Posts

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ: How to Overcome the Place of Shame

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky at her TED Talk

Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had the same experience. Their shared experience could have defined their lives. It could have made them bitter. They could have sought revenge. But they didn’t. Instead, they invited us to change. They invited us to live into a better world.

Monica Lewinsky and the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both occupied the place of shame. In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture.  In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.

The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”

But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”

And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.” Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:

The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors… that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created.

A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over-and-against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!

Sure, Monica made “wrong turns.” But by shaming her, we gained a false sense of moral superiority that is rooted in our lack of self-esteem. After all, deep down we know that we have made wrong turns, too. We have all compromised ourselves morally and ethically. Shaming allows us to project our own sense of shame upon another. When it comes to shaming, it’s not really about them. It’s really about us.

Monica’s statement is prophetic because she is putting the price of public shaming where it belongs – on us. We are all responsible for the culture of shame. By claiming that “we have created” a culture of shame, Monica admits that she also needs to take responsibility for her part in participating in that culture. But she is also taking responsibility for transforming our culture of shame. Monica explains how we can change that culture,

Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop. And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. The shift begins by… returning to a long held value of compassion and empathy.

That’s the key. Yet, typically we respond to shame and humiliation by mimicking shame and humiliation. We shame the shamers. We scapegoat the scapegoater. We project our own shame upon someone else. When we do this, we have only reinforced the spirit of shame that permeates our culture.

The answer to shame is not more shame. It’s more compassion, more empathy, and more love for others and for ourselves.

Jesus Christ and the Place of Shame

jesus teacherJesus and Monica were both publicly exposed, shamed, and humiliated. Of course, Jesus’ public humiliation didn’t happen on the Internet; it happened on a cross. Jesus hung on the cross, naked, exposed, and humiliated for everyone to see. The cross was a place of torture and shame.

Jesus didn’t make “wrong turns” as Monica did. He was innocent. And yet the cross reveals that innocence doesn’t matter. He was still mocked, shamed, tortured, and killed.

The remarkable thing about Jesus is the same thing that I find remarkable about Monica Lewinsky – neither are defined by their experience of shame. Neither want revenge. Rather, both invite us into a new reality where the cycle of shame stops and a new cycle of compassion and empathy begins.

Jesus invites us into a new life – a new way of being in the world. Unfortunately, human cultures run on shaming a scapegoat. As James Alison states in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, we humans would much rather someone else occupy the place of shame than we occupy that place ourselves. And so we point the finger of accusation and shame against others so that we can feel safe.

But when we play by the rules of shame, no one escapes life without experiencing it. Everyone, whether we make wrong turns or not, experiences shame. The good news is that we don’t have to play by those rules. In fact, we can learn an entirely new game.

Jesus called that new game the “Kingdom of God.” He based that game on two simple rules, “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Your neighbor, Jesus reminded us, might just be your enemy, the one who shames you. While that often hurts, Jesus gives us the freedom to respond to shame with compassion and empathy.

Even more important, Jesus invites us to take responsibility for the way we all participate in the culture of shame. We all stand in need of forgiveness and Jesus hung on the cross to offer that forgiveness. In the face of human violence and shame committed against him, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

How Monica and Jesus Overcame the Place of Shame

Monica and Jesus both reveal that we can overcome our experience of shame. The place of shame is overcome not by projecting our own sense of shame upon another or by the revenge of shaming those who shame us. Rather, it is overcome by responding to shame with compassion and empathy for ourselves, our neighbors, and even those we call our enemies.

Our culture is run by cycles of shame, but we don’t have to be. By receiving the forgiveness and compassion of God, we can run our lives by different rules. The only way to transform a culture of violence and shame is to play by different rules – the rules of self-giving love and compassion.

Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education, Part 4

What’s Emerging? A New Story

damascusDave Csinos, the founder and president of the Faith Forward Conference taking place in Nashville May 19-22, is excited by what is emerging in Christian education curricula today. He sees more taking place than just surface changes. New forms are reflecting the revitalization of emerging Christianity and that diversity is just what Dave hopes participants at Faith Forward 2014 will experience and continue to build on together.

What strikes Dave as particularly relevant is that the diversity of Christian belief and practices that is taking place today is happening within denominations. Dave doesn’t think denominations are falling apart necessarily, just that the walls separating Christian denominations are becoming more porous. In other words, differences exist within as much as between denominations and that forces curricula writers to think outside of the big box, one size fits all, denominational model for church school curricula that dominates the market today.

In my video interview with him, Dave observed two common threads emerging amidst the diversity:

  1. Reimagining story. Rather than there being one, unifying Biblical story or interpretation that we all agree upon, we are trending in a new direction. The question being asked today is how do we help children and youth find themselves on the inside of a Biblical story that their story is helping to shape?
  2. Holistic faith. Children are more than students in our classrooms. Their lives exist outside of the one hour a week that we see them. How can we respond to children as whole beings with concerns, questions and faith journeys deserving of a holistic church experience?

A Role Reversal

I think Dave is making some keen observations here, ones that I find encouraging for the future of Christian formation. In particular, I am intrigued by what it means to “reimagine story”. I don’t think Dave is referring to a new way to go about storytelling, which is a skill set that can be used to tell any story. He is pointing to a change at the level of story itself.

