Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Real Jesus Offends Us

When I was working on my Ph.D. in Edinburgh, Scotland, I would often take breaks from my writing and roam Auld Reekie, as Edinburgh is affectionately known. One of my favorite places of respite from the grind of writing a dissertation was the National Gallery. There I could view in peace the creative works from the great artists of history. It was there that I discovered one of my favorite paintings; one which I had only known from books. That painting is El Greco’s Savior of the World.

For me El Greco’s painting captures the essence of Jesus. Although El Greco painted a Jesus who looks more like one of El Greco’s contemporary Europeans than a Jew living in first century Palestine, once you get past this historical flaw, you begin to appreciate what the artist has done. As I would sit there viewing this work, the face of the subject always drew me to himself. El Greco’s Jesus is inviting, compassionate, and loving.

Yet, as I would sit for periods of time staring into the warm and compassionate face of the painted Savior, I would begin to see something else. Those same inviting and loving eyes became piercing and condemning. That once warm face now became offensive to me as if he was looking deep into my soul and witnessing the worst of human sin.

In Mark 6, Jesus, Nazareth’s own hometown boy, returns home to preach to those who knew him as a child. You can imagine the anticipation they felt for what he might say as he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue. Yet, although Mark does not tell us the words that Jesus spoke, he does tell us that those who heard him “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). Taken literally, they were scandalized by what he said. Why?

Perhaps they assumed that their hometown boy would make them proud by affirming their righteousness, their place as God’s elect people, and their pious religious observances. Perhaps they assumed that Jesus would side with them against their enemies, preach stirring sermons convicting others of their sins and pointing to his own people as examples of what it means to live holy lives. Whatever Jesus said in the synagogue on that day convinced the Nazarenes that the returning hometown boy was not the Jesus they wanted. Instead he was the Jesus they got; and they were offended.

We can look at this story and point our pious fingers at these people and others who reject Jesus, shaming them for not embracing the person and words of Jesus. But are we not just looking into the mirror at our own faces? Was not their problem with Jesus the same as our problem with Jesus? We embrace the Jesus we want, but we quickly reject the Jesus we get; the real Jesus who offends us.

The Jesus we want is our friend. He is our ally in the face of our enemies. This Jesus is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness.

The Jesus we want is created in our own minds and answers to our demands. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in the name of cultural security. Yes, this is the Jesus we prefer. He is the Jesus we can accept and worship.

But this is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him. This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender. This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing. This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world.

This is the Jesus who calls us to rethink our theological assertions and to open ourselves to being moved by his Spirit. And this is the Jesus, who being so offensive and so scandalous to his contemporaries, that he was crucified on the most offensive and scandalous instruments of Roman power-the cross. Yes, this is the offensive Jesus, but he is the real Jesus, the biblical Jesus, and the eternal Jesus.

As we move closer to Holy Week during this Season of Lent, may we repent from our sin of creating a false Jesus and may we turn to stare into the face of the real Jesus who both comforts and offends.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Faith of Jesus Refuses the Politics of Fear

On September 11, 2001, Americans entered into a daily existence that much of the world already experienced; living with the continual threat of terrorism. Yet, since that tragic day, we have been gripped by the oppressive power of fear, a fear that the media and our political leaders want to consistently bring to our attention. While appropriate measures of security are necessary to defend against violence, fear only suppresses our desire to live with a sense of hope, and it essentially leads us away from living life with faith in the face of fear.

One of the more interesting biblical stories detailing the contrast between faith and fear appears in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. In the midst of their nautical journey to the other side, a raging storm quickly arises and threatens their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear in the face of evil.

It goes without saying that the disciples were afraid of the storm, for they believed that they were about to perish under the torrent of the sea. Yet, a deeper understanding of the force of the story rests on the ancient understanding of the sea as a power of evil and chaos that threatens God’s good creation. Simply put, people of the ancient world held the view that the sea was under the power of evil and the unpredictable storms on the sea were a challenge to the creation and a threat of the return of chaos.

But the theology of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters; Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In Jesus, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence, even as evil seems to be winning. In Peter, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear in the face of evil’s most powerful force, death.

Since that horrific day in September of 2001, some politicians have used those tragic events to attempt to convince us that we ought to be afraid. This fear mongering rhetoric defines the world in black and white terms, seeing only good or evil. The now infamous “war on terror” tagline has become the rationale for waging war, torturing prisoners, and infringing on the freedoms we have always cherished, all in the name of national security. Moreover, the use of fear as a campaign tactic has created the myth that only one political party can save our nation, while the other will surrender to the terrorists.

