Antisemitism and the Church

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Antisemitism has always been a uniquely Christian problem. Our history of persecuting Jews long predates the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine, the root of so much anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world today. That’s a whole other thing for a whole other time.

Antisemitism among Christians has systemic religious roots. It’s paradoxically a result of Christ’s passion and a radical indictment of our collective participation in and guilt for it.

The problem is the Church has often identified Jews as Christ-killers while denying our collective responsibility. We’ve forgotten that we also participate in Jesus’ death, not in some abstract he-bore-our-sins way but in a very direct, very active involvement in the sacrificial system that caused Jesus’ death in the first place.

We can’t deny that the passion was a good/bad thing. It brought about salvation for all but through a grisly process of injustice leading to the grave. The Jews and the Romans sacrifice Christ to keep the peace. After all is it not better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish? Pilate hand-waves away his complicity, but sacrifices Jesus anyway.

Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, doing what the sacrificial system and all proto-sacrificial systems could not do — instead of simply dying a victim, driven out of the camp and off a cliff, the sins of the people laid on him to break the cycle of retributive violence, he inverts the whole thing and rises again. He becomes not just another scapegoat, but a living, breathing victim, one that lays bare our crass self-interested perpetuation of a cycle of religious violence against the weak and disenfranchised, the foreigner and outcast. Jesus identifies with those who are most likely sacrificed to the mob by himself being sacrificed by the mob. And by identifying with Jesus, we identify with those likely to be sacrificed to the mob as well.

This is how we deconstruct the mob, how we break the cycle of religious violence, and why the scapegoating and persecution of Jews is such an endemic feature of Christian societies.

I think the problem is that we’ve embraced philosophies of Christ’s death that enable us to do this. Substitutionary atonement (not nearly as unanimous a theory as our modern fundamentalism would suggest) allows us to divorce the benefits of the cross from participation in it. We identify with Jesus in his death, but as the sacrifice, not as the mob. We have a third party for that — the Jews (and the Romans to a lesser extent). Even the disciples are complicit as they turn their backs on him and deny him for fear of dying with him.

Divorcing ourselves from our participation in the system of sacrifice that indicts us as well as the Jews allows us to do exactly what the death of Jesus was meant to prevent: Neurotically persecute the visible minority in our midst under obviously false pretenses.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying with Christ in his death and rising again, after all that’s what baptism is for, right? But it’s important to remember what Jesus death saves us from. And when we scapegoat and victimize and marginalize and persecute Jews, we are in practice identifying with Jesus’ killers. Not with Jesus. In these acts of communal violence against the visible outsider, we have perverted and inverted the meaning of the cross. We’ve absolutely failed to understand the meaning of the passion.

The thing to remember here is that the cycle of religious violence, of mobs rising up against the visible minority, of a burst of collective violence against a sacrificial victim that heaps our collective retributive violence on his or her head… this is the human condition. This our default setting. This is Sin with a capital S. This is what Jesus comes to end by exposing the cycle of religious violence for what it is.

It’s a hard lesson, one that we often fail to learn. Look at the US, a nominally Christian nation, turning against the sojourner or minority in its midst (the Muslim, the black person). It’s not a coincidence that these effects are most strong amongst fundamentalists who don’t understand their own symbols.

What’s odd is that fundamentalists in the US, which seems to have most of them, by and large almost reverence Jews and the Holy Land today. This is the result of some really oddball eschatology, not of really understanding what the cross is about and what it means to identify with and follow Christ. It almost feels like a kind of diagnostic over-reaction to the problem of antisemitism.

In any case it’s important for the church to come to grips with what it means to follow Christ. When we identify with him, we identify with his death. We remember that Jesus’ passion was an act of injustice, a grossly wrong and evil sacrifice of a victim who had done no wrong. We identify with his resurrection, an act of power over death that exposes the principalities and powers of this world, that exposes them and triumphs over their violent sacrificial systems by demythologizing them and laying their crassness bare. We no longer participate in systems of ritual purity designed to separate the sheep from the goats; we no longer say do not touch and do not eat and do not handle, because we are the goats.

We die with Christ to this elemental spiritual force of the world, how can we still participate in it? How can we neurotically scapegoat the Jew, the Muslim, the poor, the disenfranchised? How can we identify as Christ-killers, subject to the mythology of the sacrificial victim, purposely averting our eyes from the lies and false pretenses of our sacrificial system, when we have been raised with him?

