The Confrontation of the Cross

An excerpt from my forthcoming book:

It is the narrative about the path to the crucifixion that we find the starkest confrontation between the way of God and the ways of this world. The cross is an expression of obedience and trust, both of Jesus and then by those who trust in this obedience for their own salvation. Whole trust in God that resists being co-opted by the systems of this world despite their claims for absolute authority and meaning. As this is a pattern established by both the writings and the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Gospels are not simply passion narratives with extended introductions.

What we see in the whole of the Gospels is a coherent expression of not only the solution to the crisis but also a living example of what it means to live this out in real contexts among real stories. It is the culmination of the whole narrative of Scripture thus far. The cross, then, is the end point, the fully exposed confrontation that exists throughout the ministry of Jesus, insisting on the ultimacy of God’s lordship across personal, social, and societal systems. This lordship is expressed in terms of love and commitment, but defining such in an absolute way that rejects syncretic attempts to see God as being another system among the systems, a god among the other gods. God brings the people out of slavery, they are to have no other gods. In contemporary terms, we are to have no other systems before him. God co-opts the systems, the systems respond, the result is the cross.

Thus the confrontation of Jesus in the trials that lead, ultimately, to his seemingly untimely and certainly violent death are themselves imbued with theological and sociological meaning. The contrasts begin at the beginning of the chapter, and are important in how the narrative develops. This is not a minor disagreement about methodology or even a religious dispute, this is a wholesale cosmic confrontation. Judas is filled with Satan. The priests are servants of the darkness. The disciples are all at risk. Jesus thus asserts the priority of his narrative as the true expression of God’s work. This is a narrative that will be brutally assaulted, leading to the vulnerability of all those who align themselves with Jesus.

The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go of patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.
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As a confrontation to the systems, the cross absolutizes the kingdom in contrast to the ways of society. These occupy the same environment—the world—but are expressing a substantively different narrative, a different way. It is absolute in that one cannot find a middle ground between the religious leaders and Jesus, the Romans and Jesus, the zealots and Jesus. Both sides reject such a synthesis. The systems want nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus rejects the systems. This does not, however, suggest that Jesus is a separatist, with the church called to isolation. Jesus does not abandon the world to itself; he enters the world in love. Separation may be a calling for particular Christians, but the church as a whole is embedded in the context no less than the systems are. By being defined according to a different narrative, a holistic and unifying narrative, the early Christians were committed to the world, in the world, through the Spirit of Christ.

But, because of the mutual exclusivity established by and through the cross, Christians could not be identified with both the systems and the kingdom. Either Jesus was right in saying he was speaking for God, or the Jewish leaders were right. Either Rome is the way of peace, or Jesus gives us a more expansive way. Either the methodology of the zealots is the way to social reform, or the way of Jesus. The curious nature of the cross, however, also mitigates putting these two patterns in conflict. The way of Rome or any of the systems is self-protection and self-perpetuation, as is the goal of the human ego. The way of the kingdom, however, is a fractal transformation from within. The story erupts from a manger and consumes the Empire from below.

As this is an issue of a new way and a new identity, a re-birth into a new story that transforms one’s past, present, and future, it is not feasible to seek meaning in both approaches. One is either with Jesus on the cross. living in the narrative of God, or with those who put Jesus on the cross, living in the narrative of the systems of this world.

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Hope for the Oppressor

Here’s a bit from the conclusion of my newly completed (but not yet finished) book. Main writing is done, but there are a lot of assorted tasks to do before it’s ready for printing. Divine DanceFor now, though, I celebrate the end of the most significant stage. Writing is done, now on to editing.

A small part of what I had to say:

In this text, I am unapologetically pursuing a particularly Christian theology. Such an approach begins with presuppositions about the nature of this world, past and present and future. My fundamental argument is that liberation, true and lasting liberation, happens only in light of the work of Christ, oriented and empowered in the work of the Spirit who leads us to fullness in communion with the Father. Thus, this is also evangelistic. I am, as fits my abilities and the confines of this medium, preaching what has long been called the Good News. What makes this news good? God. This nature and engagement by God in creating, redeeming, and renewing this world is the heart of a gospel of liberation. This Good News is music we play, a rhythm we live, a chorus of like and unlike together joining together in celebration with God’s freedom. Liberation is indeed a new song.

Such liberation involves a transformation of desires, an empowering and enlivening renewal in which the best of who we are becomes fully realized. Such liberation does not negate achievement or pursuit of one’s best. If desires are repressed or if a person is restricted or their ability to achieve their goals is reduced, the tendency is to fall into despair or learned helplessness, where effort is no longer productive. In light of the Spirit, our pursuit of our best endures because we find fulfillment in being in rhythm with God’s work in our lives and contexts. While seemingly counterintuitive, this is the experience of artists, musicians, and others who are engaged in a task with passion. The efforts rarely result in riches but do lead towards fuller sense of self, in which broader acclaim or validation is not necessary. Our desires become integrated with each other and with this world, coherent with God and with others so that there is no longer a constant clashing of demands and restrictions. We experience a freedom for many that includes many. Liberation is a dance.

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My job is teaching and writing theology. But I tend to be moved significantly by movies about artists. I’m not an artist at all, but find resonance in these stories. The movie Rivers and Tides is one of the few movies that I watch repeatedly, it’s one of my soul-cleansing movies for whenever I feel particularly parched.

