Monthly Archives: March 2010

Linkage: Interesting reads from around the net

Below are just a few of the things I’ve been reading over the past few days.  Check them out:

Repost: Washing our Hands in Blood

I originally wrote this post in April of 2007, in the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech.  I recently came across a new post at Jesus Manifesto entitled “Jesus and Hitler atone for our sins,” that made me think of it, and I decided to repost.

I sit down to write this reflection on April 17, 2007, the day after the deadliest school shooting in American history. The initial inspiration for what I write here, however, is something much less heinous and now several years old.

Pilate washes his hands
Pilate washes his hands

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, it generated a lot of conflict and debate for various reasons. For some it was anti-semitic, or poorly researched, a propaganda piece etc… But, in the midst of all this criticism, one in particular stood out to me: The antipathy of many people toward the way Gibson’s film portrayed Pontius Pilate. Some even argued that Gibson made Pilate into a hero. At first I found this criticism startling and wondered if somehow these people had seen a different version of the film than I had. It turns out it was just a different take on anthropology.

You see, while I saw in Pilate a weak and indecisive man who refused to take responsibility for his decisions, others were observing what they perceived to be a consummate politician doing what a politician should–his actions were even praise worthy. The root, it seemed, of people’s problems with Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate was not so much that he was portrayed in such a way as to make him look “good,” but rather, that he seems so like our own politicians. The problem with Pilate is that he is us, and the only portrayal that would have been sufficient would have been the one that made Pilate into a monster so grotesque that we could never see ourselves in his place.

John O’Sullivan addressed the issue of how people were responding to the portrayal of Pilate in the National Review. The core of his argument is what follows:

…there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue — or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.

I think that O’Sullivan is certainly on to something, but I’m not sure it’s really the primary thing. I believe that many people were, on the deepest level, made uncomfortable with how easily the actions of a villain sit in the conscience. But rather than question the state of their conscience, they question the presentation of the villain. Surely Pilate must be heinously evil, and yet I can understand his actions, and I may even find them sympathetic–such a portrayal, especially in film, makes us uncomfortable and brings us face to face with our own duplicitous and sinful natures. As Hannah Arendt‘s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (and much of the rest of her work) demonstrates, and contrary to way it is often portrayed in our movies and media, evil is not strictly alien or thrust upon us by some hideous outside force. Instead, evil is more often than not, banal and very clearly a part of us as human beings, a sick malfunction fueled by sin.

So what does all of this have to do with the VA Tech shooting? As Anna and I watched the news right after this tragedy occurred, we couldn’t help but talk about the words journalists were using to describe Cho Seung Hui, the man who perpetrated the killings. False emotion has always irritated me, and there was certainly plenty of that on display from some commentators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the people who were impacted by this, who were connected with the victims and their families, but rather commentators on national TV who could barely contain their falsified rage and seemed intent on completely dehumanizing the murderer through their use of language. Evil was used a lot–and this shooting was undeniably that–but that wasn’t the only term thrown about. Monster was another one we heard a lot, as was sick–but monster sticks in my mind. As I watched the news come out, and the commentary become more detailed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t only watching the news about the aftermath of the actions of a very sick and indeed a very evil human being, but also the process of a society hardening itself against any intimation that each and every one of us is, in our heart of hearts, capable of doing something heinously evil.

As Arendt brings to light, Eichmann and most other Nazis were “ordinary men” before the rise of the Third Reich… Eichmann, for instance was a vacuum cleaner salesman. And yet, people want to create a mythology of monstrosity, put people who do horrible things in a separate category from “us,” not to punish them, but to soothe our consciences, and to help us continue to live the lie that “people are basically good.”

I realize that there are those who dislike Arendt’s characterization of evil as banal, just as many dislike Augustine’s understanding of it as a privation of the good. But in my limited experience, this is the only understanding of evil, and of humanity, that allows us to both judge evil in others and guard for it in ourselves. To do otherwise, and to accept the easy cultural assumption that anyone who does an evil thing must not be “like us” is really to do the same thing Pilate did, to wash our hands of all responsibility… if we attempt this, we may find that we’re only washing our hands in blood.

The Triumphal Entry

The Message of Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion

The Triumphal Entry
The Triumphal Entry by Pietro Lorenzetti

It strikes me every year that the liturgists who authored the Prayer Book Liturgy for Palm Sunday wanted to discourage long sermons.  More than any other service, the message is communicated at the level of the gut, viscerally.  Very little interpretation or explanation is required beyond simple participation in the service.  A service which leaves us, intentionally, at a moment of great despair, there to linger for a week reflecting on our role in the events that transpired.