Riot as voice

Sorry to give away the ending with the title; I guess you know what I’m going to say already.

I’ve written about this before, I think it might have been on Twitter, and I can’t be bothered to find that now (something that reveals a real hole in Twitter’s architecture, though I digress). I’ve also written about how we can think something is wrong but still understand why it happens. Root causes are important. You can’t just tell everyone “don’t riot” and expect that to solve anything. (If this sounds strange, don’t feel bad, it took me a while to get this too.)

This point goes for just about everything, by the way. If you work on identifying and fixing root causes, you stop thing from repeating. If you see someone have the same thing happen over and over again, you can put money on it: They’re not fixing the root problem. I’ve written about that too. We normally think of root causes in a management context, but it makes sense in cultural and societal contexts as well. Mind you, the root causes of race riots are being hashed out as a political problem in a realm that’s really only good for flinging crap.

I’m almost always on the side of the rioters. If there are riots, you can be sure there is oppression and voicelessness. (Unless you’re rioting about hockey in which case you need a new hobby.)

In the US the Supreme Court has called money speech. And a large portion of the country (notably people who have lots of money) agree with this, but can’t see that violence is also a kind of speech. It is a desperate call of an oppressed class.

There’s a lot more going on than just that of course. One of the problems that poor and marginalized groups have is that their few available methods of speech are either considered offputting or just plain criminalized. Not to mention that poverty and crime are associated, so it’s really easy to demonize the marginalized, who also happen to be poor, who are also more likely to be criminals. And there are always opportunists who will use riots as an excuse to get some free stuff.

There was a lot more going on with the Boston Tea Party too. Maybe it will take a few hundred years for us to really understand what these riots mean. Why do they keep happening? Baltimore in 2015, or Chicago in 1909, or Tulsa in 1921, or Newark in 1967, or Miami in 1980, or Los Angeles in 1992, or Cincinnati in 2001, or Ferguson in 2014… it’s a long list.

Why does this stuff keep happening? Are black people just naturally violent? (If you think yes, congratulations, you’re part of a long tradition of racists, including slave owners who justified their slavery by appealing to “savage” nature of the black man.) Or is there something else wrong here? Something perhaps systemic? Some kind of unhealed wounds perhaps?

But it’s all okay. Slavery and racism are over in the USA, don’t you know? So a bunch of race riots keep happening. What can the US possibly be expected to do? Oh well.

It’s frustrating to see people (unfettered from the associations that would normally keep them from saying this stuff [don’t open that link if you mind language]) at once angry about the destruction of property and kind of grotesquely jubilant that their casual racism has been confirmed by a few photos they saw.

Which makes me think… Why is the merchandise in a 7-11 more important than a man’s life? Why focus on the looting? You know why. You want to call them thugs so you don’t have to deal with their (very real) problems. You tacitly admit that you think poor black people are bad people. And because they’re bad people we don’t have to care if these modern-day lynching continue. And before you get on my case, I don’t see how you can see the unprecedented brutality and murder of black people in the US by the largely-white police as anything else.

The Christian response in the US is frankly disgusting. There should be a Christian response to this, right? We’re ready and willing to help the Nepalese (as we should) because they are a people sorely in need. But here’s a people in our backyard. And a lot of the response I see is people mentally passing by on the other side to get out of our obligation — yes, obligation — to help the poor and the needy, to give voice to the voiceless, to do all those things Jesus talked about again and again.

Or as the Proverb says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

not “unless they look like an obese black woman or a gang member, then just ignore them.”

The mechanisms of magic

I keep looking at John 10 and finding new stuff. So you’re in for a treat: I want to talk about the mechanisms of magic.

One of the things that frustrated me for a long time about the Tolkien fantasy universe is stuff like Tom Bombadil and magic. Specifically the mechanisms of magic. How does it work? What causes it? Where does it come from? Why does it happen at all?

Tolkien is either very cagey or very purposely old-fashioned about this. When I was first thinking about this I have to confess to a bit of blithe chronological snobbery (and Tolkien underestimation; never a good thing). My first instinct is to assume Tolkien himself has the old-fashioned worldview, that it never occurred to him to think about the why, the how, the mechanism of magic.

