Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 6); November 14, 2021

Who Wants to Know?

In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”

“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think,” Kay replies. He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”

Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”

Photo by Ash @ModernAfflatus on Pexels.com

Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Men in Black is a clever meditation on the price of blissful ignorance versus the cost of knowing what’s really going on. It is, in fact, an “apocalypse” in an intentional fictional format. There are things going on under the surface of life that most people don’t know and don’t wish to know. But those things are matters of life and death, not only for the few who are in the know but for the whole world.

It is the job, in fact, of the MIB agents to make sure that as few are in the know as absolutely necessary for the safety of the planet. As they pursue a rogue alien through the streets of New York, Edwards fires his (alien) weapon, creating mayhem and chaos.

“We do not discharge our weapons,” Kay scolds, “in view of the public.” Edwards (now known only as “Jay”) is not impressed. “Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?! There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser,” he contends, “that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…”

Now it’s Kay’s turn to be unimpressed. “There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korlian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” he explains, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Are you seeing these great buildings? Not even a stone upon a stone will be left here which has not been torn down’” (Mark 13:2, my translation). The anonymous disciple looks at the surface, but Jesus sees deeply. “’Say to us when this will be,” the Fallible Four later inquire in private, “and what will be the sign when all this is about to come to completion.” I wonder if they later wished they hadn’t asked for quite so much information.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty adept at avoiding information that makes me uncomfortable or forces me to change my thinking and behavior. When the stock market takes a dive, I’m far less likely to check on my retirement plan. When there’s bad news nationally or locally, I’m very good at finding ways to avoid reports and updates. When there’s a funny sound in the rear brakes of the car, I hope that I can drive it less (and that some sort of miraculous automotive self-healing might take place). If I don’t go to the doctor, I won’t know which biological bombs are ticking away in my aging body.

“Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either.” Far too often that’s the case for me. And I’m not exceptional, as far as I can tell. I want things to go well, to be stable, and to make me blissfully ignorant and self-assuredly happy.

That’s all well and good as long as things are well and good. When blissful ignorance serves my needs and interests, however, then it’s time to question that blissful ignorance. For example, one of the realities that undergirds White supremacy is the sense of “White innocence” created by willful White ignorance. As long as we White people do not “see race,” we don’t have to deal with it. And if we put ourselves in spaces that are exclusively White, then we can sustain our ignorant innocence. We can persuade ourselves that we “have a pretty good bead on things.”

But a significant part of the gospel method, at least in the Markan composition, is to pull back the curtain and reveal things as they really are. The first-century imperial system took land and wealth from the most vulnerable and transferred it to the most powerful. The cultural values of the time put those who were different in some way into a variety of unclean and excluded categories. At least some of those who were supposed to be the helpers abused and oppressed those who most desperately needed the help.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is that these underlying systems are not what God creates. And they are not the way God intends the world to be. These forms of hierarchical value and systematic oppression are passing away – and that’s the good news. That’s the good news unless I am one of those who is benefitting from those systems. Then it is in my interest that the truth remains buried under layers of ignorant innocence and willful deception.

Truth tellers are not welcome by most of us most of the time. In fact, if they can’t keep their mouths shut, someone will shut their mouths for them. That’s as good a description of the crucifixion of Jesus as any I can propose.

I was part of a couple of conversations the other day that make this all the more pressing for me. Someone shared a difficult exchange during a church meeting. A vocal member was criticizing a church representative for the failings of a denomination. In particular, the member didn’t want to hear any more about diversity, equity, inclusion, peace, justice, and systemic change – not from the pulpit and not from the preacher.

“Leave my ideology alone,” the member demanded, “and stick to theology.” I thought immediately of the discussion of ideology and the Theology of the Cross in Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. Hall offers a definition of “ideology.”

“By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mishmash of daily existence” (page 25).

In other words, the purpose of ideology is the opposite of apocalyptic. Ideology hides reality in order to keep the privileged in power and the advantaged agnostic. Apocalyptic uncovers reality in order to dismantle the power of privilege. To use another science fiction film image, ideology is the blue pill of The Matrix – the one that allows the collaborator to enjoy imaginary steaks in blissful and willful ignorance.