And I don’t simply mean our role in the liturgy, obviously, but our role in the events that the liturgy and the readings recount.  In the Liturgy of the Palms, we stand with those who welcomed Jesus‘ entry into Jerusalem with loud “Hosannas” and cheers and rejoicing.  Standing with them, crying out with them, we’re reminded what it feels like to finally have that log awaited desire fulfilled.  To see our most hoped for reality come to pass.  The Messiah has come!  The King who will restore the land to its rightful people.  The one who will settle accounts, restore good fortune, put to right injustices and bring people into line with the sword.  Hosanna! we cry, connecting with the joy they felt, believing that the day of the Lord they had always envisioned was coming to pass, that the Kingdom they assumed God would establish was being called into being.  Finally.  after all these years.  It’s time to celebrate.  To lay palm fronds at the feet of the one who comes, of the Messiah we’ve been waiting for.

But then, something happens, and the Liturgy forces us to confront a sad reality about the great throngs that greeted Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, and about the great throngs of people who have lived and died on this earth in all the years since.  We transition, with the crowd, from shouts of praise and Hossana, to the Passion Gospel where we cry out “Crucify him!”  We learn, through participation, that the people who cheered so mightily at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cheered just as mightily for his crucifixion when they realized that this was not the Messiah that they wanted or expected.  This Jesus.  He was not the Messiah that they expected and this kingdom he announced… it was not a kingdom they wanted any part of.  And so they turned on him to protect what little they had, to guard the things they loved, the things they loved which they thought were dedicated to God, but for which they would crucify God.

And we’re there with them.

We’re put there with them by the liturgy, because we’re there with them in spirit so often in our day to day lives.  Today and throughout Holy Week we’re called to examine our relationship with God.  To examine what exactly it is we’re hoping for, why exactly it is we claim to follow this carpenter from Nazareth.  We’re called to seek within ourselves any evidence that we have, like the crowd, decided to shout “Hosanna,” because we have created a Messiah, a God, in our own image, because we have looked forward to the establishment of a kingdom governed by a law of our making.

We’re called to look with fresh eyes at Jesus and the message of his Gospel, and decide again whether it is a message we can handle, whether we’re willing to continue the hard work of changing our expectations and casting off our selfishness and prejudices in order to truly welcome the Kingdom that even now is coming more and more into reality.

We’re here today, as well, to be reminded of the times when we have said “Crucify him,” by our actions.  To be reminded of the times we have rejected the truth and message of the Gospel by rejecting what it means for us and for all people.  We may never have gone so far as to consciously reject or renounce Christ.  We may never have participated in a “de-baptism” ritual, such as have become popular among atheists in England these days.  Be that as it may, I would go so far as to say that all of us have at some point done something so out of conformity with what Jesus would have us do that we might as well have shouted those words while he stood in front of that crowd.

Our service today invites us to remember that, at least as much as any of the actions of those actually present in Jerusalem at that time, our sin, our need for redemption, placed Jesus on the cross.

In the words of the old Lutheran Hymn:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee

Or as a priest friend of mine put it in one of his sermons:

We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.

Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday… (Fr. Tony Clavier)

The reality is that as humans we are all of us, mixed bags.  Traditional Christian Theology has explained this by juxtaposing the reality that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, with the idea of Original Sin, which, though it can been articulated in different ways, basically means that, if God were to become incarnate today, if Jesus were to return, people today would react the same way they did over two thousand years ago.  The great philosopher Aristotle famously said that humanity “when perfected is the best of animals; but if [...] isolated from law and justice [...] worst of all.”

What Aristotle believed could only come by law and justice, as Christians, we know can come only through Grace.  Living well means saying yes to grace.

Rowan Williams makes the observation in his book Tokens of Trust:

“Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is, Jesus; the one who says ‘yes’ to him; and the one who says ‘no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live. Through our lives, we swing towards one pole or the other, towards a deeper ‘yes’ or towards a deeper ‘no’. And in the middle of it all stands the one who makes sense of it all. Jesus—the one into whose life we must all try to grow, who can work with our ‘yes’ and can even overcome our ‘no’.” (p 76)

Palm Sunday with it’s liturgy is here to remind us that we all move back and forth on that continuum, that we all say no and we all say yes.  The challenge of the Christian life is to say the yes more and more and the no less and less.

Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico

As Williams puts it in his book Resurrection: interpreting the Easter Gospel:

The condemning court, the murderous ‘city’, [i.e. Jerusalem, or more generally the world as opposed to God's will] is indeed judged as resisting the saving will of God; but that does not mean that the will of God ceases to be saving. The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17; cf. Luke 23:34), and God still waits to be graciously present in ‘times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19). And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their savior.” (p3)

If we are looking for hope in today’s bleak retelling of the Passion and death of Christ, it is that when we recognize our complicity in evil, we do not have to stay there.  We are not finally condemned.  Just because we may find ourselves resisting the saving will of God, that does not mean it is not saving.  And that is good news to hang onto as we mark the way of the cross this Holy Week.

