Reflections on Good Friday

Crucifixion - by Grunewald

Crucifixion – by Grunewald

The crucifixion is the most widely-known event in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that the instrument of his execution is the primary symbol for the religion established by his followers. For Christians, the moment of Jesus’ agonizing death at the hand of the Roman Empire is the central moment in history. As Frederick Buechner states in Beyond Words, “Jesus Christ is what God does, and the cross is where God did it.”

Knowing the significance of the event, however, is not the same as understanding it. Every era has produced new models for making sense of what took place at Golgotha. For early Christians, this was primarily a model of “ransom,” a concept that was replaced in the medieval era with one of “satisfaction.” For the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, a model of “substitutionary atonement” was the most logical, while more recent thought has applied a number of ideas, like the neo-orthodox one of “restoration” or the “exemplarism” first suggested by Peter Abelard.

Why so many (sometimes conflicting) theories to explain the one event that should be foundational and universal for all Christians? In part, this is simply the natural and necessary process of Christianity re-inventing itself to accommodate paradigm shifts in the culture. But there is a deeper reason. The crucifixion makes no sense.

Here is the most basic statement of the cross: God created a world in which the choices of that world’s inhabitants (who, like everything in that world, were created by God) forced God to brutally torture and murder the innocent and perfect, only, Son of God in the most agonizing and excruciating way possible.

What kind of god would do such a thing? On its surface, the reality of the crucifixion causes us to question either God’s kindness, God’s competence, or both. What sort of god would create a system where the only logical response to sinfulness – cruelty, selfishness, betrayal, and violence – is torture and execution of a kind, innocent man? How omnipotent can a deity be if the best world he or she can create is one in which the inhabitants will descend into a morass of self-indulgent sinfulness such that they will eventually execute the Son of God? To top it off – despite the divine sacrifice – the majority of them will still reject the offer of salvation and perish into eternal damnation.

Most Christians overlook these factors by focusing instead on the tremendous love God must feel toward humanity to be willing to offer up Jesus (and be offered up in the person of Jesus – Trinitarian doctrine is immune to logical contradiction) for the sake of humanity. They address any other logical inconsistencies with the doctrine of “free will” – humans were given the option to choose (or not) the sinfulness that ultimately led to the necessity of Jesus’ execution.

The problem with the doctrine of free will is that it only makes sense if you want to believe you’re one of the people who “chose” the right side, and can therefore be justifiably smug about your choices. Couldn’t a God who knows anything and can do anything have created a world in which everyone would have the experiences and information necessary to make good choices? If so, and God did not, then we are dealing with a cruel god indeed. If not, then God’s power and/or knowledge are seriously questionable.

These are not new questions, and both theologians and philosophers have pondered them – since the dawn of the Enlightenment – through the academic questions of “theodicy.” The classic, modern work on the subject remains John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love, and those wishing to explore these ideas comprehensively might also want to look at The Problem of Evil edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. It would be impossible even to summarize all of the different approaches to theodicy here, much less to resolve them.

So why bring them up at all? For two reasons. First, to point out to my fellow Christians – who are accustomed to taking the necessity of the crucifixion for granted – that the very idea of torturing and executing an innocent (for any reason, even the salvation of the world) is deeply problematic. Secondly, to point out to those outside the Church that Christians are – and have been for some time – keenly aware of the apparently nonsensical incongruity of a loving god who demands the cruel and brutal murder of the most perfect person to ever live before extending mercy to the rest of humanity.

So, if at best the crucifixion is “problematic” and at worst it is “nonsensical,” why will millions of Christians around the world gather tonight in silence for a Good Friday service that – for many of us – will include the ancient tradition of “Veneration of the Cross?” If the central moment of the faith tradition defies logic, why are there still so many of us in the fold? What is the point of Good Friday if it commemorates either a god who is incompetent or one who is malicious and cruel?

We gather because the cross represents the ultimate honesty about the human experience. At the foot of the cross, seeing the suffering that even God could not escape in human form – we come face to face with the harsh reality that to live means to struggle, to face betrayal, to feel hopeless and abandoned, to suffer pain and indignity and, ultimately, to die. Most of us find effective ways to distract ourselves from the consequences of our own mortality, but on Good Friday – contemplating the agony of the Prince of Peace as he is tortured at the cruel hands of empire and greed – the vulnerability of our human lives becomes raw and tender.