But of course he did. This is the guy who invented a bunch of languages. He was a professor, and one who was by all accounts used to putting himself in the shoes of the ancients. Of course he knew that they didn’t think about mechanisms like we do. To them, magic would be the default position. You’d have to be a bit daft to ask how it worked. Angels-as-men get sent to Middle Earth and futz around with their magic sticks and whatnot. That’s just what happens.

And I think we can assume Tolkien wrote his world that way on purpose, to capture the mind of a different era.

I’m not even going to talk about Tom Bombadil.

Contrast that with The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a more recent high fantasy decalogy. It’s very concerned with the means and methods and flavours of magic. It goes into a fair amount of detail. Elemental magic is shaped into holds, then holds are deprecated in favour of warrens, which are all essentially flowing from inside a giant magic dragon, which can be accessed almost as other worlds. There are gods and goddesses who have houses, each house having members who perform certain magical functions. And in the end they’re all shuffled into the Deck Of Dragons, a way of both organizing the pantheon and divining the future.

I consider this a bit more modern approach to magic: Not only does it happen, but here’s how. Notably the Prince of Nothing series cares a great deal about how sorcery works. Even the more down-market Shannara books posit a mechanism for magic.

All this to say, It Just Is isn’t a satisfying or really acceptable answer to a question.

But what if it’s the only answer we can give?

Back to John 10:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

This is kind of a tautology. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice because they are the sheep. Everyone else doesn’t because they aren’t the sheep. This logic kind of bends back on itself. I don’t find it really satisfying because I know at the root of it all there’s a mystery. It’s not like gathering statistics and analyising the data and conducting a randomised trial and confirming a hypothesis and doing science. It’s not like that at all, in fact I think there’s an element of faith you need to approach this statement on its own ground.

Not very satisfying. I feel the schematic impulse. I want this thing mapped out.

So… we have some doctrines to swoop in and save the day. Let’s be very clear here. I’m not saying that doctrines are bad or even unhelpful. I’m not saying we should get rid of them (nor that we could). I just think there’s a level of specificity you can try to get to where you’ve diced and sliced everything up into little doctrinal chunks where you lose a sort of overall resolution. Sort of like standing too close to a TV screen.

A friend of mine once said (publicly no less; he has basketballs for cojones) that scripture affirms both predestination and free will. Which I wrote a blog post about, because I didn’t think that made sense. I called it the Third Rail of Christian thought. You don’t get to affirm opposites and handwave all the problems away.

(As an aside, it only doesn’t make sense if you agree that scripture even talks in these categories, and if it does, that scripture is this kind of monolithic repository of God-words that coheres perfectly and can be cross-referenced like a theological dictionary. I may have called predestination/free will the third rail, but if I may borrow from CS Lewis here, the Bible and what it is is the deeper third rail. It is, one might say, third-raily-er.)

I’m sort of on the outskirts of the “free will” camp these days. Maybe not as far inside as some might wish, but that’s a complicated discussion (sorry!) for another time (you’re welcome!). There’s a lot less free will in the world than we think. Initial conditions and all that.

Either way you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go into a theological discussion about the methods and mechanisms of how predestination interacts with free will. He speaks broadly of God’s power and humans’ reaction to it. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example here: God calls, people respond. Believers believe. Non believers don’t believe.

The mechanics of calling and what that means are hidden here. They’re not important. God is powerful to call, people are empowered to respond. How that works… well, that gets into a kind of unhelpful doctrinal resolution, unable to see the screen for the pixels. We don’t need to posit a mechanism for it to make sense, you know?

The authentic Christ as rebuke

Sometimes when you ask Jesus a question you get more than you bargained for. Or you get something you weren’t expecting. This is one of the things I love about Jesus: He’s clever. I don’t mean that in a sort of internet-snark way (Jesus isn’t just drive-by smugposting on someone’s Facebook status). He divines the intent of the questioner and answers with something confrontational.

I mean, look at John 10:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Before I continue, I’m going to acknowledge that there’s a lot of stuff going on here and I’m not going to dive into much of it at all. I’m not professionally religious. I’m just a guy reading a thing, and I might be full of crap. It’s happened before; I’m sure it will happen again.

Now the usual take-away from these verses is blah blah blah predestination blah blah blah perseverance of the saints of something like that. Or they’re used as a battering ram against religions who acknowledge Jesus as a prophet (or something else) but not as God. True as those things may be, I don’t know if they’re really all that helpful (or in the spirit of the passage). I mean, we tend to give ourselves a little in-group massage with this passage and go back to our usual selves.

