Holy Saturday: Following Jesus

On this Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, we continue to reflect on the death of Jesus and on what it means to follow him, as we wait for the dawn of resurrection. What does it mean to follow Jesus in this time of ascending evil, destruction, scapegoating, and death?  First, what it does not mean:  Following Jesus does not mean submitting to oppression or choosing to suffer.  Jesus raised up women, children, outcasts, and others who were despised and oppressed, and showed that they were worthy children of God.  Surely we are called to do the same.

Nor did Jesus seek suffering for himself—nothing in the gospel accounts point to that.  Rather, he was true to his mission as he had declared it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  By his preaching, teaching, healing, community building, and actions that challenged the ruling Powers, he incurred their wrath.  As a result, they plotted against him and had him executed.  Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived his life.

The story of Jesus and his “passion” was not something he had wanted for himself, nor was it the plan of an angry God.  Rather, in full integrity and freedom of choice, he refused to back down and betray himself, his mission, the people he loved, or his God.  Further, in the agony of Jesus, the suffering God endured the full impact of human sin and evil, and continues to suffer at our hands as God’s beloved children and creation itself are crucified today.

The question arises:  Why would we want to follow Jesus, who experienced such a horrendous death, or a God who undergoes suffering?  Why not instead focus on something positive, or find a faith that enables us to transcend the world’s suffering, or point to a God who looks on from a distance and sees only harmony?  Or, why not interpret the message of Christianity as being based on the God-ordained sacrifice of a beloved son who came to die to set things right?  Then all we have to do is say “yes” to this story, accept this (ahistorical) Jesus into our hearts, and worship him.  This at least allows us to accept the supposedly predetermined status quo.

But Jesus did not call on his friends to worship him, but to follow him:  to reject the cultural values of wealth and worldly power and to practice and promote the values of tolerance, justice, peace, and love.  This requires an “ethic of risk,” because it places us at odds with the dominant institutions of our day, just as it placed Jesus at odds with those of his day.  And we see clearly not only what human-constructed systems did to Jesus, but what they do to those “surplus populations” that threaten the order of global corporate-dominated capitalism today.

Still, even on Holy Saturday, as we remember the death of Jesus and so many unjust deaths throughout history until today, we anticipate and live into the reality of Easter.  The light of the Risen Christ is with us, making it possible to face the evil, pain, and darkness of our time and to celebrate compassion, beauty, and love.  His Living Spirit is with us, making it possible to set out on the path of following Jesus into the heart of the struggle for a better world.

Previous blog post:  Good Friday:  Contemplation and Resistance

This is the final post in Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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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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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.

Previous post:  A Lenten Call to Resist.     Next post:  Rejecting Theological Sadism.  

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Resisting Trump and the Deep State

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My sister Kathie with her Pussyhat, ready to march in DC

Hold onto your hats, including the pink, cat-eared Pussyhats that thousands of women are knitting to wear at upcoming demonstrations, representing their refusal to be demeaned by Donald Trump’s lewd remarks about women during the election.  Trump’s policies, as well as resistance to them, are sure to provide a spectacle during the coming weeks, months, and maybe years.  His election as president has unleashed forces of hate and indifference that threaten those who are most vulnerable, and he is appointing people to carry out his unjust and dangerous plans.

The resistance to Trump’s policies is just getting started.  It will be strong and it will be sustained.  But we will also need to focus on the system that brought Trump to power.  As despicable as his words and actions have been, as president he will be the figurehead of something deeper and more sinister—of what Mike Lofgren calls The Deep State, a “shadow government” that dominates economic and so-called “national security” policy regardless of who is in the White House.  Our work is cut out for us.

But there are other forces at work, including empathy and gratitude, concern for others, determination to protect the gifts of creation, love of life, and a desire for the common good. I trust that these impulses, based in the Love that abides at the heart of the universe, are more powerful than the forces of hate, and will ultimately prevail.   As for me, I will be there in the streets.  I don’t yet have a Pussyhat, but I will do what I can to resist harm and support an “orderly transition” to a world of peace, justice, and environmental healing.

Read Lufgren’s recent article, “Wall Street’s Win-Win with Trump.)

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Rise to the Level of Love

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Martin Luther King, Jr. with Gandhi photo, by my friend Bob Fitch

When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”                                        Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Inauguration Day approaches, I will be joining people in taking to the streets.  We need to resist and delegitimize the dangerous and hateful policies of Donald Trump in every (nonviolent) way we can, on every front.

But we must also keep in mind that there is much more at stake than Trump’s presidency.  The United States is deeply divided at a time when we need unified action to deal with the many national and global threats on the horizon, including climate change.  At the same time, the country is on the verge of fascism.  Spirited, creative, nonviolent resistance is our only hope to prevent the worst forms of abuse.

Trump’s election surprised many people, but it was not a fluke.  It was the result of corruption at the highest levels of both the Republican and Democratic parties, the highjacking of the electoral process as a whole, and a system of governance that is dominated by money.  The hate speech that Trump and his followers express so opening has been expressed by conservative Republicans in veiled words and discriminatory policies for thirty years, with Democrats “providing a weak and tepid alternative” to the “lunacy” that has taken over the Republican party (Mike Lofren in The Party’s Over).  As Trump’s supporters say, “At least he says what he means.”  During the primary election, the Democratic Party manipulated the process to favor the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Meanwhile, transnational corporations and wealthy donors pooled their dark money in Super PACS, seeking to buy the election with money that counts as free speech.  What could possibly go wrong?

Now Donald Trump has been elected president.  This is not because Trump spent the most money or because the majority of people favored him, but because the destruction of democracy has unleashed forces that not even Exxon Mobil or the Koch Brothers can control.  Nevertheless, powerful interests are getting on board, planning to make the most of the wealth-producing policies promised by Trump.  For instance, Energy Transfer Partners plans to go forward with the Dakota Access Pipeline, in spite of the resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies.  We shall see.

I made the case in Shaking the Gates of Hell that “the system is designed for the results it is getting.” Those people who serve the system at its highest levels are shaped by its imperatives.  They perpetuate the system’s dysfunction while benefiting from the wealth and power it offers.

It is essential that those of us who yearn for justice not fall into hate speech when expressing our justified contempt for unjust policies and systems.  Martin Luther King, Jr. is right when he calls us to seek to defeat the system, not the individuals who are caught up in the system.  As he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

To see more of Bob Fitch’s historic photos, scroll down the main page of http://www.bobfitchphoto.com/.  Bob, who died last year, was my friend and colleague at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz.  I miss him.

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