Is Jesus The Way, The Truth And The Life? A Progressive Interpretation

You know the passage. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This passage from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is one of the most controversial passages in all of scripture. Conservatives tend to interpret this passage in an exclusive way. They claim it as a concrete truth statement that means if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell, because there is no other way to the Father.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to fear the passage’s truth statement about Jesus. They either ignore such passages or pull their hair out when reading them. Some liberals perform the Jiu Jitsu of post-modern biblical criticism. With the Jesus Seminar in mind, many liberal Christians will ignore this verse by claiming that Jesus probably never said anything like this. It was John who imposed these words on Jesus. That truth statement was a reflection of John’s issues, not the meek, mild, and humble Jesus.

Problems with Conservative and Liberal Interpretations

As a progressive Christian, I think Jesus was radically inclusive. A conservative interpretation of this passage that claims it excludes people from heaven has to deal with the whole passage. Just four verses earlier, Jesus stated, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” If Jesus wanted to be exclusive, he would have said, “There are very few rooms in my Father’s house. So, be sure you behave!” But Jesus didn’t reveal the scarcity of God’s generosity. Rather, Jesus revealed the abundance of God’s generous, all-inclusive love. Thus, an exclusive interpretation of Jesus statement that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” fails to incorporate the abundance of God that Jesus revealed. There are many rooms in God’s house.

And yet I can’t go along with liberal interpretations that fears the truth statement of the passage. I’m uncomfortable throwing out such verses. Even more, I believe in truth. Whether or not Jesus actually said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” I trust John’s Gospel enough to believe that the passage tells us something important about Jesus and his mission.

A Progressive Understanding – How is Jesus the Way, and the Truth, and the Life?

Jesus made the statement while having a conversation with his disciples. Jesus said to them:

…you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

This passage is frequently called Jesus’ “farewell discourse” because, as the New Interpreter’s Bible explains, “it resembles the common literary form of the farewell or last testament of a famous man.” That matters because it answers Thomas’s question, “How can we know the way?”

Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples because he knows where the way, and the truth, and the life are leading him. He knows they are leading him to the cross.

Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life in a very particular way. It’s the way, and the truth, and the life of nonviolent love. As he was saying goodbye to his disciples, he was preparing them for his death. Jesus said, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Where was Jesus going? He was going to the cross. He was going to become the victim of human violence.

As James Alison states, Jesus was the Forgiving Victim. Instead of mimetically responding to violence with violence, Jesus did something different. He revealed that the way, the truth, and the life responds to those who killed him with all inclusive love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Progressive Christians need to reclaim this passage. It’s a truth claim, but it’s a truth claim that reveals the nonviolent and all-inclusive love of God that embraces everyone, even those we call our enemies.

After all, if you know the truth about the nonviolent love of Jesus, you will know the truth about the nonviolent love of his Father also. As Jesus said, “From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

That is the way, and the truth, and the life.

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Buddhism And Christianity — On Loss, Grief, And Atonement

Life is not permanent. It’s frail. As much as we want to deny this truth, at some point we all experience the impermanence of life. In those moments, we often universalize our loss. We can get stuck in our grief, believing that this loss of a career, a loved one, a marriage, a wayward child, or our reputation now defines us.

What we do with loss and grief matters. Quite often, we make the situation worse by scapegoating. As René Girard claims, some of us externalize our pain by blaming it on someone else. We accuse others – a co-worker, a spouse, or even God – for causing our problems. We justify our anger at others by condemning them for our loss.

On the other hand, some of us tend to internalize loss by scapegoating ourselves. Some of us play an audio stream in our heads that torments us the voice of shame. “Why did you even try? You knew you were going to fail. See, you are a loser.”

If you are like me, you do both. I have a pattern of scapegoating others and myself. As long as I can blame someone else for my problems, then I can let myself off the hook. But that’s just a temporary fix, because I also have the voices in my head that taunt me with shame. Whether I blame someone else or myself, scapegoating is very destructive. It creates a cycle of blame that threatens relationships and personal health. And so I wonder if there’s a third way to manage the loss we inevitably experience in life.

Is there a way to atone, or reconcile, with our losses that doesn’t involve scapegoating? Yes. Buddhism and Christianity offer that important third way.

Buddhism, Loss, and Mandalas

A group of Tibetan monks make an annual trip to Laguna Beach, California. They gather at a neighborhood church to create Sand Mandalas. Also known as Compassion Paintings, the intricate Sand Mandalas take 6 days to create. Visitors come from all over the world to watch the Buddhist monks create their Mandalas. One visitor describes the process as “meticulous and seemingly back breaking work.”  These monks work hours on end, only taking short breaks from their work.

At the end of those six days, after all that hard work, the monks carry their stunning creations to the beach and do the unthinkable. They throw them into the Pacific Ocean.

Why on earth would they do that? To teach us a lesson about the impermanence of life. The monks spend days doing back breaking and often mind numbing work to create something beautiful and in an instant, it’s gone.

The Mandala is a metaphor. It represents those things that we work hard to create. A career, job, marriage, children, the list goes on. But we know those things aren’t guaranteed. We know those things are impermanent.

Whatever our Mandala is, there’s a good chance we will lose it. But the monks teach us how to manage ourselves during those losses. We don’t have to atone for our losses by scapegoating others or ourselves. Rather, we can reconcile with our losses in a third way. The monks believe that our losses don’t have the last word. They trust that in the face of loss, there will be more sand. There will be other opportunities to create more Mandalas.

