The Strangest Victory of All

Cemetary2Easter is a great celebration, but it is a strange celebration. It isn’t like celebrating an election won or winning the World Series. It most certainly isn’t like celebrating victory in war. But if we have trumpets and kettle drums to augment the shouts of Alleluia!” we might forget the strangeness sometimes and get carried away by a sense of triumphant victory.

The sober but profound truth is that we are celebrating the resurrection of a loser. Jesus was not voted into office; he was handed over to the authorities who put him to death. Jesus did not win a war; he refused to fight one. His disciples were downhearted because they thought Jesus was the one who was going to restore Israel, and he obviously didn’t do it. When he rose from the dead, some of his disciples thought he might restore Israel after all, but he still didn’t. All Jesus did was have quiet meetings with his unfaithful followers who had trouble recognizing him. During those meetings, Jesus explained the scriptures to try to help us understand why he could only win by losing. We still have trouble understanding this.

Jesus did win a victory; a great victory. But it was a victory Jesus won by losing. That is, if Jesus had defeated the Roman Empire by force and restored Israel in that way, Jesus would have lost, and so would everybody else. For defeating an enemy by force is the way the world normally works, so if Jesus had won in that way, the world would not have changed and the rule of defeating one another by force would continue to rule the world as it always has. But Jesus triumphed over triumphalism, thus defeating trimphalism for all time.

The Resurrection proves that it is Jesus who rules the world and not those who defeat others by force, least of all empires. If that is the case, then Jesus rules in an odd way. For Jesus does not give marching orders and intimidate people to do what he wants. (Unfortunately, many pastors do that on Jesus’ behalf.) Jesus rules the world by gathering those who will join him into a community of vulnerability and forgiveness. Of course, the vulnerable and forgiving lose in the game of life which is ruled by force.

It is frustrating to see the powerful prey on the weak and not only not does Jesus not tear the oppressors apart but Jesus teaches us not to do that. But the victory Jesus won on the cross was the victory of losing and the victory of Jesus’ Resurrection is the continuation of Jesus’ losing ways. What is so frustrating is that there is so much forgiving to do that it is overwhelming. Many of the news stories I read about make forgiving very difficult for me. The worst thing about these news stories is that they show how unforgiving our society is. Given that, it is a blessing beyond imagining that Jesus is gathering us in a different way. If Jesus had not won by losing, we would all be losers without even knowing how deep our loss is. But Jesus has won the great victory so that He can give us his life of mercy and love for us to pass on to others. We also are relieved of the responsibility to “win;” we only need be faithful in works of mercy. This is the way to life for ourselves and for all other people. This is the restoration of Israel. This is what we celebrate when we cry out: “Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Jesus Between the Prisoners

crossRedVeil1We rightly meditate on the sufferings of Jesus during Holy Week. But in Matthew 25, Jesus made it clear that the sufferings of others were also his sufferings. So it is also suitable to meditate on the sufferings Jesus bears with others.

There is such an epidemic of violence and oppression at this time that one hardly knows where to start. But denouncing violence and oppression in general is not helpful, so I will focus on something that I have been reflecting on lately: the US prison system.

Out of sight is out of mind for many things but it applies to the US prison system more than most. There are many who prefer it that way. Not only those who benefit from the prison system but also those who don’t want to know. I can understand not wanting to know. I would be much happier if I knew a lot less of the US prison system. The problem is, Christian charity requires knowing when people are being treated like Christ–as in Christ being brought before Caiaphas and Pilate and then nailed to the cross.

In a series of essays recently published in honor of the social activist Will D. Campbell And the Criminals with Him, and in other books I have read, the systemic horror and dehumanization of almost everybody involved in the prison system has been brought home to me. The incarcerated are vulnerable to their wardens and guards in ways that make human dignity very hard to retain. What disturbs me most is the social vengeful spirit that feeds the prison system. It is this vengeful spirit that drives the incarcerated out of sight and out of mind. There is no room for forgiveness. I don’t mean that forgiveness means letting people go free without any consequences; forgiveness means seriously rehabilitating people and giving them a chance when they are released. We forget that Christian ethics teaches that all people deserve to be treated with dignity at all times. Treating people with dignity includes making people accountable for what they do. Huge sentences without parole or reducing prisoners to one meal a day do not accomplish that.

