Was Jesus Faking It?

I think one of the mistakes of popular Christology lies in the idea that Jesus could have, if he really wanted to, displayed his divine omnipotence on the cross by defeating his executioners in a grand display of power and might. Jesus, in this framework, was holding back, as it were, masking his divine power under a shroud of human frailty and weakness in order to accomplish salvation.

What’s not recognized by those who hold this position is that such an articulation bears a striking resemblance to the docetic heresy. Docetism, which was ultimately condemned in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea, asserts that Jesus merely appeared to be a human, that what was perceived to be a normal human body was in actuality a facade behind which lied Jesus’ true nature, namely, pure divinity. In other words, docetism understands Jesus’ humanity to be an illusion.

Contra docetism and its contemporary derivatives, I would argue that Jesus’ humanity goes all the way down, that there was no hidden divine power underneath the display of weakness on the cross. Jesus couldn’t have gotten himself off the cross even if he wanted to (which, given the excruciating pain and humiliation of crucifixion, he most certainly did). In short, Jesus wasn’t faking it.

Rather than seeing the pitiful display of weakness on the cross as illusory or as a veil covering Jesus’ true nature as an omnipotent super-being, I would argue that the weakness of Jesus on the cross is in actuality the true locus of divinity in this scene. The nature of God in Jesus was not suppressed on the cross but was rather fully displayed. The weakness and frailty wasn’t a show. That’s actually how God is.

Caputo puts it this way:

If we take from this that Jesus could, with the wave of his hand or a wink of his eye, demolish these Roman soldiers but freely chose not to exert his omnipotence because he was on a divine mission, then we would concede that he merely seems, docet, to be a helpless and innocent victim of this power. But that is what he was in truth. The radical uprooting of Docetism demands that we locate the divinity of this scene of misery and defeat, the sacredness of its memory, not in some hidden divine power play or long-term investment in a divine economy of salvation. The sacredness lies in the cries of protest that rise up from the scene. The event to be willed here is the depth of outrage at the injustice of imperial power, of the crushing of the Kingdom by worldly forces. The divinity lies in the identification of the name of God, for Jesus was the eikon of God, not with Roman power but with an innocent victim of that power, not with retribution but with the act of forgiveness that is attributed to Jesus by the evangelists. (After the Death of Godpg. 63).

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Jesus was a heretic.

I think it’s easy to forget that Jesus was a heretic. He did theology on the margins. That is, he was someone who did not “conform to the established attitudes, doctrines or principles” of his day. He challenged the religious authorities, those who were the defenders of orthodoxy, reminding them that God is more concerned with justice than the keeping of age old traditions. Jesus protected the down-and-out from the powerful institutions and authority structures that existed in his time. It was precisely this type of provocation that got him killed by these very powers. The orthodox, that is those in positions of authority and influence, cannot stand the threat of heresy. Those who challenge their telling of the story must be done away with lest their position of privilege be undermined. And so Jesus was crucified.

It’s not without some irony, then, that the Church today sees itself as the keeper of orthodoxy. The community that began as a gathering of the meek and meager of society now finds itself in a position of great power and authority, indeed, the position of power and authority if we narrow our focus to America. In order to defend its power the Church remains vigilant against those dissenters who concern themselves with the  propagating of any sort of teaching that threatens the as-is power structure which ensures its current place of privilege. Heretics must be called out and orthodoxy must be protected.

But what we learn from the Jesus story is that sometimes underneath even the most well meaning defense of orthodoxy is a grasping for power by those who are in the driver’s seat.

Thus, to follow Jesus in our own day is to defy our inherited traditions insofar as they are serving as a means of marginalizing the least of these. To follow Jesus is to be a heretic, to do theology on the margins. In order to be faithful to the Jesus tradition we must betray that very tradition (an idea developed by Peter Rollins in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal).

