I wrote the following litany for the Sunday after the 2016 presidential election. I’m posting it now because the prayers seem as relevant today as they were then.
Leader: Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. [i]
People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. [ii]
Leader: We gather in sadness and grief. We come with anger and cynicism. We will not hide our fear or cover up our anxiety.
People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked.[iii]
Leader: A president has been elected whose actions have abused and whose words have slandered and dehumanized.
People: Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation.
Leader: A president has been elected who instills worry and doubt in our children; who has promised to police our neighborhoods with increased militarization and racially-discriminatory tactics; who has legitimized the sexual and emotional abuse experienced by many women; whose policies oppose those struggling on the margins.
People: Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked.
Leader: A president has been elected for whom money is god, for whom celebrity is currency, and for whom laws are manipulated for personal gain.
People: Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square.[iv]
Leader: Our churches are divided. We proclaim the same Lord Jesus, yet our political loyalties are easily predicted by race. We lament the divisions and the compromised witness to the gospel. We lament the blind eyes and deaf ears of so many who would not hear the concerns from their family in Christ; who would not believe the testimonies of those who feared the presidential nominee’s ascent for how he threatened the safety and flourishing of families and neighbors.
People: You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?[v]
Leader: Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. [vi]
People: Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?[vii]
Leader: Teach us to love one another, our neighbors, and those who appear to be our enemies. Give us your vision for the abundant life promised by our Savior even here, in this place of grief. Show us through the power of your Spirit when to resist and when to create, when to tear down and when to build up. Remind us of the saints who lived faithfully before us, often in the face of terrible persecution and suffering. Grant us their courage and joy.
People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?[viii]
Leader: We pray for everyone who is most at risk in this political moment. For immigrants and Muslims; for those at risk of state-sanctioned violence; for the impoverished; for the vulnerable and despairing; for refugees who flee war; for the segregated, disenfranchised, and gentrified; for all of our children; and for ourselves, we pray.
People: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Leader: The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. [ix]
All: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.[x]
I recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown. I’ve written before about the way Coates’ writing often provokes people to ask whether he is hopeful, particularly in the realm of racial equity and justice. I’ve suggested that because what so often passes as hope for Americans is actually more like optimism, Coates’ apparent hopelessness is a more Christian expression of our reality than the one espoused by many Christians, privileged ones like me in particular.
Austin has also noticed this obsession with hope in how people look to Coates for some sort of comfort. She writes, “People read his words about America – about its history, about its present, about the realities of living in a Black body – and then demand hopefulness. It boggles the mind.” Indeed, though from the vantage point of those whose privilege has shielded us from this nation’s racism, maybe not. As Coates observers,
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.
And so, rather than face the realities which Coates describes, we ask about hope. Or, rather, we ask to be given hope. To be soothed with hope.
As with Coates, Austin’s book demonstrates the madness of these questions. In particular, it is her descriptions of working within predominately white spaces that gives us an idea about the assumptions behind these questions. There is something obscene about asking the person who has described the system of oppression that constantly crashes upon her body to make me feel better. Yet, time and again, this is how it goes down. When we ask about hope, many of us are actually saying, Let us not talk anymore about your suffering or our complicity with it. Tell me, instead, that I will be OK.
For Austin, in order to remain engaged in the work of justice – not to mention the pursuit of dignity in a racist and sexist society – what passes for hope in this country had to die. “The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.” This death, in other words, is not something to fear. And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery.”
On the other side of this death, says Austin, is the shadow of hope. From within this shadow we believe and work having shed all optimism. “It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointments and then getting back to work… It is knowing that God is God and I am not.” Though she doesn’t quite say it, I think the shadow of hope that Austin describes is one in which faith is given an honored seat. Whereas American hope demands proof, no matter how deceptive, the shadow of hope allows us to move forward, even in the deepest shadows, by way of faith.
Austin has given us something far better than the hope so many have clamored for. She’s given us the truth.
From her chapter on the atonement motif of blood sacrifice in The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge writes,
God is not divided against himself. When we see Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:7). The Father did not look at Jesus on the cross and suddenly have a change of heart. The purpose of the atonement was not to bring about a change in God’s attitude toward his rebellious creatures. God’s attitude toward us has always and ever been the same. Judgment against sin is preceded, accompanied, and followed by God’s mercy. There was never a time when God was against us. Even in his wrath he is for us. Yet at the same time he is nor for us without wrath, because his hill is to destroy all that is hostile to perfecting his world. The paradox of the cross demonstrates the victorious love of God for us at the same time that it shows forth his judgment upon sin.
