Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Scream

An Indian man (not Gandhi) once remarked to the Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians–you are not like him.” Why is it that the more closely one tries to follow Christ, the less one seems to have in common with the herd that calls itself Christan? I understand what that Indian man must have felt the more I interact with my fellow white American evangelicals.

Recently, I had lunch with a group of the above. The conversation turned to Islam. When I ventured to suggest that as Christians we should be more concerned with building bridges than walls, I was greeted with a volley of protests: “Islam is a violent religion,” “Mohammed was a murderer,” “They want to kill us.”

I was shocked that those who by most standards would be considered mature believers could hold such a position. I suppose it is a testimony to the success of the unrelenting campaign of fear-mongering that daily assaults us in the media. Yet, even if it were true (against all fact and reason) that every single Muslim on the face of the earth wanted to decapitate us, doesn’t our Lord command us to love those who hate us and do good to those who persecute us? The apostles lived in a world surrounded by hatred and threats of death. Many of them were martyred for their testimony. Yet still they pressed on, holding aloft the banner of the gospel of love and non-violence.

I persevered, “No one is asking us to compromise our faith. On the contrary, love is what makes the gospel so radical.” My objection was greeted by a stony wall of silence. Then, smiling indulgingly, someone commented, “Well, you come from New York”—meaning, I suppose, that things are more liberal up North. Perhaps this is what the psalmist experienced: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace./ I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Ps 120:6,7)

I also visited a local church a few weeks ago, where the pastor began to describe from the pulpit his recent experience as a juror. Launching briefly into a holy encomium on the American justice system, he said, “We have such a marvelous system.” Endeavoring to stifle an Edvard Munch-like scream, I turned to my wife for relief and whispered, “Marvelous? Sure—if you’re white.” I doubt the young African-American male who was the defendant in that case, would have been so enchanted with this system. (He was found guilty of drug possession.)

How out of touch are we, that we can base our conclusions solely on our own experience as Caucasians in a white-privileged, white-dominated society, while dismissing the suffering and injustice endured by millions of people of color in this country—our fellow citizens, many of whom are our brothers and sisters in Christ? How can we sit idly by and applaud a system that targets young men of color for petty crimes, laws that have so successfully decimated minority communities with the goal of disenfranchising and keeping them locked in poverty and despair?

Watching campaign ads on TV, we see the hate and fear-mongering that pander to the basest instincts in our society, declaring war on the poor, minorities, immigrants, and the followers of Islam—and all of this clothed in a snowy cloak of quasi-biblical values, American civic religion, and white Christian supremacy.

New political movements, backed by huge corporate machines, have made it almost fashionable again to be racist, greedy, xenophobic, and opposed to any kind of human progress or social solidarity. One needn’t tune into the shock jocks to see this; one only has to listen to what passes as mainstream corporate media, such as Fox News, to understand how this works– the peddling of bilious hatred, fear, and intolerance to the masses, most of whom never used to need political sophistry to justify their prejudices, but are now only too thrilled to be offered it. Here we have the new Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda.

Yet perhaps worst of all is the deafening silence of so many churches. As always, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nailed it when he said: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail

This silence comes, as Dr. King points out, not from the Bible, but from a kind of pagan Gnostic dualism that believes such matters have no place in church. Or else from a fear that people will become unsettled, or worse, divided (and stop tithing). Yet the gospel itself divides, as Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” He was speaking, of course, as the Prince of peace, not about war, but about the division his ministry inevitably brought, even within families.  Any Christian leader should tremble at causing division. Division over partisan issues is petty and destructive. But justice always divides; it must divide first before it can unite. It divides, like a surgeon’s scalpel, so that it can cut away the necrotic tissue, cleanse, and heal. Without justice, there is no peace.

I shouldn’t like to be in a church where the pastor spends all his time in the pulpit addressing the latest atrocities in the news. Balance is important.  Yet, when our society is experiencing such upheavals, when public figures use the name of Christ as a covering for greed and self-interest, when racism and xenophobia are called patriotism, shepherds have excellent opportunities, indeed a mandate, to teach their flocks how to interpret the world around them from a truly biblical perspective. Tragic and controversial events such as the Trayvon Martin slaying provide an opportunity, not to try the case from the pulpit, but simply to talk about racism. Let’s face it. If shepherds don’t feed their flocks in such times of crisis, the sheep will get their food elsewhere. Sheep need to be led to good pasture.

The Sermon on the Mount is an offensive document. It is good news for the poor but bad news for vested interest, for those of us whose secret allegiances are too deeply rooted in this world. It is painful for the flesh, which loves erecting high walls of fear and prejudice. Oh, let it offend us!

