message of a theology that cares about the earth, its people, plants, and creatures?

In one of my classes years ago, I quoted NT Wright about the irony that some who were strict “creationists” were those who were the least concerned about taking care of “creation.”  The immediate (and sincere) response from one of my students was “but what about abortion?”[v]  She, like many evangelicals, had been fooled into thinking that abortion is the only contemporary moral issue the Gospel has any application to.  That to care about how we treat the earth means we must accept partial-birth abortion.  This, however, is a lie which has distracted evangelicals from a myriad of other important issues, manipulated them into blind political allegiance which embroils them in ceaseless culture wars, and is itself antithetical to the Gospel.  In my opinion it has even disrupted their ability to think about abortion itself. 

The truth is, the Gospel speaks into every part of our lives because it seeks to restore God’s whole created order, and believing this only deepens our understanding of the work of Jesus in this world, of peace and the value of life, and how to live as an alternative Kingdom community within the kingdoms of the world whose values are not the Lord’s…but, more on this when you take the class. 

Please join us.

Follow the Link here to register.



[i] I want to point out that I use a lower-case “g” when I’m referring to a gospel that I take to be different from the Gospel.

[ii] See what I mean?

[iii] It may not be clear, but my intent is to use the term “necessary” in an ontological sense—as opposed to “contingent.”  “Necessary” here meaning “having itself as the source of its own being.”  It just “is” and can’t be helped. 

[iv] Politically, this is something that “progressives” like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez readily (if not partially) accept and have attempted to write into their national policies.  It is something that, I believe, “conservatives” try to ignore and have attempted to stifle by drawing ridiculous caricatures of these policies.  My concern is that conservatives and progressives, each, are too invested in this economy to adequately address the problems.  It will require a change of thinking and values to truly present a Kingdom solution.

[v] The truth is, this is a common reaction and one which genuinely mystifies non-conservative folks who struggle to understand how people who can be so adamantly “pro-life” can be so unconcerned about the places we “live” in.

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

A Christian Reflection on the Antitheses of Voting and Jesus’ Narrow Way

For the first time in almost two decades, I plan to vote in an upcoming election.   I am not proud, nor do I plan to wear an “I voted” sticker.  Mine is a confessional statement.  A repentance.

I am not a “loyal citizen” of the nation, as much as it may offend my close friends.  I am, instead, a person torn between my first and only allegiance to a Kingdom not of this world and the sense I have that the powers of this nation have become more ruthlessly cruel than ever in my lifetime.[i]

You must understand that I am not a Democrat.  I was raised to be a “conservative,” but I found that my reading of the Gospel changed the way I understood the Christian’s relationship to this world’s politics.  As I continued to read Jesus, the apostles, and especially John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel, I realized that none of them (especially Jesus and John the Baptist) ever encouraged Christians to seek power in this world’s power structures.  This was, inherently, anti-Christian (in the sense that it is the opposite of what Christ taught), because the politics of this world are exercised through violence and exploitation of the weak.

Instead, their politic was one which was antithetical to the politics of power and, importantly, their engagement to those politics was purely prophetic.  Apparently, we followers of Christ would not change the world by working our way into the structures of powerful kings and rulers (something Jesus was tempted with when he was tempted in the desert), but we would strive to create an alternative Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—in and among the kingdoms of this world.  And this Kingdom would grow like yeast in a lump of dough or like weeds in a garden to gradually overturn it.

The politics of the King of our Kingdom are about servanthood, humility, and peacefulness–not power, self-aggrandizement, control, and violence.

Few people who call themselves Christian understand the Gospel this way (the way I think we do at Forging Ploughshares).  For this reason, for almost two decades, I have found myself a critic, not just of this world’s power structures, but of people who claim to follow Jesus and who dismiss the message of the gospels as they pursue political power for their chosen party.   The apostle Paul (as Paul Axton has articulated so well, so often) would, I think, call this “doing evil that grace may abound.”

In other words, many of my friends and neighbors, people that I preached to for years, I believe have rejected everything Jesus taught in the pursuit of control of the Supreme Court, for the purpose of overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Being willing to oppress and cage children whose families seek asylum from corrupt governments or gang violence and blindly supporting a man who is accused of sexual assault without even caring whether the claim is adequately investigated because you want to “save unborn babies” is engaging in evil in order to do what you take to be good.