I was thinking about that #NeverForget hashtag and wondering just what, exactly, we are supposed to remember. I think the instinct is to remember the attack itself along with the devastating personal losses along with the many acts of courage displayed that day and in the following weeks. We, the American people, are being urged to remember a day when we became victims of terror.
But – and I suppose this is a distinctly Christian concern – I wonder what else in our collective past is not so regularly brought before our memories. To only remember having been attacked while rarely discussing, or even acknowledging in some cases, our aggressions toward others seems to instill a selective, and sick, memory. I say this is a Christian concern because while Christians are certainly concerned about justice on behalf of the aggrieved, we are also always aware of our own complicity in someone else’s harm. That is, we are a people whose very identities are founded on a shared confession of captivity to sin and allegiance to a Savior.
A society that is intentional only about remembering its – real and tragic – histories of being victimized and not the damage inflicted by our aggressions isn’t healthy. Neither can it, in any accurate way, be thought of as Christian.
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
40 years later people still remember where they were when Mount St. Helens erupted. My grandma talks about watching the news from her Washington home, a few hours north of the blast. Later that year, in the summer of 1980, she and my grandfather would drive past the smoldering mountain on Interstate 5 and collect ash from the median to show the fourth-graders she’d be teaching in the fall. The bookseller on San Juan Island told my wide-eyed sons about being near the mountain when it happened, about the way daylight turned to dusk and then to night under the cover of the ash cloud spreading across the horizon. Later he would approach the mountain, working for the forest service, and see how some trees had been burnt to a crisp except for the bottom few feet which had been covered with snow. A friend on the east side of the Cascades told us about the ash drifting down like snow, covering the darkened streets with inches of the stuff.
Everyone who was near the blast has a story to tell.
There had been warnings in the weeks before the mountain erupted: hundreds of earthquakes, small bursts of ash, and, most ominously, a bulge on the volcano’s north slope that pushed outward like some festering wound, sometimes five feet in a single day. Maybe these signs allowed the onlookers to feel prepared. Restricted zones were mapped out and residents within them forced to leave their homes.
At 8:32 on May 18th, a Sunday morning, the heaving mountain triggered an enormous landslide. Mount St. Helens immediately lost 1,300 of its 9,600 feet. David Johnston, a young geologist observing the mountain from miles away, had about 45 seconds before the avalanche of boulders, trees, and tons of earth buried his ridge, just enough time to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
A few minutes later, Mount St. Helens exploded. Not from the top, as was expected, but from its side. I’ve tried to picture this moment but I can’t; it’s beyond the capacity of my imagination. The blast swept down the opening crater at 300 miles per hour, leaving behind 230 miles of scorched earth. Towering forests were peeled back to bare rock. Combined with the landslide, the volcanic blast liquified the mountain’s stores of spring snow and ice to send churning mudflows down the valleys- overwhelming the streams, covering over rivers, and relocating familiar lakes hundreds of feet from their pre-eruption locations. Videos from that day show trees, houses, and bridges tossed aside, barely an afterthought to what appears to be the mountain’s singular purpose: total and complete devastation.
Jonathan Edwards began his famous sermon in 1741 by reflecting on Deuteronomy 32:35, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” His focus is on that vivid description of demise – “their foot shall slide in due time”- and from there Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God goes on to describe the plight of the wicked before a holy God.
From these few words, the New England preacher derives four implications. The first is this: “That they were always exposed to Destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the Manner of their Destruction’s coming upon them, being represented by their Foot’s sliding.” God’s justified wrath against sin, says Edwards, is withheld by God’s love, but when it comes, as it surely must, it comes upon us so quickly that we are like those careening down a landslide, the sheer absurdity of our having long remained upright now undeniable as the mountain falls around us. On top of us.
This topic – the wrath of God – is an unfamiliar one to many of us. I suppose some find the idea of Edwards’ angry God repugnant, but my hunch is that most Americans, Christians included, simply don’t think about it at all. Ours are divinities of love, including the Christian God, who we imagine as benign and benevolent forces. We might occasionally get mad at God, but the American gods of our imaginations rarely get angry with us.
Our family of four recently spent two nights in the campground nearest to Mount St. Helens. We made the 200 mile drive south from the Puget Sound – our temporary home during our family vacation – because for the past two years our youngest son, now four years old, has been infatuated with volcanoes. His knowledge of the geological forces at work in these mountains far exceeds mine, and I was an environmental studies minor!
