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

Friday, August 24, 2018

Is Jesus the Only Way?

I recently read a story about a Presbyterian seminary graduate who chose not to become a part of the PCUSA denomination because he thinks that in the PCUSA we don’t affirm Jesus as “the Only Way.”  First of all, all the official documents, statements, and confessions of the PCUSA do make this affirmation.  But his complaint was that there are people in the PCUSA who are uncomfortable with calling Jesus the Only Way, and the denomination does not generally ferret these people out, demand they recant, or boot them for heresy.
The people who have this discomfort are mainly reacting to the bad ways such exclusivist claims were used historically.  That is, the affirmation of Jesus as the Only Way has been used to consign to eternal perdition and torment lots of people who did not "accept Christ” as the church presented him to them.  It has been abused as a tool of domination, exploitation, genocide, torture, and conquest.  Since those heathens are going to hell anyway, we might was well kill them and take their stuff, is the argument.  
Some of us have a problem reconciling that kind of self-righteous, self-serving, arrogant, heartless violence with the actual life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus does say no one comes to the Father except by him, and that those who do not believe in him are condemned.  But what does it mean to “believe" in him?  Who is he really?
I do affirm that Jesus Christ is indeed the Only Way to life and salvation.  What this means first and foremost is that I have to follow him by living according to his compassion, justice, shalom, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, and joy myself.  It would be hypocritical of me to demand that Jesus be the Only Way for someone else, when I am still working so hard to make him the Only Way for me.  Indeed, the better disciple I am, the more likely someone else will be drawn to follow him as well.  The better disciple I am, the less likely I am to act without compassion or forgiveness.
Secondly, the confession that Jesus is the Only Way, far from making us superior, dominant, privileged, and powerful, means just the opposite.  It is about Jesus Christ, who empties himself to give his life for the life of the world.  He rejects power, wealth, and “success” as defined by the world.  To use his name in the service of the domination and exploitation of the earth and others actually comprehensively rejects him and God. 
Finally, I confess Jesus Christ as the bearer and revealer of the True Humanity in which we all share, consciously or not.  The Name of Jesus is the center of my prayer life and spirituality; I do not discount or water-down its importance.  His name is more than some letters, syllables, and words; it is his essence and life which does indeed live in everyone, a truth that even many Christians are unaware of.  We have to be the Name, not just mouth it.
So when someone smugly huffs about how Jesus is the Only Way, I will agree that this is true.  But “Only” is about Jesus’ Way.  The only purpose of life is following Jesus’ Way of compassion for all, not judgment or condemnation.  His Way is the Only Way because when we do follow Jesus our life together in God’s creation is made more secure and fruitful; in him our life opens up to embrace God’s eternity.  


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Cross Is Inherently Anti-Rome.

There is a lot going on in the New Testament that is not directly expressed in the actual words of the text.  Recent studies reveal that we have largely ignored or been ignorant of a major aspect of the context of these writings: the Roman Empire.  The Empire casts such a pervasive shadow over the text that we rarely if ever noticed it.  But once we notice it, we realize it is everywhere.
For instance, Paul’s writings don’t seem on the surface to be particularly anti-Rome.  But once we understand that crucifixion was a method of execution mainly if not exclusively reserved for political crimes like treason, sedition, terrorism, and anti-Rome activities.  Everyone would have known this at the time.  The gospel writers may have considered it so obvious as to be not worth mentioning.  This means that people would have understood immediately that any claim that a man crucified by Rome was nevertheless now alive, undercuts Rome’s whole strategy to maintain power.  It meant that their application of ruthless terror had failed, and their will controverted. It meant that, according to the graffiti of the day, “Jesus is Lord!” and therefore Caesar isn’t
This is not something that is readily apparent from the text.  Christian interpretation therefore went in different directions over the centuries, bottoming out in the “penal substitution” interpretation in the 11th century.  
Maybe the message of the cross was “an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) for reasons different from what we normally assume.  I was always taught that this is because they thought the idea of a suffering and dying god was either abhorrent or crazy.  But it is now not at all clear that they did believe that.  Greek gods could and did die.  There is even evidence from Hebrew tradition surrounding the First Temple that the anointed king represented YHWH, yet could, in some sense, die.

