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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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.

Beale with crosses

Good Friday at Beale, 2015

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