What shocks me the most about all of this rhetoric is that many Christians have bought into the fear movement. There are probably many reasons for allowing ourselves to be duped by fear, but I suppose one reason is the false belief that the preservation of American culture is the same as the preservation of our Christian faith. Yet, the reality is that if we surrender to fear, we will lose our faith in God, and we will become less than the humans we were created to be.

The succumbing to the power of fear has produced a rising tide of xenophobia, intolerance, and irrationalism. Moreover, irrational fear is precisely the motivation behind the ever extending trajectory of Internet stories and email messages falsely reporting that one particular presidential candidate is a Muslim and that we ought not vote for him if we want to preserve our Christian culture.

In response to the irrationality of fear, Christians must look to the one who faced the tragedy of death with faith in the God of the living. As Jesus faced his looming death by crucifixion, he did not let the manipulative power of fear overtake him. Rather, he turned to God in trusting faith. This faith led Jesus to reject the force of fear and to embrace the calling of God to go to the cross.

Fear is a powerful force, but if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live faithfully in the world. The biblical message calls us not to fear, but to have faith, for faith is the only divinely given power that combats and defeats our fears. While threats to our security, whether as a nation or as individuals, naturally produce feelings of fear, we must follow the model of Jesus, who at the most vulnerable point in his life, turned to the God who gives the hope and the faith that overcomes all fear.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Jesus’ Political Message Pronounced Judgment on Imperial Power

Most readers of the Gospels are familiar with Jesus’ confrontations with demons. Throughout his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who were said to be possessed by unclean spirits; spirits who were in direct opposition to Jesus’ mission, but who ultimately could not stand against the power which Jesus thrust upon them. While these stories convey various levels of meaning, there is one in particular that suggests that Jesus’ political mission opposed the arrogant power of empire.

In the miracle story narrated in Mark 5:1-20, Jesus is confronted with an evil spirit that has possessed a man. When Jesus encounters this man, he asks for the name of the demon. The response the unclean spirit offers is “My name is Legion; for we are many.” When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on the Gospel of Mark, I became fascinated by this scene more than other ones in which Jesus cast out evil spirits because in none of the others does Jesus require the name of the demon against whom he is opposed. To me, what might be most striking and revealing in this story is the fact that the demon responds that its name is Legion. While the explicit meaning of the name expresses the idea that the man was possessed by more than one spirit, in the hearing of Mark’s original audience there is something politically subversive in the use of the name.

The fact of the matter is that the name Legion is a direct slap at the supposed power of the Roman Empire; the Legions of military forces that enforced the infamous Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. This reference would not have been lost on the hearing of Mark’s original audience and they certainly would have picked up on the meaning. Thus, while the miracle stands as a testimony to the power of Jesus over the demonic and the healing he offered to those possessed, it also functions in Mark’s story as a judgment against the imperial power that Rome executed through military strength.

If taken in this way, however, we must come to grips with the story as another of Jesus’ political stances against oppressive power, and not just as another story of how Jesus cast out a demon. The story is a political act of defiance that declares divine judgment on any government power that seeks to dominate the world through the use of force. Such force is viewed as demonic and in direct opposition to God’s plan and values. By casting the Legion into the swine Jesus exposes the ungodly nature and ultimate end of imperial force.

Much like the Roman Empire, America in the last years has taken the low road in foreign policy by implementing a war first strategy that is in direct opposition to the will and purpose of God as revealed in the message and ministry of Jesus. Like Rome, American imperialism has sought to dictate values to the world. While our nation still continues to do much good in the world, and some of the values we cherish are ones we ought to be promoting globally, the way in which these are broadcast to friends and foes is vitally important.

The message of Jesus cannot be clearer on this issue. He stood against the use of evil power, and instead, he preached divine power that does not trust in military might as a tool to bring peace to the world. Jesus understood rightly that violence produces more violence and war produces more war. Indeed, picking up on Jesus’ antithesis of the Mosaic Law of Retaliation, Gandhi, the great leader of India’s liberation from British Imperial power, and one of the more faithful followers of the teachings of Jesus, declared, “An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.” Gandhi, like Jesus, understood that divine power, which is the power of non-retaliation and non-violence, was the only power that could and would bring peace.

If we claim to be Christian, and by that confession we claim to follow Jesus as the One who speaks for God, then we must accept that Jesus’ life and message is normative for our existence. This means that we cannot support the power of force as a way to handle our differences and conflicts, whether individually or collectively. To choose the path of war and violence is to side not with God, but with the demonic. Yet, to choose the power of non-retaliation and non-violence is to choose the more faithful endeavor to create peace in the world through the use of the divine power of love and forgiveness.