“For the ideologue,” Hall continues, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world….The ideological personality,” he observes, “(and in our time there are many such personalities) is constantly on guard against the intrusion of reality, of the unallowable question, of the data that does not ‘fit’ the system; therefore,” he concludes, “the repressive and suppressive dimension is never far beneath the surface of the ideological inclination” (page 25).

Hall argues, quite rightly, that the Theology of the Cross is anti-ideological at its core. It is “apocalyptic” in the deepest sense. The Theology of the Cross uncovers and makes known what is really going on under the covers of human ideologies. That’s why it is so dangerous to systems of power and privilege. That’s why Jesus’ ministry takes him to the Cross…and Jesus followers with him.

Ideology is always, Hall argues, the Theology of Glory. Theology of the Cross is a “great refusal,” he writes. “It refuses any system of belief that capitalizes on and exploits human need…the fallen human need to control and repress truth, to hold to comforting and comfortable partial truths or even downright falsehoods that can seem to assuage the soul’s thirst for certainty and ultimacy, and so avoid unprotected exposure to the abyss of meaning over which finite existence is suspended” (page 29).

It’s no wonder we don’t really want to know. But refusing to lift up the covers on what’s really happening requires the suffering and death of the people and the planet that subsidize our willful ignorance. Pick your -ism and see what it costs someone for the privileged (probably you and me) to remain in blissful ignorance. When I do that, I see that I am crucifying them so that I can avoid my own cross.

The Theology of Glory, Hall summarizes, “is invariably tempted to be a theology of sight, not faith; finality, not hope; and power, not love” (page 33). This is the “theology” (actually the ideology) that drives and underwrites the dominant but decaying culture of Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy. The truth is, as Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it.

Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Men in Black movie script: https://sfy.ru/?script=men_in_black.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree — Throwback Thursday Books

“Two Italians were lynched in Florida. The Italian Government protested, but it was found that they were naturalized Americans. The inalienable right of every free American citizen to be lynched without tiresome investigation and penalties is one which the families of the lately deceased doubtless deeply appreciate.” — The Crisis, Volume I, Number 1 (November, 1910).

In its first issue, The Crisis, official publication of the NAACP (launched by W. E. B. DuBois and associates) published the bloody but wry notice of a Florida lynching. Since Italian immigrants had not yet approximated or achieved Whiteness in the United States, they were still subject to the same extra-judicial executions as Black people in this country. This was the only mention of lynching in the inaugural issue.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

By the fourth issue of the newspaper, “Lynching” had become a regular heading and a steady report of the ongoing terrorism against Black individuals and communities in America. It was included in the “Opinion” section of the paper. In that February 1911 issue, the publishers quoted an editorial from the Sioux City (Iowa!) Herald opinion page. Please remember that this is the same part of the country that a century later would produce the election of Steve King to the U. S. House of Representatives.

“The Sioux City Herald has an editorial pointing out how little the laws of the country protect black men,” The Crisis reports. “‘The record of the year 1910,’ it says, ‘is tainted by the stories of mob rule and murder of black people in the South. “Eight Negroes lynched in Alabama, eight in Arkansas, eight in Florida, ten in Georgia, five in Mississippi, three in Missouri, one in North Carolina, one in Oklahoma, one in South Carolina, two in Tennessee and four in Texas. A national scandal, a race crime. Besides these 52 black men, five whites
were lynched, four of them in the South and one in Ohio. There were 75 lynchings in the United States in 1909 and 65 in 1908.”

The publishers were playing a bit of “catch up” in their reporting of this ongoing horror. They would continue the collection of reports, rumors, photos, and outrages for the next several decades. These reports served as one of the many precursors for the comprehensive work of the Equal Justice Initiative, both in its own reports, and in its memorial and museum on the grounds of the EJI dedicated to remembering and reporting the American history of white lynching of black people. These reports are part of the data set which will inform several of my posts leading up to Holy Week 2021.

Today I reflect on a book that I have read several times — James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This is not an “old” book, having first been published in 2011. But it represents a culminating summary of Cone’s work in the theology of Black (and therefore of human) liberation over the previous five decades. I return to this text as we approach Holy Week and Good Friday, and I will refer to it in a number of posts next week in preparation for preaching and teaching on the Passion of Jesus the Messiah.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree,” Cone writes, “relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet,” he continues, “I believe this is a challenge we must face” (page xiii). Reading Cone’s text is a searing and gut-wrenching experience for those of us who live in the community of and in continuity with the perpetrators of such crimes. But without this sort of historical, personal, and theological reckoning, we can never begin to think about the repentance, repair, and rehabilitation which must precede any move toward racial reconciliation.