We couldn’t actually see the mountain from the campground – we had to drive a few minutes for our first glimpse – but we were able to make the short hike to where the mudflow had overwhelmed the nearby creek. We saw it as we approached through the dense forest, a growing patch of sunlight that eventually became a sort of dusty river plain. The ground turned an ashy grey and was littered with pumice, carried all these miles from the volcano. Even now, decades later, it was easy to see how the eruption had sculpted the valley. The following day the road to Mount St. Helens followed the mudflow for miles, our imaginations recalibrating the power of the mountain we were on our way to visit.
We were lucky to awake to sunshine and clear skies on the morning of our visit. Wildfires are once again ravaging the western United States and the skies in Washington had been hazy, reducing visibility to a mile or two at times. At the Johnston Observatory the ranger told us that two days earlier, the same mountain that rose so clearly across the valley from us was invisible from where we stood. The millions of acres now burning around the country are not natural. A warming climate and increasing development in dry areas provide the flammable potential for human error: ninety-five percent of these fires are started by us.
The four of us gazed intently at the crater, pointing out the still active lava dome inside it and the way the downed timber pointed the same direction, away from the blast. We imagined the destruction, thankful that a different kind of devastation, at least on that day, wasn’t obscuring our view.
The biblical wrath of God that Edwards described comes rapidly and unexpectedly. The prophet Ezekiel describes it as a hailstorm, a spreading pestilence, a fire, and most often, as being poured out onto its recipients. But as surprising as it must always seem to those peering the other way, Scripture reveals God to reserve his wrath for two predictable human activities: idolatry and injustice. So the jealous God will not tolerate the lesser deities so often propped up on hillsides and valleys by his people, idols like Baal and Molech who demand sacrifices of human flesh and sexual exploitation. But neither will God turn a blind eye to injustice.
Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn, with no one to quench it, because of your evil doings. (Jeremiah 21:12)
It’s a daunting standard. Injustice, in God’s eyes, is not only committing unjust acts; it includes the absence of justice, of failing to confront the oppressor and thief.
There is nothing arbitrary about God’s wrath. It erupts with fury, an “almighty merciless Vengeance” in Edwards’ words, but there is always a righteous logic when it finally rains down. God’s wrath is always instigated by his people’s idolatry and injustice.
According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 released 24 megatons of thermal energy, about 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II. We heard this horrifying fact more than once during our two-day stay near the mountain. We also learned that, compared with other volcanoes throughout history, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was relatively very small.
But it’s the comparison itself with the atomic bomb that most interested me, a comparison between a natural disaster and one purposefully inflicted by people upon other people. The former, far greater in power, claimed the lives of 57 people; the latter killed tens of thousands.
The churches I’ve known have generally been hesitant to speak about God’s wrath. A caricature of Edwards’ angry God is so thoroughly instilled in our society’s imaginations that many of us have felt the need to round out the picture. Over time, we’ve simply stopped thinking about God’s anger. I think we’ve also stopped thinking – if we ever had – about our own anger. Yet the bomb dropped on the citizens of Hiroshima and the fires advancing throughout the American west have me wondering about our collective unacknowledged and unchecked anger.
Anger, or wrath, is probably not how we think about the infernos of our own making. We frame our disasters as inevitable consequences of our wars or the unfortunate costs of our freedoms. Some think of them as our selfishness enfleshed; others as catastrophes totally unrelated to our choices. The explanations for the ways we destroy one another and our planet are many, but I wonder if our anger – rage, maybe – plays an outsized role.
Human retaliation always exacts a higher, vengeful cost than is necessary. Our atomic bombs are the obvious example. We are capable now of inflicting total and final vengeance upon the entire planet. Similar observations could be made about how we incarcerate people and, despite so much room for error, execute them for certain crimes. Our judgements are not fair and they are not equally distributed. As a nation we respond to horrifying attacks by unleashing our own horror, trading our thousands of lives for thousands upon thousands of our enemies.
But I think the wildfires we ignite, along with other less obvious examples, are also expressions of our anger. We know why these fires burn hotter, longer, and more frequently. We know where we shouldn’t build our homes and suburbs. We know how we could slow the climate’s warming. Yet we don’t. For many reasons we don’t, but could one of those reasons be a simmering anger at being shown the limits of our humanity? Like Cain, we respond with fury at being told what we must do. The creation groans under our insatiable appetites and we, children of wrath as the apostle Paul says, will not listen.