Typically we think of our own story as autobiography, a narrative we tell about ourselves that is also authored by us. Saul, the zealous defender of the faith, is a good example of this type of autobiography. Saul cast himself as the good guy engaged in a righteous campaign against a dangerous heresy. It never occurred to him that he was not doing God’s work “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)

Ah, but on the road to Damascus the risen Christ interrupted his story with a question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was knocked to the ground by this question – how was it possible that rather than God’s defender, he had been God’s persecutor all along? That’s a story about himself that was rather painful to hear. But as he discovered himself to be a persecutor who was being forgiven by his victim, Saul became Paul, able to give this testimony: “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)

What happened to Saul also happened to other two disciples on another road, the road to Emmaus. As theologian James Alison explains, Cleopas and his companion were Jews and Jewish identity was emmaus-iconinterwoven with the story told in their Scriptures of being a chosen people. But when Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” he was doing more than giving them a new interpretation of scripture – he was re-interpreting their place in God’s story. Like Saul, their autobiographies underwent a dramatic revision. In fact, they realized that their own stories were richer and more powerful when re-written by someone else. Here’s an excerpt from James Alison’s curriculum, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, in which he describes what happened to those two disciples on that first Easter:

If you were a Hebrew of the time, the books of Moses and all the prophets were not only your religious history. They were your entire political and cultural history as well. It was the entire story within which Cleopas and N [the unnamed disciple] had grown up and which had given them to be who they were. And he was telling them to themselves from an entirely new angle, one that they had never heard before.

Imagine, if you like, in the case of the United States, someone beginning to tell a couple of Americans the real story of their country, from let us say the perspective of some native inhabitants of the land at the time the Pilgrim Fathers arrived. The real story behind the feast of Thanksgiving, what it looked like to have their food supply destroyed by these white folk who turned up, what was really going on with the declaration of Independence, the economics of African slavery, the Civil War, the decimation of the Native Americans, the Great Depression and so on. Well, we can all imagine this history told from different perspectives.

But here the story they are being told is not designed to make them feel bad about being who they are. It is an integral story, it’s not just a collection of disjointed bits of ‘minority perspective’, it’s a whole, and it makes sense to its listeners. Later on they describe their experience of undergoing this act of interpretation by saying “did not our hearts burn within us?” They knew that they were being told the truth, and hearing it was turning upside down who they thought they were, and how they thought they belonged. They were, as it were, being re-narrated into being.

Re-Narrated Into Being

What does it mean for us to be re-narrated into being by the presence of the risen Christ in our midst? For the same presence encountered on the Damascus and Emmaus roads is the one we encounter at the Communion table: the memory of a victim of violence telling us his version of events, interrupting our tidy, autobiographical stories. As each of us encounters the risen Christ, we discover ourselves to be more like Saul than we’d like to think, more prone to being persecutors in the name of God than we are comfortable imagining. As René Girard notes in his commentary on Paul’s conversion:

In response to Paul’s question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Jesus answers, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute.’ Christian conversion is always this question that Christ himself asks… Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 191)

If our autobiographies tend to sound too much like puffed up press releases, the story that God is slowly rewriting in our hearts is more realistic and more miraculous – yes, we are persecutors without knowing it but we are loved expansively and unconditionally without knowing it, too.

As I mentioned at the start of this series, Phyllis Tickle so prophetically observes, the Spirit of the living Christ is blowing through the church today, nudging us into new stories about what it means to be followers of the crucified and risen one. In his article Phyllis Tickle, René Girard, and the Age of the Spirit, my colleague Adam Ericksen notes that in John’s Gospel the Spirit is called the parakletos or lawyer for the defense. This Spirit opens our eyes to see that the ones we condemn may in fact be Christ among us. As René Girard observes: “We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’”

Emerging Questions for Christian Formation

In our times the Spirit is disturbing the stories we like to tell about our own innocence and the guilt of others. Like Saul, Cleopas and his companion, the Spirit is coaxing us into receiving a new story which reaches us through being forgiven by the risen victim sojourning alongside us. Beyond being skilled and entertaining storytellers, our role should involve coaxing our children and youth into receiving new stories about themselves through encounters with the Spirit of forgiveness and truth. Christian conversion is a movement from holding tightly on to our desire to write our own stories, to relaxing into receiving a generous, loving rewrite from the living God.

There is an aliveness to the movement of the Spirit, a liberating power that should infect our Christian formation programs from early childhood through adulthood. If my intuition is correct and we are open to having our stories given back to us in new and surprising ways, the utterly alive and joyful Spirit of the risen and forgiving victim will be found among us at the Faith Forward Conference next week. I hope to see you there or meet you soon somewhere on the road.

Part 1 of the series

Part 2 of the series

Part 3 of the series

The Cross: An Exposé of Human Sacrifice

TintorettoAt the center of Christianity is a weird claim: that we have been saved by sacrifice. And it was a gruesome sacrifice at that, a snapshot of humanity at our worst, for the Christian claim is that what saved us was the torture and putting to death on a cross of an innocent man falsely charged as a criminal. Weird doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this idea. The talented and thoughtful writer, Colm Toibin, has taken the church to task regarding this claim. As quoted by Maureen Dowd about his one-woman show opening soon on Broadway, The Testament of Mary, Toibin says this: “The idea that we were somehow saved and redeemed by a crucifixion seems strange to me. The idea of human sacrifice is something we really have to think about, even people who are practicing Catholics, the idea of taking a single individual for the sake of any cause.”