Maybe theology really is much more than it is a science, a way of bringing out beauty and learning how to notice, bringing to light that which others may see without knowing what they’re seeing. Theology has turned into lectures, content to deliver, rules to keep, arguments to arbitrate, the insights of all of gathered reality formalized and structured. Maybe theology is about helping people see better, hear better, feel more, think deeply, awakening in them a sense of hope and life they never before new existed. Maybe theology is better conceived as art, paintings with words and using language to explore the bounty of truth all around us, initiated by God, exemplified in Christ, sanctified through the Spirit, drawing us all back into the swirling, dangerous divine.

I just finished watching a 2006 movie, Local Color, and it got me to thinking, encouraging and inspiring me in my own, well yes, art.

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“In the Gospels, sickness is part of the understanding of what it is like to be a real person. For wherever the Savior appears, the sick come to light… They come out of the dark corners of cities and villages to which they have been banished, out of the wildernesses to which they have been relegated, and into the spotlight where they reveal themselves to Jesus. Thus Jesus sees the internal and external disabilities of the people. Jesus comprehends us, not from our sunny sides where we are strong and capable, but from our shadow sides, where our weaknesses lie.” ~Jürgen Moltmann

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Jesus sees

“Jesus comprehends us, not from our sunny sides where we are strong and capable, but from our shadow sides, where our weaknesses lie.”
~Jürgen Moltmann

He sees and he holds out his hand. Come with me, he says.

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There are more and more groups today oriented towards issues and causes. There are peace movements, ecological movements, movements for oppressed people, for the liberation of women, against torture, etc. Each movement is important and, if they are based in community life and in the growing consciousness that in each person there is a world of darkness, fear, and hate, they can then radiate truth and inner freedom, and work towards justice and peace in the world.

If not, they can become very aggressive and divide the world between oppressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. There seems to be a need in human beings to see evil and combat it outside oneself, in order not to see it inside oneself.

“The difference between a community and a group that is only issue-oriented, is that the latter see the enemy outside the group. The struggle is an external one; and there will be a winner and a loser. The group knows it is right and has the truth, and wants to impose it.

The members of a community know that the struggle is inside of each person and inside the community; it is against all the powers of pride, elitism, hate and depression taht are there and which hurt and crush others, and which cause division and war of all sorts.The enemy is inside, not outside.

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 29-30.

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theologian?

I think the goal of theological writing is to be transformed.

If I’m not being confronted and shaped by what I’m reading and writing about, then I’m not doing it right.

If I’m writing to applaud and celebrate my understanding, I’m not doing it right.

If I’m closing myself off to others in the midst of writing rather than showing grace in my writing and the rest of my life, I’m not doing it right.

If I’m writing in a way that is dismissive or attempts to dominate through my language or arguments, then I’m not doing it right.

If there are times I’m filled with excitement about what I’m learning, I might be doing it right. If there are times I have to step back and assess my heart and make changes in my responses, then I might be doing it right. If at the end of the day, I am celebrating Christ’s goodness rather than my own intelligence, I might be doing it right.

Having a good vocabulary, a lot of intellectual training, decent writing skills, and lots of study is good, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good theology.

It is in the pursuit of prayer, humility to admit and learn from mistakes, to seek transformation of one’s whole life in the context of Christ’s calling that one begins to be a good theologian.

May I learn from what I read and may I learn from what I write, not just typing out words but seeking to live out the words of life in every moment and space.

Then, and only then, will I be on my way to being a theologian.

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“In storms and squalls we need a pilot, and in this present life we need prayer; for we are susceptible to the provocations of our thoughts, both good and bad. If our thought is full of devotion and love of God, it rules over the passions.”

Isaiah the Solitary

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The task of theology and theologians

Theological truth is the truth of God’s relationship with people and it is the fruit not of learning but of experience. In this sense all theology, properly so called, is written in blood. It is an attempt to communicate what has been discovered at great cost in the deepest places of the heart–by sorrow and joy, frustration and fulfilment, defeat and victory, agony and ecstasy, tragedy and triumph.

Theology, properly so called, is a record of a person’s wrestling with God. Wounded in some way or other by the struggle the person will certianly be, but in the end that person will obtain the blessing promised to those who endure.

The theologian in this respect is no different from the poet or dramatist. All of them must write in blood. Yet, what the theologian is called upon to do with his experience is different from what the poet or dramatist does. Obviously it is different in form — the theologian qua theologian does not write poems or plays. Their idiom is more abstract.

They have to translate their experiences into ideas and then arrange those ideas in as logically coherent a form as they can, so that reading their work is much more obviously a sustained intellectual effort than reading poetry appears to be or seeing a play.

It is not, however, only in form or idiom that the theologians’s work differs from that of a poet or dramatist. Its centre of interest is always different and in two ways.

First, the theologians’s primary concern must always be God’s relationship with humanity, and any relationship a person may have with other people or the world they live in must always be subsumed under that primary relationship with God.

Secondly, the theologian has been nurtured by a tradition of belief and practice and all the time they must relate their insights to the tradition which has nurtured them. However first hand, and in that sense original, those insights may be, they cannot be entirely out of the blue. They have to connect in some way with insights already achieved.

H.A. Williams, from the foreword of The Risk of Love by W.H. Vanstone

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