This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Atonement Notes: 3

Hebrews 9:1-15; Isaiah 53


In the movie, The Poseidon Adventure, (the first one,) there is a scene in which Gene Hackman is a young priest leading the intrepid group of people trying to escape up through the bottom of an overturned cruise ship. At some point, after having faced and overcome impossible obstacle after impossible obstacle, they run into yet another one. It is as I recall an impassible spray of steam directly in their path.

At this development, Hackman has had it. He jumps off the catwalk, and, gripping and hanging from a pipe, he challenges God. I don’t remember his words exactly, but the effect is he says, “Okay, God, if you demand a sacrifice before you will help us, so be it!” And he lets go of the pipe, and falls to his death. At that instant the steam abruptly stops. And the group is permitted to go forward.

I think the movie-makers were thinking of him as a Christ-figure, giving his life so that others may be saved. And they depicted God in the way that has become standard according to this model of the atonement. That is, God is a heartless monster who will not forgive or redeem unless and until someone pays for it in their own blood. Once he has been dutifully bought off in living flesh, God is satisfied and withdraws his wrath.

This is the way we have been taught to think of God. It shows up again in the more recent movie, The Passion of the Christ. God demands blood. And this blood had to be extracted through such monumental and terrible suffering — after all, he’s got billions of people’s sins to pay for — that Jesus is brutally whipped and mercilessly beaten for a large part of the movie. In the end, he is covered by enough blood and gore and open wounds to impress even Quentin Tarantino.

The gospels, however, do not devote endless verses and whole chapters to detailing Jesus’ every wound. They include no graphic descriptions of his bleeding and pain. His flogging and beating are not the main focus. They are mentioned, but only tersely in a few words.

This gruesome and grotesque theory, about God demanding suffering and blood to appease him before giving up his wrath and bestowing his forgiveness on anyone, is a product of medieval theology. It is not in the Bible, although it has been so consistently read back into the Bible that most people think it is there. Yet it is still assumed that this model is what we mean when we talk about the atonement.

Is it possible to love this God? Is it possible to imagine this God loving Jesus, let alone any of us? Does God really require a violent, horrific death before he will save us? Is that the condition? Is that the God Jesus reveals to us? Is that the God of the Prodigal Son story, for instance?

Of course not. God says to Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32). And to Hosea, God says “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6). And, of course, nothing was more abhorrent to the God of Israel than human sacrifice.


So what is going on here? How does Jesus’ cross save us?

The early church wove together several different traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hebrews shows how Christ fulfills Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) from Leviticus 16. And the church has always understood the Suffering Servant passage which we read from Isaiah 52 and 53 as prefiguring Christ’s suffering.

In the Day of Atonement, the blood of the sacrificed goat is used to purify the sanctuary, and by extension, the whole creation. Blood represented, or was, life. This is something we need to get through our heads before the cross makes any sense to us. Blood in the Bible does not usually represent horror or violence or suffering or murder or death. Blood is life. The animals that were used in sacrifices were not made to suffer for sin. They were killed quickly and so their blood could be offered back to God and their meat shared in a communal meal of reconciliation.

The blood was then used by the priest to anoint the sanctuary as a way of blessing, restoring life, and reconnecting or reconciling the creation to God. The life, represented in the blood, is good and blessed. By spreading the blood upon the sanctuary, representing creation, the brokenness of the people was mended and healed.

In Christ we see that it is the Lord himself whose life-blood is offered. This ultimate atonement ceremony does not have to be repeated annually. God sees it and accepts the creation as sanctified once and for all; and then we participate in it repeatedly and continually. This blood is less our protection from God and more our connection to the God of life.

In the Isaiah reading the violence inflicted upon an innocent person shows that suffering is often inevitable for anyone who resists the powers of evil at work in the world. If we live the life of divine goodness, we are likely to draw down on ourselves the hatred and violence of the powers.

But this suffering is not in vain. It is a manifestation of discipleship and loyalty to God, and therefore blessed. Following the way of truth and love is its own reward. Life in harmony with God is eternal.

The Servant of God is not just a substitute for the people, but their representative. He doesn’t suffer and die so we don’t have to, he shares in the suffering that comes to those who trust in God... and he reveals its powerlessness to stop or hinder the love and redemptive will of God.

We see this in the last few verses, about seeing his offspring and prolonging his days, and about the will of the Lord prospering, coming out of anguish, finding satisfaction, making many righteous, and being allotted a portion with the great.