I have been thinking a lot about the idea of human sacrifice lately. In fact, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in it because I’ve been editing a new introduction to Christianity by the Catholic theologian James Alison. At the center of his course is an insight about how a death on a cross could have redeeming qualities. Here’s how Alison understands what happened at the cross: Jesus did not invent human sacrifice and going to his death on a cross was not an endorsement of the torture and murder of innocent victims. It was an exposé. What we have in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion is a fairly complete picture of how human beings, without any assistance from God, have saved our own necks by crucifying someone else. We commit sacrifice when we scapegoat, demonize, marginalize, expel, persecute or kill others in the name of our own safety and security or to bolster our belief in our own goodness. As the Gospels tell us rather directly, enemies become reconciled when they can find a common enemy to unite against: “That same day [the day of the crucifixion] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)

For sacrifice to work, however, it requires an essential ingredient: we need to be fully convinced that our victims deserve what they are getting. In other words, to accrue the benefit of reconciliation that sacrifice confers, we need to be convinced of the guilt of those we are persecuting. Herod and Pilate could share a conviction that Jesus was a threat to their power, hence their friendship became possible. How many of us bond over similarly shared convictions against an enemy? I’ll offer two examples, one trivial, another with grave consequences. The trivial example is gossip. Perhaps not so trivial for the victim of gossip, but it is trivial in the sense of its pervasive use in establishing bonds of friendship and community over against a hated other. As for the grave example, to paraphrase Toibin, we need to really think about how our nation has been seeking to unify itself against the elusive yet ubiquitous threat of terrorism. How many innocent people have we harassed, displaced, maimed, or killed without ever doubting our own goodness or whether they deserved what they are getting at our hands?

What Jesus did on the cross was to force us to doubt. Jesus is not any victim, he is an innocent victim, the beloved son of God. When we put him to death, God was on the cross, too. As Alison likes to say, there was an angry deity in need of appeasement that day, and it was us. As it has always been us when it comes to sacrifice. What Jesus did was flip our normal modus operandi: rather than blindly sacrificing others, Jesus modeled how to sacrifice ourselves for others. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

I’m not saying that Christianity has always been true to its message. We have betrayed ourselves too many times and Toibin himself is a witness to the harm done to gay men by what too often passes for Christian teaching today. But somehow the message that is undoing sacrifice has filtered down through the centuries to us, despite the messiness and imperfections of the messenger. Toibin’s doubt is a testimony to that, too. I’m betting that Jesus would be thrilled if we would begin to question the wisdom of sacrificing others for any cause, no matter how noble or good that cause may appear to us. Jesus opened up for us the possibility for our redemption. To follow Jesus is to forsake our addiction to human sacrifice and embrace the flip to sacrifice ourselves for others.

Jesus had faith that we could do it. I’d hate to disappoint him.

Jesus Gives a Reading Lesson

forgiving victim melchizadekI preached this sermon on Sunday, January 27 to give our congregation a sneak preview of the new adult education video curriculum, The Forgiving Victim: An Induction into Christian Vulnerability. If you are just learning about the course, this article gives some background on how Raven Foundation was involved in the development of the video portion and why we think it is the curriculum for next generation of Christianity. Adam helped me out in the sermon by appearing in the form of the high priest Melchizedek who was appearing in the form of God – it will make sense as you read along, I hope!

Here’s the Gospel reading we were discussing:

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus Gives a Reading Lesson

It’s good to be here with you this morning, in fact it’s good to be anywhere given that according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world was supposed to end last year on December 21. Depending on your interpretation of that ancient document, you were either preparing for the worst or you had a good laugh about all the fuss. Among all the jokes going around, there was one cartoon that struck me as particularly funny. A Mayan walks into a bar. You know he’s Mayan because he’s covered with tattoos, and wearing nothing but a leafy loincloth. He is obviously dejected, head in hand, and as he sits all forlorn the barkeep, wiping down the counter, says, “Cheer up, pal. It’s not the end of the world.”

We are not the first generation to be captivated by end of the world prophecies but what we don’t often focus on is that prophecies about the beginning of a new era appear almost as frequently. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was commonly believed that humankind had reached such an advanced state that the season of warfare had ended for good. A century of war disappointed that expectation, but we continued to hope. Remember the hippie prophecy of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 70s? Humankind was supposed to be entering a new age of interconnectedness and universal peace. Some readings of the end of the Mayan calendar went in that direction with some speculating that the end of the calendar was signaling the beginning of a new era in human history. What if this hope for a new era of peace, which has been frustrated again and again for almost 150 years, is not just fanciful thinking? What if something new has been trying to emerge, and is slowly becoming visible? Oddly enough, Historians and social commentators are saying that we are experiencing a social upheaval that comes every 500 years or so in the West, changing all aspects of human life: political, economic, psychological and religious. This new era is being called the Great Emergence and one sign of the Great Emergence in religion is a gradual loosening of denominational boundaries to which our own congregation is a witness. We are a motley crew, made up of former Lutherans, Methodists – you name the Protestant denomination, we’ve got at least one. Among us are recovering Catholics – I’m one of them –, Greek Orthodox, Buddhists, even agnostics and perhaps in our secret hearts, atheists who all feel welcome in this space. Another sign of the Great Emergence in religion is the growing segment of the population that claims to be spiritual but not religious. These people have sparked a renewed interest in the faith and practices of the early Christians, a time before denominations and separate doctrines cluttered our religious landscape.

