Rejecting Theological Sadism

The bumper sticker on my car.

The country is moving toward fascism.  We see the current administration dismantling beneficial social and environmental programs while expanding repressive police and military functions of government.  Resistance is our only hope, for what we tolerate is what we get.  Besides, standing up to institutional Powers that would destroy life is the right thing to do.  “In times of tyranny, the only way to maintain our humanity is to resist.”

One form of resistance is to expose the ideologies that provide a foundation for tyranny.  Today I critique the theology of the Religious Right, which wields tremendous power in the Republican Party and was able to influence so many white Evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump.  My primary purpose today is to refute the “theological sadism” that tolerates and furthers suffering while explaining it away in religious terms.  As theologian Dorothy Solle said, “That explanation of suffering that looks away from the victim and identifies itself with a righteousness that is supposed to stand behind the suffering has already taken a step in the direction of theological sadism, which wants to understand God as the torturer.”

Religious justifications that support cruelty, abuse, exclusion, and hierarchical domination are based on a faulty understanding of who God is and why Jesus died.   Did God send Jesus to die on the cross?  Was this God’s original plan to save people who believe in this story from going to hell?  Is the suffering of Jesus on the cross a pattern that we are to follow by accepting our lot in life?  I say NO, as do most feminist and other liberation theologians.

The idea that human beings need to be reconciled through blood sacrifice to a wrathful God is basic to conservative Christianity and is reflected in popular culture.  A scene from the movie The Apostle illustrates this view.  At the high point of the movie, the main character, a preacher played by Robert Duvall, holds up a baby in front of the congregation and says, “Could I ever drive a nail through the hand of this precious baby?  I couldn’t, but God could.  That’s what God did for you and me.”

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, criticized for its gratuitous violence and anti-Semitism, portrays a similar message through its unrelenting scenes of the sadistic torture of a passive and miserable Jesus.  The point?  That Jesus went through all this suffering (yes, it was God’s plan) in order to save you and me.

But this view substitutes a dogma about Jesus for the reality of Jesus’ life and teachings, and the events that led to his death.  It makes the death of Jesus acceptable, and takes away the “scandal of the cross.”

If I stand by, approving the execution of Jesus as a human sacrifice given in my place to a judgmental God, I stand with the High Priest Caiaphas, who argued that it was “expedient for one man to die for the people.”  If I applaud the crucifixion of Jesus as a good plan, even God’s plan, I place God on the side of the Roman Empire, which crucified subversives, including Jesus, as a matter of course, just as governments execute subversives today.  If I collaborate with those who put Jesus to death by justifying his murder on religious grounds, with theories of why blood needed to be spilt, I put myself on the side of the blood-thirsty mobs who called for Jesus to be crucified and who have engaged in atrocities throughout history.  If I ignore the political context and accept the execution of Jesus as a predetermined event that happened just as God intended, the symbol of the cross becomes a sign of God’s approval of the status quo rather than a symbol of hope for transformation of the world.

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Resisting Cultural Possession

The “Golden Bull” at Occupy Wall Street in New York

All of the kingdoms can be yours,” the devil tells Jesus, “if you will just lord your power over others and take up the sword of the nations. Take charge of the biological weapons, deploy some troops, command the implementation of a ‘Star Wars’ missile defense system. All the kingdoms can be yours—if you will just use the world’s means of power: domination and violence.”       Charles Campbell

There is a call in life to come to terms with who we are in relation to the universe, to give ourselves to something ultimate, to live in right relationship with the Ground of Being, to fulfill our destiny, to enter into the Great Mystery.  But we hear other voices as well, voices that we have internalized from our families and cultures, which we hear as our own.  These voices tempt us.  They present us with a choice:  to be true to ourselves and live as free human beings or to be ensnared by desires that reflect the values of our culture and end up being possessed by them.

Jesus, too, experienced this conflict.  After John baptized him in the Jordan River, Jesus saw a vision in which the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove and heard God saying to him, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).  This revelation led him to a time of testing in the wilderness, during which a spiritually strong but very human Jesus strove to find clarity about his identity and calling (Matthew 4:1-11).  He especially struggled with what it meant to be “son of God.” This was a well-known designation in the ancient world.  The term “Son of God” was applied to the Roman Emperor, who possessed status, wealth, and worldly power.  Jews who awaited the Messiah were hoping for the coming of a king like David who would embody these characteristics.  Not surprisingly, these were the very things that tempted Jesus.

“If you are the Son of God,” said the voice of temptation (the “devil” or “tempter”) to Jesus, testing him.  If you are the son of God, then prove it… by refusing to be bound by human limitations, by ignoring the laws of nature, by choosing a path that will lead to fame, fortune, and power over others.  But each time Jesus refused, choosing instead to be faithful and to entrust himself to the will of God.  We are called and empowered by grace to do the same.

Theologian Walter Wink demythologizes “the devil” or “Satan,” relating these concepts to the “interiority” of a culture at a particular time in history:  “Satan is the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good. Satan is the spirituality of an epoch, the peculiar constellation of alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy that characterizes a specific period of history as a consequence of human decisions to tolerate and even further such a state of affairs.”

These words were true of the time in which Jesus lived, when the “Roman Peace” was imposed and enforced throughout the Empire, but they are also true today.  Clearly, the United States is a society that “idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good.”   The present culture of unrestrained corporate capitalism, enforced by mass incarceration and endless war, exalts nationalism, pays tribute to wealth, promotes consumption, bows to worldly success, glorifies violence, and vilifies people who have not attained these things.  The “alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy” that characterize this time in our history are made possible by the personal decisions of many individuals to tolerate or even further this state of affairs.