Cone brings personal passion and theological precision to the work. I ask myself over and over, “How did I not know this? Why did I not read Cone’s work during my own theological training?” Cone wonders the same thing — although he knows the answer to the question. “How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?” (page xvii).

This question has some real bite for me as an adherent of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,” Luther writes in his theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

I can no longer think about Luther’s theology of the cross without taking Cone’s work into account. I find any discussion of that theology which ignores Cone’s work to be incomplete. Cone states his basic question as this: “how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression” (pages xv to xvi). That failure makes white American theologians what Martin Luther calls “theologians of glory.” Luther writes in thesis 21, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” White supremacy is Exhibit A in the American case against a theology of glory.

Cone’s questions are even more pointed and pertinent now in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Derek Chauvin murder trial, the clear racism of white American churches and denominations, the growing “Leave Out Loud” movement of Black evangelicals away from white evangelical institutions, and the inevitable “whitelash” of even mainline (ELCA Lutheran) white male theologians trying to tell Black people how they ought to theologize in such a time as this.

“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith,” Cone asks, “and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people?” The answer is quite plain and simple. “Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel” (pages xvii-xviii). If only the past tense of those verbs were accurate! Little has changed in the decade since Cone wrote those words. Again, Luther would nod, I think, and note the theology of glory still at work.

As I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I see similarities to Luther’s framework in many places. For example, Cone highlights the paradoxical nature of the cross. Luther would note that God’s grace and mercy are always hidden under the form of their opposites — judgment and condemnation. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” Cone writes, because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2). He expands that observation on page 18 as he notes the life-giving power of Christ’s death on the cross for African Americans in their suffering.

Cone taps into the theme of the hiddenness of God which informs Luther’s theology at such a deep level. Luther asserts that the invisible things of God can only become visible by looking through the lens of the cross. Cone quotes one of Luther’s favorite passages in this regard, Isaiah 45:15. He then expands on this divine “inscrutability.”

“Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol of Gods loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156). Perhaps we Lutherans have been silent on this “cross connection” because we have resisted the obvious political implications of Jesus’ crucifixion for those of us who live in and benefit from the system of white male supremacy.

The intimate connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of Black people in America is not new, and Cone claims no novel insight in this regard. The December 1919 issue of The Crisis has two stories relating Black life to the Christian gospel of the cross. First, there is “The Gospel according to Mary Brown.” The story of Jesus is told as that of a Black impoverished mother. Her son, Joshua (another name for Jesus) is lynched. But he returns to his grieving mother as Jesus risen from the dead. She dies in the joy of the gospel rather than in the despair of hell.

The other connection in this issue flies in the opposite direction. On page 61 you will find a gruesome picture captioned “The Crucifixion of Omaha.” It is one of a number of photographs of the September 1919 lynching of Will Brown in the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. Brown’s charred remains appear in the form of a crucified victim, and the parallels were not lost on the publishers. The accompanying article detailed the white criminal and political interests that were served by the riot and murder. The picture was theology enough.

Cone comments on this lynching and the accompanying photo. “The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” he writes, “or more precisely, the relation between what white Christians did to blacks and what the Romans did to Jesus — was reflected in a photo…of a burned victim, with a throng of white men observing their handiwork.” (pages 103-104).

I have found the caption to that photograph compelling and convicting. It was not the crucifixion “in” Omaha, or “at” Omaha that was depicted. The editors named it the crucifixion “of” Omaha. It was not, in the end, Will Brown who has crucified for the sins of the city. Instead, the sins of the city were exposed for all to see. The cross was used to make the “invisible” things visible — starting with the leering faces of those who took such pleasure in this atrocity. The photograph continues to crucify white Omaha, a city that did not acknowledge this horror until a hundred years later and which has not placed a permanent marker to remember the event.

“The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people,” Cone writes to end his book. “It is a window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense,” he continues, “black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.” It is only in the making visible those things we white Americans wish to keep hidden and in reckoning with our past and ongoing white male supremacy that repentance, rehabilitation, and repair can happen. “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation,” Cone concludes, “there is hope ‘beyond tragedy'” (page 166).