Take, for example, evangelical support for the endlessly corrupt Trump administration.  Or the insanity of the Republicans in the Senate who have hypocritically broken every one of their own rules and run over any opposition no matter who it hurts or who it decimates for the purposes of taking over the Supreme Court (Lindsay Graham’s shouting “God, you all want power!  I hope you never get it!” is, perhaps, the most revealing moment of gas-lit, Freudian slippage I have ever seen on television—Shakespeare could not have written greater irony).

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, perhaps, the ugliest example of this evil in the Trump era so far.  Acknowledging that the claims of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh were, as yet, not proven, it was clear to nearly any onlooker that the Republicans were dead set against actually looking to see if they were true (and, admittedly, the Democrats were using these women [and any women who have been sexually assaulted] as well).  That said, it was easily apparent that no amount of hash-tagging “MeToo” would affect the steely hearts of a bunch of old rich white men inches away from controlling what they’ve lusted to control for forty years by putting a younger version of themselves in the court—a white man of obvious means with a self-documented history of bullying, carousing, drunkenness, and womanizing privilege.

Meanwhile, the “Christians” I have known in recent years have blindly gone along with it and even defend it—because, they, too, believe in the politics of power over and against the person they call “Lord” on Sundays without realizing that calling Jesus “Lord” means putting oneself at odds with “voting Republican” for the purpose of establishing “good” through power and control.  They do not realize that they have aligned themselves with the very wealthy hypocrites James chastises throughout his letter.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? James 2:5-7

How could people whose sacred text contains these words have ever thought that putting the world’s greediest, most lecherous and gluttonous sexual predator in the office of president was a means of doing good?  How could they still claim to follow the one who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?”  Simply put—they can’t.  And the world recognizes it, even if they don’t.  And my neck (along with those of my friends) bears the scars of the people who have tried to behead me for saying so.

That Said…

That said, as much as some of my more progressive friends who are just as angry about the current state of affairs believe that voting “Democrat” this year is our only hope, I don’t.  I do plan to vote Democrat, but only because of my guilt that my “brothers and sisters” whose daily church is Fox News have sold their souls to put evil in power.   And, at this point, I am convinced (however self-deluded I may be) that my voting is not about taking power as much as it is about checking the power of the most evil group of people I can think of.

I feel like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestling with how to confront the political evil of his time.

Today, in response to the Kavanaugh decision, a friend of ours posted a picture of a woman in tears on her Facebook.  Like all things Facebook, one has to trust that the story behind the image is true, but this story seemed plausible.  It was an image of a woman weeping after the Kavanaugh confirmation because she wondered if women who had been sexually assaulted would ever be believed or even heard.

And, at that moment, as much as my friends are urging one another “Let’s hold them accountable at the polls,” the only words I could muster were “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice,[ii] for they will be filled.”  These words, one of the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, promise that in God’s Kingdom, those who are hungry for what is right will be satisfied because they find what is right and just in Jesus’ Kingdom.  This, of course, is not possible in the economy of power of this world’s political structures, no matter which Caesars, kings, or presidents and senators are in power.  This is because the politics of power are antithetical to self-emptying politics of the Kingdom, which is the only true way to peace and real justice.

Yet, this is an idea which is so far removed from our imaginations as to be nearly incoherent.  And it is precisely because we cannot imagine a life without power that it is so.  Or, as Jesus said it, “It’s a small gate and a narrow way to this Kingdom, and few find it,” a statement rarely quoted in today’s Americanized Christianity which sees no tension between Jesus’ call to “let the little children come to me” or “go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me” and turning asylum-seeking children away or the selfishness of prosperity theology.  In a recent conversation in which I argued that VP Mike Pence is not a Christian because of his willingness to participate in and defend kidnapping innocent children whose parents are seeking asylum, I was told, “You’re claiming someone is not a Christian because of their politics?  Come on!”  Apparently, in this new faith, one can do all manner of anti-Christian evil and as long as one calls it “politics” the call of the Gospel is irrelevant.

My response?  “You will know them by their fruit.”

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which I am hesitant even to share, but which I have concluded indicates that I, also, clearly struggle to find Jesus’ gate.  I told him that even as there is so much public pressure to overcome the tradition of the dismissal of women and children who claim to have been sexually abused or assaulted, I, too, in my darkest imagination (even knowing all of the statistics) have worried about being falsely accused of abuse.  In my heart of hearts, I know that Donald Trump’s vile fear-mongering speaks to a fear deep in my own heart.