But we do not venerate the cross because of some misguided masochism or morbid fascination with death and despair. Because, gathered as a community of faith, we remember – alongside the truths that we would rather forget – the unshakeable reality that we are not alone. As Paul writes, Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

The message of the cross is not one of appeasement for an angry god, no matter how convenient that explanation may seem (assuming we do not stop to ponder what that really says about God). The message of the cross is companionship and compassion. We do not have a Creator who turned us loose into a violent world alone. Instead, our Creator has joined with us in the full experience of our everyday lives. No matter what the struggle, no matter how great the pain, no matter how dark or perilous the horizon – we can have the complete assurance that we are loved and supported by a present God who understands our fear and pain.

Why not instead serve a god who takes the pain away? Why not serve a god who never lets anything unpleasant happen to us? Apparently, that simply isn’t an option. The cross is also a reminder that even the only Son of God, who prayed not to face the suffering that awaited him, was exempt from the pain of human existence. For whatever reason, the world simply does not work that way.

And so, if you are seeking the cross, or seeking simply to understand why Christians seek the cross, do not approach it for fear of an angry god who demands that you accept his sacrifice or be damned for all eternity. Frankly, if the Creator of the universe is that capricious and cruel, we are all damned already. If, however, you suspect that beneath the tortures and imprecations – small and large – of everyday life, there is a source of hope and love and strength reaching out to sustain you – you are welcome to join the followers of Jesus in the shadow of one of the cruelest implements of torture ever known. It is in its shadow, the dark outline of the cross on blood-stained, that we see the arms of God spread wide to gather us in.

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Bryan Fischer Does Not Speak for Christianity

 

Bryan Fischer makes an idiot of himself

Screenshot from YouTube video (links to the video itself)

I haven’t written anything about yesterday’s horrendous events in Newtown, Connecticut because a number of writers with far more skill and wisdom than I continue to produce outstanding, thoughtful, compassionate commentary that I think will be invaluable in guiding our citizens as we grieve.  As a general rule, I try not to write an opinion piece unless I think I have something original to add to the dialogue.  Sometimes, however, when someone says something egregiously stupid, dangerous, or damaging, I feel compelled to respond.

Thanks to Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the despicable American Family Association (the public policy arm of the notorious hate group Focus on the Family), I now have something to say.

Fischer used a little of his broadcast time after the massacre in Connecticut to address the fundamental theological question of theodicy – how do we reconcile the presence of evil with the power of a benevolent God?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Religious leaders all over the country will be doing the same.  As evidenced by the number of possible answers theologians and philosophers have offered to this question, any honest Christian approach to the topic must begin and end with the limits of human knowledge and experience.  We don’t know why there is evil in the world.

We don’t know why there is evil in the world.  Anyone who offers any other answer as final and absolute is, quite simply, a liar and a charlatan.  Christianity is not about explaining the existence of evil, it is about proclaiming the gracious good news that God is present with us despite the horrifying and sometimes-overwhelming presence of malice, selfishness, violence, and destruction in the world.  Any member of the clergy who answers the question “Why did this child die?” with any answer besides, “I don’t know” should find a new line of work, preferably one where they are never again allowed to talk to people.

Which brings us to Bryan Fischer.  In offering his answer to the question “Where was God when all this went down?” Fischer offered the following:

“Here’s the bottom line.  God is not going to go where He is not wanted.  Now we have spent since 1962, we’re fifty years into this now, we have spent fifty years telling God to get lost, telling God we do not want You in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools…in 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools, in 1963 we kicked the Word of God out of the schools…we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me into your world first.  I am not going to go where I am not wanted.  I am a gentleman.‘”

So where to begin?  Let’s start here – any god who needs a request before he or she will intervene to prevent the massacre of children is not worth worshiping.  If that is genuinely the way the world works, I would rather be damned to Hell along with all those who believe in compassion and empathy than fawn in Heaven alongside those comfortable bowing before an egomaniacal sociopath, no matter how “divine.”  I don’t know for which god Fischer presumes to speak, but it is not the Christian one.  Jesus, when asked about a massacre, clearly says in Luke 13 that death by violence or disaster is not a consequence of sin or rebellion.

