Cross

Fifty Shades of God: Does Easter Week Affirm Our Violent Desires?

Crown of thorns. Image via Ricardo Reitmeyer/shutterstock.com

Crown of thorns. Image via Ricardo Reitmeyer/shutterstock.com

Have we made God into a monster? And as a result, have we taken the holiest of weeks in the Christian year and dressed it up as a celebration of bloody, violent sacrifice?

If so, I'm afraid we've gotten Easter all wrong.

I lead a small group discussion every Sunday morning at First Christian Church, Portland, where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. It's one of my favorite hours of the week, partly because of the common bonds of trust we're building that transcend our many differences. But it's also become a very safe place to ask hard, disturbing questions and to express ideas that, in many other contexts, might be shouted down or even excluded entirely from the conversation.

This week, we were discussing whether one could identify as Christian, in that they follow the example and teaching of Jesus, while also claiming no belief in any sort of metaphysical divinity (i.e., God). One member of the group, Heath, raised something very thought-provoking, particularly given the context of Holy Week and what it means to so many.

“If we are to believe that God sent Jesus to die for our sins,” said Heath, “it's easy to understand why so many would want to distance themselves from such a monstrous God.”

That led to a lively discussion about what Easter — and more specifically, Good Friday (when Jesus died by crucifixion) — meant to each of us, and how that understanding informed our understanding of the nature of God.

If God sent his only son first and foremost to die for our sins, then the climax of the Gospel narrative at Easter is the defining point at which we are left with what Heath called “Fifty Shades of God.”  

Here we are left with what I call the conundrum of substitutionary atonement, which is the belief that Jesus took our place on the cross — deserved by us, not him — in order to satisfy the price someone had to pay for our sins. And although many who call themselves Christians claim this belief, it raises some hard questions we tend to overlook when embracing such a claim.

Chiaroscuro

"Elevation of the Cross," by Peter Paul Rubens

The back-lit morning wave
Clarified emerald suddenly in olive,
Then gone; forever the cry of the Christ's torso
In Rubens' "Elevation of the Cross";
A glass pepper shaker filled to overflowing
By a finger of fallen sun at the close
Of a most mundane afternoon.
Obsessed is perhaps too strong a wod

But I seek the image of emergent light
In everything, as if a life's a collection
Of a thousand thousand such events
Becomes, finally, and somehow,
Through the slippery spirit's incomprehensible means,
A perfect surrender. The desert hermit Antony
Is said to have needed no lamp
To read scripture in his cell at night, so bright
Was the manifest glow of his abandon.

Samuel Harrison, a novelist and poet, coordinates an arts ministry at St. James Episcopal Church in Ormond Beach, Fla.

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To the Dying Church: Sharing our Wounds

Andrea Danti & Skylines/Shutterstock.com

Andrea Danti & Skylines/Shutterstock.com

To the dying church,

Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated. 

Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.

You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst. 

An Occupied Cross Before an Empty Tomb

Crucified christ image, robodread / Shuttestock.com

Crucified christ image, robodread / Shuttestock.com

I used to hate Good Friday. Jesus dying a gruesome and unjust death didn’t seem particularly “good” to me. Even now, when I watch a Jesus movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told (or let’s be real: Jesus Christ Superstar), I find myself secretly hoping that someone in the crowd will say “wait a second! Just four days ago we really liked this guy. Crucifixion is a terrible idea, let’s go have Passover.” Mic drop.

The idealist and optimist in me would prefer to be reminded that the cross was empty, that Jesus was alive, to focus less on Good Friday and more on Easter Sunday. But I have come to appreciate the image of Christ on the cross much more now that I’m an adult and there are things that I have said and done in my life that deserve a reckoning. Jesus is there, gladly bearing my sin on the cross.

I’ve come to appreciate that there are so many broken and twisted places in this world that need a Redeemer. And Jesus is there, undoing the power of sin and evil on the cross.

Holy Week Reflection: God Made Flesh

Cross of branches, Ihnatovich Maryia / Shutterstock.com

Cross of branches, Ihnatovich Maryia / Shutterstock.com

The Cross is an inexhaustible mystery, but among the many things it does so well is make visible the love of God.

In Jesus Christ, God is not an abstraction, concept, or idea. The Unknowable is made known. The Invisible is made material. All mysticism is now grounded, and all agnosticism now countered, in this particular Person; there is now, paradoxically, a Measure within Measurelessness.

"For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body." (Col. 2:9) "For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ." (Col. 1:19)

Conversely, whatever is not revealed in Jesus is not the Triune God.

Contemporary Christians (of all sorts of persuasions) tend to de-couple God from Jesus.