It’s helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to here. The Jews as John calls them, or in other words, the pre-Christian analogue of the Church. This is us. And more to the point, it’s our leaders. (The Jews seems like John’s way of talking about the religions leaders. Earlier in the book The Jews decide anybody who identifies with Jesus gets kicked out the synagogue: This is clearly not something just anyone can decide. When John wants to take a dump on a particular faction of leaders such as the Pharisees, he’ll identify them by name.)

There’s a lot that can be dug into about the leaders of the Jews and their negation of Jesus and how that parallels our church leaders attempted negation of Jesus (from liberal Christian leaders who want to deny Jesus divinity to conservative Christian leaders who want to deny his social conscience). But I feel like scripture is a sword that I should use on myself first. It’s too easy to pick on the other guy, you know? I’ve got enough problems inside myself to fix before I go after other people, including that perverse desire to pick out splinters but ignore lumber.

Anyways.

Jesus gives The Jews more than they bargained for. They want to know if he’s going to identify as the Messiah. But he gives them more, much more than that. Not only is he the Messiah, but he’s the son of God, and not in a “we’re all sons of God” way but in a “I and the Father are one”.

This is sort of the inverse of Deuteronomy where the writer says

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

in opposition to the nations around them and the nations whose land they are about to possess. The startling thing is that there is but one God. For John the startling thing is this unveiling of trinitarian thought, where the Son and Father are one. As usual Jesus’ surprise isn’t the exact inverse (we’re not going back to polytheism here) but something completely and utterly new, something only ever obliquely referred to in the Jewish scriptures.

It seems to me like this is when The Jews make up their mind: Jesus has to go. They’ve got to kill this guy before he brings down the iron hammer of the Romans against them. They have to disown him to avoid political disaster. (Interestingly Jesus’ ministry also often touches on showing a “third way” of kingdom that doesn’t involve revolt and reprisal or subservience.)

They pick up stones to kill him.

Now to be fair, this is the right response to blasphemy, minus the trial and all that. This is what Jesus keeps hammering away at in John 10. His sheep hear his voice. They recognize him for what he is. Everyone else defaults to the usual response.

And then the interesting part comes. A straightforward reading of this (2000 years later without the benefit of the historical context or Jesus and The Jews scriptural memory and outside the narrative context) seems to have Jesus discussing the finer points of the grammar of the word “god” with a crowd of people trying to kill him.

If that seems a bit… odd… well, you’re right. It is a bit odd:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

It’s easy to read this as Jesus trying to convince The Jews that he is God. And that’s not a terrible reading, but I don’t think Jesus choice of Psalm 82 is entirely coincidental. I mean, there are lots of things Jesus could have referred to other than this kind of obscure and opaque bit of the Psalms.

I think the thematic content of Psalm 82 and John 9-10 are related. In Psalm 82 you have God asking his judges (or little-gods) how long they will withhold justice from the weak and fatherless, from the afflicted and the destitute. (And just in case you think that Jesus cares about the little guy because he’s some kind of hippy bleeding heart making a bunch of stuff up, Psalm 82 precedes Jesus by 1000 or so years.) He rebukes them for their lack of care for his people. Earlier in John Jesus talks about shepherding, and in John 9 he heals a man on the Sabbath, provoking anger from The Jews.

Now he equates himself with God in the context of corrupt and unfaithful judges. He lifts himself up above the religious leaders, proclaims himself their judge, and proceeds to imply that they are unfaithful, that they are covenant breakers. Like the judges in Psalm 82.

This is what his Lordship really means. And they get this, I think. They want to stone him, they want to arrest him, not only because they think he’s a blasphemer (despite all evidence to the contrary) but because he threatens their way of life. He holds before them a sort of institutional looking-at-death, in that he calls them to repentance and a turning away from the false gods of religious piety and man-made “holiness”. He requires reinvention, rebirth, the sort of thing that will almost certainly endanger their professions and their livelihoods, maybe even bring an end to the category of “Pharisee”. He calls them to a sort of death (which will be called the “old man passing away” by Paul as he expands on Jesus’ teaching during the beginning of the Christian church).

And of course they react in much the same way we tend to today. They sought to negate Jesus as a person by killing. We seek to negate Jesus as both a person and an idea by softening him or filing off his edges. They seek to remove the thing that is causing this internal discord.