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A Plea for Peace: Erasmus on the Folly of War

In an age of violent passions and bloody conflicts, the words of Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466-1536) were ever measured and reasonable. A classical humanist of the highest water, a priest, moralist, and theologian, he dedicated his life to the pursuit of pure scholarship. Revered (and often reviled) by both sides in the Reformation debate, his was the voice of tolerance. Possessed of a razor wit and a keen sense of irony, he was ever ready to explode the abuses and follies of the church; yet unlike Luther, he was content to reform the church from within.

In the sixteenth century, when kings and even popes engaged in armed conflict with little provocation, the church was often silent on the subject, if not actually beating the drum of war. Horrified, Erasmus called for reason and sanity, rebuking his fellow Christians for abandoning the gospel of peace and the clear teachings of Christ. In the last two decades of his life, he wrote passionately about the grim realities of war, as one who had experienced them. In a 1525 pamphlet Dulce bellum inexpertis (“War Is Sweet to Those Who Have Never Experienced It”), he pleads:

If there is in the affairs of mortal men any one thing which it is proper uniformly to explode; which it is incumbent on every man, by every lawful means, to avoid, to deprecate, to oppose; that one thing is, doubtless, WAR. There is nothing more unnaturally wicked, more productive of misery, more extensively destructive, more obstinate in mischief, more unworthy of man, as formed by nature, much more of man professing Christianity.

Yet wonderful to relate! in these times, war is everywhere rashly, and on the slightest pretext, undertaken; cruelly and savagely conducted, not only by unbelievers, but by Christians; not only by laymen, but by priests and bishops; not only by the young and inexperienced, but even by men far advanced in life, who must have seen and felt its dreadful consequence; not only by the lower order, fickle in their nature, but above all by princes, whose duty it is to compose the rash passions of the unthinking multitude by superior wisdom, and the forces of reason. Nor are there ever wanting men, learned in the law, and even divines, who are ready to furnish firebrands for the nefarious work, and to fan the latent sparks into a flame.

Hence it happens that war is now considered so much a thing of course, that the wonder is how any man can disapprove it; so much sanctioned by authority and custom, that it is deemed impious (I had almost said heretical) to have borne testimony against a practice in its principle most profligate and in it effects pregnant with every kind of calamity…

…But since the time that Jesus Christ said, “Put up thy sword into its scabbard,” Christians ought not go to war, unless it be in that most honourable warfare, with the vilest enemies of the Church, the inordinate love of money, anger, and ambition. These are our Philistines, these our Nebuchadnezzars, these our Moabites and Ammonites, with whom we ought never to make a truce; with these we must engage without intermission till the enemy being utterly extirpated, peace may be firmly established. Unless we subdue such enemies as these, we can neither have peace with ourselves, nor peace with any one else. This is the only war which tends to produce a real and a lasting peace. He who shall have once conquered foes like these, will never wish to wage war with any mortal man upon the face of the earth…

… But let us observe how Christians defend the madness of war. If, say they, war had been absolutely unlawful, God would not have excited the Jews to wage war against their enemies. But the Jews scarcely ever waged war, as the Christians do, against each other, but against aliens and infidels; we Christians draw the sword against Christians. They fought at the express command of God; we at the command of our own passions.

But even Christians urge, that the laws of nature, of society, of custom and usage, conspire to dictate the propriety of repelling force by force, and defending life, and money too. So much I allow. But Gospel Grace, of more force than all these laws, declares in decisive words that we must do good to those who use us ill, and should also pray for those who design to take away our lives. All this, they tell us, had a particular reference to the apostles; but I contend that it also refers to all Christian people.

They also argue that, as it is lawful to inflict punishment on an individual delinquent, it must be lawful to take vengeance on an offending state. The full answer to be given to this argument would involve me in greater prolixity than is now requisite; and I will only say that the two cases differ widely in this respect: he who is convicted judicially suffers the punishment that the laws impose, but in war each side treats the other as guilty and proceeds to inflict punishment regardless of law, judge, or jury. In the former case, the evil falls only on him who committed the wrong; in the latter case, the greatest part of the numerous evils falls on those who deserve no evil at all – on husbandmen, on old people, on mothers, on orphans and defenseless females.

But the objector repeats, “Why may I not go and cut the throats of those who would cut our throats if they could?” Do you then deem it a disgrace that any should be more wicked than yourself?

Why do you not go and rob thieves? They would rob you if they could. Why do you not revile them that revile you? Why do you not hate them that hate you? Do you consider it as a noble exploit for a Christian, having killed in war those whom he thinks wicked, but who still are men for whom Christ died, thus to offer up victims most acceptable to the Devil, and to delight that grand enemy in two respects, first, that a man is slain at all, and next, that the man who slew is a Christian?

If the Christian religion be a fable, why do we not honestly and openly explode it? Why do we glory in its name? But if Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life,” why do all our plans of conduct differ so far from his instructions and example? If we acknowledge Christ to be our Lord and Master, who is love itself and who taught nothing but love and peace, let us exhibit his model in our lives and conversation. Let us adopt the love of peace, that Christ may recognize his own, even as we recognize him to be the Teacher of Peace.

