Good Friday: Contemplation and Resistance

Good Friday 2014 at Beale Air Force Base

Today is Good Friday, the darkest of days, when Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus and stand by him in his suffering.  It is also a dark season in the world, with the Trump Administration dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, threatening North Korea, bombing Syria and Yemen, targeting immigrants, abandoning climate legislation, dismantling the social safety net, eviscerating education, and unleashing corporations to wreak unregulated havoc on the earth.

I grieve.  I enter and face the darkness.  I resolve “to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did when he visited the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2). This has been my ongoing spiritual practice during this season of Lent.

Contemplating the death of Jesus in prayer and holding space for that story throughout the day grounds me in the painful reality of Jesus’ time and of ours.  It helps me to face and bear what seems unbearable—that the evil powers of this world, the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8), seem to have the upper hand, and are crucifying what is precious, destroying our hopes and dreams and everything that we hold dear.  But the ability to bear this apparent reality—that the dominant institutions and systems of our world are moving us toward global death—depends on my determination to resist.  Otherwise, how could I simply “accept” this cruel, unjust, and unspeakable state of affairs? That would be consent and complicity.  Instead, I choose to stand in solidarity with the crucified Jesus and all other victims of Empire, to follow him in nonviolent resistance to the Powers, and to risk the same fate.

For me, contemplation and resistance go together.  In contemplation, we assimilate actions that we have taken in the world and receive clarity and inspiration for further actions of mercy, justice, and nonviolent resistance to the Powers.  In our actions in the world, we express the love and insight that we have received in contemplation. Contemplation and resistance go together.

Reflecting on the cross, the death of Jesus, and all the other deaths throughout history can bring us face to face with our complicity and our rock-bottom poverty of spirit.  We may even experience what seems to be the absence of God, as Jesus did as he hung on the cross, crying out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” As we reflect on our own personal failings and our participation in unjust systems, we discover our moral bankruptcy, emptiness, and inability to control the outcome of events.  We recognize that our wisdom and strength are inadequate to the task of personal and social transformation, and so we surrender ourselves, our very being, to God, whose wisdom and power are hidden in mystery.  Our ego stops trying to justify and defend itself.  We die to ourselves.  We enter the darkness, the depths, the journey of emptiness and loss and letting go, the dark night of the soul, trusting beyond trust, where trust has been betrayed, hoping beyond hope, where all hope is gone.  Paradoxically, it is by entering this very darkness that light dawns and hope is reborn.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The mystics call this the Via Negativa, the way of nothingness.  It is the Way of the Cross.

Previous blog post:  God’s Restorative Justice

Next Post:  Holy Saturday:  Following Jesus 

This post is part of Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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God’s Restorative Justice

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I started this Lenten Call to Resist series as a public way of rejecting the theological sadism of right-wing Christianity, which sees God as damning all humanity except those who believe in Jesus, the “perfect sacrifice,” sent by God to die in our place.  This is an ancient theology of retributive justice, based on Anselm’s medieval satisfaction theory of the atonement.  It points to a God who cannot (or even worse, will not) freely forgive human sin, who needs someone to die for divine honor to be restored and to be reconciled to humanity.

Since this is a foundational belief of the Christian Right, which helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency, it makes sense that its true believers support the scapegoating of Muslims, harsh policies toward immigrants, unconditional support for aggressive (and even deadly) police actions, unrestricted access to guns, punitive laws (such as the death penalty), and military policies based on domination, violence, and war.  Policies such as these are consistent with the view of a wrathful and punishing God, who can only accept those who, under fear of hell, are willing to jump through a series of theological hoops that, in my mind, are too small for a compassionate thinking person to get through.

On the other hand, the God I have come to know through Jesus is a God of restorative justice who reaches out in love to everyone, regardless of creed, social standing, or background and invites them into a reconciled relationship with God, self, others, and creation itself.    Like Jesus, God reaches out to us, offering forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love.  Jesus did not preach his healing, saving message for his early disciples only, but for all.  He did not simply reject the world’s values, demonstrate his vision of an inclusive community based on alternative values, challenge the governing authorities, and stand firm in the face of death for his early followers alone, but for those who would come after.  He lived faithfully and died “for us.”