The work of John Caputo is a good example of what a “theology on the margins” might look like. In describing his work, Caputo says this:

I am following the traces of a well-known rogue, a famous outlaw who was turned into the Law itself by the palace theologians, even though my guess is that he would have made them blush with shame, thrown them into a rage, had they met him in the flesh, his flesh. They say his flesh was assumed by an Uber-Being come down to earth for a bit of heavenly business on earth, but I can imagine what they would have called him had they met him in the flesh–a “homosexual,” out to destroy “family values,” a flag-burner, a libertine, a “socialist,” out to raise our taxes–in short, a “curse and an affliction upon the church.” So I gladly take my stand with the outlaw and ask what theology would look like were it written by the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues. (The Insistence of God pg. 25)

 

Did God Send Jesus To Die For Our Sins?

The theo-nerdiest podcast on the intertubes, Homebrewed Christianity, just finished up what they called the Easter call-in challenge in which listeners of the podcast called in and responded to a post written by one of the makers of the podcast, Bo Sanders. Essentially, Bo’s argument is that God sent Jesus into the world for many reasons and Jesus, because he was faithful to God’s intention for sending him into the world, was then murdered unjustly by an oppressive system that was threatened by his radical message of forgiveness, love and peace. You can read the original post here.

Ken Alton from northern British Columbia called in with this response:

Did God send Jesus to die on a cross? Did God send Jesus to die for our sins?

 My reaction is to say no. God sent Jesus to save us.

And I want to say that there was a possibility, even way back in biblical times, that Israel, responding in human freedom, could have realized just who this Messiah was and got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom, such that all nations would have been drawn to that light, that human flourishing and the kin-dom be proclaimed to the ends of the earth without there being a cross in the story.

I want to say that even with the Sanhedrin being all caught up in shoring up their hierarchy and religiosity, then  Pilate and Herod could have responded, in human freedom, to the invitation of God in their ears at that moment, to the invitation of God standing right in front of them, and set Jesus free, not only set him free but got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom and taken it to the ends off the earth in a different way, also without there being a cross in the story.

Jesus could have lived to a ripe old age, teaching thousands of brew-babies brought to him from miles around, sitting on a swing hanging from a tree to fulfill the prophecy. And after he died in his sleep, God still could have raised him from the grave and the lesson of new life could have been learned, and the giving of the Spirit could all have happened without a cross.

If none of that was a real possibility on Christmas morning, then something is wrong in how I understand our human freedom to say yes to Sophia’s divine wisdom whispered in each and every ear. I know we live in a world where the cross did happen. Thank God that cross is not the end of the story. Maybe if we spent less time focused on Jesus having to die for us, we could open ourselves to being able to live into that kin-dom that is always coming near, so near that it is among us even now.

Djesus And The Nature of the Cross

SNL has caused quite a ruckus with its making of Djesus Uncrossed, a satirical twist of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained. 

The video gets its comedic punch from the irony in seeing the non-violent and cross-dead Messiah toting a machine gun and taking out his enemies Rambo style. Many Christians were upset at SNL’s portrayal of Jesus but I couldn’t help but think: Haven’t we brought this on ourselves? Isn’t SNL just forcing us to confront an image of Jesus that is present in much of the way we talk about Jesus as he is going to appear at the Second Coming?

It seems to me that the Jesus of Djesus Unchained is the very one that is revealed in a great deal of conservative Evangelical theology. This is the Jesus who, upon his return, will strike down his enemies in the same way that Caesar strikes down his enemies, namely, with violence and force.

This leads to some important questions concerning how we understand the cross:

  • Was Jesus’ non-violent forgiveness on the cross an actual revelation of who God is or was it a momentary act of grace coming from an otherwise relentless and vengeful God?
  • Is God really as nice as Jesus or was the cross his way of putting off his violent retaliation for another time?