  Maybe the offense and folly had more to do with how unwise it was politically to challenge Rome by saying that crucifixion didn’t work in deterring sedition.  Maybe the Jews of the time were offended because, along with being a minority/heretical view of what the Messiah is supposed to do, it also unnecessarily antagonized Rome, with whom the Jews had negotiated a deal for survival.              

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Uzzah Was a Fiduciary.

There’s an obscure story in the Hebrew Bible about a guy named Uzzah.  Uzzah was given the job of escorting the Ark of the Covenant, which was bring carried on an ox-cart into Jerusalem after David conquered the city and made it his capital.  On the uneven road surface the cart was getting jostled around, and, in an act of responsible stewardship to prevent the ark from falling off the cart and possibly smashing on the pavement, Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady it… and God immediately strikes him dead on the spot.
I remember hearing my dad read this story in church when I was a kid.  It flabbergasted and upset me.  Here was Uzzah doing the right thing for the right reason, and getting hammered.  Here was a person being given authority and carrying it out thoughtfully, attentively, carefully, soberly, and reverently, exactly the qualities that I assumed that church was about cultivating in people.  Here was a man protecting what is good an holy from the accidents and liabilities of the world.  And wham!
The story teaches us that we do not protect, manage, control, provide for, or otherwise support God or God’s mission.  It is not our job to shepherd a delicate and vulnerable God through the vicissitudes of a dangerous and unstable world.  God made the world!  We are not called to be responsible for God or God’s mission.  We are not called to build God’s kingdom.  We are called only to get our ego-centric selves out of the way and participate humbly in what God is already doing.  We do not need to worry that it might be God’s purpose to smash the Ark of the Covenant on the pavement in Jerusalem.  If it is, then that is what we need to participate in. 
Under the corrosive regime of Christendom, the church embraced the self-centered, control-freak vocation of Uzzah.  God was treated like our private and personal idol we carried around on our cart pulled by our oxen at our expense, which we had to protect and for which we would receive a great reward if we did.  Our success was when we delivered the cart and its precious contents intact to the next generation so they could do the same.  We called this “responsible stewardship.”  We even have a fancy name for the people charged with this sober task.  We sometime call them “fiduciaries.”
Too often people with this approach adopt an Uzzah-like approach to the church:  they’re trying to protect and support God.  They emote this condescending, patronizing, smug, self-righteous noise about how we need “business acumen” so the church will have a future, and they are just the ones to graciously provide it.  At the same time, the people who are concerned with the actual mission of the church, with discipleship, and with not supporting or profiting from mass, global, murderous evil, get labeled naive and pathetic dupes who just don’t know how the world works, who would not have the luxury of such immature and idealistic views did not their lives depend on the informed and courageous wisdom of the fiduciaries. 
Even worse, people seeking to follow Jesus are called “hypocrites.”  Because if you drive a car, or use plastic, or work on a computer, or drink wine, or “live in a free country,” you are a walking contradiction if you don’t want to invest in the industries that produce these things.  Indeed, you are apparently a misanthrope because you want to "take jobs away” from people who work for these corporations, even if they do damage the earth and its people.  
These days whenever I hear the words “responsible stewardship” I reach for my Bible.  Because I find therein no support for the idea that it is our job to invest the church’s money in whatever industry, no matter how evil its business plan, with only profit in mind.  As if Psalm 119 does not ask to turn our hearts away from gain.  As if Jesus does not repeatedly and consistently preach against wealth, markets, hoarding, and various forms of institutionalized theft.  As if the love of money were not “the root of all evil,” as 1 Timothy says, but the prudent and responsible way to support the church.
Hello!!!?  Does Jesus not say flat out that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)?  That seems pretty unambiguous to me.  
However, some appear to imagine that they are, by investing with the sole purpose of making a profit, not, technically “serving” wealth.  They’re not serving it, they’re using it responsibly, is the argument.  Which is semantic nonsense, but it is at least as sincere as Uzzah in their desire to be “helpful,” ie. controlling.  (Richard Rohr suggests that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but control.)  
Jesus’ attitude towards money and wealth is pretty clear: don’t hold on to it, use it for good, share it, give it away to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can maybe see the point to having enough savings for emergencies.  But the practice of investing church resources in the most profitable industries possible no matter how destructive, and then refusing to spend much of it on mission, is contrary to Jesus’ teachings.