Recovering from Bad Religion: Rollins Summary 1

I recently started a new community discussion group, “Recovering from Bad Religion.” Here’s the Facebook event description:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Have you experienced toxic or abusive religion? Many in America grow-up in churches that preach “fire and brimstone.” They tell us that a wrathful God watches our every move, and if we fail to live according to a strict moral code then God will punish us with eternal torment. The church derives this moral code, along with a list of required doctrines, from a literal reading of the Bible that is often anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-gay. This leaves many feeling like they must disavow everything they learned in college to be a Christian. Many cannot stomach this authoritarianism, so they leave the church and become agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” However, there is a different way of being Christian. This discussion group will provide a safe space to explore more loving and thoughtful alternatives.

 

After our meet and greet on 1/17, we held our first discussion this past Tuesday on the Introduction and Chapter One of The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins. In order to help those in the discussion group, I will be posting chapter summaries. By doing this on my blog, I hope to extend the conversation beyond Cocoa Beach. Feel free to jump in with comments, but please keep them thoughtful, polite, and kind. If you feel a compulsive need to correct perceived heresy or save the souls of participants with whom you don’t agree, this is probably not the right place for you. Comments that are not respectful, kind, and genuinely open to dialogue will be deleted.

Without further adieu, here is the first summary.

The Thesis of the Book

The main argument in The Idolatry of God is that most mainstream Christianity has turned God into an idol. Instead of admitting the truth of our human condition—that life is difficult and that satisfaction and certainty will always elude us—we turn God into a product that promises to satisfy all our longing, render us complete, remove our suffering, and give us the answers to all life’s problems. Like all idolatry, this leads to slavery and misery. In contrast, if we can get honest about what it means to be a human being in this world and let go of idols that promise certainty and satisfaction, then we can develop an authentic faith that empowers us to “joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence.” Only then, can we enter the fullness of life and be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. In other words, we don’t seek salvation from uncertainty and satisfaction, we find it amid these things.

Introduction: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming, It Has Already Arrived

In the Introduction, Rollins argues that mainstream Christianity has become another false (idolatrous) promise: if you accept Jesus as your personal savior then he will remove all doubt and replace it with certainty, and he will remove all brokenness and replace it with wholeness. Salvation is construed as an escape from uncertainty and dissatisfaction and the promise to fulfill our deepest longings. While this logic is most clearly seen in the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which overtly promises believers health, wealth, and worldly success, Rollins argues that it’s much more widespread, but in subtler forms.

According to Rollins, this is a false form of religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” that functions as a carrot on a stick (a promise perpetually deferred) and drives us through life without ever really changing anything. In contrast, he asks, what if salvation is not about fulfilling the desires that we take for granted, but changing what we desire and how we desire? Instead of fulfilling our hopes and dreams, what if Jesus is trying to change what we hope for and what we dream about? Rollins says:

For what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he isn’t the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question . . . . what is Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? (4)

So instead of saving us from uncertainty and dissatisfaction, maybe we are saved within our ongoing experience of these things. In a way reminiscent of Paul Tillich, Rollins envisions salvation as the cultivation of a courageous faith capable of confronting, embracing, and saying ‘amen’ to uncertainty and dissatisfaction (5). Instead of finding salvation by escaping our humanity, we find salvation amid our humanity.

Chapter 1: The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

The main purpose of this chapter is to describe “a lack” (emptiness, discontent, unfulfilled longing, sense of loss or separation) at the heart of human existence, which originates in the process of coming to self-awareness. It also describes the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help fill this void.

We tend to think that our discontent is the result of something that we don’t currently have, but if we had “it” then the void would be filled and we would finally be happy. The “it” could be just about anything: money, possessions, power, fame, admiration, a better job, a thinner body, a whiter smile, a more passionate sex life, etc.

The problem, however, is that we know people who have what we think we need to be happy, and they still experience the lack. Even more troubling, when we actually get what we hope will remove our discontent, we soon discover that it’s still there! This leads us to imagine that while our newest acquisition didn’t fill the void, there is still something else just beyond our grasp that will. More grasping results in more disappointment, which results in more grasping. A self-perpetuating vicious cycle ensues that renders even the most well-meaning person a slave. As we feed our appetite for satisfaction, it gets stronger and more destructive. (Think of the dynamics of addiction.)

