Suffering like Jesus

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Roman Catacombs

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Roman Catacombs

When I think about the Lenten journey, it’s easy to approach the Easter message with tainted eyes. It’s tempting to gloss over Good Friday and rejoice in the promise of Easter morning (especially for us Protestants!). I don’t like suffering–it’s painful to experience and does not necessarily lead to the most uplifting sermon illustrations.

But this aversion to suffering really contradicts the life of Christ. In reading the story of Lazarus in John, we encounter a savior who feels profound sadness. Jesus actually cries from sorrow at the loss of his beloved friend. We also read in Luke about how Jesus is moved with compassion to weep over Jerusalem. Elsewhere, we see Christ dwell with those who suffer. He works in ministry with so many different people who experience chronic suffering–those who are ostracized because they face demons, taboo medical conditions, or disabilities.

Instead of being emotionally detached from the world, Jesus feels the pain of hearing that someone has passed. He cries the tears that both you and I have at loss. Jesus is the kind of guy who knows your deepest sorrow. Jesus isn’t some abstract deity. No, Christ is incarnate with us.

As Christians, shouldn’t we be like Jesus in this way?

Finding Humor in #WhyTony

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Jesus and the Rich Young Charitable Giver

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, Armenian icon

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, Armenian icon

It’s easy to avoid any sort of conviction with Jesus’ parables or teachings. I think this is natural given our human nature. After all, who in their right mind would genuinely want to be unsettled, disturbed, or left in limbo? Comfort is far safer and it’s easier to assume that other people ought to be the ones convicted.

But nevertheless, such disorientation is incredibly powerful. Let’s take the story of the rich young ruler, found in all three synoptic gospels. This man of great wealth and status gives all the correct “Sunday school” answers while conversing with Jesus. Everything is fine and dandy. Then Jesus, in a climactic moment, tells of something missing for this young man. Take all you have and give it to the poor. That’s what you’re lacking. The young man leaves Jesus, saddened because obtaining treasure in heaven is truly costly.

This story absolutely fascinates me. We can obviously fiddle with what it means to be wealthy in various contexts. If you’re reading this blog, you’re wealthy compared to so many others who do not have access to the internet, leisure time, or the disposable income required to maintain the two. Even if you make minimum wage in America, in some ways (but not all) you are still better off than others in extreme, chronic poverty across the globe.

Of course we can spiritualize this teaching. Perhaps Jesus calls us to abandon anything that has hold of our heart. For some it’s pride or self-image. For others it’s material possessions like cars or houses. But hopefully it’s not money–abandoning that would be quite a task (surely it’s not money for me, right?). Having money while others do not is not intrinsically bad, we may argue with spiritualized hermeneutics, but the rich young ruler probably obsessed over money so it became problematic.

Even if we are more literal and see this story as a warning against habitual wealth accumulation, what is our typical response? How do we avoid being like this young man? We give a percentage of our money to charity, of course. It’s admirable and we might even be recognized for our generosity. This is our response to Jesus’ command to “give to the poor.”

Note that Jesus does not say “give money to a well-established international non-profit organization that  uses no more than 25% of funds for administration costs and at least 75% for programs and services.” But this is exactly how we interpret this message in the modern day. As capitalist consumers, our vision of “ending poverty” almost always involved giving countless dollars to yearly campaigns, child sponsorships, and food drops. More partnership-oriented programs like micro-lending, though rising in popularity, pale in comparison to the amount of money given to massive relief organizations. There are times and places for relief work, but I’m a bit uncomfortable about evading Jesus’ conviction while shifting the blame to others who may not donate money to the charity of our choice.

I don’t think Jesus’ response would change much if he were around today and witnessed youth groups sponsoring Compassion kids, bloggers promoting Kickstarter campaigns, or even socially-conscious adults giving away 10% of their income. Christians can be incredibly generous, but there’s more to working with poverty than simply funding programs. I imagine he’d say something along the lines of:

Give all that you have to the poor. Don’t just write a check and call it quits. Don’t assume that giving money is the most effective response to a problem. Think critically about how you work to liberate others. What about your time, vocation, what you’re chasing in life, and your own self? Truly giving to the poor will change the way you live.

Dismissing Evil vs. Genuine Theology

calvin-hobbesProblemOfEvilOne of the problems I’ve seen with analytical philosophy of religion is its tendency to treat the problem of evil as a sort of topical issue. I suppose this makes sense to some degree. After all, there are a wide variety of areas to explore when we talk about God, humanity, creation, etc. Why not throw in a category called “the problem of evil?” Likewise, anthologies and Sunday school lessons could feature a specific chapter or section on this potential problem area.