Fischer has apparently confused God with the vampires of movies and television, who cannot enter a home unless invited.  (I like Vampire Diaries a lot, but Fischer of all people should look elsewhere for his theological guidance.)  For just a moment, though, let us assume that this absurd claim makes sense.  God – like Dracula or Caroline Forbes – needs an invitation.

With that bizarre rule in mind, I am willing to bet that when the deranged mass-murderer opened fire, someone in that school said a prayer to God for help.  What an opportunity for Fischer’s “gentlemanly” God.  A school full of young, impressionable “atheists” have finally invited Him in – at their time of dire need.  What a great opportunity for an act of divine intervention, one that would almost certainly convert all of those pitiable “atheists” into true believers.  One tiny answer to a whispered invitation, and God suddenly wins over hundreds of previously-unreachable “non-believers” and “heretics” who had previously denied Him access.  If Fischer is right, God was just waiting for a word that almost certainly came.  In Fischer’s bizarre scheme of arbitrary restrictions on God, this was the perfect time for a miracle.

As we know, whatever miracles took place that day, dozens of young lives were still lost, and God (the real one, not Fischer’s) stood weeping alongside the grieving parents and teachers.

Perhaps, though, what Fischer wanted to imply was that – by taking prayer and Christian Bible readings out of public schools – we have removed the influence that would have kept a troubled man from turning into a homicidal maniac.  This claim is almost as stupid as the one Fischer explicitly stated.  If you need state-sponsored, institutional prayers to be told not to shoot a child – your problem is not a lack of religious influence, your problem is that you are a sociopath in need of mental health care.

This is painfully obvious to anyone who has stopped to think about this tragedy, yet common sense and common decency have never been barriers to the AFA, Fischer, and those of their ilk pushing their anti-social agenda.  The things they believe are so ridiculous that the only way they can persuade impressionable people to agree with them is to convince the general public that groups like the AFA are speaking for God.  This means they have to use every opportunity to impose a kind of mindless, irrational pseudo-piety on the general public when people are at their most vulnerable.  Fischer’s comments are one more pathetic attempt to reach out from the outer darkness of irrelevance where his hate speech belongs and grasp at any opportunity to sway a few people to his agenda.

Mr. Fischer, since you felt so comfortable speaking for God, I feel compelled to do the same.  For fifteen years now I have been entrusted with the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church and the obligation to proclaim the gospel.  With all the authority of that call and ordination, let me say very clearly, “You, Bryan Fischer, are a fucking idiot!  You do not speak for God.  You do not speak for the Church.  You do not speak for Christianity or Christians.  You have proclaimed a false gospel of ignorance and hate.  If you wish to continue to teach in the name of this cruel, capricious god – please have the integrity to admit that it is not the God who – incarnate in Jesus – “died for us while we were yet sinners.”

For those of you who came here for more than an excoriation of Bryan Fischer’s heinous heresy – perhaps looking for something to make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut – I hope I provided ample warning early on that I do not have that to offer.  Christianity does not have all the answers, we are just an extended and diverse family of people united in seeking meaning in the ancient teachings of Judaism and the Early Church.  We have come up with many possible explanations for the presence of evil, but on some level they all eventually fall apart.

Where they all collapse is at the foot of the cross, a place that is simultaneously the triumphant cornerstone and the greatest shame of our faith.  Ours is not a religion of a thundering god crashing through the world magically repairing all the brokenness of our lives.  Ours is a faith built on a God who – seeing the pain, fear, and grief inherent in the human condition – joined us on our journey, even though it ultimately meant torture and murder at the hands of the forces of greed and selfishness.

The message of the cross is that the miracle of God is not in saving our lives, the miracle of God is in the purity of a Creator’s love that is so powerful that God is willing to step down from the luxuries of Heaven and take on our suffering.  God did not save the lives of those children because – for whatever reason – the Universe does not work that way.  According to our Scriptures, Jesus begged God, his Father, to save him from being murdered – and God did not do that either.

It sucks.  It makes no sense.  And it causes us all to question why we should bother worshiping such a God in the first place.  If you are looking for a God like Fischer’s, one who can be propitiated to intervene violently in mortal affairs, I recommend Durga.  For better or for worse, the God of Christianity does not consistently act in such a fashion.

