The Supreme Public Event #1

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

Calvary is looked upon as the place of our Lord’s great victory, the overcoming point in the struggle for God’s supremacy and human redemption and deliverance in the earth.  Calvary, said the old preachers, was the place where God in Christ took on himself our sins before a sorrowing heaven and a sinning earth.  Calvary represents the central event in our Christian gospel, the focus of all divine history as far as the sons of men can see.  There the Lord Christ lured the powers of hell into a fatal misstep and an overreaching of their evil designs and ways.  Calvary is the supreme public event in the divine purpose.

I am suggesting this morning that that great pubic victory, that unspeakably enormous event which we call Calvary, has its source immediately in a private and solitary act in a garden called Gethsemane, where the seed, the essence of the public victory was won in a lonely, secret struggle in prayer.  The supper we now call the Lord’s Supper is just past.  That will be the last tender, serene occasion in our Lord’s life until the glories of resurrection morning.  As the disciples and their Master file out of the upper room, the last golden rays of pleasant sunshine depart from the skies of our Lord’s soul.  All beyond that is composed of gathering, deepening, threatening clouds and darkening skies, except perhaps for a bright moment in Gethsemane where Jesus prayed for strength and resolve and final commitment to the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrow, which lay before him unto death.  In Gethsemane that prayer was answered, and the Savior moved on his appointed way.

As they leave the upper room we follow the little band, already looked upon as outlaws, as they walk slowly through the streets of Jerusalem.  Now the disciples pass likely out of the fountain gate in the east wall of the city of Jerusalem, and then across Kedron Brook they make their way.  Once among the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane garden, the Master stops a moment and then bids three of his followers, those closest to him, the inner circle, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, to go on a little farther into the garden.  I seem to hear in the Master’s next words a strangely tender, pathetic, almost pleading note.  He unburdens his soul a little to them.  How slow many of us are to reach out to others for fear that they will not understand or accept or appreciate our need.  How the Master must have felt that if any of these twelve, no, now reduced by one, these eleven, could sympathize with the great secret spiritual issues which confronted him, surely these three would understand.  He said to them, opening the hurt and anguish he felt in these hours, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”

Trouble With “An Eye For An Eye”

When I was in seminary, I wrote a paper in Dr. Cheryl Anderson’s Biblical Law class.  It was an exegetical on the Leviticus 24 passage addressing lex talionis, one of the Hebrew writer’s phrases for retaliation or punishment.  In a different class, Dr. Larry Murphy assigned us to research different responses in the Christian Tradition as it relates to capital punishment.  I thought about those two experiences during my ride to work this morning.

I listen to the Santita Jackson show on WVON as much as I can.  She’s a great communicator.  She helps me think.  She tells me things I wouldn’t know without her.  And today during her first hour, she was hosting callers and questions and comments about the scheduled execution of Troy Davis.  In 1991 Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer.  Since that time he has fought for his freedom.  Yesterday the Georgia Parole Board met and didn’t vote to stay the lethal injection.

Judges, FBI agents, preachers, lawyers, people you wouldn’t know, and the pope have joined a chorus in support of Mr. Davis and in opposition, more broadly, to the application of the death penalty in this particular case.  Callers into Ms. Jackson’s show highlighted not only the suspicious nature of Mr. Davis’s case but also the twisted and distorted ways executions have mostly affected black folks and poor folks.  They asked and answered the penetrating question, who’s being sentenced to death?  Who’s being put to death?

Since I left my car, I’ve been turning over a response to what I heard.  It’s unfair and inhuman that people are wrongly accused and convicted and sentence to death.  Indeed I’m thankful to live in a state that’s outlawed that penalty.  And beyond that, I’m trying to pull my beliefs into and out of my life practices.  I’m trying to make sense of Jesus, a man who didn’t overlook his enemies–perhaps making sense is impossible and wrong as well–but who died for them.  I don’t think I ask the hard question enough when people commit crimes against me and against the world.  Not what would Jesus do.  But what should I do?  What should I do as a person whose life is supposed to be God-ward?  What should my response be since I’m a follower of a servant named Jesus?

I’m having trouble because for some reason most of the people who promote life and really good at advocating punishment by death.  Most of the people who’d read Leviticus 24 literally wouldn’t read Matthew 5 as literally.  I’m troubled because I think violently more than I do lovingly and am probably as much a literal reader of some canon-within-a-canon as the next person.

The meditation I read this morning from Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart is entitled “Myself, a High Priest of Truth.”  While he doesn’t talk about Jesus Christ per se in the meditation, Jesus is inside Thurman’s overall framework.  Of course, Jesus is in my view as well.  So when I read the title it intrigued me on its own.  Here’s one blurb from the short reflection,

I purpose in my heart that I shall not use my memory to store up those things which fester, poison and destroy my living, my life, or the living and the life of others.  I shall make it my study to preserve my soul in balance and liberty.  I will use my memory to store up the excellent things of my experience.

I can’t help but pull together the image of Jesus as a Priest, my own struggles with what it means to follow Jesus, and what I heard about Troy Davis on Santita Jackson’s show.  I’m not at all ready to launch into the larger contemporary debate about capital punishment.  Perhaps that’s an entrance that life will make to engage in, but today isn’t that day.  Yet as a pastoral theologian or, better-said, as a pastor who encourages critical reflection in my congregation and as a man who tries to live theologically, it is hard to close my ears to how the person and work of Jesus comes to the issue of punishment.  It would be hermenuetically irresponsible to use the scriptures to discuss our conceptions of justice and law and punishment–at least doing so without a good amount of pre-interpretation.

So, here’s an attempt to invite your comments and thoughts.  Questions for you.  How do you hold together your faith and practice that faith, whatever that faith, when it comes to capital punishment?  Does your faith tradition say things that help you “come to” the issue and respond to capital punishment?

If you’re interested in knowing more of my thoughts about related things:

Otis Moss Jr Giving Words To Live By

This is a quote from a collection of sermons, Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present, which my coworker Nina mentioned to me a couple months ago.  I love love love this anthology.  In this brief portion, Pastor Moss, whom I’m thrilled to say I met in Oxford a few years ago, is talking about the role of the preacher as a prophetic voice.  The sermon is entitled “A Prophetic Witness In An Anti-Prophetic Age,” reflects on Isaiah 61:1, and was delivered in February 2004.  Here are three paragraphs:

…What a sermon!  Have you ever preached a sermon shorter than your text?  And then they engaged in a brief dialogue.  I think it was after the sermon.  And he started talking about some things.  And before the dialogue was over, we would call it a fellowship, he almost got killed just talking about the sermon.

How often have our lives, as representatives of the gospel of Jesus Christ, been threatened for having dialogue about the sermon we had just delivered?  We are not in particular danger because we have too often adjusted to this anti-prophetic age.  There is no danger in the sermons we preach, no challenge, and no threat to anybody in particular.

But Jesus almost got killed on his first public sermon–perhaps, his first public sermon.  And let me say, we ought to remember that the community, the world does not like prophets, and neither does the church.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets disturb us.  They shake us out of our dogmatic slumber.  So we prefer comfort to commitment.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets override our creeds and our half-truths.  Prophets expose our injustices and our contradictions and put to shame our mediocrity.  The world does not like prophets and the church often refuses to celebrate them.

What Forgiveness Is and Isn’t

I am not trying to provide a strict definition of forgiveness.  That’s been done in solid ways that I won’t attempt in 1000 words!  I can tell you that the work of people like Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf have been really helpful for me in my thinking about Jesus’s words on the subject.  On to it then.

What forgiveness isn’t…

It isn’t everything.  Forgiveness isn’t everything.  Neither is punishment.  There is a kind of gap in a person’s heart when they’ve been wronged.  When people have been wronged, neither punishment nor forgiveness completes the need in them.  In my mind that indicates the need for us to forgive, yes, and maybe it indicates a need for punishment or retribution or justice whatever you mean by it.  And maybe it stretches us even further and points us to something else.  Maybe it reminds us that punishment and forgiveness are only parts of what bring us together after wounds.

It isn’t forgetting the impact of an offense.  This is probably the worst assumption about forgiveness, that it requires us to forget an offense.  Further, the assumption is that we stuff our feelings about what happened.  It doesn’t.  We can no more remove from our hearts and heads yesterday’s pain than we can dismiss the last argument we had with someone we love.  Those things stay with us.  Forgiveness, though, is about how something stays with you, not whether it stays.  It is about how we live from an event, not whether we deny that it was.

It isn’t erasing what wrong was done.  Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to act like nothing happened.  The opposite is actually true.  It is a way of remembering, and it is always a strong pull toward truth.  Forgiveness means that we search for what really happened.  And when we forgive, we don’t take some psychological eraser and wipe away our histories.  That’s called denial or repression.  We look clearly at events (e.g., like September 11, 2001) and we prevent forgetfulness because we act in a particular way.

It isn’t permitting an offender to continue offending.  It’s probably helpful to say something in the positive to make this point.  Forgiveness doesn’t depend on the offender.  It stands inside the giver, not the offending person.  What the offender does or doesn’t do is not the point when it comes to forgiveness, particularly in the Christian Tradition.  I was telling a friend how much of a pastoral art it is to walk with someone through the work of forgiving another.  You don’t dispense the “forgive your enemy” carelessly.  You do so carefully and in a way that acknowledges the importance of safety and distance from harm.  That’s because you just can’t hear those commands to forgive until you are emotionally or physically safe enough to respond to those heavy words.

What forgiveness is…

It is a Christian act.  That’s not to say that other religions don’t forgive.  But it is to say that the rock of this faith is about this behavior.  This is so true that when the New Testament discusses forgiveness, it says things like “God won’t forgive you unless you forgive others.”  Jesus preaches about the sad hypocrisy of people being forgiven and moments later being unable to forgive.  It is distinctly Christian to not only forgive enemies, but, following Jesus, to die for them.

