A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

You Don't Get Strung Up on a Cross for Running Around Telling Everyone to Love Each Other

One of the flaws of the most characteristic Liberal portrayal of Jesus was the unlikelihood that anyone would have wanted to crucify such an attractive moral teacher. In recent questing it has been more widely recognized that a test of any hypothesis' viability is whether it provides a satisfactory answer to the question, Why was Jesus crucified?-- James D.G. Dunn

The great challenge for preachers of the Gospel in the West is to overcome the intellectually shallow and theologically inept summaries of Jesus' life and ministry being first and foremost, primarily, and basically about love. The focus on the concept of love marginalizes cross and resurrection, which ironically in turn undermines the radical nature of the kind of love Jesus displayed.

Stanley Hauerwas likes to get at this problem by asking if it's possible to imagine Jesus walking around Judea and saying something like, "Hey, Guys... I have this radical idea. I think we should love each other. And the response of the religious establishment is, "What! Love one another! We can't let this guy spread his subversive message! Let's string him up!

Now before I get all the comments and emails reminding me of how much Jesus and the New Testament writers mention love, let me respond by saying that I know such is the case. I am not exactly ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The problem is that the modern tendency to dehistoricize and detheologize Jesus and his ministry into principles and concepts robs us of the context which makes the biblical notion of love intelligible. Without it we lose what it truly means for Jesus to tell his followers to love one another. The great sacrifice of cross and the wonderful victory of resurrection by which Christian love is understood is replaced by the modern romanticism of love as primarily a feeling, as the justification for behavior without consequences, and living a life devoid of transformation. We move from Jesus' statement that no greater love can be displayed in laying down one's life to it doesn't matter how we behave because God loves us no matter what.

It doesn't take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. The Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament demands too much from us. Moreover, in our modern cosmological reductionist assumptions, we simply cannot have a Jesus running around doing miraculous things. So in Bishop Spong and John Crossan fashion we first demythologize Jesus and then we remythologize him after our own image and our own expectations. Jesus now becomes safe to follow. Yes, Jesus is still presented as a radical, but he is a domesticated revolutionary. He is one who looks like a hippie from the 1960s or a political activist whose methods of power and coercion look no different from the politics of the nations. But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.

But the real Jesus, the Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament, will not be so domesticated. Jesus has not come to conform to our expectations. We must conform to his. You don't get strung up on a cross by running around telling everyone to love each other, and we won't be able to understand the nature of discipleship without knowing that cross and resurrection stands at the heart of what it means to walk with Jesus. Cross and resurrection are about more than what God has done for us (and what God has done for us is much more than sentimental niceties about love); they also provide the blueprint for how Christians are to bear witness to the love of God in the world.


Mitch said...

Allan - I think even your phrase "status quo" casts Jesus' crucifixion in modern sociological terms.

It is hard for those in an individualist society to understand that people will kill over matters of honor and shame. It is hard for those of us in a post-enlightenment secular society to understand that people will kill over matters of blasphemy. Well, to be honest, recent events have reminded us of both realities.

And of course the greatest offense of all is that God's own people are capable of great evil, and Jesus' crucifixion reveals the depth human sin. In other words, the reason for Jesus' crucifixion is not found only in what Jesus said and did. It lies in us, and in our reaction to God in our midst. Of course, most people will see that as a mythological interpretation that they cannot accept.

Eric Helms said...

I think I understand what you are getting at and am strongly sympathetic to your point. However, as I read, I was struck by the sense that I have recently developed that love as defined by God and demonstrated in Christ just might get us killed.

Certainly it is a disservice to decrease God to some sort of nice being that teaches love in a way that we already imagine on our own. But Jesus' teaching on love took love to a level which most religious leaders were not willing to go and it was threatening to them. That Jesus loved the unholy women, tax-collectors, and other sinners the same or more than the upright priest, for instance, threatened the self-perceived superiority of the Pharisees and Scribes.

It isn't so hard to imagine this kind of threatening love in our day. If I live in Arizona, and out of love for the alien in a strange land I house a family of illegal/undocumented immigrants, it is impossible to imagine that someone might consider stringing me up--if not today in the near future?

Sometimes love can cause crucifixion if it is the kind of radical love that challenges the innate hatred of a world that has fallen from the knowledge of God's love.

John Meunier said...