For me the cross indicates that God would rather die than coerce people. In the same way, God would rather forgive than seek revenge. The cross teaches us that God’s power is the power of weakness and frailty. God’s is the power of powerlessness. Rather than being a momentary blip on the radar between the genocidal God of the Israelite conquest and the war-waging God of Revelation, I think that the cross is where our understanding of God comes into sharpest focus which means that the former two images of God must be re-imagined and reinterpreted in light of the latter.

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Here are a few other blogs that I found interesting on the same subject:

Jesus and Other Victims

In my last post I discussed the role myth plays in covering up the violent scapegoating of innocent victims. The myth of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) serves this purpose in modern Evangelicalism. In this myth we are told a grand story about the satisfaction of the wrath of an angry god by means of Christ’s death on the cross. Underneath this grand story, however, lies Jesus the victim, falsely accused and unjustly murdered. PSA does what all myth does, namely, it causes us to forget what is really going on in sacrifice. It covers up the injustice and violence of sacrifice.

The Oedipus myth that I summarized in my last post is a great example: Oedipus represents the innocent scapegoat who is killed because he is to blame for the community’s misfortune or sin. The way the myth is told, however, covers up the fact that the crimes Oedipus is supposedly guilty of are in no way correlated to the plight of Thebes. His exile is unwarranted but the myth, again, covers this fact up and instead justifies it. In the story world that the myth creates there is no victim and there are no murderers. Oedipus “deserved” what he got.

Rather than myth, what we find in the gospel accounts is what Mark Heim calls anti-myth. The death of Christianity’s central figure is not mythologized in order to cover up the innocence of the victim or to legitimate the killing of the scapegoat. Instead, the readers are reminded throughout that Jesus was indeed falsely accused, that his “crimes” were fabricated by the religious elite in order to legitimate their desire to kill him.

Here’s the rub: Myth silences the voice of the victim. In contrast, the passion narratives at the end of the four gospels tell a story from the perspective of the victim.

The crucifixion of Christ and the passion narratives that describe that event serve as an emphatic rejection of the mythologizing of violence. In these stories we find Jesus, the truly innocent victim, who entered into our violent sacrificial machine in order to rob it of its power. We unjustly murdered the one who could not be rightfully accused of anything. What’s more, when he was brought back from the grave he chose to forgive rather than mete out retribution. Instead of laying the smack down on his disciples for deserting him during his hour of need, the risen Christ invites them to a table for fish and bread. Thus, the cycle of violence is broken.

In response, the Christian community finds unity not in the sacrificing of an innocent victim but rather in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine around the table of the Lord.

In addition, part of the Christian vocation is to give voice to the victim–to stand in solidarity with the one who is being unjustly sacrificed for it is in the cross that Christ identifies with all innocent scapegoats.

This means that we must identify the myths in our society that attempt to do what PSA has done to Jesus.

A few examples:

  • Behind the myth of American imperialism lies the countless individuals who have been displaced, robbed, and killed in the name of Manifest Destiny. Christ stands in solidarity with these victims.
  • Behind the myth of Zionism lies the victims of Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza. Christ stands with the Palestinians.
  • Behind the myth of neo-liberal Friedmanite economics lies those who are mistreated and abused by corporations all over the globe. Christ stands with the slaves and the socialists and the poor who have been killed and marginalized in the name of the free market.
  • Behind the myth of technological progress lies our non-human neighbors who continue to be destroyed by our inability to say “enough.” Christ stands with these victims.

What other myths need to be unmasked?

Other thoughts, questions, concerns or comments?

The Prodigal Son (and God)

11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am nolonger worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

I recently came across some commentary on this passage that helped me understand the thrust of what is being communicated. I couldn’t help but think, “Where has this reading been all my life?” Anywho, I found it worthy of being shared.

In short this is a story about a son who disgraces his father, goes off to a distant land, squanders his inheritance before coming to his senses and returning home to a father who is shamelessly compassionate and a bitter older brother who stayed put all along. The echoes of Israel’s own story–the story of exile and return–are loud and clear.