A couple of weeks after our visit to Mount St. Helens, our family drove slowly past a smoldering mountainside in northern Montana. Wisps of smoke gathered into small clouds and roadside signs warned of fire crews entering and exiting the highway. From our car, we peered up into the hazy forest not quite able to grasp the size of this one fire. The next day we read in a local newspaper that it was still relatively small but expected to spread rapidly.
I began thinking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens as a picture of God’s wrath at one specific moment during our visit. Most of the exhibits and ranger talks highlighted, with good reason, the volcano’s devastation. Our time near the mountain was filled with descriptions, photos, and short films showing the landslide and ensuing eruption from every possible angle. We heard eyewitness accounts of the the apocalyptic-like hours and days that followed. None of this made me think about God’s wrath.
That moment came during our second day. At the observatory looking across to the crater, my wife and I sat with our two young sons listening to a ranger. Almost in passing he told us that three days after the explosion, on the same ground covered by what would come to be recognized as the word’s largest recorded landslide, a small herd of elk were seen crossing the ash-covered slope. Their hoof-marks and droppings left behind the first seeds after the blast. Within 72-hours the mountain had begun to heal itself. Those elk are what made me think about the wrath of God.
Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon with the purpose of saving people from hell but maybe his intent can be widened. Despite his vivid descriptions of divine anger and judgment, Edwards does not hesitate to desperately urge his congregation to run to this same God, the source of wrath. “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.” The God of wrath, Edwards preaches, is the God of salvation. The God who cannot look away from idolatry and injustice will neither look away from those who flee to him.
The Psalmist believed the same:
Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:11-12)
So did the prophet Nahum, in language that evokes an erupting, crumbling volcano.
The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it.
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:5-7)
I thought about God’s wrath when the ranger mentioned the elk because God’s wrath is so unlike ours. How else can we be urged, straight-faced, to take refuge in the mountain that has just exploded before our eyes? Why, given the experiential rubrics of our own collective expressions of anger, would we throw ourselves onto the mercies of a wrathful God? But the wrath of God is not like our atomic bombs, wildfires, or execution chambers. The wrath of God is not retaliatory, not vengeful in the way we express it.
God’s wrath is so different from ours because God is so different from us. Our collective anger is rooted in selfishness, ego, and pride. In simple contrast, using biblical language, the Lord is good. That is to say, God is always merciful, forgiving, and kind. And yes, righteous too. God’s wrath, then, is expressed not from the absence of goodness, but as an expression of it. And in its aftermath lies healing and restoration. Lakes and rivers are restored, meadows and forests take root again. What our own collective anger leaves behind couldn’t be more different: poisoned bodies and lands, disenfranchised communities, skies choked with haze.
Unrighteous people like us will, in our unacknowledged anger, turn to idolatry and run headlong into injustice. We will worship anything other than the one righteous God and our idol-worship will inevitably lead us to acts – individual but also corporate – of tremendous oppression. We articulate our sins against God by disdaining our neighbors and abusing the earth. We, an angry people, stand in want of God’s wrath.
In Romans 5:1-10 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ saves us from God’s wrath. His atoning death did so, in fact, even as our idolatry and injustice placed us deservingly under judgment. This good news is, I think, the extent to which most American Christians think about God’s wrath. If at all, divine anger is remembered in the past tense, something not especially relevant except, as Edwards exemplifies, as a means to urge others to flee to Christ’s salvation.
Yet those of us who claim Jesus as Savior must also accept him as Judge. When we diminish the wrath of God against idolatry and injustice to something that no longer concerns us, we are left vulnerable to an uglier kind of wrath- our own. And so we trade healing redemption for retaliatory vengeance. We seek refuge not in the mountain but in our weapons. We accept the warfare we’ve fomented, the prisons we’ve erected, and the infernos we’ve kindled as the reasonable price of vanquishing the wrathful God. In place of the divine Judge, our own unholy judgements inflict death, only and always.
We have become so accustomed to our own ruthless wrath that it can be hard for us to imagine another way. Paul helps us.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Here is a vision wherein a people have renounced their own wrath for God’s. A community that welcomes God’s vengeance is one that also renounces persecution, deception, and retaliation. They will be known for their orientation toward blessing, solidarity, harmony, humility, truthfulness, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. They will be a people of worship and justice. They will reject the death-dealers who levy ever more devastating judgements upon their enemies and their enemies’ children and their enemies’ lands.