Perhaps that is a theme for Holy Week 2021 — hope beyond tragedy. We shall see…

Text Study for Psalm 22:23-31; 2 Lent B, 2021

I want to share a story from my book, Forgiveness: The Road Home.

In July of 2006 we took a congregational group to the New Orleans area to staff “Camp Noah.” This is a therapeutic Bible School for children who have survived the trauma of a disaster. We spent a week with the children of Hurricane Katrina, and we were changed for a lifetime.

As staff members, we all had our favorites (and not-so-favorites) among the children we served. As one of the older males on the staff, I had a special role in exercising some discipline. Thus, I became acquainted with several unruly little boys.

One of them wore a small cross on a chain around his neck – a gift from one of the other counselors. It became precious to him as a sign, but a sign of what? He was uncertain. He knew the crucifixion story. Jesus died on that cross. However, when I asked him why Jesus died, the boy frowned in deep thought.

I waited for an answer which I could not predict. Then I asked again, “Why do you think Jesus died on that cross?” The little boy answered with half a question, “Maybe ‘cause he bad?”

A reasonable response from someone who had been victimized so often and so severely in the first five years of his life – blaming the victim was the only story he knew. It was clear that he hoped another story was possible.

Where does suffering fit with faith? It’s a question that hovers over the texts for the Second Sunday in Lent.

Psalm 22 begins with the words we know Jesus spoke from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Today we find ourselves in the section of the psalm that has taken a turn from that despair in the general direction of hope.

Psalm 22, when taken as a whole, is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is suffering and surrounded. The writer’s physical condition is dire. The psalmist’s spiritual condition is even worse. Not only is the writer suffering, but the psalmist is certain that God has “forsaken” the writer. The Hebrew word has the sense of “abandoned” and can be used for when a husband “abandons” a wife, for example. Not only is God absent, but God is also silent in the face of the psalmist’s suffering.

In the past, the writer remembers, the ancestors relied on God and were delivered. But the psalmist assumes that she or he is not that important to God. In the face of that apparent abandonment, the writer is shamed for putting trust in an “unreliable” Lord.

The psalmist reminds God that they’ve had a relationship since the writer was born. Now that things are difficult, this is no time to take a holiday. There is trouble all around. The psalmist is melting with anxiety and dry-mouthed with fear. Adversaries and wild animals threaten the psalmist, and the collection agency has repossessed the writer’s property.

But you, O Lord,” the psalmist pleads in verse 19, “do not be far away!” The writer addresses God directly and with great emphasis. “Hey, you! Lord! Listen up! Don’t go wandering off just when I need you the most!” We who are trained to offer nice, safe, polite prayers could learn a few things from the direct demands and passionate pleas of the psalmist here. By “we,” of course, I really mean “I.”

Luther prayed like the psalmist. Tim Wengert points to Luther’s direct and sometimes demanding approach to prayer in Martin Luther’s Catechisms. He describes Luther’s prayers for Philip Melanchthon as Melanchthon lay in a semi-conscious fever in 1540.

Wengert quotes Luther’s own report of his prayers. “For I threw the entire sack in front of his door and rubbed his ears with the promissiones to hear prayers, that I was able to recall from the Holy Scripture, so that he had to hear me, were I to believe all those other promises” (Wengert, page 70).

“Hey, God! Yes, you! Listen up! Here’s what you promised. Here’s how you have produced in the past. Why should I be any different from those other folks? Oh, source of my strength, get yourself over here on the double! I’m in deep…stuff…here!” As Luther would say, the psalmist has thrown the entire sack at God’s front door and rubbed God’s ears for all they’re worth.

In half a verse, the psalm turns on a dime from lament to a hymn of praise! “You have plucked me off the horns of the wild ox! You have ‘rescued’ me.” The Hebrew verb for “rescue” also has the sense of “answer,” which is appropriate to the context. After all, the complaint in verse two is that God has not answered the cries of the suffering writer. The verb is the same.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes that the center of this praise section of the psalm comes in verse 24: “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” We remember that the psalmist was despised by all the people (verse 6) and mocked by all who saw the writer (verse 7). But that is not God’s response to the psalmist’s suffering.

Affliction is not evidence of God’s abandonment. Suffering is not a sign of forsakenness. Distress does not point to damnation. The Lord does not look away in shame or disgust when we struggle to survive.