My friend, wisely, admitted that this is a legitimate concern and that there are evil women out there as much as there are evil men who could, in fact, take advantage.  But he challenged me back that saying so could only hurt the “movement” which is drawing attention to centuries (millennia) of injustices to women.  There is, I suppose, no shortage of modern naiveté in assuming that such injustices can be cured with the proper application of democracy and social revolution.  But, as he and I talked, it occurred to me that the thing I’m really afraid of is my own vulnerability.  I’m afraid of my own cross.

The truth is, as a man, the socio-political structures in place favor me on this issue, and as a white man, even more so.  And I draw some comfort in that, knowing that a person who makes an accusation may not be immediately believed.   But that position of privilege puts those who are not in it at a disadvantage—one which is easily exploited by the Trumps and (perhaps) Kavanaughs of this world.  And, so, I find myself resistant and worrying that a change in this privilege makes me more vulnerable.  As it must.

Acknowledging, for the moment, that this supports my theory that what is behind all politics of power is fear (fear of insecurity, or of death—which John has told us that perfect love has “cast out”) the real idea that I must accept is that, as a follower of Christ, my own vulnerability is simply an accepted reality, or, more precisely, the entire point.  To follow the one whom the apostle Paul has said, “emptied himself” of power by becoming a human, a servant, and obedient to death on a cross, means that I, too, must empty myself of power (privilege) and become like him, obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Jesus, himself, said, “Pick up your cross and follow” and in another place, “A student is not greater than his teacher,” (meaning, if they did it to me, don’t think they won’t do it to you—be ready).

And this concept is entirely foreign to the pursuit of political power.

This year, I am voting for the first time in nearly two decades.  I do not do it lightly, and I do not do it proudly.  I do it begrudgingly, having agonized about it for nearly two years.  I do it primarily because I recognize the failure of the American churches to articulate the Gospel as Jesus preached it and, in doing so, have adulterated the Gospel of kenosis (self-emptying) for the false gospel of power and nationalism.   I do it because, if all Christians believed as I do, Donald Trump and these power-hungry monsters would not be in power, for all Christians would have seen what was obvious—that what we are seeing is the opposite of our faith, an idolatry of epic proportions, and would have been too busy being salt and light to have been taken in by Trump’s angry, hateful rhetoric.

But, as I vote, I will do it with eyes wide open, knowing that what I am participating in is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew so carefully taught us, but the kingdom of this world that is fallen and cruel.  I do it knowing that my real hope for this world is that, after we have been crucified with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him on a new earth, one without earthly kings and presidents, one without powers and principalities, one that is just and peaceful.

I do it, repentantly, praying as John the Revelator did, “Amen.  Even so.  Come, Lord Jesus.”

[i] It is difficult not to hear NT Wright arguing that Jesus’ Kingdom may not be of this world, but it is certainly for it.  In this way, Wright argues for participation in the politics of power and violence, something he can hardly avoid as his church structure is tied to the British House of Lords.  This I take to be an equivocation and a contradiction to of Wright’s own teaching on Paul’s statement that Jesus has disarmed these powers (a question I once had the privilege of posing to Dr. Wright).

[ii] Most often translated “righteousness,” the word from the root dikaios, is likely better translated “justice” (think hunger and thirst for what is right or just).  In the first century, the term “righteousness” carried that sense. In ours, it is more likely to be understood as “personal righteousness” which is often translated to “being cleared of guilt.”  Using the word “justice” helps us to see that this was intended to appeal to those who are oppressed and marginalized, I think.

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

This piece is a part of a larger project which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

It is appointed for each person once to die…and then the judgment.

“Well, she’s coming for a visit.” I said with some anticipation to my little raccoon friend as we crossed the valley on my way back to our mountain.  He’d managed to find me on the way out of town and had been following at a short distance, pausing only when he found something along the way more interesting than me.  Most likely what kept him following was the smell of food coming from my pack.  She had packed a few lunches for me for the trip back: some cheese and bread, one of those caramel apples from the fair wrapped in wax paper, and a bottle of fresh water.  The bandit (I had taken to calling him that) stopped and gave me a quizzical look when I spoke.  I’m never sure whether he’s really understanding me, or just being a raccoon.  But, for a moment, I got the feeling that he was puzzled by my sense of excitement and my anticipation at her visit. Continue reading “Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends”

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

This piece is a part of a larger project.  First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 27, 2013, it is the second chapter in a larger ongoing work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Continue reading “Chapter 2: Going to the Fair”