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:

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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.

Overdue Reflections on Advent

The message of Advent is one that is often overshadowed by the Christmas event itself, and for all the wrong reasons. Christmas has become a time characterized mostly by a gross amount of consumption and the telling of pagan myths about a fat guy in a red suit who rewards kids who have been good by giving them a bunch of stuff they don’t really need. The anticipation of Christmas morning starts usually after Thanksgiving for us in the States. In the midst of the anticipation it becomes easy to forget what the time leading up to Christmas, namely Advent, actually symbolizes. Advent is indeed a time of remembering. Each year as we relive the Christ event in our worship and our liturgy we begin by remembering the coming of God into the world in the form of a little baby. The incarnation really is a miraculous event. God, the Creator of all things, chooses to redeem humanity from sin and death by subjecting himself to his very creation. He becomes dependent on us. Our understanding of power and victory is turned on its head as we realize that true conquering comes in the form of self-sacrifice as opposed to violence and coercion. In the words of St. Paul: Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Phil. 2:6-9). Jesus won not because he was macho or powerful (in the conventional sense of the word), out-wrestling his opponents with brute strength. He won because he died. He won because he came as a helpless baby. This is what we remember at advent. We remember the past. We remember Jesus.

But advent is certainly more than remembering. It is also about waiting. We anticipate the coming of Christ a second time. Indeed the Scriptural narrative ends with a plea for the coming of Christ: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 21:20). One quickly realizes that we are not much different than first century Jews, waiting for the coming of God that all things might be fully redeemed and made new. Just as characters like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah were waiting for the promised Messiah, so we modern day saints await the coming of Jesus for a second time. Advent is about waiting. It is about the future. We anticipate the renewal of heaven and earth.

Is there a third element of Advent, however, that we often neglect? It is my contention that there is indeed something that we miss in the season of Advent when we emphasize only the past and the future. The reality is that the life of discipleship is not lived in the past or the future but the present. In fact, the reason why we remember the past and anticipate the future is so that we are empowered to live as Jesus calls us to in the present.

I want to propose to you that Advent is just as much a present event as it is a past and a future event. Jesus came, will come and is coming presently. It is this third element that is too often missed. The way we often talk about the second coming of Jesus is not helpful when it comes to realizing the implications of the Advent event for the present. Often we think of the second coming as a day when God acts finally and decisively in order to accomplish what his church could not. The result of this way of thinking is that we end up sitting idly by, waiting for God to come and do what only he can do on his own. What’s the use of attempting to build for God’s Kingdom if he’s going to come and let us off the hook sometime in the future anyway. Our eschatology basically becomes a way of pushing our responsibilities for the present off onto God in the future. This life becomes about just getting by, holding on a little bit longer for Jesus to come back and lay the smack down on all things evil.

What if the yearning for the coming of God in the future that we see in the Scriptures is really an invitation for us to allow God to come in our lives daily? What if Jesus is longing to come into the world through us in each moment as we are faced every day with the choice between love or selfishness. This is, I believe the beauty of the incarnation: not that God became man once for all time but that God is continually being incarnated in and through us as we choose love and gentleness, kindness and compassion. Jesus is a model of obedience for us as we attempt to live the incarnation in our day to day life. As we love, we see God come. Advent becomes about the present.

This is what Jesus is getting at in John 14 when Judas asks Jesus why he chooses only to show himself to his disciples and not to the whole world. Jesus responds almost cryptically, typical of the Jesus character in John’s gospel: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). At first glance it seems that Jesus is skirting the issue. Instead of answering Judas’ question Jesus seems to be simply reiterating his emphasis on obedience. However, I think there is more going on here. Notice the result of love of Jesus and obedience to his commands (which can be summed up in with the word “love”): God comes and makes his home in us. Jesus responds to Judas by essentially saying that he is indeed showing himself to the world. When people love each other then he comes. The world sees the coming of God each time compassion is chosen over neglect and love is chosen over hate.

It is my hope that we would be a people that allows for the coming of God to take place within us. Each time we give a listening ear to someone who is hurting or give up our time and energy for the sake of our brother or sister, God is made manifest. Jesus comes in our love. Advent becomes about the present. The possibilities really are endless. Let us open our eyes to the coming of God in our midst. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Eight Things To Remember This Election Season

With the upcoming election happening in less than a month I can’t help but post something on the topic. I have been reading Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Earlier this year I read Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. As a result, I’ve gained some new insights that I would like to share as well as some insights of my own:

