Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth

One of the last Golden toads of Costa Rica, now extinct.

During Lent, Christians remember and grieve Jesus’ death at the hands of a murderous system that included official representatives, religious collaborators, a public that could be manipulated, and friends who betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  We remember and grieve the countless others who have been executed over the years by similar systems of worldly power.  Meanwhile, creation is being crucified as surely as Jesus was crucified on the cross.

This understanding has profound implications when we consider the harm being done to creation.  Even though many of us as individuals try to treat the earth with the respect it deserves, the institutions and systems in which we participate are plundering the earth and leaving it despoiled and desecrated.  This does not bode well for humans or the other life forms with whom we are interrelated and interconnected on this earth.  The institutions and operating systems that support industrial civilization are destroying the ecosystems upon which all life depends!  The insatiable appetite of the global system of wealth-driven corporate capitalism continues to devour the gifts of the earth, destroying the goodness of creation, destroying our non-human companions, destroying prospects for future generations, destroying our humanity.

Now the Trump Administration’s federal budget proposal includes cuts of 31% to the Environmental Protection Agency, which was formed in 1970 as the result of grassroots activism and widespread public concern.   The very agency charged with protecting the environment is being cut more deeply than any other program.

The destruction continues and accelerates.  Several climate change feedback loops have kicked in, making runaway climate change more likely each day.  The Sixth Great Extinction is well underway, as the atmosphere and oceans heat up, as toxins become ubiquitous, and as diverse ecosystems are paved over, “developed,” or converted into monoculture crops.  Humans suffer as air, land, and water are overused or contaminated, and as food prices rise.  Fukishima continues spewing radioactive waste into the oceans as more nuclear power plants are built.  Powerful nations wage resource wars and attempt to dominate the earth in an endless cycle of violence, employing drones and other high-tech weapons that kill civilians, obliterate communities, and create toxic wastelands.

No one on earth will be left untouched by the current system of death, for it is destroying life itself.  The web of life is being unraveled.  The air, water, land, and stable climate necessary for sustaining life are being destroyed by the institutional imperatives of today’s global corporate empire.  The earth is dying—signs of death are all around.  Creation itself is being crucified.

In this dying of Earth’s life systems, her children, both human and non-human, suffer.  Songs of praise become cries of pain and lament, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”  “God help us!  Has God forsaken us?  Where is God?”

But it is not God who has forsaken us, it is we who have forsaken God.  God is right here in the midst of the persecuted and tortured earth, suffering in and with Earth’s creatures, including but not limited to humanity, experiencing forsakenness.  God weeps for the harm done, because God experiences it all from the inside—the terror of the Polar Bear who discovers she cannot swim the distance to the next ice floe, the confusion of the Monarch butterfly whose migratory home has been destroyed, the loneliness of the last Golden Toad who croaks unceasingly for a mate.  God experiences the alarm of people in island nations that are being subsumed by rising seas and the panic and grief of families whose crops fail and children die because of increasing drought.  God experiences the “great loneliness of spirit” of the child who realizes that species are dying, and who wants a future of abundant life.

Where is there hope for new life?  I see signs of resurrection in the rising up of people who are no longer willing to consent to the current global system of death and are rising up in nonviolent resistance and creative action.  Surely God is on the side of those who love life and are willing to give themselves fully to the struggle out of love, as Jesus did. The compassion and passion that motivated Jesus may save us yet, as his risen Spirit lives and loves through us.  If we are willing, God will breathe new life into us, inspire us, empower us, and work through us to bring about healing and new life for all creation.

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The Suffering God:  Where Humanity is Crucified

Syrian Refugees

“Jesus continues to die before our eyes; his death has not ended.  He suffers wherever people are tormented…. Insofar as we forget the continued dying of Jesus in the present we deny the passion itself.”                                                                           Dorothee Soelle

When we consider the growing inequity, grave injustices, and unspeakable violence in our world today, the question arises:  Where is God?  Is God looking on from a distance, impassive and unconcerned?  Worse yet, are these things God’s will?  Does God inflict poverty and oppression on some because they are less deserving than others?  Does God side with those who dominate through wealth, status, or military might?

Not at all.  The symbol of the cross belies the common assumption that God is at the apex of the established order looking down on us from heaven and that everyone gets what they deserve.  When we consider Jesus crucified and hanging on the cross, those who love him see God there.