The insight we acquire from this is, as Paul says, “if we have died with him in a death like his we will surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.” So, even here in Isaiah, it is not the suffering that is the point, but the resurrection — Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection with him.

So, God is not placing obstacles in our way. God is not demanding to be paid in blood. God is not balancing our sin with our suffering. God has no pre-conditions for reconciliation and forgiveness. God’s love is out there, woven into the very fabric of the universe. God’s love permeates the creation the way blood flows to every cell of our bodies. God’s love is the life of the whole universe.

It is as if the forces of evil invest all their time and energy in killing the God of life. They use horrific and gruesome violence.. but in every place God’s blood falls miraculous new life sprouts and grows and blossoms forth. They thought they were exterminating God’s love; instead they were causing it to spread.

And it spreads through us, through the vows we make and keep when we participate in his Body and Blood, and in the way that participation energizes our ministry and witness in his Name.

The challenge of Good Friday is to keep in our hearts the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the Kingdom of God. For even when our faith brings us to difficult days, times of loss, failure, pain and heartbreak, times of confusion, betrayal, and sorrow, these do not have the power to break us... unless we give in to their terror. They don’t have the power to break us because they are not ultimately real. It is the end of the story that matters, and we know that the end of the story is resurrection life.

We have to make that end present in our daily lives now, by living together in peace, justice, reconciliation, and love. This begins here in this place... and then it extends outward into the whole world.


Atonement Notes: 2

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 9:1-15a; Leviticus 16 (sel.); Mark 15:16-41

“For Us”


“Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “One has died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). These verses describe one of the basic articles of Christian faith. The Nicene Creed says, “For us and for our salvation [Christ] came down from heaven.” This “for us” character of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. Somehow what Christ did has something to do with us. What he did he did for us.

But what does that really mean, “Christ died for us”? For the word “for” is very vague and can mean many things. My dictionary lists 34 meanings of the word “for” in English. In the original Greek the word is “‘uper,” which is a preposition that can mean “on behalf of,” “in the place of,” “with reference to,” or “on account of.” From ‘uper we get the prefix hyper-. And its oldest and deepest meanings are “over,” “across,” or “beyond.” Someone who is hyperactive is overly active; hypertension is when blood pressure is over what is normal; if you are hypersensitive you are over-sensitive.

Were we to read the Scriptures this hyper-literal way we might say “Christ died over our sins.” That is, Christ died because of or on account of the wrongs we have done. Our sins were the cause of his death. This is not hard to imagine.

While it is true that we were not each personally around at the time of Jesus’ death, the sins we commit were. Even if it was not we who committed them, the same sins we commit were being committed by others.

It was the sins of the dominant system of his time, the religious and political leadership of Jerusalem, that killed him. Their sins are no different from sins of the dominant system of our time. We should not fool ourselves and convince ourselves we would have done otherwise. If we are at all honest, we are all too aware that had we been in the position of the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, or of the Roman authorities, we would probably have used the same reasoning to do the same thing to Jesus.

I say that because we still do the same kinds of things, using the same reasoning, causing the suffering and death of innocent people all over the world. We show all the time that we agree with Caiaphas the High Priest who said, “It is better... to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:49). We still reserve to ourselves the right to decide who gets to die for our vision of the way things should be... which is always closely related to what serves our interests.

We are united in sin with Pilate and, to a lesser degree, with Caiaphas. We continue to do the same things they did. Christ died because of what they did, and people continue to die because of what we do. Therefore, when we say “Christ died for (or over) our sins,” we literally mean that our sins caused his death. And this insight is in some ways reflected in our hymnody. We just sang a hymn with the line “‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you; I crucified You.”


If that were all it meant to say that “Christ died for our sins,” or “Christ died for (or over) us,” the only response would be guilt and self-punishment. Not to say that this isn’t a major component of the way we Christians have talked about Jesus’ death over the centuries, but this can’t be all it means. Guilt only goes so far. Clearly these confessions mean more than that we are responsible for his death. They also imply that there is some benefit that we gain by his death.

Indeed, we confess and affirm that we gain salvation, forgiveness, acceptance, new life, and even union with and in God in and through Jesus’ death. How does this happen? How does Jesus’ dying ‘uper, over, or “for” us, accomplish this?

The theological doctrine which discusses the meaning of Jesus’ death “for us” is called the atonement. For nearly a thousand years the Western church has thought about the atonement in terms of a blood payment to make up for our sins, made by Christ to satisfy God’s absolute righteousness and justice. This view of the matter shows up all over our hymnody and prayers. It is so common that most Western Christians think it is the only way to talk about the atonement. According to this approach, “for us” means “instead of us.” Christ endured the just punishment of an angry God in our place. He was a substitute for us, enduring the punishment we deserved. Now that God’s righteous wrath is satisfied, there is no barrier to our being reconciled to God.