At the end of the day, “this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive . . .” to acquire and consume more objects and experiences that we think will fix us. But it’s like playing a rigged casino game—it never really works, and the more we try to make it work the more attached, enslaved, and miserable we become.

Rollins goes on to make the radical claim that almost the entire existing church has been co-opted and corrupted by the same logic: (1) You are separated from God by sin. (2) This is the cause of a deep sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, (3) If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and lead a life of spiritual discipline, then God will permanently remove the void, utterly satisfy your deepest desires, and give you absolute certainty.

According to Rollins, this is how God is transformed into another product to be sold that promises to take away all your pain and make you whole. This is how God is turned into an idol and sold in a flourishing Christian industry of books, worship music, conferences, church services, etc. What we desire stays the same, how we desire stays the same, the promise of satisfaction and certainty stays the same, we just switch-out the terms. So instead of trusting more money, a better looking spouse, or a more attractive body to remove the void and give us a sense of total satisfaction, preachers hold out the same promise with more faithful church attendance, increased tithing, and a more disciplined devotional life (which, of course, requires the newest book or latest worship album).

In contrast, what is needed is not another recapitulation of the same old story, which reinforces a false (idolatrous) narrative and keeps us stuck in self-destructive consumption. Rather, we need a genuine alternative to this way of seeing the world, a more authentic way of developing a life of meaning and value. We need a radically different way of understanding Christianity that will enable us to be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. As we will see, this alternative vision can be found in the New Testament, if we have eyes to see.

 

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God Is Love: Understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary conception of God in Christianity, distinguishing it from other world religions, especially the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. While pointing to the deepest truth of Christian faith, it is also a divine mystery that is difficult to state adequately.

The purpose of this article is to present a helpful way of understanding the Trinity. As we contemplate the nature of God for the purpose of conceptual clarity, the mystery of the Trinity will not be resolved but deepened. If you finish reading this article and think to yourself, “Now I have it all figured out!” then I have failed you. While I intend to clarify the purpose and meaning of this central doctrine, I don’t want to mislead the reader into thinking that we can exhaustively grasp the being of God in human thought. God does reveal Godself in history, and we can trust that revelation, but we must also maintain intellectual humility in light of the qualitative distinction between God and human beings (i.e., God is the creator and we are the created).

Even though the Trinity is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, though some passages are suggestive (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14). Rather, the doctrine was officially formulated by leaders in the early church, especially at the first two general councils in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the church drew some of its technical language from Greek philosophy, the doctrine was not developed to satisfy a penchant for esoteric philosophical reflection. It was carefully formulated in an effort to explicate the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Christians have always made three essential claims:

  • God is the transcendent creator.
  • God saves us in Jesus.
  • God sustains all of creation and leads it to ultimate fulfillment. 

Understanding the meaning of these three fundamental claims and how they hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity is what the Trinity is all about.

GOD IS THE TRANSCENDENT CREATOR

God is the creator of all that exists. There was a time when creation was not and there was only God. But God made a decision in eternity to create the world in love and freedom. Thus, God creates space for a genuine other to exist as a creature distinct from God. Then God releases the creative power of being into that space so that the world as we know it can emerge. In simplest terms, God creates the world and sets it free.

We find poetic accounts of creation in the Bible. Genesis 1:1-3 states:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless  and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

When Christians read this passage, they tend to associate the term “God” with God the Father, but the attentive reader will also notice the presence of two other characters. First, we see the presence of God’s Spirit: “ . . . the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the waters.” Second, we see the presence of God’s eternal Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Anyone familiar with the prologue of the Gospel of John will notice a connection with this verse. Just as the first words of Genesis 1:1 are, “In the beginning . . .,” so it is with the first verse of John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

The gospel continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Clearly, the author of John is drawing an explicit connection between God’s eternal Word and Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians find it fitting to claim that the Father creates the world through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and does so as the one transcendent source of life. In the poetic language of scripture, God creates the world and reigns over it from heaven above. God transcends the world as its creator.