Rather than scold ourselves for our prison system, however, I would rather spread encouragement through a story I heard at a conference over a year ago by Preston Shipp, who repented of being a prosecuting attorney in Tennessee. While he was still holding that position, he was asked by a professor he had had at Lipscomb College, to teach a course in the woman’s prison on criminal justice. This is a program where half the class consists of Lipscomb students and half the class is made up of inmates of the prison. The best and most perceptive student in the class was an inmate named Cyntoia Brown. It was a shock to Preston when he got a finalized brief on the case of Cyntoia Brown and discovered that he himself had denied the appeal without, obviously, really examining the case. (Cyntoia had murdered a man who was abusing her at the age of sixteen.) Talk about not knowing what one is doing, as Jesus said on the cross. In the book I mentioned above, we also get the story from Cyntoia’s point of view. She said that she had her own stereotypes about what a prosecuting attorney teaching the class would be like only to have those stereotypes knocked away by this highly affirming man whose teaching opened the door for her to feel human again. But then she got her copy of the brief denying the appeal of her sentence. She felt deeply betrayed and Preston hardly knew how he could face her, but he did. Yes, in the midst of this unforgiving prison system, Cyntoia forgave Preston and Preston accepted her forgiveness. Can we follow her example along with that of Christ?

A video of the incident is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=dQpQlqN8EY0

On Expecting Patiently in God

simeonThe Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a belated closure to the Christmas Season. Since the excitement of Christmas and New Year’s Day is long past, we may have assumed Christmas was over, but the Presentation of Jesus is the last of the Infancy Narratives. The Christmas Cycle began with Advent, the time of expectation of God’s coming to us. In Simeon and Anna, we come full circle with two more people who were waiting for the consolation and redemption of Israel. Anna had been waiting for 57 years, with nothing to show for it until that day.

To wait in expectation as Anna did takes much patience. For most of us, expectation is coupled with impatience. If we expect something, we expect it now. There should be no delay when it comes to what I expect. God’s time is shown here to be different than ours. The many centuries during which Israel had been expecting consolation and redemption were a lot more years than Anna had spent coming to the temple fasting and praying.

Expectation can lead to rivalry and even violence. This is all the more likely when expectation is coupled with impatience. The more impatient we are, the more likely we are to act precipitously to bring about the consolation and redemption of our own people. This is what happened in Israel. Few, perhaps nobody at all, had the patience of Simeon and Anna and were violently hastening the redemption and consolation of Israel. This haste resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Expectation is, however, quite different when we give ourselves over to it in patience and in God. The patience and presence of God wear away the trap of violent rivalry. Patience in God also made Anna and Simeon responsive to the Holy Spirit so that they came to the Temple at the right time to see the Christ Child.

More important, patience in God broadened the expectation of Anna and Simeon. Although Simeon had been waiting for the “consolation of Israel,” when he held the child in his arms, he said that he had seen the salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Not only was this child the glory of God’s people Israel, he was “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles,” the very people from whom they were expectantly waiting for deliverance.

Patience in God also deepened the expectation so that Simeon realized that Jesus would be a “sign that is opposed,” one who would reveal the “inner thoughts of many.” This child, then, was not destined to be a consolation and redemption of Israel in a comfortable or cosy way, but would console and redeem Israel and the Gentiles (i.e. everybody else) by revealing the truth of how we build human culture on collective violence and then offering us redemption through embracing this truth.

We also see patience on the part of Joseph and Mary who offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons as required of the Law for those who were poor. Many years later, Jesus would again make the offering of a poor person who had been opposed and so “reveal the inner thoughts of many” as they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” (Zech 12: 10)

On Being a Bad Samaritan And a Good Person

Good_SamaritanMany of us instinctively think that knowing is something we have in our heads, something we can recite, like a catechism. This is the sort of knowing that the lawyer demonstrates when he recites, correctly, the two great commandments when Jesus encourages him to answer his own question as to what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Lk. 10: 27) But then the lawyer shows a certain ignorance, a missing piece. He doesn’t know who or what his neighbor is. Jesus answers this question by telling a story that pinpoints exactly the missing piece in the lawyer’s cognition.