Christianity, Loss, and Resurrection

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important Mandala – the one they called Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence.

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence?

The early Christians reconciled that fact through faith that loss and death don’t have the last word. They trusted that their experience of loss and grief didn’t have the last word because they trusted in resurrection.

Christians have placed so much of the Atonement on the cross. And rightly so, but many of us have neglected the resurrection. Atonement, the reconciliation of the world, runs through the cross and into the resurrection.

In the resurrection, Jesus didn’t atone for the loss of his life by scapegoating others for their violence against him. Neither did he scapegoat himself for being a conquered King, and thus a failed King. Rather, for Christians, the resurrected Jesus responded as the true King of the world. He made atonement by offering peace to those who betrayed and killed him. In this sense, Jesus was, as James Alison claims, the Forgiving Victim.


The losses in my life are often like a vacuum that sucks my soul dry. But I’m realizing that I’m the one who’s holding the vacuum’s hose.

So I’m learning to turn off the vacuum. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning to not scapegoat others or myself for the losses in my life. Instead, I’m learning to trust with the Tibetan monks that there will always be more sand by the oceanside. And I’m learning to trust with the early Christians that on the other side of loss there will always be resurrection.

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

A Transgender God: Reflections on God and Caitlyn Jenner

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner's Twitter page.

Screen capture from Caitlyn Jenner’s Twitter page.



The Internet is in an uproar about Caitlyn Jenner. And, if you’re like me, you have some Caitlyn Jenner fatigue. You may be thinking, “Not another Caitlyn Jenner story.” So, let me tell you, this isn’t another post about Caitlyn’s transgenderism. This post is about God’s transgenderism. God is transgender.

Why God is Transgender

Some may be offended by the idea that God is transgender, but it’s actually a theologically orthodox statement. “Trans” is a prefix that simply means “across,” “beyond,” or “through.”

God is neither male nor female. God transcends gender. God goes “beyond” the binaries of male and female gender. Thus, God is transgender and if we are created in God’s image, as we read in Genesis 1, then we are transgender, too. Remember the creation story:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The God who transcends gender created humanity in God’s gender-transcending image, male and female, not male or female.

God goes across the human binaries of male and female gender to include both genders and every gender identity in between. Gender identity is fluid and much of gender identity is dependent upon cultural norms to tell us who we are and who we are not.

We often use the dualities of “male and female” gender to create a distinction of who is included and who is excluded from certain roles in society. For example, I was born a male, but what does it mean to be a man? For many people, to be a man means that you must fight and protect yourself and your family. When danger comes, men must “man up” and defend themselves, their family, or their country. The manliest of men aren’t afraid of anything. According to many in our culture, that is the universal truth of what it means to be a man.

A Transgender Jesus

If that’s the truth of what it means to be a man, then Jesus wasn’t manly. He didn’t “man up” by protecting himself. Jesus was transgender in the fact that he transcended cultural standards of gender. Jesus’ culture had diverse messianic expectations, but many in his culture, including his disciples, expected the Messiah to be a manly warrior king who would free Jerusalem from their Roman oppressors. No one expected the Messiah to be killed. That just wouldn’t be manly.

If Jesus were manly by cultural standards, he would have led an army against the Roman occupiers. He would have defended his homeland, his family, his friends, even his Manly God against the Romans. But Jesus transcended any manly expectation that would have him lead a violent army against his enemies. Rather, he lived out his teaching to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” He didn’t fight back with violence. Rather, when this King was high and lifted up on his throne of glory, he decreed his final judgment upon those who killed. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said from the cross, “for they know not what they do.”

Jesus Is Not the King We Were Looking For

Jesus confuses my expectations of gender roles. I don’t want Jesus as my King. I want a King who will man up. I want a King who will fall into the gender norm of being a man and defend his people against evil oppressors. I want a King who will reinforce gender norms and my desire to kill the bad guys.

But that’s not the King that Christians get. Christians get a King who nonviolently nurtures humanity into a future of love and compassion.

Does that mean Jesus had feminine qualities? Yes. And did he have masculine qualities? Yes. Jesus took upon himself the fullness of humanity. With a literal reading of Genesis 1, we can say that Jesus was the truly human one, whom God created to be male and female.

What about Caitlyn Jenner?

What does this mean for Caitlyn Jenner? God is transgender, which means that God crosses over our dualities of male and female to include those binaries and everything in between and beyond. That means that Caitlyn Jenner is part of the human and divine experience. But really, I’m not concerned about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m more concerned about our cultural responses.

Why are so many scandalized by her story? Some say it’s a publicity stunt that she hopes to get paid for. Others claim she is deliberately sinning against God’s will. Others claim she is just confused.

As Benjamin Corey states, none of us is in a position to judge Caitlyn Jenner. We don’t know her whole story; only God does. So we shouldn’t be judging her.

Rather, we should embrace her and all transgender people. Why? Because God already has. It is we humans who use categories such as gender to exclude and include others in loving community, but God doesn’t work that way. God seeks to include everyone, no matter anyone’s gender identity. In fact, God revealed at creation and through Jesus that to be truly human means to transcend cultural norms of gender. To be truly human means to be transgender.

I don’t know whether Caitlyn believes in God or not. But I do know this, the God who transcends gender embraces everyone, especially those who, just like God, are transgender.

For more, read my article Bruce Jenner and God’s Response to Transgender People.