Jesus (at least to me it seems this way) intentionally antagonizes the Jewish religious leaders until they feel forced to either accept him or reject him. I think every person coming into contact with Jesus does this. Meeting Jesus is one of those things that marks a turning point whether you realise it or not. Either you accept him and seek to emulate him. Or you reject him and seek to negate him.

Echoes of the Christ

I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.

And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)

This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.

The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?

Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?

John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.

Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.

This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.

Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.

The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.

It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.

The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.

If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.

Easter & the fear of death

I had A Thought while listening to the sermon on Sunday. Bear with me here and let me know in the comments if I’m full of crap.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but Jesus starts off by talking about death. Well, glorification and then death. It appears that the path to glory is death. Jesus is going to die and the result of that death is going to be the opposite of death. That’s the point of the seed illustration, I think. It’s easy to read that as being about the church and the growth of the Christian faith, but I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind. The picture is marred by a bad translation. Many seeds should be much fruit. This changes the metaphor completely: Instead of being about creation of disciples, it’s about what happens in this death/glorification. Before the death, you are a singular seed. After the death, you multiply much fruit. And Jesus followers are expected to follow him into this death.

Most important here is Jesus speaking of what happens when you hold closely to life (or in the negative when you strongly avoid death). If you hold on to your life (or your self, your psyche) too closely you end up losing it. Or more to the point you end up devaluing it. The value you assign to yourself is inversely related to how much self worth you actually have. If you give it up, on the other hand, it gains value — infinite value, in fact. In terms of death avoidance, what’s more valuable than eternal life?

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?

Jesus is afraid. Like anyone would be in the situation of predicting your own death. It’s natural to fear death. Much of our behaviour is driven by death avoidance. He quotes David in the psalms here, but where David cries out for salvation, Jesus immediately rejects his own prayer. What Jesus says next turns our death avoidance (and all the sin that comes with that) on its head:

No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

The response to the death is, “Father, glorify your name!” Not the usual human response, to surround yourself with money and possessions and status and all sorts of stuff to help soothe that fear of death.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m interested in the idea of “the prince of this world”, alternatively translated “the ruler of this world”. This can easily be read to be the devil, however that would seem to come out of nowhere here. Maybe a more coherent reading is to think of “the ruler of this world” as death itself. After all we start this bit of scripture talking about death, the middle is about death, and it goes on after this bit to talk about death some more. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus here isn’t referring out of nowhere to some Big Bad but instead to the concept of death? Or perhaps these are the same things, death being the personification of the devil. Hebrews says something to this effect: “…that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”.

As a side note (and this a bit of inside baseball, so if any of these words don’t make sense to you, feel free to skip this paragraph; it’s not as important as it sounds), it’s easy to read this passage in the usual satisfaction model of substitutionary atonement, but let’s be honest, that’s reading a lot of stuff into the scripture that isn’t there. A more plain reading is a Christus Victor reading, which I think makes more sense. It can also be interpreted from a psychological/existential standpoint, which I think the passage supports quite well.

Here we see Jesus dying and rising again to drive out death or the prince of death, however you choose to interpret that. The point is the same. We are in bondage: We die, and we’re afraid of dying. My natural tendency is to hold my life close and to be threatened and fearful in the face of anything that so much as reminds me of my mortality.

To fix this, Jesus dies. He inverts the whole thing. He uses death against itself. He is raised again and in that rising again he casts out the prince of the world. He breaks the backs of the powers that be. He shows us how to hold loosely to our lives, how to be willing to give our lives away, and how this changes how we engage with the world. No more do we have to subscribe to the death avoidance of our previous lives and all the sin that brings about. No more do we have to participate in the rat race. When we give away our lives we’re free to experience them as a gift. We experience our lives as grace from God.

His death isn’t about shifting beads around on some moral abacus or settling some artificial honour score. It’s not about God satisfying God. Jesus’ death actually does something. He defeats death. He wages war and wins. And that is the message of Easter.

Ubercompetence & Gaze

I’ve been thinking about TV lately. It’s the defining storytelling medium of our time. At least, I think so. I think we’re going to look back at the early decades of this century as the golden years of TV. For better or for worse.

That’s all been said and done before, though. I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the kind of heroes and anti-heroes we’re making for ourselves.

I want to talk about Breaking Bad.

Sort of.