After my little cross-bearer in New Orleans gave his first halting answer, we launched into a kindergarten level discussion of atonement, solidarity, grace, and God’s love. At the end of that conversation, I was sure I had done nothing but bore the little boy into a much-needed nap. After our talk he curled up in my lap under a blanket and was soon asleep. So much for my marvelous powers of theological discernment and description. I have induced Sunday snoring in parishioners in the same way for years.

Affliction may not be punishment after all. That is a profoundly counter-cultural word for our moment.

We still live in a culture of “official optimism.” We are sure that complaining is an admission of failure. Prosperity and suffering must be “deserved” in order to make sense in such a culture. Anger at suffering is regarded as disrespect for and ingratitude toward God (or whoever is in power) and gets punished. This is why, I suspect, that we are comfortable in ignoring and abandoning the poor (if we are well off). We have been told they deserve what they get.

It’s a culture where the meme, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” makes humorous sense to people. “Quit yer bitchin’,” we’re told,  “It could be worse.” Is it any wonder that my little guy in New Orleans answered the question the way he did?

Suffering, however, is not in every case punishment for bad behavior. It might be the consequence of some particularly good behavior. This is the connection I would make to the Gospel reading. Peter has his mind focused on “human things,” what Luther would label as the theology of glory. Suffering, crucifixion, and death – in that theology – are sure signs of God’s judgment and rejection. Therefore, such things simply could not happen to one who has been identified as the Lord’s Messiah. This is why Peter takes Jesus aside for a little tutorial in the ways of worldly glory.

The theology of the cross is a different matter, as Luther describes it. Suffering and death are not the opposite of victory but rather the path to the empty tomb. There is no going around the cross. It is “necessary.” Even the forsakenness so clearly enunciated in the first part of the psalm is, perhaps, in some sense “necessary” for the journey from Lent to Easter to happen.

I am struck by the fact that in the psalm the verbs are all, by and large, in the present tense. God is far away. Those who see me mock me. I am a worm and no human – scorned, despised, mocked, derided. I am encircled by bulls, melting like wax, cotton-mouthed with terror. At the same time, I am rescued. I declare that rescue in the midst of worship. I praise the Lord’s name and pay my vows.

The psalm is not a progression from one state into another. Suffering and saving, pain and praise, are wrapped up together. That is the theology of the cross. God’s power is hidden in weakness. God’s wisdom is wrapped foolishness. Reality is hidden under the form of its opposite. “What is good,” writes Douglas John Hall, “lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality [of the cross], namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend creation from within” (Seminary Ridge Review, page 11).

To experience life in this way is to set our minds on Divine things rather than on human things.

Later, my little guy in New Orleans brought me back to our conversation. “I know why Jesus died on the cross,” he said with a sly and shy smile. “Really?” I replied. “I would like to hear what you think about that.”

The dark-eyed, brown-haired little angel stood up tall, took a breath, and delivered his theological thesis. “Jesus died because his heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” Then my little theology professor went off to mold clay and frustrate the other teachers.

“Jesus died because hie heart was too broke to keep all God’s love inside.” I’ll take that.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-2223-31.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring 2006.

Hennigs, Lowell. Forgiveness: The Road Home. See the “Books for sale” section of lowellhennigs.com.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wengert, Timothy. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

The Cross in the Middle of Everywhere — Throwback Thursday Books

The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.

The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.

This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.

In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.

In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.

The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.

If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.

Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).

What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.

“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).

The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.

One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).

One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.

No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:

Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).

This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.

I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?

Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.

“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.

That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”

Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.

Throwback Thursday Books: Great Expectations

In Advent I make it a habit to re-read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In a season of hopes fulfilled by Divine initiative, this is a story of human hopes disappointed. I was first introduced to this crowning Dickens masterpiece as a ninth-grader at the LeMars Junior High School. Margaret Hoorneman was our freshman English teacher. For a whole semester she read aloud to us the misadventures, misperceptions, and misjudgments of one Philip Pirrip, aka “Pip.” I was enchanted by the story, the writing, the language and the pathos. That has not changed in fifty years.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Years later I learned that the book was much more than a piece of the curriculum for Mrs. Hoorneman. In her retirement, she created a script for a theatrical adaptation of the work. It has been produced in dramatic and cinematic forms, but perhaps not with the passionate love which Mrs. Hoorneman devoted to the work. She was able to secure family and professional assistance in the project. It was developed into a musical that has been performed in a variety of off-Broadway venues. The charming story can be found in an article from the LeMars Daily Sentinel in 2010.

