Category: Compassion

the Easter uprising

Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.

According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

When Jesus was arrested late on Thursday night and brought before the chief priest on Friday morning, the Sadducees sought evidence for a capital crime. The chief priest asked Jesus if he was the messiah—a long-foretold peasant warrior who would challenge imperial rule, foment a violent revolution, overthrow the established order, and proclaim a new kingdom. When brought before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he claimed to be king of the Jews. In both cases, Jesus turned the accusations back on the accusers and never answered directly. He was charged by the Sadducees with blasphemy, but Rome executed him for sedition. On the cross was a sign that listed his anti-government crime—king of the Jews. The cruelty of his crucifixion revealed what imperial authorities do to one who attempts to subvert the domination system. For those who witnessed this event, the cross was not a symbol of divine sacrifice or the taking on of unmerited suffering—it was the price of resistance to the social and economic devastation of empire.

Six agonizing hours after his crucifixion began, on a spring afternoon in the year 30 CE, Jesus died. His heart stopped beating and his brainwave activity ceased. The spirit of life that had animated him at birth, left his body. The biblical tradition says that the body was then removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, sealed with a large stone. But, the Roman practice of crucifixion did not usually allow for burial. The corpses of lower class criminals or revolutionaries were not buried. Instead, the naked bodies of crucified victims were left hanging on the cross, to rot as they were exposed to the elements, and be eaten by carrion, a meal for crows and hungry dogs. In any event—whether he was left on the cross or buried in a tomb—we simply do not know what eventually became of Jesus’ corpse. In the gospel accounts, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning were unable to find it. It was never seen again. The earthly Jesus, the pre-Easter Jesus, was gone from history. But he was not to be forgotten.

The resurrection accounts of Jesus in the New Testament are not stories about a resuscitated corpse, a reanimation of dead tissue. What the first disciples of Jesus experienced was far more than a revived earthly body. What they experienced was something completely new and different. The resurrection was a mystical experience of the living presence of Jesus among those who knew him, loved him, and followed him.

The wealthy and powerful thought that the execution of Jesus would eliminate the threat he posed. But the movement he created did not end with his death. In a very real sense, Jesus was resurrected in the people who believed in his message of hope and justice and who followed his example. They felt his presence among them, and this presence gave them the courage to transform their lives with passion, zeal, and courage for the sake of the world. They began a small but passionate uprising in the confident hope that they could create a better and more just society.

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a New Testament scholar and translator of the “Cotton Patch Gospels” once wrote: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

The political nature of the Jesus movement and its threat to the status quo of empire is unmistakable. Blasphemy and sedition were frequent charges aimed at the followers of Jesus in the first three centuries after his death and capital punishment was the fate of many of the key leaders of the movement. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome and Paul was beheaded there by the emperor Nero (37–68). The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100) reports that Jesus’ brother James (the Just) was stoned to death by Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Legends reported by Christian historians Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) and Eusebius (263–339) say that four other disciples met similar fates: Andrew and Bartholomew were crucified, Stephen was stoned, and James, the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Something was going on in the early Jesus movement that clearly threatened authorities of the domination system.

Jesus died as he lived, leading an uprising for justice. It is wrong to simply view Jesus as a spiritual savior with a heavenly goal. He was concerned about our lives in the here and now, not in the hereafter. He had a political vision for how society should be structured and what values it should embody. He taught about the coming new reality and he modeled it in his own life. He created a movement to carry it on after his death, and the early church continued to live out his vision of communities of sharing and equality for many decades, perhaps even centuries, after his crucifixion.

Last fall, I traveled to Ireland and learned a bit more of their Easter Uprising. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and, along with some 1,600 followers, staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland. The rebels seized prominent buildings in Dublin and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the insurrection had been suppressed and more than 2,000 people were dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. This is the kind of uprising that the Sadducees and Romans feared that Jesus intended and that his followers would foment. But the uprising of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus is different.