The key phrase in this familiar story that shows what the lawyer lacks is that the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The Greek word is one that twists the mouth all out of shape: splagchnizomai (pronounced splangkhnizomai). Literally, this word means his entrails were stirred up at the sight. Here is a visceral response that didn’t need the benefit of the catechetical verse from scripture to be activated.

The response of the Samaritan, then, was instinctive, a bonding with the victim who had been severely injured. We are naturally wired for this sort of solidarity, but René Girard has demonstrated that this natural solidarity often takes the form of bonding with other people at the expense of those who are excluded from this bond. Paul Dumouchel, in his analysis of this process in The Ambivalence of Scarcity, argues that the social bonds in early humanity required not only self-sacrificial nurturing of others in the group, but also the obligation to kill all those outside the group, who were considered enemies. The natural response to a person in trouble is hedged in with limitations. One’s entrails are not stirred by the plight of just anybody, but only the plights of those who are within the group.

It is this bonding based on exclusion that Jesus thrusts into the face of his listeners by telling us that a priest and a Levite both passed the victim by but then a Samaritan came to his aid. Since the victim might have been dead, both the priest and Levite would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a corpse. Ritual purity, like all kinds of purity, requires exclusion. One is pure only if something or someone is defined as “impure” so that the “impurity” can be purged from the social fabric. This kind of bonding by exclusion becomes so instinctive that it trumps bonding through sympathy with someone outside the group. The lawyer’s question came naturally to him because it was natural for him to place boundaries around who was a neighbor and who wasn’t.

The ethnicity of the victim in the parable is not given but Jesus’ listeners would have assumed that he was a Jew like them, most likely a Galilean. Samaria came between Judea and Galilee. This was a problem because all Jews hated all Samaritans and vice versa. When Jesus went through Samaria with his disciples, they were refused hospitality at a village they came to. The reason this Jew from Galilee would have been on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was because he would have traveled along the Jordon River to avoid going through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. So, the traveler, in trying to avoid Samaritans, ended up encountering a Samaritan who helped him and undoubtedly saved his life!

What Jesus is doing in this parable, then, is shock us out of our tendency to bond through exclusion and bring us back in touch with the deeper natural bonding through compassion for whichever victim we pass by. For a Jew of the time to help a Samaritan in similar circumstances would have been unthinkable. Such a person would have been a bad Jew—like Jesus. Likewise, the “Good Samaritan” was actually a bad Samaritan in the eyes of other Samaritans and all Samaritans were bad in the eyes of the Jews. In his novel A Boy’s Life, Michael McCammon presents us with a similar situation that brings this parable home for many white Americans. A violently racist white man in a small town in Alabama tried to blow up a museum of Black culture but ended up in a life-threatening situation, caught in his own trap. This racist was then rescued by a black man. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the man who had hated blacks so viscerally all his life was highly dramatic. In the broader context of the novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist Corey, a white boy, consistently showed a visceral sympathy for victims that extended to saving a black boy from drowning during a flood.

Jesus knew better than most liberals like me that we don’t overcome prejudice by trying to be more logical about the problem. Our bonding through exclusion short-circuits rational thinking as the lawyer, the priest and the Levite demonstrate in much the same way as priests, ministers and social workers demonstrate today. What is needed is knowledge through our deepest natural bonds of sympathy with the other that has no boundaries. Then, we need not ask: Who is our neighbor? because, as Kierkegaard tells us in Works of Love, the person nearest us, no matter who he or she is, is our neighbor.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Handing Ourselves Over

crosswButterfliesLuke’s version of Jesus’ Resurrection is much the gentlest among the synoptic Gospels. No earthquakes and no women running off so afraid that they can tell nobody what they had seen at the empty tomb. The women were, indeed, terrified of the two men in “dazzling clothes” who appeared to them. But by the time, but before long they have remembered, with prompting from the men in white, Jesus’ words to them.