Doesn't Hauerwas' test leave out the possibility that Jesus was killed because of who he was rather than for what he taught?

None of the gospels depict his accusers as being upset over the content of his message, it was the messianic claim that got them all in an uproar.

Wasn't it?

Eric Helms said...

John is on to something--Jesus' teaching always seemed to amaze the crowds. Even when they would set traps, his teaching would bot speak the truth about God while avoiding the traps being set. Jesus' indirect and direct self-identification as the Messiah and/or the Son of God was more problematic for the religious leaders.

Bruce said...

Allan, your points are well taken! It will never do to have Jesus and divine love reduced, domesticated and made palatable. I think Willimon's post on Wesley for everyone gets to the heart of the kind of love Jesus demonstrated. There is an expectation of transformation. I cannot seperate crucifixion, resurrection and love. For me, they go together.

Anonymous said...

Well, the kind of love Jesus preached would certainly have gotten him into some kind of trouble. If he were telling the parable of the Good Samaritan in a North American UMC, what race/nationality/political affiliation/religion would the Samaritan have taken? Perhaps "The Good Muslim?" "The Good Taliban?"

Jesus-love is not a sentimental, gooey, mushy kind of love; it's a lay-down-your-life, gritty, scandalous love. You know - love even the vilest sinners you can imagine, love the ones who want you dead, love the bad guys kind of love.

My New Testament Prof and friend Steve Patterson once said that Jesus scholarship might be described in three major movements: 1. Jesus as a new religious answer to the problem of Judaism; 2. Jesus as a reformer within Judaism; 3. Jesus as a Jewish answer to the problem of Empire.

It appears that you are leaning toward Christianity as a religious answer to the problem of American empire - which is IMO a good thing. I love where you're going. (Even if I think you weren't quite fair to Crossan).

John Meunier said...

Will wrote:
My New Testament Prof and friend Steve Patterson once said that Jesus scholarship might be described in three major movements: 1. Jesus as a new religious answer to the problem of Judaism; 2. Jesus as a reformer within Judaism; 3. Jesus as a Jewish answer to the problem of Empire.

I love this. I'm not seminary educated enough to know if it is an exhaustive list, but I do see how Allan and Hauerwas - and interestingly Borg and Crosson - are arguing for position 3. I think someone like NT Wright falls more in position 1.

I don't know enough about contemporary academic theology to venture guesses about others.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Great comments and questions one and all! I love the blogosphere!

Mitch, if I understand you correctly on the status quo comment, I am not sure I agree. It is modern term, but every culture throughout history has a status quo.

And I am basically in agreement with your last two paragraphs, but I would go further and suggest that the political nature of his words is at issue. Of course, our negative response to his teachings just reinforces what you say about the depth of our sin.

Eric... good thoughts indeed... and timely. And, while his teaching amazed the crowds, remember John tells us (chp. 6) that Jesus lost a great following over his radical teachings about himself.

John, actually I think Hauerwas says the opposite. The person and work (in this case narrowly, the teaching) cannot be separated. Once that happens his person and his work will be distorted. Protestant liberalism is terribly guilty of this distortion.

And the religious leaders were upset with much more than his claim to messiahship. His claims to personhood were also scandalous. The claim that gets him crucified is not that he is the messiah as much as his claim that he will be seated at the right hand of God. It's the person thing.

Bruce... yes, Jesus did not come to leave us unchanged. Grace is not a thing we receive passively; it is transformative.

Will, good comments indeed. Perhaps at some point I will post something on why I think Crossan domesticates Jesus. You can respond and we can have a lively discussion!

Allan R. Bevere said...


Actually I view myself as falling into all three positions. I don't mind the categorizing of positions, but it can lead to simplification. And while Crossan indeed sees an anti-empire element in Jesus' ministry, I think his solution to the problem is quite different from mine.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I wanted to spend more time on this, but our evening as well as yesterday was full, and I have to at work early today. And really not being able to get into this this morning as I should, either.

Good post and good points, Allan. I struggle with the reality that the kingdoms of this world will be at odds with Jesus and the kingdom of God come in him (I buy easily into that part), but thinking that the light of God come in him shines on the nations in a sense, that they have a new sense of justice, of love, etc. To which God holds them accountable. Of course through the church which is the light of the world and the salt of the earth through Jesus.

Of course at best nation-states can have only mixed motives, which means the heart is still not right, is still bent on idolatry.