Another sign of the Great Emergence in religion bears directly on our Gospel reading today, and that is the loss of confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture. Innerancy is a fancy way of saying that you believe that everything in the Bible is historically accurate, internally consistent, and infallible. Our congregation gives witness to this shift away from belief in Biblical innerancy when we say to one another that we take the Bible seriously but not literally. In other words, even though we acknowledge that the Bible is littered with contradictions and is not historical in the modern sense, we still trust in its authority as a divine communication from God. But that leaves us with the question of how do we read the Bible? If not literally or as history, then how do we make sense of an inconsistent and ancient text to find God speaking to us today? It is a perplexing question which some find so hard to answer that reading the Bible on their own is no longer part of their spiritual practice. But the Scriptures themselves are not unaware of the problem! In our Gospel reading today, we encounter Jesus giving a reading lesson to his audience, teaching them how to read an ancient prophetic text about the dawning of a new era, a text and prophecy that was ancient even for his audience 2,000 years ago. Just as today, there was no shortage of ways to interpret this text, so Jesus offers his interpretation, one that perhaps no one there, not even his disciples, expected to hear.

In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus reading verses he selected from the Isaiah scroll that were connected with a well-known prophecy about the dawning of the reign of God on earth – the 1st century Hebrew equivalent of the Age of Aquarius! He reads from the book of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What’s strange is not that people expected the fulfillment of this messianic prophecy, but that Jesus’ reading confounds their idea of what that fulfillment would look like. So let’s take a look at prophetic expectations in Jesus day so we can better understand the radical nature of what Jesus was proclaiming.

We can’t be sure what the people in the Synagogue that day were expecting but their expectations were probably not unlike messianic expectations in our time – being saved by a heroic political or military figure usually means our enemy will be defeated in true superhero fashion. Whether it’s the school yard bully, an infuriating rival at work, or a wily enemy on the battlefield, they will go down never to rise again. Of course the fact that we will be installed as top dog backed up by our superhero savior is pretty sweet, too! In Jesus time, expectations for a military liberator who would defeat their Roman oppressors were not uncommon and this passage from Isaiah, heralding a new age, was easily read as a foretelling of such a liberator who would have God’s blessing. In fact, what Jesus does not read is as important as what he does read. He ends his reading with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” rather than continue with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” I imagine that most of his hearers filled that part about vengeance in on their own, just as if I stopped at “We hold these truths to be self-evident” you’d fill in, “that all men are created equal”. Jesus knows that vengeance is part and parcel of their reading of this passage whether or not he reads it aloud. His omission appears deliberate and is perhaps a signal to his audience that God’s redemption will omit vengeance as well.

There is something else that didn’t need to be spoken aloud that would have been part of the background knowledge people brought to these verses. Everyone in the synagogue that day would know that the verses Jesus read were part of the proclamation of what was called The Great Atonement. This prophecy foretold the return of a mysterious figure from the book of Genesis, the great high priest Melchizedek. A High Priest on the Day of Atonement was considered to be an appearance of God and was addressed as, My Lord and My God. Now the High Priest Melchizedek was an ancient figure even in Jesus time, but he was expected to return kind of like a second coming to “proclaim the kingdom” and perform what was called the Great Atoning sacrifice. (Barker, 72)  Melchizedek is a rather obscure figure to us today, but in Jesus’ time he was really big, I mean Beyonce big. So I invited him to join us today to explain the Great Atoning sacrifice and since he enjoys returning to earth now and then, he agreed.

ADAM ENTERS DRESSED AS THE HIGH PRIEST. THE COSTUME IS FROM THE FORGIVING VICTIM PRODUCTION, AS IS THE PHOTO.

My role as High Priest is an ancient one. Each year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, a room in the center of the Temple separated by a beautiful curtain or veil with no seams. The Holy of Holies is where God dwells in the time before Creation. Clothed in glistening white and wearing the name of the Lord I would enter through the veil, the boundary between the material world and the time before all things came into being. When I emerged back through the veil I would no longer be the High Priest, but an appearance of God clothed in the garments of materiality. [SUZANNE CLOTHES ADAM IN COLORED ROBE] Earlier in the ritual a goat had been chosen as the Lord and now I as the Lord God would sacrifice the goat. What set this sacrifice apart from all others was that on the Day of Atonement the Lord God was both the High Priest and the sacrificial victim. At the rite of Atonement, the Lord was offering himself to the people to renew all of creation. Though I lived during the time of Abraham, I was known during the time of Jesus as the bearer of eternal priesthood. When I returned to perform the Great Atoning sacrifice Creation would be renewed for all time. God’s reign of peace on earth would begin and launch a new age of liberty, peace and abundance for all the earth.