Systematizing one’s theology is obviously not the core problem here. It becomes troublesome, however, when we treat the problem of evil as a sort of secondary issue. God’s existence and salvation are usually the most important theological tenets for most Christians. Is there a God out there? Can that God give me eternal life? Many assume these two questions to be absolutely foundational. I think this is why Christians usually get the most upset when someone either publicly challenges God’s ex nihilo creative power or advocates for any form of universalism. Folks get fired up when you claim God doesn’t exist or that all religions can lead to truth.

I think that many non-Christians aptly note that Christians do not sufficiently address the question of evil’s existence. Theodicy falls utterly short. When reflecting on the coexistence of an all-powerful God and worldly evil, many bible-believing Christians simply dismiss any paradox with the assertion that either (1) God ordains all, or (2) God will eventually work through tough times. Calvinists are more prone to #1 and Arminians to #2. Doing theology from this positioning presupposes that evil is a regrettable anomaly, although it’s one that can supposedly be answered. After all, God’s existence and our personal salvation have utmost importance, right? Why would we deliberately focus on such a downer-topic like evil? Likewise, I would say that we often craft our picture of God and subsequently address theological counterarguments about the Holocaust and other instances of great, seemingly gratuitous evil.

What if we were to reverse this process? Instead of abstract theorizing about who God is, what about starting with the reality of evil, namely the evil that Christ endured? I personally think this would be a more genuine way to do theology. It would not dismiss the intense reality of evil, and whatever we say about God would have more evidential and experiential credibility. Here are three people I believe root their theology at the foot of the cross.

  1. Nicholas Wolterstorff is worth mentioning because he’s a great example of how analytic philosophy doesn’t always have to fall into this systematic trap. He argues that Christ was broken for all humanity and that when we are broken, God Godself knows and has experienced that pain, too. He writes the following in Lament for a Son: “How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tear s of God.”
  2. James Cone’s concept of a black Christ in God of the Oppressed is rooted in the recognition that Jesus and the oppressed are inextricably linked. In modern times the black community has suffered great systemic marginalization. Cone draws some powerful parallels between crucifixion and modern day lynchings. To say that Jesus is black is not a historically revisionist presupposition, but a profound theological and Christological claim.
  3. Greg Boyd recently preached a sermon called “God in the Gallows.” In it he asserts that for any kind of Christianity to have legitimacy, it needs to address the reality of Auschwitz. Pay close attention to Greg’s own testimony regarding his atheism and an intense conversion experience.

MLK Day and the Modern Church

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Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have a fantastic sociology book about race and evangelicalism in America. Through a lengthy survey about white evangelical perceptions of race, they argue that religion often legitimizes the continual division and racialization of America. I’ve written about this book before, but I think it is important to highlight the following quote in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here the authors talk about the inevitable ethical dilemma of group loyalty–namely that with in-group dynamics, members of a group rarely understand the needs and experiences of those on the outside who are marginalized. The same is true for white evangelicals and African Americans:

We see [the ethical paradox of group loyalty] in white evangelicals’ assessment of the race problem and racial inequality. Although they can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives–who are predominately white–are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the “race problem,” given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim their is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system. Almost no white evangelical suggests that inequality between groups is immoral and ought to disappear, for example. And, largely isolated in their own racial group, they fail to see their advantages. The exceptions are those white evangelicals so immersed in black social networks that they appear to identify more with black Americans than white Americans.

Emerson and Smith found that many of the people they interviewed used religious grounding for their responses, even when they sounded antagonistic towards blacks as a whole. Christian congregations are typically racially homogenous, with little focus on intentional diversity.

I of course believe it is a positive thing that most white Christians are not hate-mongering racists. But race issues in our world are not limited to the stigmatized things–the racial slurs or Donald Sterling-type instances. There’s a deeper, more systemic issue when we examine what it means to be white or black in our world. Emerson and Smith argue that the only lasting solution to all this would be to address the issue of divisive identity and social networks, both individually and collectively. In other words, congregations need to integrate and address racism on an institutional scale.

In many ways I think we water down MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s concept of joining hands is a truly revolutionary idea:

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

[…]

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

It is easy to interpret this concept of togetherness as a sort of kumbaya idea where we simply ignore our problems. In doing so, Martin Luther King Jr. is a safe hero. After all, who wouldn’t want that? But what if you were to truly join hands across racial lines? Genuinely working, praying, going to jail, and standing up together are certainly not isolationist activities. With this in mind, the problems Emerson and Smith found in their survey could indeed be cured through solidarity and this struggle for liberation. But a major barrier to this reality is our idolatrous worship of the in-group, which simultaneously leads many to keep their hands in their pockets instead of joining them with black sisters and brothers.