GOD SAVES US IN JESUS

At the same time we say that God is Creator, we also say that God is Redeemer. God creates the world and sets it free in love, but God also enters that world to personally encounter us in Jesus Christ. When Christians talk about God sending Jesus, they are not saying that Jesus is merely a wise prophet or heavenly messenger. Rather, they are saying that God looked down upon the suffering of creation, had compassion, and resolved to become a human being to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

Christians believe that only God can save, but they also claim to experience salvation in Jesus. Therefore, God must in some sense be fully present to humanity in Jesus. Returning to the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Greek term translated “Word” is logos, which connotes knowledge, wisdom, reason, and revelation. The author of John uses this term to refer to God’s mind, heart, character, will, and creative power. When he goes on to say in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .” he is making the outlandish claim that God’s heart, mind, reason, logic, and will was incarnate (literally, “enfleshed”) in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he can go on to say, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God . . .” (1:18). Jesus is recorded as saying in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In light of such passages, Christians believe that Jesus embodies the eternal Word of God. God reveals Godself to humanity in Jesus. The invisible God become visible in Christ.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, whose glory we have seen as “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” we can say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Since God is fully present to us in Christ, Jesus has the power to save. A messenger can tell us about salvation and even inspire hope for salvation, but only God can accomplish our salvation. And this is what Christians claim about Jesus, that God acts decisively in his life, death, and resurrection to save the world.

When contemplating God’s saving work in Jesus, it seems fitting to focus on the work of God the Son. But in a way similar to the creation accounts in Genesis, the New Testament stories of Jesus include the presence of three divine characters: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Consider, for example, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (3:16-17)

Indeed, throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is always accompanied by the Father and the Spirit, and this leads to another threefold claim: The Father saves us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three work together as one God in perfect love and unity to accomplish the salvation of the world.

In summary, Christians not only claim that God reigns over the world as its transcendent creator, but also that God encounters humanity in Jesus Christ and works decisively through him to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

GOD SUSTAINS CREATION AND LEADS THE WORLD TO ITS ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT

In addition to creating and redeeming the world, God also sustains the world by his Spirit. God creates the world and sets it free, but then floods the world with his life-giving presence. The Spirit of God is the energy by which all things exist, and if God were to withdrawal his presence (even for an instant) then it would vanish into thin air. As we read in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This is what Christians mean when they say that God is omnipresent—God’s powerful presence saturates the entire created order. There is literally no place where the Spirit of God is not. In addition, we claim that God is constantly working through the Holy Spirit to open the hearts and minds of human beings to faith and love, and to bring the entire creation to its full completion. The Holy Spirit woos us in love toward reconciliation with God and lures all of creation toward its ultimate fulfillment.

Importantly, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of impersonal or unconscious energy that we might find in some New Age circles. Nor is the Spirit an independent, quasi-divine power. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father and the Son to continue and complete the work of Christ as we await the new creation. Thus, Christians find it difficult to talk about the Spirit without also talking about the Father and the Son.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: How do all three of these claims hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity? Christians experience the presence of God as the one who creates, redeems, and sustains, and we experience God in these ways all at the same time. It’s not as if God ceases to reign over creation when God acts decisively to save the world in Jesus. It’s not as if God stops saving us in Jesus in order to fill all creation with his sustaining presence. Rather, we say that God reigns from heaven as Creator, and at the very same time acts decisively in Jesus to save us, and at the very same time fills the entire creation with his sustaining presence. This is how we experience the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the only meaningful way to talk about this is to talk about the Trinity.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God, but this one God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son. But God is also apprehended as the Father who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is also known as the Holy Spirit who sustains the world, opens the hearts and minds of human beings in faith, and leads the world to its ultimate completion. The words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” point to one God, but we cannot properly think or speak about this one God except by thinking and speaking about all three at the same time.