ADAM EXITS

Thank you, My Lord and My God. (That got a good laugh from the congregation!)

That was enlightening, but perhaps hard for us to believe today. It’s easy for modern people to think that ancient people had a rather unscientific view of just what the sprinkling of the blood of a goat over an altar could accomplish, but I’d like to point out a very sophisticated understanding of God in this ritual. It was NOT that the people were making a sacrifice to appease God but rather that God had taken material form, had incarnated in order to offer Godself as a sacrifice to the people. Here is how James Alison describes the atonement sacrifice in the Forgiving Victim course:

We humans, as part of creation, are caught up in futility, and what happens at the feast of the Atonement is that the Creator comes into the midst of creation to un-ensnarl creation from within, to make everything that is flow anew towards giving glory to God. As though God were a divine Drano, coming in to clean out the sluice system from within and getting it all to flow and open out again. Now please notice … that the rite is to do with creation. It is the Creator coming into an unfinished, or a tied-down creation so as to untie it, unleash its full potentialities, as it were, and make creation full.

           Forgiving Victim essay  6, page 128, Unit 3 of the course

 So here we have the ancient understanding of an atoning sacrifice – it was intended to finish the work of Creation, bring it into fullness and unbind all of us from our small, futile and often fearful lives. Now back to the Melchizedek prophecy: In Jesus day, people considered that their own historical era began 500 years earlier with the rebuilding of the temple. Not to get into all their calculations, which would be almost as complicated as deciphering the Mayan calendar, but they did figure that Melchizedek would return to make the definitive atoning sacrifice about 500 years after the temple was rebuilt. And oddly enough, Jesus ministry fell within that time frame. Many of the people in the synagogue with Jesus that day expected the return of Melchizedek to be imminent. And Luke shows us Jesus reading the words of the ancient prophecy of the return of Melchizedek! Now various readings and interpretations of this prophecy swirled around in Jesus time: Would there be a Day of Vengeance? Would God punish the wicked and reward the righteous? Such questions are riveting and tend to keep synagogue goers and pew sitters on the edge of our seats, so it’s no wonder that when Jesus sits down after reading from the Melchizedek prophecy in the years when the prophecy was expected to be fulfilled, all eyes are upon him. But instead of offering an interpretation of the text, a sermon as I am doing speaking about Melchizedek in the third person, Jesus makes a simple declarative statement: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus is claiming to be Melchizedek! His statement that the Scriptures are fulfilled means that he is the one foretold, the High Priest who is the incarnation of God entering into materiality to offer the final Atoning sacrifice that will renew Creation and inaugurate the reign of God on earth, God’s kingdom come.

This had to be a little disappointing. I mean, some folks must have wondered, is he serious? Where is the avenging God, the anointed king, High Priest and military leader all wrapped up in one who will free us from the Romans? How was Jesus going to liberate captives, restore sight to the blind and renew all of Creation to boot? Questions like this are the result of reading the text for vengeance, which makes it hard to believe that small-town Jesus the carpenter’s son could accomplish anything in that prophecy. But Jesus gave them and us a simple reading lesson – when you are reading the Biblical text don’t make the error of looking for historical facts or trying to resolve all the inconsistencies and especially don’t turn it into an idol by insisting on its infallibility. Jesus’ reading lesson begins with a warning against focusing on the verses about vengeance and thinking we have found God there. It turns out that the vengeance parts tell us more about ourselves than about God. No, if you want to find God revealed in the Bible or in our lives, Jesus teaches us to search out the parts about self-giving love, about mercy and forgiveness. Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection became a reading lesson that enacted the ancient Atonement ritual to affirm that God does not enter into creation in order to punish or exact retribution. God comes to renew Creation in the last place we would think to look – in the place that human beings run from in fear and trembling. God would renew Creation from a cross where Jesus would take the worst we have to offer one another – the ridicule, the beatings, the shame and horror of public execution – and offer not vengeance but forgiveness. Luke’s good news is that the high Priest has returned to make the Great Atoning Sacrifice on our behalf and the impact of that sacrifice has been working its way through human history for 2000 years.

Are we about to enter a new age of belief in the power of forgiveness? I’m not one for making prophecies myself, but in that synagogue long ago, Jesus taught that God’s word becomes flesh when we learn to read and to live for the good news to the poor, for release to the captives, for recovery of sight to the blind, for freedom from oppression. The year of the Lord’s favor has been proclaimed. The time is fulfilled. Believe in the good news.

A Curriculum for the New Christianity

“The 1970s were the beginning of the end of older forms of Christianity, and now, decades later, we are witnessing the end of the beginning.”  –Diana Butler Bass

I graduated from my Catholic girls high school in 1973 as an avowed agnostic. Having rejected Catholicism and all of Christianity for that matter, I had no idea that I was part of a tidal wave of change sweeping  American Christianity. I felt alone in my decision, completely unaware that there were so many others making the choice to leave the church of their birth. As Diana Butler Bass documents in her influential book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, the last 50 years have been hard on church membership in the US. All churches from mainline Protestant to Roman Catholic to Evangelical and the once wildly successful nondenominational mega-churches are showing declining membership. A poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life made headlines in October by reporting that one fifth of the US public, including a third of adults under 30, are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever. These are the now famous “nones” who many joke to be the one category of religious identity that is growing in the US.  It seems undeniable that we are in the midst of a profound shift, for as Butler Bass says, “What was is no longer. And, as a result, discontent, doubt, disillusionment, and for some, despair, are the themes of the day.” I would add nostalgia to that list, leading to angry moralism and a fundamentalism that tries in ever increasing futility to grasp hold of the old forms as they crumble away.