This community will come to know that God’s wrath is better than theirs.
I wouldn’t have chosen to visit Mount St. Helens. There were other places I’d have preferred to visit during our stay in the Pacific Northwest. I think the same is true for my wife and older son. But we each love the four-year-old and so we joined him in his pilgrimage to the mountain he’d been talking about since he began forming sentences. The car was full of our typical chatter on the morning we drove up to the volcano. And then my wife pointed through the windshield. “Is that it?” We all got quiet, watching as the blunt peak, larger by far than anything around it, rose through the haze. The road followed a creek up the valley and we began noticing how it had been widened by the torrent of mud, water, and debris decades prior. Soon we could recognize how everything around us, the entire landscape, had been shaped by the blast.
The silence in our car – a rare occurrence – continued and something in me changed as we drew near to the mountain. I was glad we had come. I wanted to get closer.
Ted Olsen has written incisively over at Christianity Today about how much – or, more accurately, what kind of – public criticism of the president Christians should engage in.
With the US midterm elections a few months away, this is not a call to political silence, to a privatized, “spiritual” faith. Rather, this is a call to speak politically as the Bible does. We should be on guard against talking about Trump more than Paul talked about Nero—especially if we’re talking about Jesus less than Paul talked about Jesus.
Given how much I’ve written about this president since the days of the campaign, Ted’s caution is directed at people like me. If I read him correctly he’s not asking the president’s critics to retreat into spiritual quietism, but to reflect on the proportionality of our criticism when compared with our proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord. This is important and I’ll be mulling it over for a the foreseeable future.
But – you just knew there’d be a but – the other thing the editorial makes me think about is the significance of where one’s criticism about the president is directed. Many of my politically liberal friends are regularly, and understandably, distraught over what this presidential administration says and does. A singular vision of what America was, or, at least, was moving toward, appears to be snatched away with every relentless news cycle. These friends rebuke the president persistently; their anger and disappointment pushes hard in the direction of one man and his many accomplices.
I sympathize but it’s hard for me to find the energy to join their cause because, I think, I’m unable to see this country as hopefully as they have. Chalk it up to a childhood overseas and a decade among friends who’ve never seen themselves as the objects of America’s affections, but the good old days don’t seem so good and the inevitability of a just future not so… inevitable. It’s not that this president is benignly tending to the institutions of our democracy, it’s just that the community to which I’m bound – made up of immigrants and the descendants of the enslaved – has long suffered the damage done by these same institutions.
Despite this patriotic ambivalence, I’ve hardly been quiet about this president. He’s an unrepentant racist and a sexual predator whose policies are wreaking havoc on vulnerable places and people. But the direction of my criticism – and that of many other Christians – is only tangentially directed at the man himself. Ted’s editorial rightly asks us to notice how the early church mostly ignored the empire and its emperors. (My favorite example of this studied disinterest comes in Acts 12 when Herod basks in the blasphemous praise heaped upon him by the disingenuous crowds in Caesarea: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” And then, in the very next verse, in a sentence surely constructed to show just how inconsequential this puppet king was to the church’s Lord: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”) But there’s an important difference between the early church in the Roman Empire and American Christians today: There were no first century Christians wearing red Make Rome Great Again hats while claiming that God had raised Nero to the throne to restore church and state to their former glories.
When compared with their risen Lord, no emperor was worth that much of the early church’s time or energy. I’m not sure it’s all that different for us, which is what Ted is getting at. The difference, though, is that today there are many Christians, powerful ones, singing Nero’s praises, tossing our pearls before swine. And this does deserve sustained and vocal critique. It’s true that focusing too much on this president will diminish the church’s witness to our Lord. I’d add that too little criticism of the emperor-loving church in this moment will also gravely damage our ability to point to the Lord in whose presence all other lords must bow. Paul may not have said much about the emperor, but he was plenty vocal about allegiances and idolatries.
In the run-up to the election, back in December of 2015, comedian W. Kamau Bell directed a Facebook post to white people. He wrote, “Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else.” And then, in what I take to be an easily transferable appeal to the American church, “Simply put, white people, come get your boy.” For American Christians who see the sinful damage actively inflicted by this president, our boy to get is the Christian gleefully cheering him on. To this Christian we say, Jesus is Lord, but also, Nero is not.
This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.
Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.
When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.
Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.
Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”
The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.
Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.
What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status. We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.