Unfortunately, this model bears very little resemblance to the ways the atonement is actually expressed in the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter. It has more to do with the Medieval mindset and feudal context of St. Anselm, who dreamed up this way of putting things in the 11th century.

Contrary to this view, the God we know in Jesus Christ is known for love and forgiveness. Think of the gracious Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. The God whom Jesus reveals does not have a rigid sense of justice that can only be satisfied by punitive suffering. Other ancient near-eastern deities demanded blood as the price of their favor. The God shown in Jesus does not.

Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, when God asks for blood sacrifices, it is not to appease or satisfy God’s wrath or buy God’s favor. Rather it is to offer back to God what belongs most clearly to God: the life of the animal. In Hebrew thought, blood represented life.

When the blood of the lamb is spread on the doorways of the Israelites in Egypt, it was not an offering of blood demanded by God, but life given as a sign of God’s protection of the people against the death of the first-born in the tenth plague. And when the blood of one goat is sprinkled in and around the Temple on the Day of Atonement, it is not a matter of appeasing God but of restoring the purity of the Temple, protecting it from the effects of the people’s sin. The sin itself is not “paid for” in blood to God but loaded on the head of the other goat (the “scapegoat”) and sent away into the wilderness. There is here no sense of suffering for sin. On the one hand the sin is sent away; on the other the Temple is repaired of sin’s destructive effects.


The Hebrew word for atonement is kippur. And this word means “cover,” “recover,” “cover again,” or “make good a torn or broken covering.” Atonement, then, has to do with covering something. This is not so much to hide what is covered, but to protect it or to make it shine. As we might protect and enhance a silver plate by polishing it, or a book by putting a cellophane cover on it.

The relationship in English between the words “over” and “cover” is obvious. A cover is something that goes over something else. Thus a relationship is disclosed between ‘uper and kippur. They both reflect a relationship of one thing over, or covering, another.

It is not that difficult to imagine Jesus, as he is lifted up on the cross, being raised over us, looking down upon us from a higher vantage point, mourning and grieving over us and what we have done, who we have become, surveying the wreckage of a creation God declared very good, and at how the image of God in us has been defiled and defaced in us, in our allegiance to violence and fear.

This is particularly clear in John’s gospel. Especially in chapter 3, Jesus says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John sees this as one fluid, continuous, lifting-up motion: cross, resurrection, and ascension.

On the cross, Jesus literally dies over us in this sense, as he dies actually hanging above the heads of the witnesses who gathered around. He is lifted up ‘uper us, over us. At the same time and in the same action he kippurs us, he covers us, he Atones us, he makes us one again with God by shedding his blood over us, so that his blood becomes a kind of window connecting God and God’s creation. Thus the life of the Creator is reconnected to the life of the creation by the blood, or life, of Christ. Life is connected to life by life.

It is his blood therefore that, in a sense, covers us symbolically and figuratively, spiritually and imaginatively. It protects us and separates us from evil and death like the blood of the slaughtered lamb protected the Israelites during the Exodus; it draws us out of Pharaoh’s regime and into God’s Kingdom. It also restores us and the whole creation to wholeness like the blood of the sacrificed goat in the Day of Atonement ritual restored the sanctity of the Temple. His blood, representing his life, the very life of God and at the same time the true life of humanity, is, in a sense, spread out over us, between us and God, connecting us to God and to each other.


This is why we regularly and frequently share in his body and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When we take in his blood we take into ourselves this protection and this receptivity to life. Like an inoculation that preserves us from disease and also energizes us and enables us better to metabolize what truly feeds us. What was over us, covering us, is taken into us and becomes part of us. Now it covers us from within, which is where the real danger comes from anyway.

So when we say things like “Christ died for us,” “Christ died for our sins,” Christ freed us from our sins “by his blood,” or even “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” we are saying that by the death of Christ the whole creation is covered by God’s protective and energizing grace over us. Sin and death no longer have any power over us other than what we choose, out of our fear, blindness, or foolishness, to give them. Christ’s blood now intervenes, separating us from violence and injustice, sin and death, fear and anger; his blood now is what unites us to God.