Jesus, Drawing Muhammad, and the Idolatry of Free Speech

Pamela Geller had every “right” to host a conference in Texas that mocked Muhammad with a “Draw Muhammad” contest. The United States gives her that freedom – the Freedom of Speech, which includes the freedom to defiantly ridicule whomever she wants.

Geller is apparently not a Christian, but many Christians have come to her defense of the conference.

Let me be clear: There is no Christian defense of a conference that mocks Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims.

Please, tell me, when did Jesus ever endorse ridiculing others? Let me answer that for you: Never.

In fact, Jesus says the exact opposite. When he was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

As if there were any doubt, Jesus extended the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” law to include even those we call our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not event he Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If Christians are going to take seriously Jesus’ command to follow him, then we need to stop this absurd defense of drawing pictures of Muhammad. And if we defend the practice of ridiculing our fellow human beings by hiding behind the Freedom of Speech, then we have made Freedom of Speech into an idol.

Pamela Geller, as a non-Christian, has the right to host the conference. But Christians do not have the right, or the freedom, to support the conference. For Christians, freedom comes from following Christ in loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. The obvious implications of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors means that we should not mock them.

Jesus’ Challenge to Progressive Christians

And here’s where Jesus’ words about love come back to haunt me. I disagree wholeheartedly with Pamela Geller and the Christians who support her. Disagreeing is fine, but scapegoating isn’t. As a progressive Christian, I easily get caught up in scapegoating them; in thinking that they are everything that’s wrong with Christianity and that they need to get their act together.

In other words, progressive Christians are easily swayed by the same principle of hatred that we condemn in conservative and fundamentalist Christians. I start feeling hatred in my heart for Geller and her supporters, especially her Christian supporters. That hatred is my way of scapegoating those I deem to be scapegoaters.

And scapegoating doesn’t help. It only adds fuel to the fire of the scapegoating mechanism.

But if I’m going to seriously follow Jesus, then I need to own the fact that I have a strong tendency to scapegoat those I deem to be enemies. And that’s the problem. Each side is thoroughly convinced that their scapegoats are guilty and deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

For progressive Christianity to make any progress, we need to repent of our tendency to scapegoat fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservatives. If Jesus is right, which I am thoroughly convinced he is, then our fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative brothers and sisters do not deserve to be mocked and ridiculed.

They deserve to be loved.

That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And so, as we follow Jesus in standing up for justice, let’s repent of our own inclination to scapegoat and demonize the other side. Let’s repent of our own impulse to unjust actions. Let’s name injustice where we see it. Let’s work for a more just world. And let’s love our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, as we love ourselves.

What About the Canaanites?: On the Bible, Violence, and Genocide

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolas Poussin, The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Suzanne and I recently delivered a workshop on the Bible and violence at the Faith Forward conference in Chicago. We highlighted the differences between the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

You can read the description of our workshop here, but to summarize, in the Roman myth, Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city of Rome, and the god Mars vindicates Romulus by welcoming him to heaven and divinizing him as the god Quirinus. The biblical account is similar, but has important differences. Cain kills his brother Abel, founds a city, but God doesn’t vindicate the murderer. Rather, God actually vindicates the victim by hearing Abel’s blood crying out from the earth.

In the Roman myth, the god vindicates the persecutor’s violence and ignores the victim. In the biblical account, God hears the voice of the victim and seeks to heal and protect the repentant persecutor from a cycle of violence that might turn against him.

The differences couldn’t be more profound.

But as we talked about those difference, someone asked an important question, “You are telling us about the compassionate God of the Bible, but what about the Canaanites?”

It is the most troubling story in the Bible. As they enter the Promised Land, God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes – including women, children, men, and animals. As if God wasn’t clear enough, God instructs Israel to kill more than just the Canaanites. God says to “annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perrizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you do thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Our questioner was right. How can we talk about a biblical God of compassion in the face of genocide and Holy War? What about the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, Hivites, and Jebusites?

Great question.

Peter Enns does a remarkable job exploring some answers in his masterful book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Peter discusses the various answers historically offered to justify God’s demand for genocide, but there are two answers in particular that interest me.

Did God Actually Command Genocide?

First, it’s important to note that while the Bible tells a horrific story of the conquest of Canaan, there is no evidence outside of the Bible that the conquest actually happened. Generations of scholars have known that there are no textual sources to corroborate the conquest. So, scholars looked to archeology to support the biblical claim. But archeology has come up empty, too. Peter states,

Biblical archeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes it did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded.

Archeologists could be wrong, of course. Maybe archeological evidence of a conquest will emerge. Still, with such a massive conquest, you would expect archeological evidence to be easy to find. The lack of archeological evidence sheds serious doubt on the historical facts of the conquest. But if we claim that the conquest never happened, we’re still left with an important question – Why is the genocide in the Bible? Peter postulates,

It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1,000 BCE) stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old…What most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question, “How could God have all those Canaanites put to death?” in a different light indeed. He didn’t.

In a similar vein, James Alison talks about the “conquest” of Canaan in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim. James also highlights the lack of archeological evidence and provides another explanation for the violent story. He states that the story as we have it was finally solidified by the ancient Jews, known as Judeans, who were returning from the Babylonian exile. As they entered into the Promised Land, they told the story to those who remained in the land during the exile. Understandably, those who remained in the land feared those who were returning from exile. James states that the story’s purpose,

[W]ould have been a way of letting the current occupiers of the land know, among other things: “You needn’t fear us returning Judeans from Babylon, for, as our text shows, so completely did Joshua extirpate the former occupiers of the land, many centuries ago, that if you are there now, you must in fact really be part of us already.” In other words…the account of the ancient conquest becomes a backdrop to a modern co-opting without conquest.