Why are people leaving the church? Butler Bass gives many reasons, among them a loosening of familial bonds of Christian identity. No longer do you attend the church of your parents or have your children baptized as a matter of course. With greater mobility and freedom of choice, church is less an obligation than an option, one among many more attractive options on a Sunday morning. My own reasons for becoming a “none” (instead of the nun I aspired to be in third grade!) are a bit different than that, though I believe once again I am part of a tidal wave and not a solo phenomenon. Certainly, I’ve been hearing my reasons echoed at the Forgiving Victim retreats we’ve been conducting around the country this month, but more on that a minute.

I left Christianity for one simple reason: I couldn’t buy into the idea that God required Jesus to die on the cross. I had no idea that this idea was called “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” or that it developed between the 12th and 16th centuries; I had received a non-academic understanding of what happened on the cross from my grade school religion classes filtered through my child-brain. What I was left with was something I couldn’t live with as an adult. Here’s a quick summary of the doctrine: “Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.”

That was basically how I understood it and here’s what seemed so wrong about it: how could God’s forgiveness depend upon someone suffering a most brutal and public execution? That sounds a bit too much like what humans do to one another – we constantly demand punishment and retribution for those who wrong us. We withhold forgiveness until we see evidence of repentance – proper groveling will do quite well, thank you very much. It seemed way too convenient that God was just like us, giving us too easy a justification for our own wounded honor, wrath and self-righteousness. I left Christianity because I became convinced that for God to be God and not just a reflection of humanity at its worst, God’s forgiveness couldn’t be so contingent, so human.

I have had the privilege of finding my way back into the Christian faith with the help of amazing preachers, teachers and theologians. Chief among them is the Catholic theologian James Alison. Over the past 3 ½ years I have been working with James to produce his video curriculum for adults called The Forgiving Victim: An Induction into Christian Vulnerability. At a recent retreat to learn about the course in Pennsylvania, one of the participants, a Lutheran pastor, was describing why he thought people were leaving the church, young people in particular. He said, “Folks look around and see a violent world; they don’t want to spend their Sundays worshipping a violent God. They want to be part of a movement for peace, healing and reconciliation and they just don’t see the Christian God or Christian churches as part of that movement.” To return to Butler Bass’s idea that we are witnessing the end of something, I think it’s possible that the something that is ending is the notion of a violent God who can be used by humans to endorse our violence against each another. We may be witnessing the end of an exclusive Christianity that feels free to pronounce condemnation against whole groups of people in order to build a community of the saved. As Brian McLaren says in his new book, what is fading away is a Christianity built around hostility and what is emerging is a New Kind of Christianity. In other words, or more precisely to borrow from James Alison, what is fading away is a Christianity that creates victims to one that receives its identity from the non-contingent, all embracing forgiveness offered by the victim in our midst, the crucified and risen Christ. That’s the beginning of a new understanding of Atonement, one that James offers in this course and why I can embrace and be embraced by Christianity today.

Yet the newness of James’ understanding of Atonement is as old as the Bible, new only in the sense that is an alternative to persistent patterns of human violence, hostility and over against identities. James Alison’s course is so faithfully orthodox that it captures the eye-popping, mind-blowing, world shaking revelatory power of Jesus’ impact on his contemporaries, making it available once again in our time and place. If you have been gripped by discontent, doubt, despair or nostalgia by the changes currently rippling through Christianity, I encourage you to relax and, as the angels love to say, fear not. We live in a time of uncertainty because though the old is fading the shape of the new has not yet taken form, and that requires us all to live in a space of not-knowing. But what’s coming is something fresh and life-renewing, something triggered by the advent of God entering into Creation two thousand years ago. So please take heart and join the Forgiving Victim community – visit the website and Like us on Facebook. The curriculum launches officially in spring 2013 so stay in touch, spread the word and don’t drop out like I did after high school. Be part of the movement that is giving shape to what is yet to be.

James Alison and the Heart of Christianity

The day has finally arrived! After nearly four years of planning, filming, building sets, sewing costumes, and film shoots till midnight, The Forgiving Victim video – all 18 hours of it – is edited and floating somewhere in a digital cloud! Now all that’s left to do is – okay, there’s a few things left to do, but before I list all of those I thought I’d celebrate a bit and give you a little background about how I arrived at this moment, ready to board a flight to Portland, Oregon tomorrow to begin to tackle what’s left to do.