FROM ECONOMIC TO IMMANENT TRINITY

An important final point is that God does not lie or deceive. If God reveals Godself as triune, then God is triune. We don’t say, “Well this is how we, from a human perspective, see and experience God, which requires us to think and speak about God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. But God could be different in and of Godself.” While Christians are careful to acknowledge the limitations of their theological language, they absolutely refuse to accept that there could be a different God behind the God we see in Jesus. To use the language of scripture, the God we worship in heaven is the same God we encounter in Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

This means that there is relationality in God! As the Cappadocian Fathers recognized, there is a sense in which the one God we worship is constituted by a community of self-giving love. God (in-and-of-Godself) is the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes the Father the Father is his eternal self-giving love to the Son and the Spirit. What makes the Son the Son is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Spirit. What makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Son. What makes God one is the eternal, self-giving love that continuously flows and unifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is the deep meaning of the claim, God is love (1 John 4:8)

CONCLUSION

For Christians, to say that God is love is to say that God is triune. To say that God creates is to say that God is triune. To say that God saves is to say that God is triune. To say that God sustains creation is to say that God is triune. To say that God is one is to say that God is triune. One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Christians is because it contains in itself the entire story of God’s activity in the world and reveals what kind of God we serve—a God that is love.

 

To watch the sermon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2QK_LdXbls  

If you liked this post, then you might also like “Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace.”

Contemplating My Wife’s Mortality: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I spoke these words to many people last night as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with a finger dipped in ashes. This is a common practice among Western Christians marking the beginning of Lent, a forty-day season of spiritual preparation before Easter characterized by prayer, fasting, meditation on scripture, repentance, self-denial, and reconciliation. The ritual is a symbolic reminder of our mortality. All of us will die, and our only hope is the resurrection power of God. Contemplating our mortality invites us to confess our need for God and God’s gracious salvation in Christ. There is good news on Ash Wednesday, but it is mediated by the sobering prospect of our own death.

While Ash Wednesday has always been one of my favorite services since first receiving the ashes as a college student, it took on new meaning for me last night. For the first time since I was married in August 2015, my wife stood before me to receive the ashes. This caused a surge of emotion that blindsided me as many others stood in line behind her waiting to receive the sign of the cross.

From the dust . . .” These were the only words I could say before my eyes welled up with tears. For the first time during this ritual, I was not contemplating my own mortality, but that of a person I love dearly. I could hardly bear the thought, “One day, my wife will die.” And in that very moment, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of seeing the other people coming forward to receive the ashes.

As husbands and wives came forward together, I thought, “Their spouse is going to die too.” A young mother came forward and presented her new born baby to receive the mark of the cross . . . babies die too. An older couple came forward, reminding me of all the people who had died after receiving the ashes from my finger . . . old friends won’t be around forever.

This new way of seeing the people as they presented themselves one-by-one came as a startling surprise upon contemplating my wife’s mortality. And while it might seem morbid, all of these thoughts of death led to some powerful reminders: life is short, no one is guaranteed tomorrow, and those we love are a profound gift from God to be cherished daily.

You might be thinking, “Great. I have spent the last several minutes reading a blog post that ended with, not one but three, clichés!” But these reminders come as clichés only when we forget the profound truths of which they speak. Indeed, part of our sinful condition is perpetual forgetfulness. We forget who we are and what we have. We forget what’s really important in life. But experiences like the ones evoked by a good Ash Wednesday service can provide lasting reminders that empower us to confess our need for God and more deeply love those we so often take for granted.

Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace

What does it mean to be saved? According to John Wesley, salvation cannot be reduced to an isolated decision to make Jesus your personal savior so you can go to heaven when you die. Rather, it points to a process of real transformation in which God graciously empowers us to participate. This not only includes what God does for us in Jesus, but also what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. It not only includes pardon from sin but also resurrection power to be renewed in the image of Christ and made a new creation. In this teaching video, Pastor Mark explains prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace, and glorifying grace to paint a more holistic picture of salvation in the Wesleyan tradition. This video was filmed as Pastor Mark taught Theological Heritage I (Fall 2015) in the Course of Study at Candler School of Theology (Emory University).
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Self-Discovery and the Journey to God: What the Wizard of Oz Teaches Us About Finding Our Way Home

During the summer months, the Cobb Theater in my hometown offers free movies in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a gift to families who are trying to find kid-friendly entertainment that doesn’t break the bank. Last week, I was able to get away for a couple of hours to see The Wizard of Oz with my children. The last time I really watched the movie was in elementary school, and I was struck by something I had never realized before. Dorothy and her three traveling companions actually possessed the things for which they were so desperately looking.

