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Jesus

Theology

when Good Friday lasts forever

The first Holy Week I was blogging, back in 2013, I wrote a brief post for Good Friday, describing the resonance I felt with those who watched Christ suffer, bleed, and eventually die from being crucified as a rebel:

A few years ago, I stood in a dark place. The ground trembled and shook under me, and I stared up at heaven and watched my god die. Everything that I thought I had known– known with an absolute, unreachable certainty, was gone. Shattered. In a moment, in the space of a few words, it felt like everything in my universe was a lie. I had been deceived, tricked.

Horror-struck, I watched the truth pierce the side of the person I’d thought was god made flesh, and the pain was so intense I could feel a hollowness inside– an emptiness torn apart by swords and spears. Truth and reason and experience and emotion were the pallbearers that carried my faith away. And suddenly, the world was cold and dark and empty, because all the light had gone out. The veil was torn, and I couldn’t see anything worth hoping in behind the curtain. It was just a room. It was just a piece of lumber, a few pieces of iron. It was just an empty space carved into rock.

Tears washed my face in the night; my heart echoed along with the cries of “why can’t you save yourself? Why can’t you save me?” Why did I carry a back-breaking cross in your name? 

They carried him away and buried him under a mountain of shame and terror. I sealed the door shut with guilt and fear and betrayal and anger and rage.

Eventually, the sun shone, piercing clouds and making the world seem strangely normal again. I went back to work. I continued learning. I talked with friends who never knew what I had just witnessed. I hid in upper rooms I created inside of my head, places where my god had never been– and never would be. All the promises I’d ever known were broken, and the lie of them was bitter. I couldn’t speak them to another person, and every time I offered an assurance to another, it felt like feeding them false hope and platitudes. I wanted to rage inside of my own temple and hear the crash of silver on marble tile.

He was dead. The god of my childhood was nothing more than a corpse.

I wrote all of that, and then immediately wrote the post that followed it, words filled with hope and ultimately confidence. It’s been a long three years since then, though, and my faith has continued to take heavy battering. It’s shifted, struggled, grown, transformed. In many ways, the sort of Christian I was three years ago and the Christian I’m becoming bear little resemblance to each other. Back then I still thought it was important to cling to a certain set of facts to be a Christian, and now I feel that facts have very little to do with faith at all.

I’ve had my faith challenged, shaken, even broken at times. In a way, I’ve faced down the same choice Judas did: abandon Jesus because what he offers makes no earth-bound sense, or go to Good Friday with him like Mary Magdalene? Some days, like Judas, I almost feel like giving up. If I can’t know that Jesus is resurrected, if I can’t be sure that he’ll come back to break all chains and cease all oppressions, then what is the point? If Christianity doesn’t make any logical, realistic sense, then I might as well side with those who are more pragmatic– dreams and belief and pixie dust don’t do anything real.

For me, it feels like Good Friday isn’t just a day during Holy Week– it’s every day of my life.

Nearly every day I stare at a bloodied cross and a body laid to rest in a tomb, and I wonder and doubt. I wonder sometimes if I’m being completely ridiculous. If there is a god, then why does the world look like this?  Nearly every day I lay my God to rest again. I bury him. I mourn him.

But, I still have a choice in those moments. Maybe my God is dead. Maybe he’s not miraculously coming back from beyond the veil to give me the proof he gave Thomas. But does it matter? If I want to follow him, does whether or not he resurrected and ascended truly make the difference between whether or not I try to do what he said? If the resurrection never comes, if I’m never given concrete-hard proof that Christianity is the religion, what happens?

Do I stop believing that it is my responsibility to make the world a better place? Do I stop trying to bring an end to misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia– bigotry in all its forms? Do I stop seeing every person as worthy of love, respect, kindness, equality, and justice? Do I lose hope in redemption for each of us individually and for the world?

If my life is a perpetual series of Good Fridays, do I spend all my days hiding, afraid of leaving an upper room of privilege and security? Do I spend these hours more afraid for myself then for those Jesus charged me to clothe and feed and heal? Do I huddle together with other Christians, separate and unmoving, cut off from our communities, unwilling to reach out and love the widow, the orphan, the prisoner?

We’re all moving through Good Friday, really. Maybe you have the assurance that in three day’s time Jesus will roll back the stone and walk among us in the flesh. Maybe, like most, you’re utterly convinced that the resurrection is a well-established fact, testified by multiple eye-witness accounts and all the other evidence Habermas and Strobel and Licona and Wright have spent books and books explaining.

Except, in the end, even with all of the arguments, all the proof in the world, we’re all still facing the same choice: hide in our upper room, or go out and do what Jesus showed us. We could be so afraid of the world around us with all its dangers and threats and, like Judas, turn to political powers for our protection. Or, we could leave the false security of the upper room and take up the same cross that Jesus bore.

That’s the choice of Good Friday. It’s a choice between fear and love.