In Night, the late Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel described a scene he witnessed in Auschwitz where a child was executed by hanging.  The suffering went on and on, and the other prisoners were forced to watch.  Wiesel wrote:  “Behind me, I heard [a man] asking:  ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’  And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…’” It is God who suffers the torments of human injustice, the God who is Love.

In Experiences of God, theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote about how he became aware of this God who was with him in suffering as a 19-year old German prisoner of war in an Allied Prison camp. He endured not only physical suffering and deprivation, but loss of meaning, since he had become aware of the evils of the Nazi regime.  Despairing and alone, while reading a copy of the New Testament and Psalms that had been provided to him, he came to experience the presence of “the crucified God” who was with him in his suffering.  He came to understand that the crucified Christ not only represents God’s forgiveness and love for sinners, but also God’s solidarity with all who suffer.  Suffering does not mean punishment or abandonment by God.  In Christ, we can come to know the presence and love of “God with us” even in the midst of our pain.  Moltmann wrote, “I am a Christian for Christ’s sake.  I found my desolation in him, and I found God in my desolation.”

The idea that God suffers is “foolishness” (1 Corinth. 1:25) to those who equate divinity with the values of the dominant culture and worldly systems of power.  The foolish idea that God could suffer is and always has been shocking, leading Martin Luther to speak of “the scandal of the cross.”  But for those who believe that “God was in Christ” (2 Corinth. 5:19, KJV), divine suffering is part of reality.  God was in Christ, experiencing oppression, judgment, torture, and execution at the hands of the Powers.  God was in Christ, even when Jesus felt abandoned and forsaken by God.  God was in Christ, loving and forgiving anyway, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Christ is crucified wherever people suffer violence, injustice, or oppression.  According to conventional wisdom, it would be foolish to point to refugees or hungry children or homeless families or immigrants being deported or black men being targeted or Indigenous people stripped of their rights or people losing their healthcare or victims of killer drones or people incarcerated in Super-Max prisons or Guantanamo and say “God is there.”  But that kind of empathy for and identification with those who are “least, last, and lost” according to the dominant culture is precisely what Jesus’ life and teachings were all about.  This alternative view, in itself, undercuts the authority of today’s ruling Powers.  It exposes their cruel and unjust tactics, their desperate attempts to dominate the world, and their blatant and violent opposition to the God who is Love.

Still, in the story of Jesus, suffering and death are not the end.  The ruling Powers do not have the last word.  People who follow Jesus are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to join with others to work for an inclusive and compassionate world and to live in opposition to the Powers.  We can even point toward the hoped-for healing, reconciliation, and mutual liberation of both oppressor and oppressed.  By trusting in the hope of resurrection, we are emboldened to walk with victims of injustice, even if it leads towards the cross.  As Moltmann said, “Every theology of the cross must end in a theology of resurrection.”

We will return to the theme of resurrection during the Easter Season.

Previous blog post:  “The Subversive Jesus

Upcoming blog post:  “Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth”

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The Subversive Jesus

A Sculpture in our home of The Last Supper with Jesus

Why did Jesus die?  His message and the movement he led was subversive, a threat to national security.   It was as simple as that.

In weighing the various scriptures that relate to the question of why Jesus was killed, I give the most weight to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-19).  This is Jesus’ own version of the story of what he saw happening that would lead to his death.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants features God as vineyard owner, the earth as God’s vineyard, and human beings as tenants.  The vineyard owner expects to receive some of the harvest, and sends his servants, again and again, to collect what is owed.  But the tenants are wicked—they beat the servants and send them back empty handed.  The tenants are supposed to be responsible to the vineyard owner, but they take over the farm.  Finally the vineyard owner takes a chance—he sends his beloved son, saying, “Perhaps they will respect him.”  But the tenants see the son’s arrival as an opportunity to do away with him and take ownership of the vineyard themselves.  They kill the son and their own destruction follows.

How could this story be any clearer?  Where in scripture is there a more succinct interpretation of Jesus’ death?  God created a beautiful world—a fruitful vineyard, a garden, and entrusted it to human beings who were commissioned to care for it and share its fruitfulness.  When they failed to do so, God sent prophets again and again, and continues to do so, to remind human beings, especially those in positions of power, of their calling and responsibility.  Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, but instead of the people respecting him, they conspired to have him executed.  Why?  Because the leaders of the people chose in their greed and lust for power to usurp the place of God and to use violence to dominate creation, and because the people followed, thus demonstrating their complicity.

