Monthly Archives: March 2012

The deed which interprets itself

One of the most widely known statements of Christ is recorded in John’s Gospel. For many of us it likely echoes in our minds in the wording of the old King James Version: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

We are confronted again in the passion reading (Mark 15:1-47) with the account of Jesus’ trial and execution. And, by being encouraged to once again take on the role of those who welcomed Jesus with palms of victory, only to turn and cry out for his execution a few short days later.

In past reflections on The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, I’ve dwelled upon this sharp transition, this ultimate illustration of the way people responded to Christ during his earthly ministry–following and listening (if not always understanding) one minute, offended, critical and even hate-filled the next. This has been a focal point because it demonstrates the capacity we all have to vacillate between the good and the bad, between evil and righteousness. It illustrates supremely well, the profound and honest observation of the great Russian author and anti-communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book, The Gulag Archipelago:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

But the story of human frailty and sin is only part of the story. A part we would to well do remember, but only a part, and not the largest part. The more wondrous element is the way in which God responds to such sinfulness. The grace of offering forgiveness and reconciliation to the world–even those who responded to the presence of God with murder–is impossible to grasp. The acts of God in becoming incarnate as one of us, in transforming an implement of torture and execution, a sign of judgement and condemnation standing over all humanity 1, into a sign of hope and forgiveness, deserve our full attention.

It’s important for us to understand, as scripture teaches, as as Christ emphasized again and again in his ministry, that God judges the desires of the heart.

But we turn to reflect today not upon our frailty and sin, and not upon the fact of the cross. Today, we go deeper and consider what the cross calls us to as followers of the Crucified Lord.

As Christians, we believe that we see the character of God most fully in the character of Jesus Christ. I would suggest, going beyond that point, that, save only for the incarnation itself, the trial and crucifixion of Christ reveal the heart of God for humanity–for you and for me. God declares the worth of every human being to be nothing less than the life of himself in Jesus Christ.

And so, we come to it. The reason why it is proper to say a little less on a day when we are confronted once again with the death of Our Lord. The reason why fewer words and a deeper reverence call to us. We have witnessed again what Christ has done. We have no need of lengthy interpretation to understand it.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

In no greater way has God revealed his love for humanity, than in going to the cross for our sins.

In no greater way has the forgiveness of God been pronounced, than in the forgiveness offered even to those who ridiculed him as he hung on that tree.

So that we might be forgiven and say, with the centurion “Truly, this man was God’s son.”

“For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)

But in going to the cross, God goes beyond forgiveness, and by the effectual working of his grace, empowers us to answer his call to be more like him, as revealed in Christ.

Just as the passion calls for so little interpretation, but a great deal of listening, so too does the life we are called to lead require more action than we sometimes imagine. In the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is the word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world” (A Testament to Freedom, 86).

I would argue that in going to the cross, Christ offers up the deed that interprets itself, and it is in baptism, when we say we have died and been buried, that we are a new creation, and that is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that we can adopt the same attitude as Jesus, and become a people whose hearts have been transformed by the Grace of God, so that we too can perform the deed that interprets itself, that is, so that we can offer the same love to one another that Christ gives us.

At the time of the crucifixion, because we did not and could not give ourselves over to God, we gave God over to the cross. But rather than judgement, we know–even in the midst of Holy Week–that the cross brings a deeper hope and abundant grace. Lent and Holy Week are here to remind us how desperately we stand in need of that hope and that grace. It’s at this time of year that we are called, more than any other, to examine our hearts and push forward in the struggle to make them a truer and truer reflection of Christ’s.


  1. (see my post on William of Ockham and the idea of blameworthy action. Basically, we’re all implicated in the judgement of the Crucifixion because of our hearts–like the hymn “’twas I lord Jesus, I crucified thee, I denied thee”) []
Ash_Cross

Lenten Videos

A few great videos I thought I’d share with the readers of this blog during the Lenten Season. (Just a note for folks in the Diocese of Tennessee: Stanley Hauerwas–in the 3rd video–is honorary Canon Theologian of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville):

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On Being Blog • Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge by…

[NOTE: Interesting counter point to the usual issues raised about science and the pursuit of knowledge, namely that it is, or often is, dehumanizing.]

I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.

via On Being Blog • Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge by….

The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings, statue at the Vatican

The Grace of Forgetfulness and the end of Shame

The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings, statue at the Vatican

Recently a video went viral on the internet of a father who had found a Facebook post of his teen daughter complaining about the work that was expected of her around the house. The post was quite the screed and was filled with expletives and insulting language and sentiments toward her parents, so it’s understandable why her father would be hurt on one level. The degree of anger displayed however, is not quite so understandable (something I will address briefly later). In order to teach his daughter a lesson, he recorded himself reading her post and then emptying the clip of his pistol into her laptop, after which he posted the video for the world to see.