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The Co-opting of Christ: Christendumb and Christendumber

In an oft-quoted passage in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), poet and author James Agee pleads with the reader not to exalt his work as “Art”:

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Agee so wanted his journalistic descriptions of the lives of poor Southern farmers during the Dustbowl to hit the reader like a blow between the eyes, and not to be damned with praise as a literary classic. Art can be so safely kept at a distance, or dissected in a post-mortem examination. The world venerates beatifies, or even canonizes its great intellects, reformers, and saints, especially when they remain safely dead.

At the end of Bernard Shaw’s Nobel-Prize-winning play, the dead Joan of Arc appears before the assembled cast to receive word that, after a safe interval of 500 years, the Church has finally declared her a saint. All the characters kneel and praise her. In disgust she recoils, “Woe unto me when all men praise me! I bid you remember that I am a saint, and that saints can work miracles. And now tell me: shall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman?”

Suddenly, all her worshippers cringe with horror and manage, piously, to evade the question. Fumbling, too, for a response, the Pope’s emissary bows and quickly exits, saying, “The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization. I must return to Rome for fresh instructions.”

Was this not what Jesus meant when he castigated the Pharisees for building tombs for the prophets? That they did homage to the messenger, while quietly smothering the message.

Woe to you…You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard made himself notorious for pointing out the uncomfortable disconnect between true Christianity and its idiot brother, Christendom, or the established Church.

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). For this reason he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching—especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined to have followers and to make admirers impossible.

Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it… A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm…

If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ!…It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. [from Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity]

Christ’s claim is absolute and exclusive; it is dangerous, incendiary. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Yet the world fights back with all its energy, determined to find a way to peacefully coexist with Christ, to gain this world and heaven too; not to crucify him publicly, but to drown him with lip-service. Today, doubtless, the Danish philosopher might marvel, not at how many souls have been baptized, but rather at how many have done so while managing to get none of it on them.

For Kierkegaard, with official state patronage the New Testament gospel experienced a thermidorian reaction, which overthrew Christ’s radical demands. Instead the “moneychangers” co-opted it, and Christianity was thus “improved practically.”

Christ was not making a historical observation when he declared: The gospel is preached to the poor…No, for the poor the gospel is the good news because to be unfortunate in this world… is a sign of God’s nearness…But soon there came a change. When preaching the gospel became a livelihood [ouch], even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty…Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by the hope of eternity. [from Kierkegaard, Journals & Papers]

Looking at the contemporary religious landscape here in America, especially during this election year—in which candidates have co-opted Christ, covering themselves with a thin veneer of Scripture while using the cross to bamboozle the Booboisie, as well as to promote hate, intolerance, racism, and selfish greed—one might wish that Kierkegaard were here that he might use his sharper quill to puncture a few well-deserving hot air balloons.

The Church Militant, which was once a term to describe the suffering and persecuted church on earth, has now taken on a new meaning, as we see the church used and manipulated to further the ambitions of American militarism and exceptionalism. It is scandalous to watch the church again and again being used in this way, as a mascot for the American war machine, but then, this is nothing new. Long ago, Christ was co-opted by Empire to serve as a standard for its legions. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Christianity received its first blow when the emperor became a Christian.”

There was a time when the world wanted to fight Christianity—then Christianity fought back. Now the world is in fraudulent possession of Christianity. Its tactics are with all its power and at any price to prevent a showdown…for the technique consists in the world continually counterfeiting Christ’s position so that it is kind of saying the same thing—but good God, then the world and Christ are agreed!

The state never accommodates Christianity in its truth (as salt in character); it rather has it up to a point, which we ‘Christians’ are also happy to have. [Journals & Papers]

As theologian Robert Kolb notes ironically, “Of all the places to search for God, the last place most people would think to look is the gallows.” The problem could be traced to a simple human trait that we all share: an unwillingness to suffer pain, rejection, ridicule, poverty. Wasn’t it one of Jesus’ own disciples who rebuked him, “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!”? And after 2000 years, little has changed, for human nature has not changed. The cross remains an offense, a scandal to the mind, an object of loathing to the flesh.

In his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Martin Luther makes a clear distinction between the “theologian of glory” and the “theologian of the cross.”

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

Alister McGrath writes, “The ‘theologian of glory’ expects God to be revealed in strength, glory and majesty, and is simply unable to accept the scene of dereliction on the cross as the self-revelation of God.” Nevertheless,

“God works in a paradoxical way sub contrariis: his strength lies hidden under apparent weakness; his wisdom under apparent folly…the future glory of the Christian under his present sufferings. It will therefore be clear that there is a radical discontinuity between the empirically perceived situation and the situation as discerned by faith.”  [Luther’s Theology of the Cross]

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