If Peter and James are right, God didn’t call for genocide. Nor was the point of the story to strike fear in Israel’s enemies. Rather, the point was to alleviate the fears of those who were left behind in Judea during the Babylonian Exile.

Jesus and the Canaanites

Which leads me to Peter’s second point – Jesus and the Canaanites. Interestingly, there were no Canaanites in the first century. They were long gone as a people. And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus met a Canaanite woman. Peter claims this “Is the only time Israel’s ancient foes are mentioned in the New Testament.”

The woman wasn’t actually a Canaanite. In fact, Mark and Luke claim she was a Syro-Phoenician. But Matthew intentionally called her a Canaanite, not because he was lying, but because he had a point to make about their “ancient foes” – that the Canaanites might actually have been exemplars of faith.

The Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus refused by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She persisted and Jesus refused again, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Dogs?!? Ouch. Jesus, that wasn’t nice.

But the Canaanite woman softened Jesus’ heart, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Like Joshua destroyed the walls around Jericho to defeat the Canaanites, this Canaanite woman destroyed the wall around Jesus’ heart. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish.”

What about the Canaanites?

In the end, I don’t know if these answers are satisfying. Whether or not it actually happened, the story of Israel’s conquest over the Canaanites is horrific. But the last word in the Bible about the Canaanites belongs to Jesus, and it’s a positive one. Peter claims that Jesus was fully immersed in his Jewish context when he healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets lead us to a different view of, and a different ethic toward, our enemies:

Jesus, taking a page from some Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah) would complicate things. God’s people are a light that shines into dark places, or salt that makes the whole meal taste good, or a pinch of yeast that makes the entire loaf rise. Wherever God’s people are, it makes a difference—for better, and without violence.

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.

License Plates And The Lost Cause: Concluding Thoughts

Texas License Plate

Texas License Plate

We’ll get back to the American Revolution in a few days, but before we head in that direction I’d like to share some concluding thoughts about the Texas license plate case recently argued before the Supreme Court. In a previous post I suggested that, whatever the constitutional merits of their case, the history promulgated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is simply awful. The SVC’s position is that the Confederate battle flag should be viewed as devoid of racial connotations. It’s a symbol of “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” in the words of SVC spokesman and former U. S. congressman Ben Jones. The SVC concedes that the flag has been hijacked in recent decades by a variety of hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, but they insist that the Confederate soldiers who originally fought under that banner were motivated by the highest ideals, ideals that had nothing to do with the defense of slavery or white supremacy.

The technical term for this kind of historical argument is “hogwash.” It is utterly a-historical to separate the issue of slavery from the American Civil War. Certainly few contemporaries tried to do so. That effort began after the last shots were fired, when white southerners began to fashion the myth that the conflict had had nothing to do with their peculiar institution. One of the first to set the mold was Alexander Stephens, the former vice-president of the Confederacy. In his 1868 work A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Stephens insisted that the struggle between North and South was a struggle over state sovereignty and independence. The issue of slavery was of “infinitely less importance,” Stephens declared, a “mere drop in the ocean” compared with the other constitutional issues involved.

The Confederate soldiers who laid their lives on the line knew better. As historian Colin Woodward notes, “their struggle was about protecting slavery . . . and they knew that going in.” And so did Stephens, by the way. (The Confederate vice-president was a “revisionist historian” if ever there was one.) Only seven years earlier, he had defined the sectional crisis as entirely about slavery. But not just slavery alone. As Stephens had explained to a cheering audience at Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, the struggle to preserve slavery was first and foremost a struggle to preserve the racial hierarchy that slavery perpetuated. Deriding the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” Stephens had observed that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

This is why I observed in my last post that the SCV’s version of history requires a willful blindness to historical evidence. It is false history, or more accurately, it is myth masquerading as history. And yet I don’t want to make such a negative pronouncement and just leave it at that. There’s always more at stake in our encounters with the past than simple accuracy about the past. I’m at least as concerned with how these conclusions about the past affect us. Some of you, I realize, may be offended (particularly if, like me, you have southern roots), but that’s not what troubles me. Having our convictions challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even turn out for our good. No, paradoxical as it may sound, I’m primarily concerned about those of you who agree with my historical conclusions.

Let me explain what I mean with reference to a parable that Jesus told. In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To make sure that we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus drove home the moral of the parable with this concluding observation: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If we pay careful attention to our hearts, I think we’ll find that the serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals whose beliefs or values or actions strike us as ignorant or foolish or immoral. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: toward self-exaltation—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men”—or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace—“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is part of what I had in mind when I said in my last post that there is a moral dimension to the current controversy over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Most obviously, there is the moral question of how the law of love should constrain both parties to the dispute. (My opinion would be that, whatever the Supreme Court eventually rules in the Texas license plate case, if there are Christians among the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they should relinquish the perceived “right” to display a symbol that is so deeply hurtful to many of their Christian brothers and sisters.) But in addition to this there is the moral issue of how our hearts will be affected as we follow the debate.

