The Humanity of These Days

crucifixionAs we begin upon what the Christian tradition calls the great Triduum — the three days that bring us to Easter and constitute the heart of Holy Week — I think we have to ask ourselves a question:  Is the drama that unfolds beginning on Maundy Thursday and reaches its fulfillment on Easter primarily a human drama, or a divine one?

I think we have become accustomed to viewing the events commemorated and celebrated this week as a divine drama, God pushing Jesus forward into arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and finally to resurrection.  God is in the driver’s seat, if you will, and always has been, needing things to turn out just this way.  After all, isn’t that what we mean when we say that Jesus in God incarnate, God appearing within a human life?

I think, though, that what unfolds in this week is not a drama driven by God.  Rather, it is a very  human drama in which God is a willing participant.  The elements of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are all deeply human, and propelled by human beings.  The fear among those ancient religious authorities that Jesus will somehow ignite a revolution that will result in a blood bath;  the concern among Roman authorities about anyone who looks at all like a rallying point for Jewish aspirations for liberation and freedom; the disappointment of people who placed their hopes and expectations for such a revolution upon Jesus, and then become frustrated when he seems to be failing to act as they anticipated; the disappointment among some of his own disciples, and one particular disciple who decided to cooperate with the authorities in Jesus’ betrayal; the last, lingering meal of Jesus with his followers, knowing what is coming; the terror of those followers after Jesus’ arrest, running away out of fear for their own lives; their grief at the death of their teacher, a death which has made of Jesus a victim, and taken all the air out of any thought of revolution, relieving the societal pressure that had been building up around Jesus; the tenderness of his burial; and the deep humanity of the women who came to anoint his body.   All of these things speak of the complex dynamics of humanity, so easily drawn into fear, so ready to identify a victim to attach our fears to, and yet so shocked and grieved when we actually behold the victim in death.

What these days of Christ’s passion reveal to us is not a carefully laid out divine plan for our salvation, but the full truth of our own humanity, and the way we carry on with one another.  In Jesus, God enters into this human drama, becomes a willing participant in it, in order to reveal it for what it really is.

When we come to the end of the drama and behold its final act, the Risen Christ, then we really see what all this looks like in the light of the divine:  that all the fear, shame, guilt, and victimizing that to us seems so final, so absolute, and so necessary is a truth that God acknowledges but does not buy into.  In the Risen Christ, God finally does get in the driver’s seat, taking our human drama in an entirely new direction, showing us that we can live differently, that we can live outside of the dynamics of fear and death, shame and guilt, and be freed for a larger, fuller, more authentic, and inexhaustible life.

As we move through the heart of this Holy Week, I hope we will not see what happens to Jesus as following a divine plan, but rather, that we will see our God entering into the dynamics of our own humanity, in order to unmask them, name them, forgive them, and then move us beyond them into love.

Noah & The Left Behind Redux

crucifixionI have been grumpy about the cinema lately.  Grumpy about a movie that is already out, and grumpy about a movie that is yet to be released.  And it’s really all about the violence that Hollywood tends to promote.  This time, it’s not about violence against people (though, there is plenty of that in movies).  I’m talking about violence against the biblical text — which has a strange way of ending up as violence against people.

The movie “Noah” is a blockbuster hit.  How could it not be, with the likes of Russell Crowe and Hermione Granger — I mean, Emma Watson?  And all of those special effects that make the flood really convincingly terrible.  It has all the makings of a popular film.   What makes me grumpy about it is  that when biblical stories like this are projected onto the silver screen, it tends to promote something that we really need to stop promoting:  biblical literalism.  We encourage people to think of these stories as news accounts of actual events, rather than appreciating them as carefully constructed narratives designed to draw us into thinking about something deeper.  The biblical stories are meant to get us thinking about the great truths of our own humanity and of God.  And while a film of a biblical epic like the story of Noah could perhaps get us thinking about these deeper things, I fear that really people just get overwhelmed by the imagery on the screen (not to mention that the film includes a lot of artistic embellishment on what is a relatively short story) and come away either with their biblical literalism reenforced or thinking that it’s a nice tale that doesn’t have any element of the sacred to it at all.

But I would gladly take “Noah” any day over what is apparently coming down the pike:  a big-screen move based on “The Left Behind” series of books, and starring Nicholas Gage.  I think I have talked about these books before:  they purport to tell the story of how the world will end, based upon a particular interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation that is shaped by evangelical apocalypticism and rapture theology.   While they are novels, the authors and those who have read them voraciously tend to take them as pretty much describing how they think the end of the world will go down.   The Jesus of their second coming is pretty much a divine Rambo, an extension of a God who seems to take some perverse delight in putting sinners through a great deal of pain, suffering, and violence.    This image of God is one that does not deserve to be promoted.  It’s bad theology based on bad biblical interpretation, and to splash it all up there on the silver screen is going to encourage people to think that this is what Christianity teaches and believes and is about.  Some might be attracted to that.  Most will have their convictions that Christianity is a bit wacko reenforced.

