Another port from the old blog. I wrote this in 2015, just after the tragic events of Charleston, Paris, and San Bernardino. Of course, we could add many more events of a similar nature since that time. You might also be interested in this class I taught on the same subject.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the way Christians make decisions lately. I’ve written some about it. I preached a series of messages at 8&H concerning the topic a month or so ago. It is a constant topic of conversation. With tensions high around the world, many churches floundering in America, and a contentious political season ahead, it seemed like the thing to do — and I never would have imagined how heated (and bloody) things have gotten since first making that decision.
In light of recent events around the world, and in light of certain pronouncements made by individuals running for president, I want to offer a summary of those thoughts here. As this is a summary, please keep in mind much more could be said at any given point.
Fear, Power, Accusation
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Over the last few years, many thinkers have helped me shape a succinct theological statement concerning “how the world works” — The world is driven by systems of power, responding to fear that is rooted in accusation.
The basic elements of this statement are fear, power, and accusation.
Fear. In the fall narrative of Genesis 3, sin opens the door to death, and while sin and death are inseparable, both contributing to a destructive downward spiral, death seems to be the problem we face in Scripture. God created us for life, and we rejected him, and when you reject the source of life, that leaves you with death.
As death came into the world, it brought with it a world fundamentally characterized by fear and anxiety. In the language of Genesis 3, Eve would now experience anxiety about childbirth. (Is the baby okay? Is momma okay? What sort of world have I brought my children into? Ad nauseam.) Anxious for where the next meal would come from, Adam would work the land now characterized by scarcity rather than the plenty of Eden. This paradigmatic description about life with sin points to a way of doing life in which the reality of death is never far away. We now live in a world that is fundamentally threatening and scary. Even with all our modern advances and distractions, events like Charleston, Paris, and San Bernardino remind us of this truth.
Power. Death, and our anxiety concerning it, now drive much of what is bad and broken about our world. Centuries after Moses wrote Genesis 3, the author of Hebrews would say we are all slaves to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14–15). Because sin is a relational break with God, it opened the door to death. Death, in turn, ushered in a world of anxiety and fear. Prompted by these fears, our “natural” responses tend to be ultimately violent and sinful. This sin drives us further away from God and neighbor, starting the cycle all over again.
To be a little more specific, when faced with the anxieties of our scary world, our most common inclination is to respond with power and domination. A litany of examples, biblical and otherwise:
Pharaoh saw the Hebrews and was afraid they would side with his enemies in the event of an attack. He addressed his anxiety by instituting policies of slavery and genocide — by exerting power over the source of his fear. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day saw him as a threat to their way of life and posited it was better for one man to die than their way of life be threatened. Pilate exercised his right to crucify Jesus precisely because he feared the implications of the riot he saw forming. In any political season, we are all anxious “the other side” will take control and things will not go well for our municipality, club, state, nation or whatever. As such, we seek to gain more votes — more power — than the other side to ensure things will go well for us. Homeowners associations are mechanisms meant to exert power over those we anxiously worry might damage our property values.
In a scary world, the default ethic is one of out-power, out-shout, out-vote, out-spend, and out-bomb. Even a cursory glance at your Facebook feed or the evening news will reveal this story being played out everywhere.
Accusation. The engine that drives this entire system of power responding to fear is accusation. In both testaments, the term satan means “accuser.” His game is accusation. In Revelation 12, a great battle plays out between the forces of God and the satan. In the end, the dragon is thrown down and an angel heralds the “accuser” who “accuses our brethren day and night” has been defeated. The Greek word for accusation is katagoreo, which is where we get our word categorize.
Whenever fear and anxiety appear in our world, the spirit of the satan is there, pointing to who we might blame for the problems we face. If you will only deal with them things will be better. This is what we find in Genesis 3, with the serpent suggesting to Eve that God was holding her back. This spirit is present in Genesis 4 when Cain takes out his anger on his brother. Israel, anxious about their survival in the wilderness, blame Moses, seek to overthrow him and (shockingly) return to Egypt.
At the heart of our narrative of fear and power is the demonic desire to carve the world up into “us” and “them,” to point the finger and create a scapegoat onto which we might cast blame for the scariness of our world.
The Way of the Cross
A careful analysis of current events will flesh out the reality of the narrative stated above. All around us the story of fear and power and accusation swirls. As Christians, we must learn to recognize it, name it what it is (satanic), and reject it. Of course, the primary reason for our rejecting this narrative is Jesus’ own renunciation of it. This rejection is present at almost every turn in the gospel narrative.
For instance, it is interwoven into the prophetic vision of the coming kingdom of God. In texts like Isaiah 7–9 or 36–40, the prophet looks forward to a time when God will come to establish his kingdom, which is contrasted with the failed and flawed reigns of men like Ahaz, Hezekiah, and the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers. These are the stories Matthew and Luke point towards to give context to what Jesus was doing. This is that, they say. Against the brokenness of the world we’ve made for ourselves, driven by fear, power, and accusation, Jesus has come to establish God’s way of doing business.