  1. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. Contrary to popular belief, this is indeed the Biblical truth. Although the Republicans, over the last few decades, have somehow claimed the exclusive right to Christian spirituality (albeit a muddled version of it), there are “religious” and “moral” issues on both sides of the spectrum.
  2. The church is a counter-cultural voice in a world that puts everything into the two extremes of left and right. The politics of Jesus turned the world upside down. People must have been amazed to hear teachings like, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, “Turn the other cheek”, and “Do not resist an evil person.” And then there are Jesus’ economic policies of Jubilee which seem to be especially foreign in a country that promotes the rich and oppresses the poor. These politics do not fit into the traditional “liberal” or “conservative” ideologies. As members of the church we are to devote ourselves to the teachings of the Slaughtered Lamb, not the teachings of the Elephants or Donkeys.
  3. This November we are voting for a President, not a Messiah. In a country that upholds the belief that ultimate change happens through D.C. alone, this truth can be easy to forget. We can choose to vote for either candidate, knowing that that particular candidate will not change the world in the way that Jesus came to do so. Taking this truth into account, we need not withdraw from voting simply because “neither one matches up to the politics of Jesus.” Although this is true, we should recognize that the reason we are voting is not to advance the Kingdom of God through the president. Only the church, under the power and authority of the Holy Spirit, can do this.
  4. Protest is good. Advocating an alternative is better. Complaining about how the government goes about doing things doesn’t help anyone or solve any problems. If we disagree with the actions of the “Religious Right” over the last eight years then we are to take that protest to the voting booth. Let us be the change we want to see in the world.
  5. As Christians, we do not vote in a way that merely promotes our own well being or even our own country’s. We must vote in a way that takes everyone into account, for we are all God’s children. The beautiful thing about the Good News of Christ is that it embodies itself in love. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus our love for people grows as well. We must care for people, especially the poor and marginalized. It is also important to remember that we are apart of the global church. The bride of Christ is something that transcends national boarders and our ultimate allegiance lies with the church…not America. We must not forget about our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Japan, or Mexico. These truths should significantly impact the way we vote.
  6. God is not pro-war. The teachings of Jesus clearly indicate otherwise. The Sermon on the Mount makes it unbelievably clear: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The foreign policy of the Bush administration has been one of American imperialism, preemptive war, and unilateralism and has led to the death of almost 100,000 innocent Iraqi people. Any theology that supports such action is a bad one, to put it lightly.
  7. God is not pro-rich. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. May we not forget that the Kingdom belongs to the least of these. Beside idolatry, poverty is the most talked about issue in Scripture. We have been commanded to care for the poor and we must take them into account when we vote.
  8. God is not a selective moralist. Homosexuality and abortion are religious issues. But so are war, poverty, how we spend our money as a nation, torture, racism, etc. How did the two issues mentioned above end up being the only issues considered in a debate concerning morality?

May we go into this election prayerfully and thoughtfully, never releasing our gaze from the King of kings and our true Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ.

A New Look at Prayer

Does It Make Any Difference by Philip Yancey

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey

I’m being challenged by Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I’ve found much of the book to be very insightful and quite profound which leads me to extend it to all as a recommendation. In it Yancey attempts to answer many of the questions that are commonly asked concerning prayer: Does prayer change God? Why do bad things happen to good people? What difference does prayer really make? Pretty heavy stuff.

I want to share a thought with you that I found to be especially profound. Here’s an excerpt:

“In prayer we stand before God to plead our condition as well as the conditions around us. In the process, the act of prayer emboldens me to join the work of transforming the world into a place where the Father’s will is indeed done as it is in heaven. We are Christ’s body on earth, after all; he has no hands but ours. And yet to act as Christ’s body we need an unbroken connection to the head. We pray in order to see the world with God’s eyes, and then to join the stream of power as it breaks loose.”

I have come to realize that we are the answer to many of the prayers that we pray. How often do I pray, hypothetically, “God, please provide for my friend who is struggling financially,” when I have just been given a pay raise? The truth is, we are God’s hands on earth and from the beginning He has chosen to accomplish His will through us as His chosen people. The election of the nation of Israel is a great example of what I am getting at. In the Old Testament there are countless stories of God using the nation of Israel (in its early stages), a group of sinful, fallen people, to carry out what many would call ethnic cleansing. Ultimately, the nation was established and Jesus, the Savior of the world, is born through her. God, being all-powerful and altogether sovereign, could have chosen to accomplish all of this without force or even further, the nation of Israel but the fact of the matter is that God has willed it that we be His instrument of grace. God chose to use a group of sinful people (hence the war, violence, and bloodshed) as a vessel of His grace back then and it is the same today. I understand that this example may require a discussion in and of itself but I believe that it illustrates what I am trying to say at least somewhat clearly.

I’m reminded of an interesting thought that is shared in Shane Claiborn’s Irresistible Revolution: We are so quick to turn to God and ask Him why people are starving in the world or why there is war and violence and oppression. Maybe God looks down on us and says in response, “You tell me. You are my hands. You are my feet. I have equipped you with my Holy Spirit so that you may take on such tasks with worlds of strength.”

God is transforming the way I view prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God to miraculously intervene (which I believe is a good thing to pray for in some circumstances), I should be asking Him how I could come along side Him in His Kingdom work and change the situation I am praying for myself by the power of His Spirit within me. Maybe I am the answer to some of my prayers and I just haven’t realized it yet.