Exile and restoration: this is the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out. And the story of the prodigal says, quite simply: this hope is now being fulfilled–but it does not look like what was expected. Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and is now returning simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god. But this is a highly subversive retelling. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry. Those who grumble at what is happening are cast in the role of Jews who did not go into exile, and who opposed the returning people. They are, in effect, virtually Samaritans. The true Israel is coming to its senses, and returning to its father, as Jeremiah had foretold (cf. Jer. 31:18-20); and those who oppose this great movement of divine love and grace are defining themselves as outside the true family.

With this context in mind, the ministry of Jesus, characterized by radical inclusivity and compassion as seen in his table fellowship with the outcasts of society, becomes a real life enactment of the celebration feast imagined in the above story. The long awaited restoration of YHWH’s people is taking place in and through the ministry of Jesus and that means that all are welcomed to God’s love feast.

Jesus is claiming that, when he [eats with sinners, welcomes the outcast, etc.], Israel’s god is doing it, welcoming sinners no matter whether they have passed all the normal tests for membership, as long as they will accept the welcome of Jesus.

More than teaching us something about the nature of God, this parable acts. It creates a story world that shatters the normal telling of the story of Israel. It forces those who find themselves in the role of the older brother–that is, those who are opposing the paradoxical restoration of Israel in the person and ministry of Jesus–to make a decision. They are cast into the role of Pharaoh or the Samaritans–those who have always opposed the freedom and restoration of God’s people. What’s more, the parable ends without a great deal of closure. The older brother is left outside the party faced with a decision that he must make.

Perhaps this is the decision that many of us are left with today. How do we view the radical inclusivity and generosity that characterized the ministry of Jesus? In what ways are we uncomfortable with the outcasts that are invited to our Lord’s table? Are we willing to be a part of this restoration movement that has been inaugurated in the person and work of Christ? If so, in what ways can we enter this story?

*The above reflections were inspired by N.T. Wright’s discussion of this parable in Jesus and the Victory of God. The block quotes are taken from that work.

The Absence of God: Reflections on Matthew 27:45-50

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” – Matthew 27:45-50

This passage has come to mean quite a lot to me the more I have grown as a disciple. I love it because in it we find raw and passionate emotion. In his hour of desperation we find Jesus addressing God in a way that is honest and real, even if his words weren’t “theologically correct.” The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent. As the nails were driven through his hands and his vision became increasingly blurred from the blood running off of his brow, in a moment of excruciating pain and suffering, Jesus experienced the absence of God.

This is an experience that is familiar to me. Sometimes it seems that God is absent. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t hear or see me. There are times when my perception and experience seem to indicate that he is distant and uninvolved. Perhaps you could relate. I would argue that our experience of God forsakenness is most definitely perceived, however, the experience, much like Jesus’, is still very real.

It is my contention that Jesus’ own experience of the absence of God legitimates our own experience. If Jesus is our model when it comes to living life as a fully human being then we ought to expect at least some degree of the experience of God-forsakenness. Let me be clear. I do not think that the experience of the absence of God should remain a constant in the life of the believer. Our experience of the cross, that is, our experience of God’s absence is always followed by the resurrection—the experience of God’s miraculous inbreaking. The order is important, though. Easter follows Good Friday. The resurrection follows the cross. Jesus’ vindication in his new life came after his experience of God’s absence. Our celebration of Sunday is cheapened when we don’t acknowledge the darkness of Friday.

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion. It’s okay to cry if things aren’t going well.

Lamenting is an acknowledgment of the fact that the world is not as it should be. In a world ravaged with war, hunger, poverty, isolation, loneliness and depression, the church dares to cry out to the Creator of all in the belief that he listens.

I commend to you the following song because I think it is true to the tradition of Israel’s lament and takes seriously the absence of God that Jesus experienced on the cross and that we experience from time to time. It’s a song that is honest and raw and doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions of life.