We find an even more explicit rejection of this way in Jesus’ temptations. The temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke are not about personal temptations. The tempter approaches Jesus as Son of God — as the King. What kind of king will Jesus be? How will he do business? He offered Jesus the way of bread, circuses, and swords. This was the way of Rome. This is the way of all the nations.
And Jesus rejects it.
The clearest expression of this rejection is the cross. To make this explicit, there are a few things we need to put on the table:
First, by tying Jesus’ ministry into the Old Testament prophetic narrative, the gospel writers make clear Jesus came to mend our broken world. His mission was to answer the scariness of our world — to address the sources of our anxieties. This is vitally important. When Jesus faced the hardship, suffering, and injustice of his world, he did not say, “Well, yes. Things will be bad down here, but hold on and then you can go somewhere better.” Jesus did not come to help us escape beyond the bright blue, but to restore God’s good creation to what it was intended to be. Rather than deny the scariness of the world, in Jesus, God seeks to engage those scary places. In this respect, this is no different than what we seek to do when confronted with the brokenness around us.
Second, Jesus’ world was just as unjust, broken, and violent as ours. Some Christians have written off the way of Jesus for today because he “could never understand what the world has become” or “that’s just not the way our world works.” That sort of claim simply will not hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Any scenario of injustice or evil we can imagine today was principally present in his world as well.
Third, in terms of power, no one has ever had more than Jesus. He was aware of this. In Gethsemane, he demands Peter put away his sword reminding the apostle that at his simple request he could rain down the armies of heaven on the forces of evil in this world. If the use of power were ever to work as a paradigm for meaningfully addressing the deepest hurts and anxieties of our world, this was the time.
Fourth, as regards accusation, no one has ever stood in a better position to assign blame than Jesus. One of the things about the way we do accusation is we (as sinners) lay blame on other sinners, a focus which allows us to ignore our own involvement in the pain and darkness of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, was not complicit in the world’s brokenness. He was sinless. He knew who was to blame, who to dominate in order to “fix” the problem. If the mechanisms of accusation were ever to work in addressing the deepest injustices of the world, Jesus was the man to make those accusations.
Yet, it is clear Jesus took a different path. He could have marched in and wiped out all the evil in the world with the snap of a finger, immediately alleviating all of our ailments, blights, and woes — and he could’ve done it with perfect judgment. This is the game we continually try to play ourselves in light of the anxieties of our age, and it was within the realm of possibility for Jesus as well. He could’ve played this game better than anyone else.
Rather, Jesus made the extraordinary move of laying his considerable power down and chose the path of sacrificial love. He did this, not in spite of all the evil and injustice and wrong that happens in our world, the things we seek so desperately to stop by force of one sort or another, but precisely because of it. When God came to address all the evil in the world, to mend what we’ve broken, he did it by laying his power down and dying on the cross.
And, let’s not forget his request on the cross — “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus doesn’t ignore the guilt of those involved in his death, but he challenges our ethos of accusation with forgiveness.
The cross is a rejection of our normal ways of doing business down to its very core. No wonder it is scandal to the Jews and weakness to the Gentiles. Yet, the foolishness and weakness of the cross that lays down power instead of takes it up, that forgives instead of accuses, is precisely the wisdom of God working itself out for the healing of the world.
In other words, the cross is the explicit rejection of fear, power, and accusation as a means of changing the world. More, the cross is presented as a direct confrontation between the systems of fear, power, and accusation and God’s love. While on Calvary it seemed for all the world the way of bread, circuses, and swords won out over love, God vindicated Jesus’ way of doing business in the resurrection. If I may reclaim a contested phrase for my own purposes, love wins. Jesus now reigns from the right hand of God. The one who holds creation in slavery to the fear of death has been defeated (Hebrews 2:14–15). The accuser has been thrown down, principally defeated by the subversive, sacrificial power of the slaughtered lamb (Revelation 12). Tellingly, John reminds us the devil now rages because he knows his time is short.
At this point, some might object that while Jesus had to die on the cross, we are not Jesus. Had it not been for the necessity of the cross, he might’ve taken a different approach. Yet, Peter draws together Jesus’ response and our ethical obligation in the world (cf. 1 Peter 2). Speaking to abused slaves, those confronted daily with the injustice and anxiety of our world, he calls them to follow the example of Jesus, who refused to threaten or lash out against those who did him wrong, but rather died for them, “entrusting himself to the one who judges righteously.” For Peter (and all the other writers of the New Testament) the cross wasn’t only something Jesus did for us, but it was the lens through which we understand Christ-likeness. It is the heart of our ethical response in the face of a scary world.
Going to the cross, rather than putting people on the cross, is the way forward.
So, here is a summary formulation: The claim to follow Jesus necessitates we reject the narrative of fear and power and accusation as a means of being in or changing the world. Rather, we have been called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus as he responds to the fearfulness and brokenness of our world by laying his power down and acting with love and sacrifice, trusting that God will do what is right, and through his action, the world will be changed.
As I see it, this represents the heart of our ethical response to the world. This is where we begin when thinking through how we ought to respond to any scenario — whether political, economic, social or otherwise.