Jesus died not because God required a human sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity.  Simply put, he died because he challenged the authority of the religious leaders who collaborated with the Roman occupation.  The popular movement Jesus led threatened the established order, so he was killed as a subversive.  The religious leaders did not want Rome to punish Judah for disorder as they routinely did with other conquered peoples who threatened the “Pax Romana,” a so-called “peace” based on domination and violence (see John 11:47-53). The Ruling Powers could see no other way.

According to this story that Jesus told, the death of Jesus was not God’s intent.  God sent Jesus (as God in turn sends us) to heal, teach, proclaim the Good News of God’s all-inclusive love, and to show what human life and community can be when lived in the presence of divine Love.  Clearly, such a life was (and is) a threat to the Powers that Be.

The execution of Jesus was a travesty—an affront to the love and justice of God.  The surprise is what came about after his death. Jesus, the homeless healer and prophet, who had suffered the shame of crucifixion and death, appeared to many, leading them to claim that “the Lord has risen.”  This brought about a spiritual breakthrough and a paradigm shift in the understanding of divinity, not based solely on Jesus’ death but on the way he lived his life.  His message, values, and way of being were vindicated.  Worldly status does not confer virtue.  Wealth does not signify divine favor.  Might does not make right.  This in itself is a subversive message.

Jesus made clear to his followers in many of his teachings that a person’s moral stature is gauged on how they treat those members of our human family who are poor, hungry, thirsty, sick, weak, incarcerated, excluded, maligned, all who are victims of violence or injustice.  He said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40)

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Jesus Was Not Born to Die

The idea that Jesus was “born to die” is central to the theology of the Christian Right.  Bestselling author John Piper wrote Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die.  Among the reasons he lists are:  to absorb the wrath of God, to cancel the legal demands of the law against us, to provide the basis for our justification, and to rescue us from final judgment.  The introduction to this book on Amazon.com states: “The most important questions anyone can ask are: Why was Jesus Christ crucified? Why did he suffer so much? What has this to do with me? Finally, who sent him to his death? The answer to the last question is that God did.”

Deterministic teachings such as these raise troubling questions about the nature of God.  They also disregard the value of Jesus’ life, ministry, and freedom of choice, and ignore the social and political factors that led to his death.

To believe that Jesus was born to die and that God’s intent was for Jesus to die can lead to the acceptance of the suffering of ourselves and others, and to apathy in the face of injustice.  This allows us to justify not only Jesus’ execution, but other injustices as well. For if all is well and it is God’s will for one man, Jesus, to be tortured and executed by the State, why not others?  (This question takes on new meaning as Donald Trump promises to revive and expand the policy of torture practiced during the Bush administration.)  If things have been set right by the death of Jesus and everything is going according to God’s plan, why try to change anything?  Why not accept everything that happens, every injustice, every execution, as God’s will?

This is religion that supports Empire.  This is the antithesis of the spirituality of Jesus.  It serves the Powers.  Entrapment of the innocent, torture, and execution by the State are not now and never have been in accordance with the will of God.

The death of Jesus was not God’s intent.  God’s intent in sending Jesus was to show us what God is like and what human life and community can be when lived in the presence of God.  Clearly, such a life is a threat to the Powers that Be.  Jesus had settled for himself long before that being a beloved child of God meant being at odds with the world’s power structures.  He had been tempted early on to seek status, wealth, and worldly power. Instead, he chose the “foolishness” and “weakness” of Love.  He chose “the wisdom of God, secret and hidden,” which the rulers of that age did not understand.  “If they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2). That’s why Jesus died—because the ruling Powers killed him.

Fortunately, we don’t need to jump through ideological hoops in order to have a personal, life-giving, Spirit-filled relationship with Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to adopt a deterministic belief system in order to come to terms with suffering and to experience forgiveness, spiritual connection, and the unconditional grace and love of God.

The story of the execution of Jesus brings about a great reversal of spiritual perspective.  Instead of seeing God as a King, Judge, or Director of human events, in the crucified Christ we see God as the object of scorn, shame, ridicule, and judgment, as abandoned and broken-hearted, as lover, as Love.  God rejoices with us when we rejoice, weeps with us when we weep, showers both the just and unjust with all the blessings of creation, and calls us to embody Love in this world.  Jesus was one who did just that.  Those of us who follow him are called to do so fully and completely, renouncing fear and paralysis, living in the power of the Spirit, and heading straight into the heart of the struggle for a better world, as he did.

Previous Post:  Rejecting Theological Sadism.  Coming Next:  The Subversive Jesus.  

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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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