Not a 'Women's Issue'

THE CULTURAL explanations and defenses for women undergoing genital mutilation, female infanticide, domestic violence, and other atrocities crumble under the weight of the cross. The involuntary suffering endured by millions of women is not redemptive; it is a suffering borne out of opposition to a God that desires to crush such bondage. An orientation of the cross emphasizes the importance of maintaining a precise language for a Christian perspective and application. According to Gerhard Forde, our modern culture has been so sensitized and psychologized that we are afraid to call a spade a spade. We often act many times “on the assumption that our language must constantly be trimmed so as not to give offense, to stroke the psyche rather than to place it under attack.” Our language can ultimately decline to a type of “greeting-card sentimentality.” Forde claims that when this happens we have lost our theological courage and legitimacy. A theology of the cross provides a paradigm or conceptual framework for a language that always speaks truth to power.

The language and meaning of the cross provide the most relevant and useful foundation for creating a practical social ethic for the work of ending violence against women and girls by identifying oppression, abuse, and violence as sin, and by providing a direction and necessary focus for the church. By using the language of the cross, the church embraces the gravity of violence against women and girls. It is not a “women’s issue” or merely another “social problem.” It is sin that violates the integrity and humanity of God’s creation. The work of Christ on the cross demands that the whole of the church respond to the ongoing evil and sin at work in the world. The power of God can be expressed through this language of the cross.

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Dare to Sit With Suffering

WELBURNSTUART/Shutterstock.com

The cross of Christ offers a place where the suffering of the whole world is connected. WELBURNSTUART/Shutterstock.com

Abram left his homeland on a promise and a prayer. God called. Abram went. The Biblical text makes it seem so simple. There are no signs of struggle or doubt. There is no grief over what is left behind, only the forward look toward a new land and a new future. Leaving home for Abram seems so easy.

As I reflect on this week’s scripture, I’m in Lebanon listening to stories of Syrian refugees who left their countryand their kindred to find a place of refuge. Unlike Abram, they did not leave on the promise that they would become a great nation. They left because bombs fell on their houses. They left because food became scarce. They left because they watched their loved ones die in the rubble as buildings fell to the ground.

As we enter into this season of Lent, it is fitting for us to pause and listen to their stories. Remembering Christ’s suffering is more than an exercise in gratitude. It is a chance for us to stand in solidarity with those around the world who suffer each day. It is a challenge for us to take our own suffering (be it large or small) and connect it to the suffering of others and to the suffering of Christ on the cross.

Court Hears Atheists' Challenge to Ground Zero Cross

A cross formed from a fallen steel I-beam at the former World Trade Center towers. Photo by John Munson/The Star-Ledger. Via RNS

Atheists are challenging plans to include a 17-foot, cross-shaped beam that became a famous symbol of Ground Zero after 9/11 in a display at the national memorial museum that is scheduled to open this spring.

In arguments before the the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, American Atheists’ lawyer Edwin Kagin said the cross should go back to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, where it spent some time on display, not in a museum built with a mix of public and private funds.

Last year, a lower court rejected a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the New Jersey-based American Atheists that said the cross was an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In his appeal, Kagin said his organization is seeking a similar object to be displayed at the museum, something like a plaque that would say “atheists died here, too.”

Why is the Cross Necessary?

THIS GENERATION IS wired a bit differently than previous generations. I don’t only mean the vitality of portable multitasking devices that provide continuous streams of global news, entertainment, gaming, and random opinions from 2,157 of their closest friends. In all fairness, it’s not their fault. They are who we taught them to be. Often they seek the good, but not God.

Notwithstanding a persistent rejection of organized religion, many in this generation continue to seek power, transcendence, and mystery. Though church membership is down, a steady number continue to express a profound interest in spirituality. In a post-theistic context, says Diana Butler Bass, “many Americans are articulating their discontent with organized religion and their hope that somehow ‘religion’ might regain its true bearings in the spirit.” It’s worth noting that many remain attracted to the idea of Jesus.

These last weeks of Lent invite a rehearsal of faith journeys that lead to rumors of resurrection. Glittering gadgets and tantalizing trinkets will not rid us of an awareness of the futility of our efforts to bring about change. Gossip and trends will not provide Christians with the vitality that facilitates a genuine hope for good. By submitting our ideas of justice to the witness of the reign of God, we pass on the confidence that the faith of the past can sustain us to live into the future. Not only as if there is a God, but as if our God has the power to rebuild and revitalize all that injustice has shattered.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ APRIL 6 ]
Abandon Human Confidence
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

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Archbishop of Canterbury: The Cross Has Become a Fashion Symbol

Madonna in her Confessions Tour, hanging from a mirrored cross in 2006. Photo: RNS/courtesy Oscar Rohena via Wikimedia Commons

The Christian cross has become little more than a piece of jewelry worn around the necks of celebrities, said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

In the foreword to a new book about Christianity, the head of the world’s 85 million Anglicans presents the symbol of Roman torture upon which Jesus died as “the moment of deepest encounter with radical change.”

And he regrets that after 2000 years, the cross has become trivialized.

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