We stand on the threshold of Palm Sunday, when the story of the death of Jesus by crucifixion will be retold.  It is perhaps the most dangerous moment in the Christian year because of how badly it can go wrong.   If we are not very careful, we will end up on Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) with a Jesus who becomes the victim of a God who demands sacrifice in return for salvation.  It is the God that can emerge from a careless reading of the story of Noah and the God who emerges from a careless treatment of the Book of Revelation.   And that is the path too many Christians end up going down in Holy Week.  But we don’t have to.  We can look beyond the amped up Hollywood depictions of the bad biblical interpretation and delve into these stories more carefully.   We can find the God of Jesus, who far from being a vengeful, violent deity, is revealed to be the one who willingly becomes the victim of our own violent tendencies in order to liberate us from them.  I wonder if someone will ever make a movie about that.

The Man Born Blind, and Blaming the Victim

blindThis past Sunday, we heard the story of the man born blind from John’s Gospel.  It begins with an odd question from Jesus’ disciples, upon encountering the man who had been blind from birth.  They ask Jesus, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

It’s a fascinating question for a couple of reasons.  First, it implies that the man’s blindness is due to some moral failure.  The disciples assume that there is some sin that lies behind the man’s inability to see.  Second, the disciples actually suggest that the one responsible for the sin might be the man himself.  What?  How is it that he could have sinned before he was born?  Some people have suggested that this passage in John implies some sort of biblical endorsement of the idea of reincarnation or karma, assigning the source of the man’s sin to a previous life.  That’s an interesting idea, but a difficult one to support, given how alien these concepts would have been to the author of the Gospel.  It seems more likely to me that the question has been framed this way in order to expose the foolishness of its premise:  that sin is somehow connected to the man’s physical defect.

Jesus immediately dismantles that premise when he tells the disciples that they are wrong — that the man before them is not blind due to sin, but rather that his blindness provides an opportunity for God to be glorified.  Then Jesus goes on to do a very curious thing:  he heals the man’s eyes by means of a ritual.  In the Gospels generally, when Jesus heals people it is very rarely accompanied by any sort of ritual at all.  Usually, Jesus declares the person healed and she is.  In this case, Jesus uses his own saliva to create some mud, which he then smears on the man’s eyes.  Then he tells him to go and wash in a particular pool, and when he does, his sight is restored.

James Alison, in his interpretation of this passage, suggests that this moment signifies the completion of the man’s creation.  The mud evokes the creation story in Genesis, in that the Hebrew word for mud or earth is related to the name Adam in the Genesis creation narratives.   By making a deliberate connection between the man’s healing and the creation story, Alison says, John’s Gospel points to the man’s blindness not as a result of sin but rather as a result simply of his lack of wholeness which God, in Christ, completes in the act of healing him.

The reaction of the man’s community, and particularly of the religious authorities in that community, is quite stunning.  They seem heavily invested in the notion that the man’s blindness is somehow connected to sinfulness.   And, because of their investment in this notion, they cannot imagine that God would heal him of it.  Yet, it’s clear the man has been healed, and so what are they to make of it?  They can’t agree, and their unity against the man falls apart until he insults them by suggesting that their interest in how he was healed indicates that perhaps they would like to become followers of Jesus themselves.

The primary value of stories such as these is really how they land in us.  What does a story such as this illuminate about ourselves?

While it was certainly true in the time of Jesus that people tended to equate illness or physical deformity with moral lapse, it is also true that this attitude has not disappeared in our own time.   Remember the way in which the appearance of AIDS was blamed on the gay community for, well, being gay.  Or the way in which some “Christian” preachers declared the terrible events of 9/11 to be the result of America’s moral failures.  Or the way in which women who become victims of rape are blamed as somehow being responsible for the fact that they were assaulted.  There are strong human and cultural impulses to blame the vulnerable or the victim or the person who is somehow “different” for whatever has happened to make them vulnerable, victims, or different, and to somehow hold them responsible.  It is a way of keeping such persons at arm’s length, a way of denying our own responsibility toward them.

The story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel challenges this impulse rather directly, and shows us that God seeks to dismantle these patterns within us, and within the cultures and communities we inhabit.  Jesus seems not to want us to see God as one who inflicts punishment for sin, but who liberates us from the ways in which our own vulnerabilities and brokenness hold us back and keep us down.

The only difference between the man born blind and most of the rest of us is that he cannot hide what is broken in him:  it is there for everyone to see.  Most of us have the luxury of hiding what is broken in us, allowing us to pretend that we are whole and complete when we know that there is really still work for us to do, still work for God to do with us.  This story shows us God’s effort to dismantle our preoccupation with sin in favor of a preoccupation with healing and wholeness.