Walter White isn’t a hero. So why do we want to watch him? He’s not a good man. He’s at best a decent man who stumbles a bit and then runs swiftly downward.

We watch him because he’s fascinating. And he’s fascinating because he’s in control. His manipulation of his family, his enemies, his friends, his circumstances…

It’s like he’s a little puppet-master. Maybe even a little god. He bends the world to his will.

I call this ubercompetence. And TV is full of ubercompetence. People who are so good at something that anything can be forgiven.

I can forgive Breaking Bad. It has some redeeming qualities, despite its protagonists focused ubercompetence.

But then there’s Suits.

The problem with labeling something like ubercompetence is you can’t stop seeing it. And when you can’t stop seeing it, it starts to get annoying really quick, unless done really well.

Suits does not do it really well.

It doesn’t really do anything really well, actually. It’s every other USA show with a slightly different location. Have you seen White Collar? You’ve seen Suits. The same can-do-no-wrong with a the same smirk.

Week after week these characters win the day through sheer manipulation. Then, at the end of the episode, or if you’re lucky, at the end of the story arc, they smirk off to victory. They’ve turned the tables.

Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with watching this show. Or even with enjoying a series centered around the ubercompetent man or (rarely) woman.

The problem is when you start identifying with them.

I have this theory that we become what we behold. Or let me put it a different way, one that’s a little more personal. I become like what I look at. And I mean “look” as in “gaze”. What I fix my eyes on, as it were. I gaze at something because I admire it. So in a sense, I become like what I admire.

Which athlete isn’t inspired by great athletes? Which leader isn’t inspired by great leaders?

But of course reality is at once much stranger and much more prosaic than TV could ever imagine. There are few people who can warp the world to their will. It seems like life enjoys breaking those who try.

All great people eventually fall. They fail or they die or their imperfections are exposed. Which is why we don’t build our empires or our organizations or our families around a person.

So where do we direct our gaze? Who can we admire?

I think you might know the answer.

Consumed

I am more than a consumer.

Or am I? I keep acting like a consumer everywhere I go. I consume goods and services, I consume entertainment, I consume and consume.

This becomes a problem when I start treating relationships like goods or services. It happens far too often. I look at other people as if they are providing me with some sort of emotional or physical product, which I take and take and never have to give anything back.

I’m sorry if I’ve done this to you. You deserve better.

You’re not innocent in all this, though. You do it too. I know, because it’s ingrained in all of us. It’s the culture we live in, the worldview we inherit. You don’t notice until you go looking for it.

I’ve been on the other end of this. I have opportunistic friends who take but never give. I don’t much enjoy being around them. The reciprocity of a relationship pretty much defines its boundaries. The more two people give, the more it grows.

All this consuming has some consequences. I’ve come to expect that I will consume, and that others will consume. I need to be a certain way so people will stick around. My friends need to be a certain way or I’ll casually toss them aside and find better ones.

Another consequence is when our institutions start treating us like consumers. It’s bad enough when corporations stop thinking of me as a customer, a person with whom they are in some sort of (ever so tenuous) relationship.

It’s worse when it’s the church.

God’s standard-bearers on earth, just giving in. It’s easy to do. You stop thinking in terms of congregations, in terms of relationships, in terms of bringing people out of darkness and into light. You start thinking instead in terms of market share, in terms of audience, in terms of attracting people from there to here.

You start talking about benefits without talking about sacrifice. You start talking about Jesus as primarily a provider of good things. You start de-emphasising the bits of scripture that talk about difficulty. You don’t want to preach that, because sacrifice doesn’t sell.

Of course, Jesus does bring good things. He promises a lot of really great stuff. But that’s only half the message. It’s a soft prosperity gospel. It’s all pie filling and no crust, if you will (I hope you won’t; pie filling is terrible, awful stuff).

This might seem like splitting hairs, or not a big deal. Does it really matter, as long as you’re preaching about Jesus?

I think it does. I think it’s the difference between a fake plastic Christianity and the authentic Way of the early church. (Who, by the way, understood much better the idea of sacrifice.) One version of Jesus is attractive and incomplete; you can feel that when you’re around him. He doesn’t move like he’s real. He’s in the uncanny valley, somehow. The other Jesus is a complete Jesus. He comes not only to gather his saints under his wings, but also treading the winepress of the wrath of the Father. He is victory over sin and death, for now and forever, not simply spackle to spread over your cracking facades or salve to rub into your wounds.