You can find the article here: https://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1434917.html.

Great Expectations is Dickens’ second to the last completed novel. In it, we find him at his full intellectual and imaginative powers. He relies far less on character names as transparent puns and two-dimensional characters as comic foils (although a few still make their appearances). Dickens had walked some of this plot path earlier, in David Copperfield, his only other “first person” narrative. In Copperfield, the hopes of the protagonist are eventually fulfilled, and they all lived happily ever after. In Great Expectations, the ending is somewhat different and, to my mind, far more compelling.

Of course, that depends on which ending you read. The book was originally serialized in the Dickens-published weekly periodical, All the Year Round. After the original ending was “tested” with the public and the critics, Dickens wrote a second and more “optimistic” ending that can be found in many of the editions. We prefer happy endings to less than happy ones. Dickens was in the business of selling books, and he knew how to respond to his market. But he noted that he preferred the original ending, as did many critics.

I am circumspect in describing the endings because I know that the book is not as widely read as it once was. I hope you will read it, and I don’t want to spoil it for you entirely. In the past week I have listened to the recorded version on Audible.com as narrated by Michael Page. I would recommend that experience if you have about eighteen hours to devote to the listening.

The chapters show the effects of serialization, often leaving the reader hanging on some narrative cliff or another. So it is well-suited to listening in installments. If you want the actual serial experience, discipline yourself to hearing one chapter at a time (for 59 sessions). The book is filled with archaic expressions appropriate to the time. If you are new to the book, I would recommend an annotated edition that can lay out the historical setting and explain some of the most obscure turns of phrase.

Here’s an inexpensive annotated edition: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Expectations-Annotated-Charles-Dickens-ebook/dp/B00GA8DLTI.

Why do I return to it? Certainly, it is a mature and clear-eyed examination of the nature of human hopes, of self-deception, of revenge and regret, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book offers unblinking views of the trials of class and privilege in nineteenth century England and narrates from a firsthand perspective the pains and prospects of social climbing and social collapse. The book is filled with memorable characters, some of great complexity and none more so than Pip. The artistry is worth the time by itself.

When I was young I found it a revelation of my own hopes and failings. Pip sought to leave his roots and re-invent himself in a new setting. I have traveled that sorry path too many times to count. He never knew how good he had it at home and thus never did find a real home for his heart. Pip was well-schooled in the notion that as he was he was never worthy, so he had to perform a part in order to deserve approval. Pip’s hopes were always wishes to be fulfilled rather than a calling to be answered. Thus, he was almost always profoundly disappointed.

It is a deeply theological book as well. It is, though Dickens certainly did not intend such, a meditation on the theology of the cross. Pip’s salvation always comes from the most unexpected quarters. His rescue is always hidden under the form of its opposite, and he is always looking for grace and love in all the wrong places. The one who most nearly approaches the role of Christ figure in the novel is in many ways one of the least attractive characters. He is one who reminds me of the words from Isaiah 53 — “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

The book is filled, in the final chapters, with affecting scenes of confession and forgiveness. After years of malice and manipulation, several of the main characters come to awareness of their profound brokenness and the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of others. In a few instances, things can be put right and are. In most cases, there is some measure of healing but little opportunity for reparation. Forgiveness may be genuine, but it may not always displace regret in the end.

Great Expectations is a meditation on the nature of personal suffering and the various ways we humans respond to that suffering. Some characters respond to their loss with desires for vengeance and acts of violence. Some are dulled into despair and made dumb in the face of their pain. Some use suffering as a bludgeon or a scalpel to control people and circumstances. And a few are softened by their suffering into a deeper and fuller humanity.

One of the great quotes in the book comes from Estella, the anti-heroine. “And if you could say that to me then,” she murmurs to Pip, “you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” To be bent and broken but into a better shape — that’s a hope that I can share. I suspect that no other words in the book were closer to Dickens’ own sentiments as he wrote.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Pip says as he recovers from his own weeping of remorse at another point, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” In the face of the famed British reserve, Dickens pleads for authentic humanity to open us to life and to bind us together across our differences. Confession and repentance can cleanse our hearts. It is a pertinent plea for our time as well.