Unlike Fischer, I do believe God was present at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that God acted.  I believe that the presence of a God who understands heroism in the face of suffering inspired teachers to risk their lives for their pupils.  I believe that a God who was vulnerable and broken at the hands of vicious killers was there for every excruciating second of that horrible time, and that each one of those children entered into eternity gently cradled in the arms of a loving God who understood what they had endured.

Perhaps that’s not enough.  In the days to come, some of us in our grief and anger will turn away from a God who would not or could not intervene to save the lives of those children.   Others will turn to other faiths or philosophies for answers.  I don’t think God will begrudge us that, after all God knows what it’s like to be forsaken.

And so, for those of you hoping that I could replace an insipid and shameful answer to the “Why?” question with a useful and theologically sound one, I cannot.  I cannot even promise you that if you pray and study and give every second of your life to God you will be spared the grief of another tragedy like this one.  I can only offer you what I have been given, what I believe, that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch, and that beyond the boundaries of our senses is a loving Creator who connects us to each other and to that world of greater meaning in ways that ultimately inspire more questions than answers.

When we seek that Creator, we are seeking to be more than we can be as individuals.  We are seeking to be greater than our limitations, stronger than our brokenness, and more powerful than our flaws and vulnerabilities.  We are seeking to stand in the face of evil, not in the hopes of easy victory, but in the certain confidence that – even in our most shocking  defeats – love, compassion, and grace will ultimately triumph.

We have seen some of that in the aftermath of Newtown, and more examples will certainly be forthcoming as people respond to the acts of one man at his worst by showing what humanity can be at our best.  Even as we join our tears to God’s in memory of those we have lost too soon and too horribly, perhaps we can also see some glimpse of the miracle of a God who knows our struggle and draws us into a people who refuse to be overcome by evil, but who instead will – every time – overcome evil with good.

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First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

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Christmas Greetings

"Nativity Scene" I wish all those who observe this holiday a peaceful and joyous Noel. For those for whom this season brings sadness or reminders of grief, I wish you the comfort of those who love you. For those who find themselves in places of violence, hunger, or fear I pray you find the shelter of a friendly stable. For those for whom this is not a sacred day , I hope you find rest and welcome amidst reminders that we are all part of a common human family – regardless of belief.

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What Do Christians Believe? A Response

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)


This piece ran as a letter to the editor on the Religion Dispatches site.

My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?”  His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic.  Whatever the issue – slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – there is no definitive Christian position on any of them.  Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people.  Our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes.  Our constituency is simply too broad.

That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday.  If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media and televangelists claim we believe, then what is it about?  Why do we bother?  What does a Christian believe?

Some might argue that we should return to the good old days, when Christians were untroubled by the moral relativism of postmodern ideas and pluralistic friendships.  Unfortunately, even if we were to turn the clock all the way back to first-century Jerusalem we find, as Acts 15 reminds us, that even the Apostles who knew Jesus personally were divided on how Christians should behave.  This diversity of opinion continued into the fourth century, when the leaders of the Church gathered together to clarify what Christians actually believed.

Those meetings ultimately produced three documents that remain the only consensus writings on Christian identity.  Two of them – the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed – provided the theological logic that guided the selection of the writings for the third:  the Bible.  It is worth noting that, in a time of profound Christian diversity, leaders from Christian communities from around the known world did not include a single social, ethical, or moral issue in either creed.  In addition, they were comfortable including in the canon of Scripture writings that offered a wide variety of ethical perspectives.  When the early Christians got together and described the consensus of their beliefs, they did not talk about social issues.

So what, then, does it mean to be a Christian?  In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, my own answer follows the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…

“I believe in God…”

Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses.  We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand.  We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time.  While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence.  We also believe in “incarnation.”  We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience.  As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us.  To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself.  Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us.  We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.

“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”

For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross.  God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease.  God did not overthrow oppressive empires.  God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim).  Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power.  God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.

Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why.  By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations:  Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few.  No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory.  Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder.  For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.

This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure.  If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be.  If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.

“On the third day he rose again…”

Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated.  Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat.  In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity.  At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty.  Christians believe that death is itself defeated.

“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”

Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter.  As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act.  We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus.  Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do.  It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.

“I believe…in the communion of saints…”

Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community.  We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals.  It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.  To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations.  Christians value and nurture community.

“Amen.”

This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed.  Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through).  On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!

Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged.  There is much common ground here.  Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views.  Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.  Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final.  Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.

Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly.  When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident.  Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.

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