With this blood over us, covering us, we our existence cannot be dominated by the corrupt and destructive rules of secular power. Under his blood we cannot reason and justify our actions by the standards of fear, anger, violence, and sin. With Christ’s blood covering us the pure love of God may shine fully into our lives, freeing us to live according to the standards of peace and love, goodness and truth, forgiveness and grace, kindness and compassion, faithfulness and hope, justice and righteousness, knowledge, peace and love, that we may perfectly love God and each other, that we may worthily magnify God’s holy name, and walk in beauty forever, in Jesus Christ.


Atonement Notes: 1

Mark 14:22 / “This Is My Body”


A friend of mine occasionally sends me a newsletter me from a group of scholars concerned with semantics and semiotics. One of their agendas is to advocate the use of a way of communicating called “E-Prime.” E-Prime means speaking or writing in English without using any form of the verb of being, such as: is, am, was, were, be, are, been, and so forth. They suggest this on the basis of a philosophical conviction that the verb of being has basically no real meaning. It doesn’t add any value to a sentence. Indeed, it clouds the meaning of a sentence and people use it to say something when they don’t really know what they mean to say.

It is — or I should say, I find this discipline very useful in that it demands that I use more descriptive and immediate language. Without getting excessively dogmatic about it, the use of E-prime will spice up your language.

However, how would we translate Jesus’ words of institution without using a verb of being? Indeed, especially in the Fourth Gospel, a lot of what Jesus says about himself would become unintelligible. He is always saying “ego eimi,” which is Greek for “I Am,” in a deliberate echo of that other famous I Am passage, in which God reveals God’s name as “I Am,” when God appears to Moses in Exodus.

Certainly, former President Clinton’s famous problem with the verb of being, when he answered under oath a direct question and said, “It depends on what ‘is’ means,” does not make him unique. The Church has wondered, and argued about, what “is” means from its earliest days, especially in relation to this passage. “During the supper he took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them with the words: ‘Take this. This is my body.’”

When we try and translate this into E-prime English we have to find a more specific verb to replace the “is.” Indeed, theologians make whole careers out of this sort of thing. “Is” has so little meaning that we have to figure out what Jesus really means. I mean, he can’t mean that the bread literally “is” his physical body in any direct way. In John 6 some people asked the question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” indicating that they just don’t get it, like Nicodemus asking whether to be “born again” means literally going back into his mother’s womb. So, since the sense of physical identification doesn’t work, we have to start speculating about what the “is” could really mean. Here are some ideas:

This bread represents my body.

This bread resembles my body.

This bread stands for my body.

This bread functions as my body.

This bread symbolizes my body.

This bread signifies my body.

This bread approximates my body.

This bread refers to my body.

This bread reminds you of my body.

This bread substitutes for my body.

This bread makes real my body.

This bread connects you to my body.

This bread feeds your spirit as would my body....


The Church has always maintained the strongest view of that “is” as possible. The Church maintains that we find Christ really and actually present in this Sacrament, that means in this bread, in this cup, and in us. In finding Christ we find God. In finding God we find the great I Am, the One-Who-Is, the Source, Ground, and Goal of all that exists. In him, and in this Sacrament, we find the very is-ness of everything. “He was with God at the beginning and through him all things came to be; without him no created thing came into being,” as it says in the Gospel of John.

Many of you have read to a child the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a stuffed, toy rabbit who wished to “be real.” This story works as a parable about our own life. For as the stuffed toy rabbit yearned to “be real,” and achieved this reality through love and sacrifice, so do we. If the rabbit attained the reality of living, jumping, breeding physical, mortal rabbits through the magic of the nursery, we attain to the reality of eternal life through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Only our own love and sacrifice do not make us real. By themselves our love and sacrifice lead only to the fire, which the rabbit faced on his last night as a toy, as he lay sleepless in the trashpile. Our reality depends not on us but on the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us.

He serves as the model and pattern for our journey to reality. “Through him all things came to be.” Through him, and only through him, we too come to be. He shows us what it means, what it costs, what it involves, what it gives us, to be real. To exist.

He works as the touchstone of reality. You touch him and you catch some of his reality. You taste him and you receive some of his being. You chew him and swallow him and digest him and his being becomes part of your being even as the nutrients in this bread become literally part of every cell in your body. “In very truth I tell you,” says Jesus, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.”

For in the end we have to ask not the question of what this bread is, but of who we are. Indeed, we have to ask the even more stressful question of whether we are. Most of us are not even conscious enough to ask the questions that the Velveteen Rabbit asks so persistently: Am I real?