Whichever side of the debate we come down on, there will be a temptation to respond in self-righteousness. (When do such debates ever promote humility?) Let me focus, though, on the side of the controversy that I most sympathize with. I’ve left no doubt in your minds, I trust, that I find the SCV’s historical arguments indefensible. Intellectually, I cannot honestly arrive at any other conclusion. But with this legitimate intellectual judgment comes the temptation to illegitimate moral judgment. We can be accurate about the past and still be good Pharisees.

Let me give you just one example of what I have in mind. In debating the connotations of the Confederate battle flag, we may be reminded of those individuals from a century and a half ago that the SCV venerates, the Confederate soldiers who went into battle tragically believing that in defending slavery they were being true to America’s Founding and faithful to America’s God. “God, I thank you,” we will be tempted to say, “that I am not like these Confederates who were blind to such gross immorality!”

Before judging white southerners of the Civil War era, however, let’s conduct two quick thought experiments. First, imagine that we could go back in time and survey every white person living in the United States in 1860 (just before the rupture of the Union). What variable do you think would best predict whether an individual defended or condemned slavery? Second, let’s imagine that we could survey every white person who ever lived in the United States from 1776 to the present. What variable do you think would best predict an individual’s attitude about racial equality?

So what answers did you come up with? Without embracing determinism or denying individual moral responsibility, I can say without hesitation that the answer to question #1 is where the individual was born. With the same caveats in place, the indisputable answer to question #2 is when the individual was born. On the eve of the Civil War, no factor did more to influence thinking about slavery than regional heritage. Individuals born south of Pennsylvania would almost always have defended slavery. Those born farther north would have either opposed slavery per se or stood against its expansion.

But note that, when evaluated against the entire sweep of American history, place of birth hasn’t been nearly as important as date of birth in predicting one’s thinking about racial equality. In 1860, whites in the North and South may have differed about slavery, but they shared a common belief in white supremacy. The latter has been an American, not a regional trait for most of our history. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent generations, but the larger generalization prevails. Show me someone who unthinkingly accepts the principle of racial equality, and the odds are overwhelming that that person has been born since WWII.

So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​ from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at 

When Even Pope Francis Is Wrong: True Peacemaking And The Futility of Violence

Image from Flickr

Image from Flickr

Raven friend Michael Hardin of Preaching Peace recently declared, “Here is a place Pope Francis just does not get it,” regarding a New York Post article that stated, “the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics has said the international community would be justified in using military force as a last resort to stop “unjust aggression” perpetrated by Islamic State militants.”

To say that Pope Francis “doesn’t get it” with regard to the use of military force, especially considering that this pope has named himself after an icon of Christian peacemaking and has been outspoken for peace in unprecedented ways, is to make quite a bold proclamation indeed. When such a well-known voice for peace concedes to the use of force, it is clear that he did not come to such a conclusion lightly, and that the situation must be dire. To disagree with the Pope’s reluctant concession is to say, as clearly as possible, that under no circumstances is the use of violence ever acceptable. This radical statement can only be made in light of Christ’s nonviolent, merciful Love as the full revelation of God. Convinced by this world-upending love that turns our logic of redemptive violence upside-down, I must agree with Michael Hardin. In conceding to violence, even to put an end to persecutions, Pope Francis is wrong.

This is not at all to say that the pope is wrong to decry apathy and call for action. It is only to deny that there is any moral or practical value to returning violence for violence. Even with occasional temporal success, violence always exacerbates suffering in the long run. As Walter Wink has said, “Violence can never stop violence because its very success leads others to imitate it. Ironically, violence is most dangerous when it succeeds.”

Jesus was not apathetic but deeply empathetic in the face of suffering. But rather than take up arms on behalf of those he came to save, he stretched out his arms and died at our hands to expose our violence to us and transform us from the inside out by forgiveness. Salvation from our own violence wasn’t what anyone expected or wanted, but it is what a world sick with violence desperately needed, and it is what we still need today.

The Futility of Violence

The cessation of all violence, theirs and ours, is necessary for a world without oppression and the desperation that leads to terror. Furthermore, tangible actions with the hope of helping persecuted Christians (and all persecuted people everywhere) and stopping aggression are possible only without violence.

I know that sounds woefully naïve, as the question of how to stop aggression without counter-aggression always arises. And the truth is, we cannot guarantee that nonviolent actions will stop any particular aggressor. But there will always be more aggressors, and violent action is guaranteed to spur further violence from those who are not stopped. Further, in modern warfare, even with “precision” missiles and other high-technology weapons, we are guaranteed to kill civilians and non-combatants, further entrenching the cycle of terror and vengeance. Considering that the evidence for this is the very cycle of violence that has waxed and waned since the foundation of the world, the notion that “good” violence can stop (rather than merely postpone or simply continue to fuel) “bad” violence is the true naivety.

The Destruction of “Good” Violence

Furthermore, our misguided faith in our own “good” violence serves as a veil to blind us from our bad violence, which feeds violence against us and those whom we try to protect. (For now, although I know the pope’s words addressed Christians all over the world, I am addressing primarily believers in the United States who would be inclined to support military action out of concern that stems from faith. For citizens of other countries, it is worth learning about the violence in which any state participates, although I am well aware that the United States has had more blood on its hands than any other nation for several generations.) Indeed, our violent policies have spurned the very terror groups against which we are now called to act. The destruction wrought in Iraq, primarily since September 11, 2001 but also more or less continuously since January 1991, has led to such poverty, devastation, destruction of land, displacement, loss of life and desire for vengeance, that members of ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was tortured at Abu Ghraib, have learned to survive through solidarity of the like-minded and cruelty and brutality toward others. ISIS would not exist apart from the destruction wrought by our own “noble” violence. Our violence does not excuse that of anyone else, but it does fuel it.