It all began when I started reading the work of James Alison, Catholic priest and theologian, in 2004. Simply put, his books on theology, The Joy of Being Wrong and Raising Abel, allowed me to find my way back into my Christian faith. I had evolved into a Christian in name only, hollowly acting out the trappings of going to worship, of belonging to a church and serving on committees, even though I had long ago rejected what I thought was the heart of Christianity – that as a sign of his love, God had sent us his only Son as an atoning sacrifice for human sin. This was a God too violent and abusive for me to worship, but I couldn’t shake loose the idea that something important had happened at the cross, that the message of the empty tomb had shifted the center of human experience somehow. And so I found myself continuing to sit in the pews on Sunday, and unknowingly on a journey that would lead me to the theologian who would radically alter my understand of the heart of the Christian faith. There indeed was (and continues to be) a violent and abusive god demanding a death on the cross, James Alison teaches, but it is not God – it is human beings. Reading and living with James’ ideas, I came to see that I had the heart of Christianity completely backwards: it is not God who demands sacrifice, but us. My backwards theology is the modern residue of an ancient habit of our species to demand blood and then insist that it was God who made us do it. James calls what happened at the cross the “great reversal” – I slowly began to recognize it as my own, and humanity’s redemption.

I was lucky enough to meet James at a COV&R conference in Germany in 2005 and over the next few years to begin to work with him on a his vision for a new video course in Christianity, what he called an “induction into Christian vulnerability.” And with the filming done, we begin the next phase of work, which is to develop the website and support materials for group leaders. That’s where Portland comes in. This week I will be joining James at a retreat near Portland for 16 people who could give you moving testimonials like mine of the impact James has had on their lives and their faith. They are part of a cohort of people who are helping us develop support materials by agreeing to give us their feedback as they teach the course in their communities. In the next few weeks, James and I will meet with similar groups in Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston and by late spring 2013, The Forgiving Victim course will be ready for the world! We are past ready for The Forgiving Victim for this is a course that – well, I’ll let James explain it:

What I had in mind when I began putting together The Forgiving Victim course over 12 years ago, was to restore to the Christian life the wonder and transformative power of discovering not some new Biblical fact or church doctrine, but that you are loved far more than you know. Where a course of instruction tells you about something, gives you information, a course of induction, which is what The Forgiving Victim is, works cumulatively and allows you to find yourself summoned into being on the inside of something new.

By embarking on this course, you join others on a journey of discovery that will open your hearts and minds to discovering new things about yourself and your faith. It is a journey from fake goodness, from a false and insecure self, to relaxing into a goodness and security not your own, but in which you discover yourself held. And it is a journey from a unity that needs to create victims toward a unity received from the risen and forgiving victim in our midst. I hope that The Forgiving Victim will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ.

Christians may be surprised to hear that the heart of Christianity is a message of radical love and reconciliation that transcends religious, national, ethnic or any other boundary you can think of. As James is quoted on The Forgiving Victim website: “An earthquake project has been inaugurated that had as its aim, from the beginning, to set up the possibility of all people being reconciled.” My aim is a little bit more modest at the moment! To celebrate the completion of the video portion of the project, to begin to develop support materials with an amazing community of people all over the United States, and to spread the word that The Forgiving Victim is on its way to your community! Help us by planning now to use the course in your community and by spreading the word to everyone you know that an earthquake is on the way, one that makes possible nothing less than a new form of humanity. Remember Jesus’ admonition to his critics: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’? (Matthew 9:13) The Forgiving Victim course is a journey of going and learning just as Jesus said we should. Now you know why I’m so excited! You can join the journey on Facebook, Twitter and by visiting the website.

 

 

actors_in_costume

A Real Life Forgiving Victim

We have finished our first week of filming and are actually ahead of schedule. James Alison has been on fire and the actors and crew have been tremendous. We are dramatizing some of the bible stories, and the effect is really great mostly because of two things. The actors are really quite good and deliver the emotional content beautifully. And the costumes by Raven Marketing Director and Jill-of-all-trades, Maura Junius, put us right back in bible times. Here are the actors in costume waiting for their scene having a good laugh, which they do often! It is a fun and relaxed set and I am enjoying my time with these talented folks.

Last night James delivered a portion of the Atonement session where he tells a story to give an everyday example of what Atonement theology actually means. Not the “God was angry or offended and so someone had to make an offering to appease his wrath, and it had to be a perfect offering so it had to be Jesus.” That’s what James refers to as emotional blackmail and I agree with him. It was that theology that prompted my decision to leave the church thirty years ago. But James brought me back big time. Here are photos of the actors talking with James and then listening to him telling the story:

Here’s a short version of his story: imagine a high school in Venezuela where a kid who was bullied, who was the butt of all the jokes and permanently excluded from society, such as it was, leaves for about six months and comes back after a coup that elevates his father from a nobody to governor of the state. Imagine further that you were one of the kids who benefited from the bullying, not the bullies, but the also-rans who were relieved that as long as Fernando (that’s what James calls the kid) was the target, you were not. In other words, the bullies don’t really care who they bully, and you know it. It could just as easily be you as Fernando, and so you sit quietly by and even try to cozy up to the bullies by offering some feeble justification as to why they are so so right to pick on Fernando (and not you, though you don’t say that out loud). Anyway, Fernando comes back and you might think now that he is the son of a powerful man, he might want to get even and when you see him in the halls, you’re a little scared. But instead of being angry or vengeful, he is friendly. He is not out to get you at all, but wants you to know that even when you were part of the ganging up on him, he was happy to be the one getting it in the neck. It was no picnic, he admits that, but he realized how scared you were and so he’s not mad. In fact, he wants to be your friend and hopes that you can learn to be friends and to form a social togetherness without having to force anyone to go through what he, Fernando, went through.