In a series of conversations in the first few days after the video went viral, in particular, with @aehowardwrites and @AdamWaltenbaugh, several primary issues seemed to be raised by the response.

First, as Anna, Adam, and at least two parishioners at @StJoeshville pointed out, the response itself was a bit like a tantrum in that it does not so much challenge the childish behavior of the daughter–which was mostly on display in the fact that she posted her comments online, not that she said or thought them–as it reinforces it and wraps it in a shell of veiled violence. “Remember” the video says “who has the power here,” and power is displayed and reinforced with an instrument of violence in a violent act. As Adam reminded me from his work with abusers, physical displays such as throwing an item–not necessarily at a person, just in their presence–is a sort of violent display that moves toward intimidation of the other party. I suppose one might trace it to such primal urges as beating one’s chest and screaming incoherently. The root of the display is the same.

So, there is a subtext of violence, not, I think, conscious, but rather cultural and contextual. The other deeper issue is that it demonstrates a degree of anger and retaliation that is inappropriate for an adult who is actually secure in themselves and their authority. It is a demonstration, I believe, of a phenomenon described by Rowan Williams in his book entitled Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, in which he describes how our society fosters the creation of sexualized children (actually, also appropriately termed consumerized or choice-laden children) who come to be seen as competitors by the childish adults which our society also produces, who never learn to distinguish between the needs and desires of a child and those of an adult. Because there is no understanding of the difference, a child or adolescent comes to be seen as competitors and are responded to as such, with anger, as a threat. So, this is where this video is an illustration of an inappropriate level of anger inspired in a person with power by the transgressiveness of a person without. But because neither their individuality or their relative powerlessness is recognized, but only “threat,” the response is anger (an even more extreme example of this is that of the Texas Judge who’s mistreatment of his daughter was caught on tape by her and revealed a decade later as he prepared for another run at his judgeship).

But what about the post from the girl that started all of this? The post demonstrated that the father reacted to the wrong thing. The problem was not the content of what the girl wrote, but that she posted it online. She was probably upset that her father was able to read the post which she had hidden from him, but if she was, she shouldn’t have been because any expectation of privacy she had was a false expectation–not because it is wrong to want privacy, but because it is a misunderstanding of the nature of the internet to expect it. This is the lesson parents and other adults ought to be teaching youth, not that you can’t say things that others shouldn’t hear (there are things that none of us should ever know or even desire to know that acquaintances, friends and loved ones have said or thought about us at times), but that whatever you put on the internet stays on the internet–and I don’t mean like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Rather than challenging the most troubling aspect of his daughter’s actions, the father simply reinforced the worst aspect of the exhibitionism and, as was pointed out in this editorial in the LA Times, harmed himself much more than his daughter, and unwittingly testifying to the end of shame.

But there’s more here. One of the reasons this sort of online mind-dumping is a bad idea is not because what was said was all that bad. I know some people are or would be horrified by some of the things that teens say.. and their memories must be clouded, because I’ve yet to see anything in the Facebook posts of teens from the congregations I serve, or teenage relatives with whom I’m Facebook friends (always taking care which posts I comment on, as I try to be an adult who respects their boundaries but who is still available to bounce thoughts off of etc…) that was all that bad in comparison to the things I and my friends said and did at that point in our lives. The great distinction however, is that aside from the ever more foggy memories of my cohort, there is no record of what we said, did or observed.  Today though, teens lives (and everyone else’s for that matter) are being preserved in the amber of the internet and the Facebook timeline. There is within this world where nothing is ever forgotten–even the mundane details of what one ate for lunch on March 25, 2005–a transition from grace to law and from forgiveness to judgement.

All of us, after all, have examples of comments or moments–fragments–of our lives that we made or pursued in anger or out of spite. We are, I’d venture to say, thankful that so many have been forgotten, allowing us to move on into the future. Teenage angst is not a crime or a surprise, nor is the fact that we will also make mistakes as adults. There are then, many events or segments of our lives that we would desire nothing so much as for them to be forgotten.

In one of his essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas cites a letter Bonhoeffer wrote that addresses this idea quite well.  Bonhoeffer writes: “The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragments of our life how the whole was arraigned and performed, and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin (even a decent “Hell” is too good for them)… (Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, p. 36).

So the real tragedy in all of this is that our technology makes it possible for the past to always be present and fresh, that it makes forgetting and shame ever more impossible and shifts forgiveness toward the improbable as every mistake hangs stagnant in the air and every wound remains as fresh as the day we received it.