Likewise, the Somali group al-Shabaab cites the violent and oppressive policies of the Kenyan government, acting according to the interests of the United States, as their reasoning behind the April 2nd massacre of 147 Christian students at a Kenyan university. Al-Shabaab holds Kenyan civilians responsible for the death of Somalis by virtue of their election of a government that, in their words, has “embarked on a series of mass killings, torture and systematic rape of the Muslim women in Somalia.” No doubt they also hold the United States responsible for the destruction of land, livestock, and the “dreams and hopes of an entire generation,” but unable to reach the United States, they take their violence out on the citizens of governments aligned with ours, as Margaret Kimberly, of Black Agenda Report, says. The United States, meanwhile, not only continues to drone the citizens of Somalia, but in February cut off the ability of any American bank to transfer funds from Somalia. Somalis living here to support their families are now unable to do so legally, and Kimberly cites that about half of Somalia’s gross national income comes from citizens working abroad. The dire poverty is as lethal as drone strikes, and far more wide-spread.

Our faith in our good motives and a context-obscuring media blind us to our violence. And the truth is, even if we advocate limited military intervention, once the United States military is involved (whether or not we are part of an international coalition) it will always try to use force to advance, if not the interests of American citizens, then the interests of profiteers. Any violence we engage in, no matter how noble the cause, will simply harden the resolve of our enemies, who feel just as righteous and justified in their own brutality. It does no good to say that we do not “aim” for civilians when not only do civilians die, but we deliberately obscure the civilian death count by counting all military-aged males as combatants. It does no good to point toward the violence of others while ignoring our own policies of targeting funerals and rescue workers. Furthermore, Christian citizens are called to remove the sequoia of the military industrial complex from our own eyes before we can see to extract the splinters (in relative size) from the eyes of those whose aggression we seek to stop. That sequoia is blinding us to the fact that we are taking more innocent life than our enemies, and we only further enrage our enemies when we kill. We cannot wash the blood from our hands with more weapons.

Alternatives to Violence

The pope is absolutely right to call for tangible help to those suffering from persecution, but armed force would exacerbate rather than ameliorate suffering. What then can be done to stop the devastating violence? Recognizing and ceasing our own would destroy much of the motivation of those who engage in terror, but in and of itself it would not save immediate victims of terrorist aggression. Much more must be done.

There are nonviolent actions that can provide tangible help to the immediate victims. While most of us reading this are far from the “front lines” of Christian persecution, those who would be willing to travel to fight to protect those suffering from persecution might seek peaceful alternatives such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, Nonviolent Peaceforce, or other nonviolent coalitions. We can always support them financially, spread the message of their mission and tell encouraging success stories. All of these things would provide immediate support to those in the region who are working hard to dispel violence and protect the people. Supporting these organizations will further the cause of peacemaking in the long-term as well. We can learn from their model of training and discipline in peacemaking and try to replicate it in schools, churches and other organizations in our lives. By encouraging peacemaking in any context, we encourage faith in the peaceful resolution to even the most discouraging conflicts abroad, and we reshape our culture toward peacemaking so that more people are willing to join peacemaking teams in the future.

Christians cannot control the state, but we can influence it through peaceful witness. Those convinced of the centrality of nonviolence to Jesus’ mission and ministry of love should continue to learn, teach and model a nonviolent understanding of scripture and doctrine, in order to spread the leaven of peacemaking. Just war tradition Christians can partner with pacifist Christians in advocating alternative forms of peacemaking beyond force as well. Imagine what would happen if Christians worldwide wrote to their representatives to advocate for real aid (not military aid, but food, medicine, and help with agricultural, industrial and technological development) for war-devastated countries. Imagine if our collective repentance for the destruction of nations on behalf of our government translated to petition for reparations, recognizing and willingly accepting any economic cost that might incur for ourselves. Real help for people living in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and countless other nations would deter the desperation and desire for vengeance that is the lifeblood of violent organizations.

It is true that terror organizations use propaganda to recruit children and under-educated adults. Encouraging and helping to give access to education would thus also deter terrorism. However, we must be equally concerned with our own education. In order to recognize our violence, we must re-educate ourselves and be willing to learn from those who have been devastated at our hands. Learning the “intelligence of the victim” goes against the national interest of Empire, but it is imperative for us to do so if we truly wish to help support the education of those who might otherwise become victims or enemies (or both). Supporting their education cannot mean trying to indoctrinate them with our own understanding of history and culture; this would only be seen as imperialist propaganda. We must acknowledge that we also have much to learn, and support the development of a peaceful, prosperous environment where education is universally available and valued. Using our resources to repair rather than destroy these nations is one way to do that.