Those of us who hear the Spirit’s call are invited into a process of truth and reconciliation. It involves facing and coming to terms with our history, our past, our immersion in whatever culture and milieu we find ourselves, and our current participation in social sin and institutional evil.  This reconciling process of “salvation” also involves accepting ourselves and the apparently limitless willingness of Divine Love to accept us as we are.

This is not exactly a get out of jail free card.  For Love to be effective in my life, I must do my part.  What is my part?  Here’s how twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich put it:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” By simply accepting that we are accepted as we are, we are set free from guilt, shame, and pre-patterned bondage of the past. This crucial choice sets us free to start anew, to enter a new way of living that includes openness to the ongoing transformation of our lives.

The way I have experienced this process goes far beyond anything that I could work out on my own.  Fortunately, God’s restorative justice is always at work.  Like the Prodigal in Jesus’ parable, I am always welcomed home.

Previous blog post:  Conventional Wisdom:  The Wisdom of this Age

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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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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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Another Dam is Not a Solution to Climate Change

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An area of the Bear River that would be submerged by the Centennial Dam.

The excessive rainfall that we have experienced recently is something that we can expect with climate change.  As average global temperatures rise, weather patterns are thrown off balance. We can’t know whether a particular extreme weather event is caused by such warming, but we do know that it makes such events statistically more likely. In recent years, there have been thousands of record-breaking weather disruptions all over the world.  As air warms, more water evaporates, drying out the land and causing drought, as it has here in California.  Clouds carry this additional moisture, making storms more likely. This results in the excessive rainfall, super storms, typhoons, hurricanes, and floods that are creating disasters on every continent.

Recent storms have stressed the Oroville Dam to a point where 200,000 people had to be evacuated.  I grew up in Oroville while the dam was being built.  My family and I lived just a few blocks from the Feather River.  As kids we spent most of our summer days there. The dam flooded habitat of plant and animal species.  The fish ladder and hatchery were built to counteract its toll on salmon and steelhead.  The dam also flooded our upstream swimming sites and areas where local teenagers used to find arrowheads, that is, the ancient homelands of the Maidu people of the region.  My Maidu step-brother Lee, whose mother was born on at the Moorehouse Rancheria near Oroville, still lives there.  When the dam failed, his grown kids and grandkids evacuated and joined him at his house above the dam.

Nevada County responded to flood evacuees with great generosity.  Now that people are returning to their homes and the immediate danger has been alleviated, we can hope that the damage will be repaired and people will be safe.

Now our community is facing another dam-related challenge: the proposal to build the Centennial Dam near Colfax and create another reservoir on the Bear River. This project is being billed as a response to ongoing climate change. We can expect many more such proposed solutions as the planet continues to warm.

Recently my husband and I spent time with our daughter and several grandchildren at a nearby campground on the banks of the Bear River, in an area that will be submerged if the project goes forward. Concerned people opposing the dam displayed maps and charts showing the areas that would be taken by eminent domain, destroyed, and submerged: 125 existing homes, trees and native plants, downstream waterways, ecosystems and various species that thrive here. Members of the local Indigenous community told the children stories and demonstrated traditional uses of particular stones found on the river bank, then invited everyone into a circle for a ritual of protection for all the beings who inhabit this place, and for our descendants who will come after.

Whether or not to build this dam is a climate justice issue. From one perspective, another reservoir makes sense, since precipitation is less dependable and the snowpack no longer ensures a continuous supply of water. But there would be great social and environmental costs, including the loss of people’s homes, destruction of Native cultural sites, loss of habitat for many plant and animal species, damage downstream to fish and other wildlife, and the forfeiture of people’s ability to enjoy this unique part of the natural world. Furthermore, logging the trees, bulldozing the plants, scraping the soil, building the dam, and flooding the region would release stored carbon into the atmosphere and eliminate the carbon sequestration function that the living trees, plants, and soil provide. There are alternatives that would avoid these social and environmental costs, including recharging groundwater that has been depleted by over-pumping. This dam is an example of a so-called solution that exacerbates the problem of climate change.

This proposal to respond to climate change by building a dam, along with the controversy it is generating, is an example of difficult policy decisions that will face us for the foreseeable future. It is also an example of a regional struggle to prevent ecosystem destruction, block further carbon pollution, and link the rights of Indigenous people with the rights of the earth. For people who live nearby, go to the SYRCL website at yubariver.org/ to find out more and send your comments.  This struggle may yet become another example of people around the world doing what we can to preserve the integrity of the places we call home.