Isolated Illusions, Global Realities

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I remember seeing this eye-opening map a couple of years ago outlining the “midpoint” of Christianity’s global concentration. Christianity reached its northernmost point during the Reformation and has since been on a southward (and recently eastward) trajectory. The geographical center of Christianity is continually (and oftentimes rapidly) moving away from both continental Europe and the United States and has been for quite some time. I think there are couple of things worth considering because of this.

I greatly cherish biblical commentaries like the Expositor’s and New Interpreter’s for bible study and sermon preparation, personal enrichment, and scrambling to find sources for seminary papers. But a quick survey of these volumes reveals that the majority of contributors are almost exclusively American or Western European males. Shouldn’t our scholarship (both academic and pastoral) actively engage with more a global hermeneutic, instead of the ever so limited D.W.E.M. spectrum (“dead white European males”)?

Does your church recognize this reality? It is intentionally working to shape ministry with this in mind? Communities obviously exist in varying contexts, but I believe it is misguided to assume any congregation to somehow be monocultural. Likewise it’s absolutely essential for any church to have at least some sort of international partnership effort. What is your church doing internationally? This is certainly not limited to foreign mission trips or special offerings, though these may be worthwhile practices. What is your church doing locally, but with global eyes–work with refugees, immigrants, migrant workers, or displaced families?

And lastly, I think this map on the geographical center of Christianity ought to trigger the American church to be a bit more humble. Many of us thrive on paternalism as we aid the poor all over the world while primarily feeding our own self gratification. We may also view ourselves as the strongest beacon of light to the nations. Instead, it seems as though we Christians in so-called “developed” nations are actually among the statistical minority. While we might have revered commentaries and take ownership of the Reformation’s legacy, much of the global church does not look like us.

What difference does being a Christian make in your life?

Our church recently had several small groups go through Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese, a study on evangelism and the problems facing many mainline denominations. One of the fundamental questions of the book is what difference does being a Christian make in my life?

At first this question might sound kind of strange. The most common answers usually focus on church-related community. Children attend bible study together and may develop life-long friends. Adults could find meaningful relationships through the choir or Sunday school classes. Additionally, there may be an emotive rationale–going to church helps me feel good or at peace. The pastor could be an effective, down-to-earth communicator. Lots of these responses have definitely been true for me at various times in my life. Other responses I’ve heard have been somewhat functional or non-logical: well, I go to church and I’ve always been a Christian, simple enough…?

What difference does being a Christian make in your life? I think it is important to wrestle with this question, especially throughout this season. What is our focus for Christmastime? In Advent we prepare for, celebrate, remember, and/or enact Christ’s incarnation in our lives and world. As people like Stanley Hauerwas have continually asked, what makes something a distinctively Christian response or viewpoint? In other words, what makes Christians different?

For me, this difference has been two-fold. In some ways these two areas overlap.

  1. God in abundance. Being a Christian has made a profound difference in my life through experiencing God in dynamic ways. While this might sound a bit “out there” considering mainline norms, I think this is essential to bring up. My heart has become radically transformed through worship. God’s peace has flooded my life in some very specific and unforgettable moments. I’ve seen prayers answered after 15 years time. I’ve experienced the power of intercessory prayer both ways, too. I’ve had visions from God. And I’ve seen God heal. This Holy Spirit empowerment can really shake you up.
  2. Suffering Christ. Being a Christian has also made a difference in my life in that I have come to see a direct connection with Christ and all who suffer. In some ways, this directly contrasts with the “God in abundance” experiences I’ve had. Feeling alienated, abandoned, or abused is not exactly the most positive experience. But with that said, however, I’ve experienced Christ in darkness and pain–after all, Christ suffered. I think that Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Lament for a Son summarizes this concept perfectly:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

In many ways, realizing difference leads to a revitalization of faith. If Christianity is simply about receiving a heartwarming message from the pastor, couldn’t we just podcast the most inspirational public speakers? If it is about gaining a network of friends, couldn’t this be done more effectively elsewhere? The list may go on, but in these models of faith, Christianity seems to be weak or without substance.

But if being a Christian is about experiencing the resurrected Jesus, then things start to look quite different. Christian faith then becomes life-changing, stirring our hearts to become empowered to live in grace and to intentionally love the least of these.