The temptation of Jesus set the stage for the events that led to his death.  By choosing a path of deep integrity instead of adopting the cultural values of his time, Jesus set himself against the religious, political, economic, and military rulers of his day.  It’s no wonder that the religious elite, who benefited from the Roman occupation, collaborated with the Roman authorities in targeting him, plotting against him, and finally putting him to death.

And it’s no wonder that those of us who live here in the United States are often tempted to submit to cultural expectations.  Today’s ruling Powers have a million ways to reward and punish based on whether or not we comply.  But there is a deeper way to live, which offers immeasurably greater rewards.

There is always temptation, especially in our consumer culture.  It might be easier to come to terms with who we are and who we are called to be if we could go out into the wilderness.  That is what the season of Lent is about—a season that involves taking time out to reflect on what is ultimate and to accept the responsibility and privilege to make a conscious choice.

We do have a choice.  We do not have to surrender to the Powers or be driven by desires to conform and excel in their service, at the expense of other people and the earth itself.  We can refuse to submit to social pressures, resist cultural possession, and live in freedom as fully human beings, as beloved children of God.

There are many paths to freedom, and divine love is universal, offered to all people and all creation.  I choose to follow and live in the Spirit of the one who calls me, Jesus Christ.

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A Lenten Call to Resist

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We enter the season of Lent at a time of peril in our nation and world.  People are rising up, some emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of the alt-right, and some determined to stand in the way of injustice and oppression in all its forms.  Christians have a particular responsibility, since without the high turnout of white Evangelical voters Trump would probably not be president today.

As Christians, where we stand politically has a lot to do with how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.  “The word of the cross” is at the heart of Christian faith.  We might prefer going from the glory of Transfiguration Sunday to the joy of Easter without reflecting on the drama that leads to Jesus’ suffering and death.  But as Dorothee Solle said,

“Naturally one can develop a theology that no longer has the somber cross at its center.  Such an attempt deserves criticism not because it bids farewell to Christianity as it has been, but because it turns aside from reality, in the midst of which stands the cross.”

The execution of Jesus was not a one-time thing.  Christ continues to be crucified as today’s ruling Powers enlist human beings in their service, subject the most vulnerable to abuse and oppression, wreak violence around the world, and plunder the earth for their own gain.  Our goal during Lent is to remember the path Jesus walked and accompany him on his way to the cross, to fully surrender to God as he did, and to act in solidarity with those who are being crucified on the cross of Empire today, as he was so long ago.

My blog postings during this season will focus on how people who seek to follow Jesus can throw off despair and complacency, expose disempowering and hate-filled teachings that claim to be Christian, and reclaim the gospel (good news) as a force for peace, justice, and the healing of the earth.  If you follow this blog, please post your comments.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

This series, A Lenten Call to Resist, includes the following posts:

Resisting Cultural Possession

Rejecting Theological Sadism

Jesus Was Not Born to Die

The Subversive Jesus

The Suffering God:  Where Humanity is Crucified

Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth

Conventional Wisdom:  The Wisdom of This Age

God’s Restorative Justice

Good Friday:  Contemplation and Resistance

Holy Saturday:  Following Jesus

Resurrection:  The Mind of Christ

Beale with crosses

Good Friday at Beale, 2015

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Dust and Ashes

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On this Ash Wednesday, I share with you an excerpt from my book, Shaking the Gates of Hell:

It’s this radical humility that is absolutely essential to our time.Brian Swimme

As we consider the destruction of the earth and the suffering of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman, two primary responses seem appropriate: repentance and humble acceptance of our own mortality. In Christianity ashes are used to symbolize these two themes on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In Ash Wednesday services the imposition of ashes is a way of showing our repentance, our intention to turn away from harmful actions and to turn back toward God. As we consider the damage to the earth we are called to repent of our own violence, greed, and over-consumption, our participation in ecological destruction and human misery. We are called to repent of our complicity in the harm caused by the institutions and systems of which we are a part.

We are also called to a humble acceptance of our place in the universe: “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Ashes symbolize our mortality, reminding us of who we are: human beings, made up of the dust of the earth. Humus, human, humility—these words all have the same root. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that make up the earth’s crust. For that matter, we are made up of the same elements that make up the stars. We are, quite literally, star dust (as Joni Mitchell wrote in her song “Woodstock”). We participate in the great unfolding journey of the universe, and our role is to celebrate in mystery and awe. And yet we are mortal. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” brilliantly portrays the dual Lenten focus on repentance and acceptance of our mortality. It expresses a sense of dust and ashes, of hopelessness, of powerlessness to change. These feelings resonate with many people facing the pain and challenges of the world today. But then, in the poem, surprisingly:

The lost heart quickens and rejoices

for the lost lilac and the lost sea voices

and the weak spirit quickens to rebel

for the bent goldenrod and the lost sea smell

quickens to recover the cry of quail

and the whirling plover.

The earth has the power to call us back to life, through the divine Spirit that moves through creation. In some mysterious way, the earth can provide us with an antidote to despair and can renew our spiritual connection with what is deepest within our souls. It is our context, our “ground of being,” through which the Spirit touches us, reminding us of what is real and important, who we are, and with whom we are connected.

Teach us to sit still,

even among these rocks,

our peace in His will.

And even among these rocks,

Sister, Mother, and spirit of the river, spirit of the sea

Suffer me not to be separated,

And let my cry come unto Thee.

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