We tend to take our own existence for granted. We think, we feel, we act, we love... we must therefore be. Right? After all, if anyone exists, I do. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I certainly exist, right? But what if we couldn’t do any of those things? What if we couldn’t feel, act, think, or love? Would we still be?


Beyond E-prime, there remains one thing to which the verb of being does refer and that is... being. It refers to the fact of existence itself. What does it mean to exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? At the bottom of everything, what really is?

In the Eastern philosophy of Zen the practitioner tries consciously to get down to this fundamental level as well. The Zen student sits, breathes, and asks, Who sits? Who breathes? Who thinks? Who feels? Who is this “I?” “What was your original face before you were born?” Who are you, once you have stripped away all the attributes and predicates and characteristics and accidents?

You follow this reasoning all the way down until you realize in a sense that “you” are nothing. By yourself you just aren’t. Nobody’s home. We could hear that as bad news.

The good news is that you do not exist by yourself. You don’t have to hold yourself in existence by your own willpower or your own accomplishments or your own work. You are not by yourself; Someone Else is for you. God exists for you.

We find this in God’s first self-revelation to Moses. “Tell them, I Am sent you,” God says. The One “who is, who was, and who is to come,” the Alpha and the Omega, the Living One. That which exists only exists to the extent that it exists in God. You exist only to the extent that you exist in God.

So, when Jesus lifts the bread and says, “This is my body,” “I Am the bread of life,” he means, “Get real! I Am lives in this bread, just as I Am lives in everything.

When we consecrate the elements for Holy Communion, we ask God to: “Send your Spirit upon us, and upon this bread and this cup, that this bread may become the Body of Christ, and this cup may become the Blood of Christ, changing us by your Spirit.”

What gets changed in this Sacrament? What “this” does Jesus mean when he says, “This is my body”? Does he mean just this particular piece of bread?

I think he means more than this. Maybe he means this, in the sense of all this; all this gathering of believers. All you see. All this good creation. All that exists, all that God spoke into being at the beginning and holds in being every second. This is. And whatever is, in some sense is his Body. And whatever is not his Body, doesn’t fully exist.

This bread, this wine... they represent the whole creation. They represent our God-given human creativity and ingenuity. It is this creation that God embodies in Christ. The immaterial becomes material, the eternal becomes temporal, the deathless becomes mortal, the Word becomes flesh. This happens to show us the true nature of existence.

It has been said that the early Church started to decline spiritually when they went from being Christ’s Body, to merely receiving it from a priest. What is the point of the Lord’s Supper? What is the point of Christian faith? The point is to “get real.” The point is that the reality of God become our reality as well. The point is that we catch some of God’s realness and have it spread through every part of us.

Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “In very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” To get real is to participate in God’s reality. To get real is to live forever.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Verb Endings.

“The point of church isn’t to get people to come to church….

[It is] to feed them,

so they can go out and, you know, be Jesus.”

Sara Miles

The classic statement of the “Great Ends of the Church” in the Presbyterian Book of Order needs new verbs. The current wording expresses a static, even inertial, inward gazing, complacent, protective institution. It is incompatible with a missional understanding of the church as sent out into the world to do something. The current language reflects a bias against change and an assumption that what we now have is perfect and will last forever if only we don’t mess with it. People only need to hear what we say and watch what we do in order to be saved.

Here they are:

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Is the gospel a purely verbal phenomenon? Is it only proclaimed and announced, or is it also enacted, embodied, and accomplished? Does talking to people save them? Did Jesus merely talk, or did he also heal, exorcize, fast, pray, suffer, die, and rise from the dead? Is the church’s responsibility done when it has delivered verbal statements and pronouncements?

The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

Is the purpose of the church limited to gathering, feeding, and protecting believers? Is it just a safe harbor in a nasty world, or is it also a launching pad for mission? The church is certainly a gathering, but it is a gathering with the purpose of being sent out.

The maintenance of divine worship.”

We maintain our houses by plugging the roof and cleaning the furnace. We maintain our cars by keeping them in good repair. This wording gives the impression that worship is a static and unchanging set of rubrics and ceremonial actions that we “maintain.” That is, we keep doing the same things, and make sure the same things keep happening. This statement might be used to justify maintaining worship language and forms of previous generations as if they were the measure of faithfulness. There is no sense of adaptation, cooperation, or continual dialogue with either the world or the demands of the gospel. Worship is not maintained like an old clock; it is celebrated, danced, and explored in wonder.

The preservation of the truth.”