The way of Jesus is a conspiracy of love, compassion, justice, and peace. Jesus led his small movement in a concerted action to subvert the normality of civilization and the prevailing domination systems of his society. He called for economic justice, he shared meals with those who were considered outcasts and rabble, he taught creative nonviolent responses to domination, and he publicly demonstrated at the seat of political and religious power. He was executed for daring to challenge the status quo that benefited the top 1 percent of his society.

As he began his ministry, Jesus announced his sole purpose and mission: “The decisive time has arrived, for the conspiracy of love is rising up to challenge the unjust systems of the world. Change your whole way of thinking and living, and risk everything for this radical message of hope.” (My paraphrase of Mark 1:14–15)

The way of Jesus is a path toward a vision of the way the world ought to be, the way it is meant to be. It is a freely chosen path, but not without risk. There is never any assurance of success; only a promise of continuing challenge. It is a matter of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding, but always continuing. Guided by the vision, the journey itself is the most important thing.

In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador to commemorate the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917–1980) who was shot down while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. Romero spoke out against the suffering of the people of El Salvador and pointed out those who were responsible for his country’s violence and injustice. He exhorted the rich to share what they had with the poor. He roundly condemned the violence of the military in the countryside and encouraged people to turn to social justice to avoid further bloodbaths. In the name of God, he demanded that the orders and commands of the military and police to kill innocent people be disobeyed. For Romero, this was not about meddling in politics. It was simply preaching the Gospel and defending human life.

Romero said, A church that does not join the poor in order to speak out from the side of the poor against the injustices committed against them is not the true church of Jesus Christ.” He also said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is that?”

Romero was bitterly attacked and labeled both as a communist and as a terrorist by the wealthy, by the military, and by many conservatives sectors of the church. He once told a newspaper reporter, “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in a death without resurrection. If am killed, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Today, Romero’s martyrdom is celebrated in popular culture. “They can kill the prophet, but not the voice of justice,” are the words of one of the many songs popularized by the Christian base communities following Romero’s assassination. The chorus concludes, “They will impose silence, but history will not be silent.” In a similar spirit, author Anne LaMott (b. 1954) declares, “Easter means you can put the truth in a grave but you can’t keep it there.”

Easter happens whenever the followers of Jesus have the passion, zeal, and courage to rise up to confront the powerful in the name of the powerless. French theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) wrote: “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.”

Other martyrs have given their lives in the same pursuit of peace and justice. Most are unknown, but a few like Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) are remembered for their social uprisings against the domination systems of their time.

Social issues are biblical issues, because any serious review of the Hebrew Bible reveals a deep-seated concern about social justice. Injustice is not just a concern of modern social movements; it provokes God to rise up in protest: “’Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,’ says Yahweh.” (Psalm 12:5)

Jesus rises up whenever the conspiracy of love rises up, whenever compassionate and courageous acts of the kingdom of God are present, whenever the reign of love is made manifest in this life. Following Jesus is a response to his call to establish justice and peace in the world. It makes one a troublemaker, a revolutionary, a seeker of change. It calls on one to be an agent of transformation, or as Jesus said, to be like a mustard seed in a tidy garden, a pinch of yeast in a large bowl of bread dough, a dash of salt in a pot of soup, or a small lamp in a darkened room. It is to add your light to the sum of lights so that little by little a violent, hungry, and suffering world can be renewed for the sake of its children.

Easter means that in the face of defeat, we will arise and stand once more. In the face of overwhelming odds, we will rise yet again. In the face of deepest despair, we will continue to rise. For in the darkest days, hope rises and will not be extinguished. Love rises and will not die. In and through our struggles against threatening powers and principalities, whenever we rise, Jesus too rises again, and again, and again. He rises through our protests against war, injustice, and suffering. He rises in our uprisings for justice and peace. Jesus rises through us and in us. Only when we stand up, speak out, and act with passion, zeal, and courage can we boldly proclaim to the world: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