The scarecrow thought he need a brain, but turned out to be one of the smartest characters. The tin man thought he was missing a heart, but showed strong emotions, sometimes evidenced by tears. The lion thought he lacked courage, by like the others was able to face his fears, successfully make the journey to the Emerald City, and save Dorothy from the wicked witch in the process. This insight is confirmed at the end of the film when the wizard, instead of giving them the virtues they were seeking, gave them symbolic objects that functioned to confirm the qualities they already possessed. And of course Dorothy was trying to find the means to get back home, only to realize that the ruby slippers she wore the whole time was all she needed.

What seems clear to me is that this film is about self-discovery. It’s about leaving home, transgressing boundaries into unexplored territories, and returning home with an expanded consciousness. It is about our compulsion to look for wizards who can deliver us from danger and give us magical (i.e., quick and easy) solutions to complex problems so we don’t have to travel the long and painful road to maturity. It is about helping us realize that we have within us the things we so desperately look for in others, but also how evil can gain the upper hand by exploiting our insecurities and convincing us to believe lies about ourselves. It’s about realizing that everything we need to get home, everything we need for salvation, has already been accomplished and deposited in us as a gift. And it’s about the importance of discovering all of this for ourselves in the midst of life’s storms and the grief that comes with saying goodbye.

As I pondered these insights about the Wizard of Oz, I began to see parallels in the church’s teachings on the Holy Spirit and salvation, especially as interpreted by the contemplative and mystical traditions. The biggest temptation of fallen humanity is to look for salvation in other people or things of this world. By looking outside ourselves, we try to secure our own existence with created things, which inevitably leads us down the path to idolatry. We are particularly tempted to seek salvation in other people: a romantic partner, a therapist, a pastor, an inspirational author, or even a friend that we put on a pedestal as a spiritual giant. Anytime we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to “fix” us we get in trouble because the answers lie within.

I am not suggesting that we save ourselves—only God saves. But the Bible teaches that with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the triune God comes to live in us. (In addition to passages referencing the image of God in human beings, see Philippians 2:12, Colossians 1:27, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if God lives in us, then finding or drawing close to God points to the inward journey of the heart. As Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, we are “circumference people” who live at the edges of our existence, and the path to God is the movement from the edges to the center. The biblical metaphor for the center of our existence is “the heart.” The journey to God is also the journey of self-discovery. These two kinds of knowing happen together. 

Furthermore, if the very power and presence of God lives in us, then in a certain sense we lack nothing. Some of the most entrenched problems of human existence come from the idea of scarcity—the fear of not getting enough or being enough. We often assume that we are missing something really important for a life of joy and contentment. This compels us to search outside ourselves for what we think we lack, and this outward focus often leads to the comparison trap. We gaze upon the idealized persona of others generated by projections of a charmed life on social media and the material signs of success (wealth, good looks, and influence). Then we compare ourselves to this illusory ideal and find our fears confirmed by thoughts such as, “I wish I had it all like her,” or “I wish I had it all together like him.” The comparison trap intensifies our anxiety and sometimes leads to depression as we struggle with the entrenched suspicion that we are really not good enough and lack the solution.

But the Bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for abundant life and has deposited this treasures in our hearts through the sending his Holy Spirit who lives in us. Just like Dorothy wore the slippers that could take her home all along, so God has given us the means for divine, intimate communion. All we have to do is close our eyes and (instead of clicking our heels three times) call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). The way home is the path of prayer. That is what this message is all about. I hope it blesses you!

Phrases for Meditation: I am accepted. I lack nothing, The Spirit of God lives in me.

Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?

As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,” http://www.nytimes.com, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.

What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.

To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.

So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!

For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.

It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?

If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)

Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate?  Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.

I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.

So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!