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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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.

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

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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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