Photo by Der Robert

 

Social Issues

repentance and transformation as a progressive Christian

I read two articles today that helped me crystallize something that I’ve been struggling to articulate to myself. Handsome and I have had a few into-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning conversations about “but what does it mean to be a Christian? What’s the point?” I’ve taken a radical departure from “being a Christian means you get to go to heaven when you die,” and yet I haven’t been able to put into words what I’ve replaced it with, especially since I came to the realization recently that nothing about my life would significantly change if I stopped believing in Jesus as God.

So, what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean for me to follow the teachings of Jesus?

Well, interestingly enough, my answer peeked out at me from “Here’s How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel” by Chelsen Vicari, in a description of “Cafeteria-Style Christians” (which I’m almost certain I fall into):

This group picks and chooses which Scripture passages to live by, opting for the ones that best seem to jive with culture. Typically they focus solely on the “nice” parts of the gospel while simultaneously and intentionally minimizing sin, hell, repentance and transformation.

I understand where Chelsen is coming from with this. I no longer believe in the doctrines of Original or Inherited Sin, and I do not believe that hell exists. Without those, the evangelical understanding of the Gospel evaporates rather quickly. I no longer “witness” to “the lost,” and I’m am very much unconcerned with whether or not those around me are “saved.” For the evangelical Christian, this is probably the worst form of heresy. According to many evangelicals, I have probably forsaken anything resembling Christianity.

But, the second part of my answer came from another article critiquing progressive Christianity, this time from an insider– “The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity”:

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly “pure” in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that “everything is problematic.”  You can’t do anything without contaminating yourself.

That paragraph stood out to me because while I agree with the general truth of this statement– I think “becoming less complicit in injustice” is one of the goals of progressive Christianity– I disagree with Richard’s conclusion: this impulse isn’t a problem. It’s where the repentance and transformation that I believe is absolutely central to the Gospel comes into play for us heathen liberals.

One of the questions Handsome asked me this weekend was if I’d convert to another religion, like Buddhism. I said no, because of all the theologies I’ve studied I still find Christian theology the most fulfilling … however, that doesn’t mean that I particularly enjoy every thing Christianity espouses. Say, for example, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I hear that and my gut reaction is uh hell no. No way. That teaching right there is hard.

(Note: Some scholars, like Walter Wink, have made convincing arguments about the radical implications of “turn the other cheek” and “give him your coat also” and “go the second mile”– that Jesus meant these to be forms of non-violent resistance to oppression.)

I believe that the story arch of Scripture is one bent toward liberation. I believe that Jesus came to set the captive free, and that I am morally compelled to dedicate my life to that task. If I am participating, furthering, or aiding any system that oppresses and harms, then I am not doing what Jesus has asked us to do.

This is where I disagree with Chelsen: the “new Christian Left” is not minimizing repentance and transformation. In fact, since I’ve become a liberal, I have found that following Jesus’ calling has become even more transformative and demands constant repentance and renewal. Personally, I see the sort of repentance that I tried to live out before as petty. I felt remorse for such small-minded things– trivial, meaningless things. Things like wanting to look fashionable, or saying curse words. Today, when remorse comes, it is because I just realized how my internalized misogyny caused a friend of mine to sink deeper in self-hatred, or how my clueless racism made the office a hostile work environment for a black colleague.

I believe that Jesus asks us to be transformed, to be renewed, because of how deeply entrenched these systems are in our lives. It takes nothing less than sorrowful and soul-achingly-deep repentance to overcome racism and bigotry, and I believe that striving to undo the countless lies we’ve been steeped in is the single most transformational act we can accomplish.

The love, grace, and compassion required of all Christians isn’t easy, as Richard’s article and the article he quotes from highlights. Everything becomes problematic because everything about our world– ourselves, our cultures, our government, our policies, our relationships– urgently calls for a metamorphosis that can only be accomplished when we dedicate ourselves to the daunting task of beating our swords into plowshares. We are all, every moment of our lives, complicit in one form of oppression or another, and changing that reality will happen over generations, not moments.

I understand feeling burnt out, which is something we should all do our best to guard against. But I am hesitant to embrace criticisms of liberal Christianity that accuses us of being “fundamentalist” or those that paint the movement as one of “outrage” or “mobs with torches.” Occasionally I feel the anger we feel can be misdirected— we are a movement composed of flawed human beings, after all– but I disagree with those who look at progressivism and see a “Crusader mentality.” Having people point out the things we all do as oppressive, as harmful? It’s unpleasant. I understand the desire not to have our faces shoved in the brutal ugliness of the bigotry that still lives inside of us. Yes, self-care is needed. Yes, the “everything is problematic” situation is exhausting.

But I think that Jesus’ message is challenging. I don’t think it’s going to be comfortable, or pleasant, or anything less than the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. Taking up our cross and following him is a gruesome picture, not one filled with bunnies and rainbows and unicorns. I die daily and sell everything that you have are radical, mind-bending declarations. We have a commitment to seeing justice run down like the waters, and sometimes that’s going to ask hard things of all of us.

Photo by Dave