Another way to educate ourselves and thus become true partners in peace is to open ourselves to learning and partnering with peaceful Muslims. The majority of Muslims worldwide are devastated by the violence committed in the name of Islam. However, it is also true that Muslims who invoke terror in the name of Islam usually believe that they are right to do so in order to defend the lives of other Muslims. They see violence being waged not only under the flags of foreign nations, but also under the cross of Christ. Any time God’s name is invoked when a gun is fired or a bomb is dropped, incalculable damage is done not only to the people and land that are destroyed, but to the faith of the perpetrators in their own souls and in the eyes of the survivors. Partnering with peaceful Muslims is, I believe, a moral imperative for Christians in the name of the One who calls us to be peacemakers. To be in Christ is to be yoked to the one whose love is all inclusive, to reject the concept of enmity, and to find God’s living image in all people regardless of creed. It is also a practical necessity that would benefit Christians living under Muslim persecution. It is harder to enforce a militant, exclusivist interpretation of Islam when Muslims see members of the Ummah partnering with “People of the Book” for the sake of peacemaking. Saving Christians from persecution must necessarily mean saving Muslims from persecution as well, and that entails delegitimizing violent interpretations of both Islam and Christianity. Partnership between peaceful Christians and Muslims is the best way I know to do just that.

These suggestions are risky. Re-educating ourselves about the violence done in the name or our nation and even in the name of our faith means re-thinking our identities and opening ourselves to repentance. Making reparations may mean changing our own lifestyles, especially to the extent that we profit from exploitation of others. And putting ourselves on the front lines in peacemaker teams could involve risking our lives. I will admit I do not have the faith to do all of this, but I pray for the faith to do what I can, and for my capacity for peacemaking to grow as I grow in assurance of the security of the only power that can conquer death: Love. This is my prayer for us all.


Our Prince of Peace turned the world upside-down by exposing the truth about all violence. Any violence done to another human being is violence done to God. Therefore, we have a duty as followers of Christ to reject all violence. Tertullian said that when Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed the church. Our current manifestation of Peter, Pope Francis, is a model of peace to the world, but in the most dire of circumstances, even he has his moments of temptation, as Peter did in Gethsamane. It is time for the Church to remember the answer our Savior gave, that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Let us instead follow the path of mercy that leads to peace that surpasses understanding and eternal life.

Ishtar vs. Easter: Pick Your Story

In the midst of my family’s Easter celebration yesterday, I decided to check Facebook. Most of my friends posted comments like “Happy Easter!” and shared pictures of their celebrations.

But this meme also appeared on my feed:


The meme is attributed to Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science and is meant to debunk Christianity and Easter as just another example of an ancient myth. The reasoning goes like this – Christianity has so much in common with other ancient myths, so how can we take Christianity seriously?

The meme shows the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar and makes a few claims against Christianity. The first is that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter.” The second is that Ishtar was the goddess of fertility and sex and so her symbols were an egg and bunny. The meme concludes that Easter is merely a copy of the Ishtar myth and its roots are “all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast did an excellent job debunking the meme. First, she points out that the English word “Easter” isn’t related to an ancient Middle Eastern goddess, but rather to a Germanic goddess named Eostre or Ostara. This was the goddess of the dawn, who brought light to the people. McArdle also observes that other European languages don’t use the word “Easter” at all. Instead, they call the day of the resurrection “Pascha,” which comes from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” meaning “Passover.”

Second, she claims that there is no evidence that Ishtar’s symbols were eggs and bunnies. In fact, Ishtar’s symbols were ancient symbols of power – a lion and stars.

For argument’s sake, I’m willing to concede that while the meme’s comparison of Ishtar to Easter is problematic, there are some interesting similarities between the goddess Ishtar and the Easter story. But what I find really interesting are the differences.

Since the meme brought it up, let’s compare the Ishtar myth to the Easter story. First, I’d like to tell you about my guide when it comes to understanding ancient myths, René Girard. In his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard claims that the Gospels and ancient myths have a lot in common. They are both structured around what he calls a “mimetic crisis.” For our purpose here, “mimetic crisis” basically means a cycle of violence. Ancient myths and the Gospels are similar in that they both have violence in them. But that similarity only heightens the fact that they deal with that violence in radically different ways. Let’s first take a look at how the Ishtar myth deals with violence.

Ishtar and Violence

Ishtar was the goddess of sexuality, love, fertility, storms, and war. She had many lovers and a violent streak. Don’t mess with Ishtar. This goddess gets her revenge! According to mythologist Felix Guirand, “Woe to him whom Ishtar has honoured! The fickle goddess treated her lovers cruelly, and the unhappy wretches usually paid dearly…Even for the gods Ishtar’s love was fatal. In her youth the goddess had loved Tammuz, god of the harvest,…This love caused the death of Tammuz.”

Ishtar proposed marriage to the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, but he refused, citing the violent faith of her previous lovers. “And why should I marry you?” Gilgamesh asked the goddess. “You have harmed everyone you have ever loved!” Ishtar was enraged by his refusal and sought revenge by asking her Father, the god Anu, for special permission to use the Bull of Heaven as her secret weapon against Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, that great warrior, killed the Bull. In a clear example of a mimetic crisis, Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh, then Gilgamesh cursed Ishtar. After they were done with their playground taunts, (I can hear my children teasing each other, “neener-neener-neener”) Ishtar got her revenge by killing Gilgamesh’s best friend. (Hopefully my children won’t do that!)

Ishtar is a god of violence and Gilgamesh is a man of violence. The ancient myths legitimate violence against women and against men. No one is spared from violence and revenge is taken for granted as a way of life.

Easter and Violence

Easter is an anti-myth. It de-legitimizes violence. As Girard observes, there’s no denying the violence in the story. Just a few days before Easter, Jesus was abandoned by his followers and executed at the hands of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities of his day. But as opposed to Ishtar who asked her Father for revenge, Jesus literally prayed his Father would forgive those who killed him. “Father,” Jesus prayed from the cross, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

On Easter, Jesus continued to reveal that mythical violence has no place in the heart of God. Jesus was resurrected to transform our world; to transform us. Because of the resurrection, we no longer have to believe in the mythical ways of violence. Instead, we can believe in the nonviolent love of God.