impractical visionaries

A number of commentators have mentioned the impracticality of Bernie Sanders’ ideas and objectives for change in American society—an American revolution fueled by an animated and passionate young electorate. Given the intransigence of Republicans in Congress—these commentators often state—there is no hope that any of his radical ideas (breaking up the big banks, reversing the decline of the middle class, a living minimum wage, health care for all, free college education, addressing climate change, and making the wealthy pay their fair share) will become a reality. The commentators state that Hillary Clinton, being more practical and realistic, has a better chance to accomplish her more modest objectives. Frankly, I think that this viewpoint is as out of touch with reality as Sanders’ objectives may seem. The only difference is that if expectations are lowered, our disappointment will also be lower when Republicans inevitably continue to obstruct the plans of any Democratic president. If the Republicans hate anyone more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton. But if all we want to accomplish is to not rock the boat of establishment politics and maintain the status quo of income inequality, then Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate.

Change, however, requires a vision, often an extraordinary vision. Visionary leaders like Gandhi and King were able to mobilize dedicated movements for change because they each held out a vision of a better and more just society based on the impracticalities of love and nonviolence. They were widely criticized for being too ambitious, too radical, and much too impractical. Jesus was also an impractical visionary. Who would give any credibility to his vision of the kingdom of God that proposed a new community based on loving your neighbor and enemies, forgiving offenses repeatedly, lending to those in need without expectation of return, welcoming the immigrant, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, being compassionate toward prisoners, and turning the other cheek? Continue reading

follow Jesus: a hymn

I heard a contemporary hymn on Sunday morning during the Eucharist and fell in love with the melody. It was the “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” by Chris Rice. It reminded me of Randy Newman’s music—a soft and gentle melody with simple lyrics that draws forth a deep emotional response. Unlike many contemporary praise songs that often seem quickly thrown together, Chris Rice’s lyrics are well crafted, with each verse building in a progression about a journey of faith with Jesus. Yet the theology is that of an intensely personal and private faith. It addresses a personal relationship with Jesus amid life’s struggles. The song begins with these words:

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live

Other verses invite the listener to “cry to Jesus” in times of need and to “fall on Jesus” when we stumble.  The last verse is focused on an eternal destiny with Jesus in heaven with the refrain “fly to Jesus.”

And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side
And fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live

(You can hear the complete song and read the lyrics at this link. A choral arrangement can be found here.)

Rice’s theology represents the traditional beliefs of many, many devoted Christians. Yet for me, the faith to which we are called is much more than this. In the gospels, Jesus calls us to a life of compassion and service to others, rather than a self-centered seeking of our own personal comfort and security. In his final days of life, German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that “the church is the church only when it exists for others . . . helping and serving.” All too often churches spend the majority of their resources simply serving themselves. And those that focus on charity and service are often afraid of dealing with the fundamental causes of suffering in the world—systems of economic and social injustice.

I wanted to see a new set of lyrics to Chris Rice’s song that would convey an alternative kind of faith—not about a Jesus who comforts us in pain and sorrow, but about a Jesus who challenges us to make a difference in the world. I awoke early Tuesday morning with new lyrics in my head and decided to put them on paper. Continue reading

the church and LGBT justice

There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer: “a Christian.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman?

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, deciding whether gay marriage should be legal across the country—a decision that will alter the social fabric of the nation. Such a decision will be a huge win for gay marriage advocates, but the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community will continue to fight legal battles over equal rights for decades. And they will continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the church.

A majority of American voters say they support a Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry, but the issue remains far from settled among socially conservative religious communities that have repeatedly proclaimed biblical support for human injustice. Christine Smith writes:

Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.

(Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance)

Yet a growing number of other Christians are challenging traditional religious thinking, rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result has been enormous conflict in the church. Sexual issues are tearing churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. Long after this matter is settled in secular society, churches will continue to argue over the struggle between ancient revealed truth and contemporary human justice. Continue reading

some thoughts on loving kindness

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.

Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind? Continue reading

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