Again, is the truth of the gospel something that is a static deposit that we own and that needs our protection so it doesn’t ever change? Do we possess the truth so profoundly that we can preserve it? Is the truth written in stone or captured forever in amber? Does not this statement reflect the arrogance of Uzzah, who thought to preserve and stabilize the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 13:9-10)? Is it not more accurate to say that the truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ possesses us, and that it preserves us for service? Is not the truth a mystery far larger than the church and beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp?

The promotion of social righteousness.”

Is it the church’s calling to promote righteousness, or to actually be righteous? Is it to advocate goodness, as if that is our recommendation for someone else, or is it to do good actions? Too much of this smacks of the pompous pronunciamentos the church has been in the habit of generating, telling other people (usually the government) how to be righteous. These might have mattered a little in the days when the church had some social clout. But now they are ridiculous. And since the church itself does not often live up to its own vision of social righteousness, they are hypocritical.

The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

At least this one has an “ex-” word, indicating some kind of outward focus. But even here, an exhibit is still a fairly controlled and artificial presentation, like a diorama a child might make in 7th grade history. The assumption is that we have something that others need to passively observe and perhaps buy. Do we call on the world to watch us as spectators? We invite people to watch us as if we were an ant farm… do we really want people watching us that closely anyway?

I am sorry to say it but these “great ends” are just that: the end, as in termination and extinction, of the church. They depict a church that is in the process of imploding within its hermetically sealed protective container. Nothing escapes but a few words, words that are increasingly unintelligible to the rest of the world.

How about:

o The active living of the gospel for the liberation of humankind.

o The healing, empowering, and spiritual formation of the children of God.

o The exploration and celebration of God in worship.

o Standing in humility and awe before the great mystery of the truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.

o Seeking to follow Jesus Christ in our life together.

o Reflecting, expressing, embodying, anticipating, and activating the commonwealth of God in the world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


The philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that something like 70% of the people on the planet are “Nazis.” By that I think he means that a large majority of us are liable, under stress, to fall into the kind of ignorance, paranoia, hysteria, bigotry, rage, and violence that took over Germany in the 1930’s and threw the world into a ghastly orgy of mass murder. Hitler and other demagogues cultivate, exploit, exacerbate, and otherwise fan sparks of fear, rage, and hatred that just seem to be always at least dormant in the human heart. A Rwanda, Cambodia, or Yugoslavia, that is, a time of mindless and uncontrolled violence between different human groups is something that can readily happen. If we are not very careful, vigilant, restrained, and diligent, we become a lynch-mob. It doesn’t take much.

It is these the way someone aggravates and exploits these negative, fearful, and violent qualities, not superficial things like giving stirring speeches or favoring national health care, that make a leader comparable to Hitler. Different people may have different views about, say, the role of government. But ignorance, paranoia, bigotry, hysteria, rage, and violence, are what make us similar to the Nazis. If we wish to identify the most dangerous people and movements today, look for these characteristics. Look for conspiracy theories and scapegoating. Look for bands of armed, angry, and wildly misinformed young men. Look for fearful people mad about losing their privileged status in the world, people who will think, say, and do anything, no matter how violent, to reverse this trend.

Ignorance means a blatant disregard for verifiable facts, like when we invent or wildly misinterpret history. Paranoia has to do with imagining threats and playing on fears. It is connected to bigotry because we are told to be afraid of other people, people not like us. For Hitler, of course, it was Jews, Communists, socialists, liberals, gays, Slavic and Roma peoples, the disabled, and some Christians. Fears stoked with misinformation can easily be fanned into hysteria, an irrational and hyper-emotional attitude which cannot even hear contrary views or data. The more people are force-fed misinformation about their own supposed victimization and injustices they have had to endure, the angrier they get, and the more likely they are to turn to violence.

The Nazis began begin as hysterical, paranoid, bigoted, ignorant, and violent grass-roots organizations. Nationalism, racism, militarism, and the idolatry of economic growth where their main ideologies. Like all totalitarianisms, they were regurgitated up from the dark regions of the soul of the people. They imagined themselves to be idealistic. They thought they were defending and restoring a glorious past. Other totalitarianisms think they are the vanguard of a glorious future, like Communism. But they are revealed by their hatred and willingness to place blame on others and to kill them in what they think is righteousness.

This is nothing to mess with. This is not a matter of entertainment or being ever more outrageous in order to gain market-share. Too many people have suffered and died because of this way of thinking. We need to find a way to shun it and expose it for what it is: a system of lies which pokes at the worst in us, and leads inexorably to mass-murder.