Among the words the women were reminded of was that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified.” (Lk. 24:7) The key word is that Jesus was “handed over.” Jesus was put into the power of the sinners. However, something much deeper had happened than that. If we look back to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the fear that his ministry had come to nothing, but then he handed himself over to his heavenly Abba. (See Gethsemane) It was only after handing himself over to his Abba that he allowed himself to be handed over into the power of sinners.

The death of Jesus is also portrayed more gently in Luke than in Mark or Matthew. Luke does not include Jesus’ anguished cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” although Jesus did cry out in a loud voice. What he then said was: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk. 24: 46) At the last, Jesus in handing himself over to sinners, had really handled himself over to his heavenly Abba. The words, in themselves, seem serene, but, in Gethsemane, where Jesus made his decision to hand himself over, his stress was so great that his sweat became “like drops of blood.” Commending himself to his Abba was not easy.

On Easter morning, Jesus found himself alive because he did not try to grab his life with force, but rather, Jesus had given it up. Grabbing his own life with force would have entailed using force to lead an insurrection against the Roman Empire. In doing so, he could, for a time have thought that his ministry had come to something after all. But by trying to make his life secure, he would have lost it. (Lk. 17: 33) In receiving his life from his heavenly Abba, Jesus had the Abba’s life to give to all. This is why it was futile for the women to look for the living among the dead. (Lk. 24: 5) Jesus, very much alive, was not there. He was among the living, walking on the Road to Emmaus, seeking to make Cleopas and his companion more alive than they were, so that their hearts would burn as Jesus explained the scriptures to them. If Jesus had not given up his life to gain it, he would not have had such overflowing life to give to others.

We too, are called to hand ourselves over to Jesus’ heavenly Abba. As our world grows more violent, we are tempted to do something rather than hand ourselves over to our Abba, but doing something in violent situations tends to keep them violent. Instead, we need to create space for the heavenly Abba to give us the life He gave to His own Son. In this way, we participate in Jesus’s death and in his glorious Resurrection.

Gethsemane

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane may well have been the loneliest moment of all for Jesus. His disciples were not able to stay awake with him. Much worse, his disciples still seem not to have understood anything of what Jesus had tried to teach them. At what he knew would be his last meal with his disciples, a meal when he had poured himself into the bread and wine to give his life to his disciples and all others who would follow him, his disciples fought yet again about who was the greatest. (Lk. 22:24–26) As he had done many times before, he told his disciples that the one who would be first would be the one who served, but he must have realized his words had had the same effect as before.

Jesus was alone with his heavenly Abba, but he was having difficulty believing that the path leading to the cross was going to accomplish anything. Jesus prayed that the cup he knew he must drink be taken away from him. Many think Jesus was shrinking from the pain of crucifixion. He probably was, but his anguish went much deeper. Jeffrey B. Gibson, in his book The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity, suggests that Jesus was tempted to opt for the restoration of Israel by dominance. It was the same temptation he suffered when he called Peter “Satan” at Caesarea Phillippi, and the same temptation he suffered in the desert right after his baptism. As he prayed in the garden, it appeared to Jesus that his whole ministry had come to nothing and that “the path of suffering will really be effective in achieving the task to which he has been commissioned.Like us, Jesus felt the pull of the mimetic spiral of violence. It was hard enough that the pull of violence was strong throughout his entire social ambience. It must have been doubly hard that his disciples were still within that social pull of violence and were pulling Jesus in that direction as well. Worst of all, the full wrath of humanity’s rejection of God from the beginning of time had fallen upon Jesus and there seemed to be no way for that human wrath to be quenched. That Jesus accepted the cup anyway shows a profound trust in his heavenly Abba at a time when his Abba’s will was inscrutable to him. It seemed impossible to believe that the heavenly Abba loved Jesus, his Son, and loved all of the people Jesus had come to save, all of whom had turned against him. Impossible, yes, but with God, even these thing s were possible.