If Jesus were a myth like Ishtar, he would have come back for revenge. He would have killed his Roman persecutors and their religious allies. He probably would have murdered his cowardly disciples. But Easter is no myth. It’s Gospel. It’s the Good News that God doesn’t seek revenge, but rather offers forgiveness and peace to the world.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What did Jesus teach his disciples? In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught them the anti-myth. He taught them that the true God has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with nonviolent love. He modeled for them an alternative way relating to their fellow human beings, not with mimetic cycles of violence, but with forgiveness and nonviolent love.

Ishtar vs Easter

In the end, the Ishtar and Easter stories do have some things in common. They both offer strategies for dealing with violence. Those strategies are clear. Ishtar legitimizes a life of violence while Easter provides the alternative of forgiveness.

Which story will you pick?

Why Christianity is Anti-Culture: Michael Hardin, Maundy Thursday, and the Eucharist

This reflection on Maundy Thursday is in response to Michael Hardin’s 5-part series Thoughts on the Eucharist. Michael’s series is worth reading and rereading. In light of Maundy Thursday, Michael invited me to reflect on his thoughts. In addition, Rob Grayson wrote a beautiful response to Michael’s series, titled A Revolutionary Meal.

I did it again. We were at the copy machine printing documents for an upcoming meeting. After our usual greetings, we got sucked into a conversation about a co-worker.

“Can you believe what so-and-so said!” my co-worker exclaimed.

“Oh man,” I said as I peeked down the hall to make sure said co-worker wasn’t about to walk by. “That’s not the half of it! So-and-so went on to say this-and-this!”

As you can tell, I’m getting quite skilled at gossiping. That’s because I’ve been burned before. My victims generally have good timing – they frequently walk in on me gossiping about them. I’m much “better” now. I know to look hall.

I feel guilty and a little creepy after every gossip fest. Those feelings are inevitable and I know they are coming. So, why do I gossip?

The ugly, honest truth is that it feels good in the moment. Gossiping is like a drug – it gives me an addictive rush. I find a sense of unity and comradery as I bond with another person over and against our scapegoat.

Why Christianity is Anti-Cultural

What does mundane office gossip have to do with Christianity being anti-culture? Everything.

Today is Maundy Thursday. Christians throughout the world will participate in two events that Jesus experienced on the day before his crucifixion: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and led the Eucharist.

Maundy comes from the Latin word Mandatum, which means “mandate” or commandment. It is derived from the Gospel of John 13:34. As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

As Michael explains, Jesus’ loving act of washing feet and the leading the Eucharist are “the most anti-cultural institutions in the world”.

That’s a radical statement! But what makes them anti-cultural? The anthropologist René Girard claims that there is more to my office gossip-fest than what appears to be a little office fun. It’s rooted deep in the ancient practice of scapegoating. Human culture, according to Girard, was founded on the scapegoat mechanism. Whenever hostility arises within a group, that hostility needs an outlet or the group will self-destruct under its own violence. That violent outlet came in the form of a scapegoat who became the group’s sacrificial victim. As Michael puts it, sacrifice is “the mechanism by which culture is formed and religion experienced.” As it turns out, scapegoating through gossip and other forms of violence are deeply rooted in our “cultural and religious DNA.”

That’s the practices of foot washing and the Eucharist are “the most anti-cultural institutions in the world.” They go against the violent foundations of culture. In foot washing, the One whom Christians call the Lord of our lives doesn’t violently lord his power over anyone. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was enacting his statement that, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…but not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.”

Notice that Jesus’ message wasn’t just anti-cultural. It also offers an alternative to the violence within human culture. Humble service and nonviolent love that embraces even our enemies are the hallmarks of following Jesus.

Here’s the thing, I know that Jesus calls me to a life of humble service and love, and yet I participate in a culture of scapegoating. It’s like the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Forgiveness: Christianity’s Alternative to Cultural Violence

Which is why the Eucharist is so important. The scapegoating mechanism that I used to unite with my co-worker is the same mechanism that betrayed and killed Jesus. Jesus didn’t offer himself up to an angry god; he offered himself up to an angry, gossiping, and violent humanity. Because I continue to gossip, lie, and cheat, I know the Eucharist is personal. Just like I know that I continue to scapegoat people, I know that I would have betrayed Jesus just like his disciples did.

It’s hard to say this because it’s so personal, but Jesus is my victim. Fortunately, my gossip and violence don’t have the last word. Jesus has the last word. The good news is that Jesus doesn’t respond to violence against him with more words of violence and revenge. That would be the old cultural way of responding to violence. Jesus is making a new humanity, new Adam – a new me!, by responding to violence with forgiveness. The Eucharist is about the “forgiveness of sins.” As Michael states, “when we take the cup to drink the blood of our Victim, Jesus, Son of God, True Human, Lord of the Universe, is it revenge we hear? No, it is the cup of forgiveness. In his blood we find only forgiveness.”

That radical forgiveness is anti-cultural because it moves beyond violence and revenge. It moves us into a new pattern of life where we no longer scapegoat; rather, we wash one another’s feet and move towards forgiveness.

For more, read Michael’s series, “Thoughts on the Eucharist” and Rob Grayson’s response, “A Revolutionary Meal.”