Books referenced:

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Throwing Jesus off a Cliff

Trying to throw Jesus off a cliff

Luke 4:21-30 provides us with a glimpse of the ramifications of Jesus’ homecoming to Nazareth.  It all begins rather well earlier in the chapter, when Jesus–being filled with the Holy Spirit after his temptations in the wilderness–returns to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth.  Once there he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath day (which, as Luke reminds us, was his custom).  While there he exercises the right of every Jewish man to take part in the reading and interpretation of scripture (as an aside, the account given here of Synagogue worship is among the earliest accounts we have).  He reads the following passage from Isaiah, saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

In his essay Salvation even in Sin: Learning to speak Truthfully about Ourselves,” Stanley Hauerwas makes in interesting observation under the heading “The Trouble with Sin:”

Just as Milton struggled not to let the devil become the hero of Paradise Lost, so any theologian who takes up the subject of sin must wrestle with the temptation of making sin more interesting than God. This is particularly a problem in our time, given the widespread habit of using the word ‘God’ as a generalized concept to name all that which remains inexplicable.  Not surprisingly, in such a time many people are often more ready to believe themselves sinners than creatures of a gracious God.  At least they are more ready to believe they are sinners than they are to believe in a God who not only is the beginning and the end of all that is but who has refused to abandon us to our sins. (61)

In the return of Christ to Nazareth where he had grown up, we see an example of what it can mean for God to get specific.  In terms of his identity, Jesus is the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity and thereby conveys the character of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).  One of the things that Jesus does continually throughout his ministry is to challenge those who believe themselves to be faithful, calling them to examine the content of their faith and make an honest assessment of whether they have truly been following the spirit of the law as well as the letter.  The challenge presented by the character of God revealed in Christ is a bit more than a critique of the pious loosing their way, it is a challenge to one of the fundamental ideas that many of Jesus’ listeners had held onto their whole lives, i.e. the idea that God’s grace and mercy is extended first and primarily–if not solely–to the people of Israel, and specifically, for some folks, only the religiously fastidious among the people of Israel.  In this situation in Nazareth, the people are appreciative of Jesus’ interpretation of the text from Isaiah, until he gets to the point of revealing two separate but related points.  First, He is going to do no miracles in Nazareth, his home town, because he does not expect that they would be received by the people there, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:23).  Secondly, expanding from the particular to the more general, he emphasizes the times in Israel’s history when the grace of God has been extended beyond the bounds of the people of Israel, even as some among the chosen people suffered.  It is at this point that the people become angry, run him out of town and decide to throw him off the cliff.  The people aren’t so much angered by any implication that they are sinners (though there are plenty of occasions in the Gospels when that becomes a sticking point), as they are angered by the idea that the grace of God might be active outside the boundaries they recognize or impose.

So how does this relate to the tendency Hauerwas points out?  The people of Nazareth may have been prepared to hear of their failures and sins–the ways in which they could have been more faithful in keeping the Law–but what they were fundamentally not prepared for was to be challenged in their perception of God’s grace and care.  They were angered not only because Jesus illustrated his point by talking about people from the history of Israel who had not been healed or saved from their circumstances, but because of the fact that foreigners sometimes experienced God’s aid when Israel did not–it was a challenge not simply because of the seeming randomness of divine intervention, but because God’s grace was not as limited as they believed it to be.  In the end it was not a pronouncement of judgment, but a pronouncement of grace that caused the people to want to throw Jesus off a cliff.  This is often still the case.

Fighting Pedantry with Pedantry

Everyone has their own pet peeves.  I know I do.  The most interesting exchanges often occur when we find that our pet peeves clash with someone else’s–drama and hilarity (at least from the outside) often ensues.

One of my pet peeves are folks who take it upon themselves to restrict the use of language in a particular way, or who push for standardization in English by saying something is “wrong” or “incorrect,” when their judgment is actually quite subjective–as most are.  I recently had this button of mine pushed at a conference regarding evangelism.  During the introductory presentation the speaker made the comment that “I hope none of you are using the term ‘recessional,’ given the state of the economy, we have enough recession (funny enough)…” then he went on to say “seriously, unless you’re walking backwards, I hope none of you use it, because that’s what you would have to do to use the word correctly…”

Similarly, I had a classmate in seminary critique a bulletin of mine because I used the word “recessional.”  “We never recess in the church, because we never go backward, we only process, where ever we go because we’re going forward…”  I admit, that this struck me a bit like the only “advance to the rear” joke.  To both examples of pedantry, I add my own, backed up by the Oxford English Dictionary (which my wife claims is my mistress…):

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Random thoughts on a Tuesday

I’ve just gotten back to Hendersonville from a “Fresh Start” meeting down at St. George’s and am now awaiting the arrival of a parishioner at a local coffee spot.  I haven’t written much for the blog recently, but I have come across several articles that readers might be interested in.  Enjoy: