This gripping piece from Rachel Held Evans addresses an issue that concerns me deeply. I hope it concerns you too. She begins with a frightening quotation from reformed theologian John Piper that effectively eviscerates the message of Jesus. John Piper’s God isn’t the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Piper’s God is the Anti-God; the antipodes of the Abba Father Jesus introduced to the world.
But this isn’t just about one hard-hearted pop-theologian; Rachel Held Evans is addressing the spirituality of what we at Friends of Justice call “the punitive consensus”. Churches are too theologically confused to respond to ethical challenges like incarceration and immigration. The vacuum created by our silence is filled by fear-mongering politicians and a news media obsessed with sensationalism.
What drives our theological confusion?
Jesus began his public ministry with a sermon in his home town of Nazareth that almost got him killed. The message came straight out of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then Jesus reminded his listeners that the God of the Bible often heals the foreigner, the outcast and the Gentile when no such miracles of healing are performed for the citizen of Israel, the insider, and the chosen. That’s the part that stirred homicidal rage in the hearts of a nice, religious crowd.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the public ministry of Jesus ends with the story about the sheep and goats being separated on the day of judgment on the basis of how they treated the “least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Jesus isn’t just saying that we should be kind to the stranger and the outcast; virtually every major religion encourages us to show mercy to the stranger and the outsider and this is excellent spiritual advice. But Jesus takes it one step further by insisting that he is incarnate within the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the incarcerated felon. He has taken on the flesh, bone and hearts of such people.
Here’s how the theological equation works: God is incarnate in Jesus, Jesus is incarnate in the stranger, therefore, God is incarnate within the stranger.
The word translated “stranger” in Matthew 25, is zenos, a Greek word that can be translated foreigner, alien, outcast or stranger. It’s the root of the English word xenophobia, literally the fear of foreigners or strangers.
Here’s our problem: Jesus comes to us in the face of the zenos, and we are xenophobic. Our xenophobia makes us afraid of Jesus in his distressing disguise (to borrow a telling phrase from Mother Theresa).
The portrait of the God’s character we receive from Jesus can be difficult to square with the wrathful God we occasionally encounter elsewhere in Scripture. Christians interpret the Word of God we find in Scripture through the Word of God that became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14)
Jesus becomes the lens through which all of Scripture is interpreted.
Or, to employ a musical image, we must learn to transpose the Bible into the key of Jesus.
If we don’t, we end up with the monstrous theology of the unfortunate John Piper. If we do, we are embraced by a loving God who is infinitely more gracious and compassionate than we can possibly imagine. The judgment of God is reserved for those like the Elder Brother in the Parable of the Lost Son who recoil in horror from the apparent “injustice” of God’s prodigal mercy.
How can we separate the world into good people and bad people if Jesus insists on pitching his tent with the baddies?
We can’t. That’s the point.
Most Christians in America haven’t learned to view the punitive criminal justice and immigration systems through the lens of Jesus. We can’t see Jesus in the incarcerated felon or the undocumented woman who wades the river for the sake of her family. But the moment we feel the prisoner and the migrant with the heart of Jesus, we understand this cryptic saying fro Jesus: “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Please read Rachel Held Evans’ post in its entirety. This is critically important stuff.
Rachel Held Evans
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”
– John Piper
“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
– Thomas Paine
It’s strange to think that doubt has been a part of my life for more than ten years now.
I remember when it first showed up—a dark grotesque with a terrifying smile that took up so much space, catching every payer in its gravitational pull. That I could grow accustomed to its presence seemed impossible at the time, and yet I have. It hasn’t changed in size, but somehow it occupies less space. I smile back at it now.
A lot of people, when they catch pieces of my story, assume my doubts are of the intellectual variety. They assume I’m just a smart girl stuck in the Bible Belt asking pesky questions about science, history and politics that my conservative evangelical culture, with a bent toward anti-intellectualism, simply cannot answer.
This is true to an extent. I’ve wrestled with a lot of questions related to science and faith, especially given my location a mere two miles from the famous Rhea County Courthouse where John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a public school. While I no longer believe the earth is just 6,000 years old, I still live in the tension of unanswered questions about the universe, and death, and brains, and Neanderthals, and whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson’s got to say on public television about the earth getting burned up by the sun or our species going extinct after an asteroid hits. I have questions too about history and Christianity’s emergence from it, questions about the Bible, questions about miracles.
But the questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart, questions of conscience and empathy. It was not the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.
If you’ve read Evolving in Monkey Town, you know that the public execution of a woman named Zarmina in Afghanistan marked a turning point in my faith journey. The injustice of the situation was troublesome enough, but when my friends insisted that Zarmina went to hell because she was a Muslim, I began wrestling with some serious questions about heaven, hell, predestination, free will, God’s goodness, and religious pluralism.
Evangelical apologists were quick to respond. And while their answers made enough sense in my head; they never sat right with my soul.
Why would God fashion a person in her mother’ s womb, number the hairs on her head, and then leave her without any hope of salvation? Can salvation be boiled down to luck of the draw? How is that just? Shouldn’t God be more loving and compassionate than I?
Oh, the Calvinists could make perfect sense of it all with a wave of a hand and a swift, confident explanation about how Zarmina had been born in sin and likely predestined to spend eternity in hell to the glory of an angry God (they called her a “vessel of destruction”); about how I should just be thankful to be spared the same fate since it’s what I deserve anyway; about how the Asian tsunami was just another one of God’s temper tantrums sent to remind us all of His rage at our sin; about how I need not worry because “there is not one maverick molecule in the universe” so every hurricane, every earthquake, every war, every execution, every transaction in the slave trade, every rape of a child is part of God’s sovereign plan, even God’s idea; about how my objections to this paradigm represented unrepentant pride and a capitulation to humanism that placed too much inherent value on my fellow human beings; about how my intuitive sense of love and morality and right and wrong is so corrupted by my sin nature I cannot trust it.
They said all of this without so much of a glimmer of a tear, and it scared me to death. It nearly scared me out of the Church.
For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?
Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level. I suspect this is why this new breed of rigid Calvinism that follows the “five points” to their most logical conclusion, without regard to the moral implications of them, has flourished in the past twenty years. (I heard a theology professor explain the other day that he had no problem whatsoever with God orchestrating evil acts to accomplish God’s will, for that is what is required for God to be fully sovereign! When asked if this does not make God something of a monster, he responded that it didn’t matter; God is God—end of story.) And I suspect this explains why, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, so many evangelical leaders responded like Job’s friends, eager to offer theological explanations for what happened instead of simply sitting down in the ashes and weeping with their brothers and sisters.
Richard Beck has also observed this phenomenon and refers to it as “orthodox alexithymia”:
When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous.
A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman. What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.
Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.
Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not “contrary to reason.” But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing. Read the entire post.
I encountered this recently after I spoke to a group of youth about doubt. In the presentation, I mentioned that upon reading the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for myself, I realized it was a story about genocide, with God commanding Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in the city for the sole purpose of acquiring land. I explained that this seemed contrary to what Jesus taught about loving our enemies.
Afterwards, a youth leader informed me that when it came to Joshua and Jericho, I had nothing to worry about…and had no business getting his students worried either.
“I don’t know why you had to bring up the Jericho thing,” he said.
“Doesn’t that story bother you?” I asked. “Don’t you find the slaughter of men, women, and children horrific?”
“Not if it’s in the Bible.”
“Genocide doesn’t bother you if it’s in the Bible?”
He crossed his arms and a self-satisfied smile spread across his face. He was proud of his detachment, I realized. He seemed to think it represented some kind of spiritual strength.
“But genocide always bothers me,” I finally said, “especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.”
I’m not sure he and I will ever understand one another, but I’ve decided to quit apologizing for my questions. It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian. And I don’t need answers to all of my questions to do that. I need only the courage to be honest about my questions and doubts, and the patience to keep exploring and trusting in spite of them.
The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.
It’s a decision I make every day, and it’s a decision that’s made my faith journey a heck of a lot more hazardous and a heck of a lot more fun. It means that grinning monster, doubt, is likely to stick around for a while, for I know now that closing my eyes won’t make him go away. It means each day is a risk, a gamble, an adventure in vulnerability and trust, as I figure out what it means to follow Jesus as me, Rachel Grace—the girl who cried for Zarmina, the girl who inherited her mama’s bleeding heart and her daddy’s stubborn grace, the girl who digs in her heels, the girl who makes mistakes, the girl who is intent on breaking up patriarchy, the girl who thought to raise her hand in Sunday school at age five and ask why God would drown innocent animals in Noah’s flood, the girl who could be wrong.
It means I’ve got a long race ahead of me, but I’m going to run it with abandon. I’m going to run it as me. Because I think that’s what God wants—all of me, surrendered and transformed, head and heart engaged.
I’m growing more confident in my stride, and I am running faster now, breathless, kicking up dust, tripping over roots and skinning my knees, cursing now and then, but always getting up and gaining ground on that bend in the path where I think I can see Jesus up ahead.