That, says James Alison, is what Jesus was doing by going to his death for us. Just as Fernando occupied the most toxic place in the social order at his high school to help us out, Jesus wanted to show us that God loves us even when we are at our worst, when we are killing innocent victims, so we don’t have to be afraid anymore. Jesus wants us to learn to form our togetherness without creating any more victims like Fernando. That is why James calls Jesus the Forgiving Victim for he was doing just what Fernando did in the story.

So with that story fresh in my mind, this morning I read an article in the New York Times Magazine from Sunday about how slavery really ended during the civil war. I encourage you to read the entire article, but here are two quotes that resonated with me. First, from a Northerner commenting on fugitive slaves, who they called contrabands, who had taken shelter at the Union Fort Monroe, Va.:

“Somehow there was to my eye a weird, solemn aspect to them, as they walked along, as if they, the victims, had become the judges in this awful contest, or as if they were… spinning, unknown to all, the destinies of the great Republic.”

And this one about the fear that gripped America about what would happen if the slaves were freed:

“Just as influential was what did not happen: the terrible moment — long feared among whites — when slaves would rise up and slaughter their masters. It soon became apparent from the behavior of the contrabands that the vast majority of slaves did not want vengeance: they simply wanted to be free and to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other Americans.  Many were even ready to share in the hardships and dangers of the war. Millions of white Americans realized they did not actually have to fear a bloodbath if the slaves were suddenly set free. This awareness in itself was a revolution.”

This, I think, is another example of atonement. The part of Fernando/Jesus is played by the freed slaves who only wanted to be welcomed into community as equal citizens. The vengeful God is sadly played by the Americans who resisted the forgiveness offered with fear and oppression. Atonement, the becoming reconciled to one another, and to God, is possible when the awareness that we have nothing to fear frees us from our own worst selves. Today the part of Fernando is being played by whoever we find so frightening that we too easily justify our violence as necessary, good and just. The time is ripe for revolution.

Twitter Envy

I have always been hyper-sensitive to envy, which is why I blog and tweet with a great deal of trepidation. In fact, I am fearful whenever I am talking about myself, even in face to face conversations. I had to be taught that when someone tells you something about their life, it’s not uncommon to respond with a similar revelation. Seriously, I had to learn to do that sometime in my late twenties, early thirties, thanks to some patient friends. But the reason I am so afraid of all this “I” talk is because I’m afraid whoever I am talking to is going to be jealous of me. Writing that down sounds really conceited. Maybe it is. In my defense, let me explain with an example.

What got me thinking about all this is that this Saturday, we – the Raven Foundation – will be starting a two week shoot to film James Alison giving his course on Christian vulnerability. Now that may not mean anything to you, but for me it’s as good as it gets. It’s the Super Bowl, it’s the Masters, it’s the Academy Awards – well, you get it. We are going to turn it into a DVD educational product, so generating interest in it even in the production phase makes good marketing sense. So, I figured I would blog and tweet about it. But I am SO excited by this project and love and admire James Alison so much, that if the shoe was on the other foot, if someone else was blogging about doing this project with James Alison and I read about it, I would be overcome with jealousy. I would wish that I was that person, so it’s a good thing I am that person, I guess, but you see why I’m afraid to talk about it. Maybe there are other people out there like me, who will read a blog or tweet of mine and wish they were me.

True confessions – I do want people to admire me, to think I’m cool, which means they wouldn’t mind being like me. But my cool factor is so negligible it barely nudges the cool-o-meter off zero, so it’s clearly not something I should be worrying about. And I know that when people who know and love me already hear about my work with James, they are happy for me without a twinge of envy. But for people who don’t already love me (which means they haven’t already committed themselves to forgiving me my foibles instead of counting them against me) read about the shoot, they may sort of catch my enthusiasm for the project. Before they heard about it from me, of course, they had no desire to film a curriculum with James Alison, but after seeing how excited I am they might catch my desire. And catching it will cause them to want something they cannot have because I already have it. Of course, they will insist that their desire was prior to mine and that I have snatched something away which rightly belongs to them. That’s envy: catching a desire from someone, insisting that your desire came first, and then hating the person whose desire aroused yours for being an obstacle to fulfilling the desire. By telling you about the project I hope that you will respond with love, but there is a real possibility that someone – not you, of course – will respond with hate and it’s that possibility that has always made me afraid of starting any sentence with “I”. Sad thing about it of course, is that by protecting myself from hate I have limited my opportunities to experience love, but luckily I am teachable!

So here goes – James arrives on Friday! I get to hang out with someone who is doing incredibly creative theology that makes Christian orthodoxy about creation, redemption and atonement make so much sense that no leap of faith is required to see the human truth in it. I will try to blog and tweet about the project in the next few weeks and I hope you will catch my enthusiasm and season your feelings with forgiveness. In fact, I’m sure you will!

PS You might enjoy this news report about how the envious respond to the tweeters they hate!