I’ve experienced both of these Jesus’ (and more) in my wanderings through the landscape of our modern church. This is just me talking here, but I think the difference between a church that gathers to consume and a church that gather to be consumed can be sensed in the language you use.

Language is a big deal (too big to get into here); the way you talk reflects on the way you think. What is in your heart comes out of your mouth, after all. And it works the other way around, too. You eventually come to believe the things that you say.

When you talk about Jesus, what sort of language do you use? Are you talking the way scripture talks about him? When you go to talk about Jesus, are your descriptions of him freakishly close to some passage by default?

Or are you talking about him the way you might talk about your latest gadget, a company you really like, or a service you feel you can’t do without?

Are you coming to Jesus to consume, or to be consumed?

The Gospel

I can’t sleep, so I’m going to listen to some Philip Glass and write some stuff.

I tend to lose a lot of things in the general business of life. I own a house, have a wife, have two dogs, have a job… all of these things demand most of my attention. Sometimes thing can get lost in all that clutter, like changing to snow tires so we don’t die driving to work when the snow comes in a few days. Or making sure the dishes are washed. Or making sure that dratted dog isn’t eating the sofas. That sort of thing.

I lose the gospel too. I do. It gets stuck behind a bunch of stuff and I forget about it for a while until I come back one day, dust it off and remember how much I need it. This is me at my best. At my worst I do something stupid or make someone mad or do something downright sinful, and only then do I remember I need that gospel, day in and day out.

Maybe after being a Christian for a good fifteen years or so I shouldn’t need that gospel so much. Maybe I should have sloughed off a bit more of that old man and put on a bit more of the new one. Even so. I still need the gospel. I still need the good news. I still need Jesus.

Have you ever gone an entire day without talking about Jesus? I have. I went all today without mentioning his name once, not even in passing. I think I heard it as a swear word at the dog park. But that was it.

That’s kind of embarrassing, if you think about it. An entire day. That’s a bit of egg on my face. I didn’t really think or talk about that thing I just said I need every day.

When I think about Paul and Peter and all those guys in the New Testament, I think they were basically crazy about Jesus. They wouldn’t shut up about him. It was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus all the time. They talked about him and sang about him and testified in front of the authorities about him. The New Testament is all about him. He becomes the central figure of everything, the great fulcrum upon which all human history moves.

Maybe I should be about Jesus a little more, eh?

Too often I’m about music, or sex, or sound equipment, or clothes, or a certain way of doing things, or coffee, or whatever. I could make a really long list of stuff I think about in the morning. But I don’t really need any of those things, not in the same way I need the gospel.

Sometimes I like to imagine what kind of church I would be, if I were a church. I know, it’s a bit weird. Imagine a church that focuses on everything else but Jesus. Imagine going through an entire church service without hearing the gospel. Imagine sermons that are about coffee and clothes and television and my hobbies and my interests, that are focused on me, that all look inward instead of out.

I wouldn’t want to go there. I don’t think you would either. You’d kind of wonder what that church was doing, not talking about the reason that church is there in the first place.

Here’s where I loop back to the beginning again. The gospel, right? We all need it. Jesus died, Jesus was raised again, Jesus sent his spirit into the world. He extends grace to everyone who has faith. He calls us all to come. There is forgiveness. There is a new beginning. I have been baptized with him and raised with him. His promises and favour are mine, and his kingdom is now.

Both, or neither

Have you ever felt the tension between grace and work in scripture? I have. I do.

But that’s just the side of me that wants to put things in categories talking. That’s the ancient Greek in me that want to get out.

The reality is different. Or, at least, I hope it’s different. The reality is this:

You don’t get to have one without the other. Grace, works; justification, sanctification; salvation, service. However you want to say it.

It’s one coin with two sides. You have both, or you have neither. You don’t get to work your way into the Kingdom. But you don’t get to walk into the Kingdom saying you’re washed clean with a bunch of debauchery strapped to your body.

This is why Christianity preaches not only the death of Jesus for you, but also the death of you for Jesus. This is why we preach not only Christ taking up the cross, but also us taking up the cross. We preach not only Jesus’ resurrection and his glorified body, but our resurrection and our New Man as well.

We focus on the “once” of baptism, and the “always” of new life.

You don’t get to have one without the other.

Which is a good thing, really.