It is naming the wrong for what it is.  Forgiveness makes us give language to evil.  It requires us to state, in a way that is clear and pointed, what wrong was done.  What grace does with that very clear sin or offense or wrong is pardon it.  This is why Miroslav Volf says, “Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace.  The obstacles in its way are immense” (Against the Tide, 171).

It is stepping toward wholeness.  We act when we forgive.  It is an act of generosity, and when we offer forgiveness, we move toward wholeness.  Wholeness inherently means a different life, a life after harm and wrong.  It doesn’t overlook wrong.  If anything it honors and memorializes the harm, taking it into us and our stories in a redemptive way.  We just ended the season of Easter.  When Jesus rose from the dead, his body still carried the marks of his execution.  He maintained those pictures of previous wounds even though the sting and power of them were gone.  He took those afflictions in and defeated death.  His resurrection tells us, among other things, that the worst that life brings is undone by his power.  His rising tells us that we can follow him toward wholeness, toward life that has pictures of wounds in our wrists even when those wounds no longer hurt.  The public event of his rising is the starting point for us who, by his help, begin the work or life that is forgiveness.

It is a cultural critique.  The Church, with Jesus, claims that we are a community of forgiveness.  This is probably the best and the worst parts of our faith.  When we’re the offender, it’s easier to claim that the Church is a forgiving community.  We want and long for hope when the light of that message reaches us.  But when we are the wronged, it’s harder.  Jesus sets an entirely different cultural expectation.  He teaches, preaches, and expects people to follow him in practicing this: everyone in the community of forgiveness is both offender and offended.  He believes that there is no difference in the sin of one or another.  That’s hard to swallow, isn’t it?  And yet it’s at the ground of Jesus’s ministry.

I’ll end with a passage that explicates my point further.  It’s from Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry where the authors are dealing with brokenness.

Following a sermon on forgiving one’s enemies, a longtime member of the church lingered around the narthex.  When others had left, she approached the pastor and asked in a calm but firm voice, “Do you really think I should forgive John?”  John not only had left this woman who had been his wife, but he had maintained little contact with their children, and there was growing evidence that he had hidden a number of financial assets that should have been shared.

Sensing the personal pain and unease of his friend and parishioner, the pastor tried carefully to shape his answer.  “I know it’s hard.  I know it doesn’t sound fair.  But hopefully you will be able, with God’s help, to move toward forgiveness.”  He braced himself for what was sure to be legitimate rage at the idea.

“Good,” she said without hesitation.  “No one else among my family or friends believes that.  I just need to know there is still one place that does.”

Why Christians Shouldn’t Celebrate Bin Laden’s Death

I am open to your comments.  Even if you want only to comment on the title of this post.  I hope you’ll think with me, though, about something that is fundamental, basic, and at the ground of the Christian faith.  It’s a long and hard word–forgiveness.

Two quotes are guiding my thought, two quotes and all the words behind and around them.  One is from Jesus Christ when he was teaching about what life is like in the kingdom of heaven, scripture’s language for the realm where God controls things.  The other is from Miroslav Volf, reflecting on the words and teachings of Jesus.

You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.  But I say, love your enemies!  Pray for those who persecute you.  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven… (from Matthew 5:43-45a)

Now, Miroslav Volf.

Because Christ died for all, we are called to forgive everyone who offends us, without distinctions and without conditions.  That hard work of indiscriminate forgiveness is what those who’ve been made in the likeness of the forgiving God should do (from Free of Charge, pg. 180).

Christians love enemies.  We don’t celebrate at their deaths.  If anything, we mourn their deaths because we mourn the deaths of those we love.  At the heart or the bottom or the ground or the starting point (whatever you choose) of Christianity is the person of Jesus who told his disciples to live in this way.  He told us to forgive.  Indeed, he told us that being part of his kingdom meant, among other things, the sustained and hilarious and long practice of forgiveness.  There are other things which come from Jesus about his Father’s kingdom.  There are doctrines that the Church throughout the centuries has developed in response to those teachings.  Forgiveness is first.

It is first because the event of Jesus’s coming was an event embodying God’s decision to forgive.  God forgave the world and all that was in it when Jesus came.  And not only then but before then.  The biblical story is a story that begins before the incarnation, the thick word signifying Jesus’s birth.  Throughout history God has been pulling creation back to God.  Throughout history God has been forgiving, practicing what life is like where God controls things.

God doesn’t celebrate our collective or our individual destruction.  God does something else–forgives us, hopes for us, invites us, and works for us.  As people of God, Christians should not celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death.  Just as we should not have celebrated the deaths of the people he was responsible for murdering.  We were horrified then.  We mourned then.  We complained then.  We pressed our political and military leaders then.  But we did not celebrate.  The hard truth about Jesus and what he teaches is that there is no difference between the life of an enemy, like Osama bin Laden, and the life of the people we love.  Indeed to Jesus we love the family member we lost to a murder and we love the murderer.

Tomorrow’s post is about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.  And the post after that will be about what Christians should be celebrating, namely justice.