It’s hard to see Lent as a revolution

Picture2Matthew is written to a Jewish audience and is filled with discourses that help instruct Jewish people on how to live. Matthew is all about declaring that Jesus is King. The Jewish people, known for having begged God for a King (and reaping what they sow as a result), are still looking for a political revolution. The Sadducees, the ruling class that conflates Roman rule with Jewish culture, aren’t helping matters. They are like Ted Cruz announcing his candidacy at Liberty University—where does the state end and faith begin? For some, like Simon the Zealot, they are causing him to want to separate from the Romans and create a Jewish revolution—even with violence.

Matthew’s audience is still befuddled at the lack of revolution. Imagine, again, that you are a disciple and you’ve been hanging out with Jesus. He keeps saying that the Kingdom of God is near and that the Kingdom of God is like this. Surely, Israel is God’s Kingdom and Jesus is going to usher it in.

But then Jesus starts talking about dying. When he lists it for the third time, it is right before the Triumphal entry, and the disciples still don’t get it.

Clear as day. Jesus says it: I am going to die. This is the deal. I’ll be tried unjustly by my own people (by Matthew’s audience!), I’ll be flogged, killed, and then I’ll resurrect, changing the whole world.

It seems like his disciples don’t get it. They may, but Matthew makes it seem like they don’t, possibly because Matthew’s Jewish audience doesn’t get it either. I’m not sure we get it either.

Lent is still not a revolution for us. We are clouded with death, mourning, sorrow, temptation. The world is hard, oppressive. At the very least it’s weird. We may expect something of Jesus—maybe a political revolution or any number of other things—but he always delivers something else.

Matthew places the infamous request of John and James’ mother after this moment of prediction. I think it’s to show us how much his audience doesn’t get it. How much we don’t get it. Their mother asks Jesus if he will honor his favorite disciples by granting them a seat next to him in his kingdom. She’s still thinking a political kingdom is coming, with seats of honor, no less. I almost feel bad for her. She doesn’t get it and her kids have triangulated her into their mess (or maybe she is what caused it all).

Jesus, as he often does in Matthew, reiterates that they don’t know what they are asking. Can they drink from his cup of death? The one he just predicted that he would drink from soon. They agree that they can, and their fate is sealed. But still, all of this nonsense about honor seats isn’t really Jesus’ realm, so he can’t really answer it. In fact, by virtue of drinking from the death cup, the honor seat is totally flipped upside down. Jesus came to die to save us, not to kill to save us.

In fact, when his disciples grumble about the audacity of James and John and their excitable mother, Jesus again teaches them the fundamentals of the backwards kingdom. He says that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them—the best rulers of Gentiles are tyrants over their people (totally a jab at Claudius, this insecure Roman emperor who has to kill rebellious senators to keep his power). But in Jesus’ way, the servant is greatest—if you want to be first, become someone’s slave. “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life a ransom for many.”

The rules are changing. The world is changing. Jesus is ushering in a revolution.

Finally, Matthew ends chapter twenty with Jesus healing two blind men (symbolic of James and John?). They can’t see and they ask Jesus, the son of Man and the son of David, to have mercy on them. Jesus heals them. And he heals all of us. We can now see clearly. We can see clearly his alternative way of doing things.

Picture1Then Jesus enters Jerusalem. He shows the whole world, or at least his whole world, who he is.

Jesus is demonstrating his authority when he goes and he gets the colt and its mother (colts that hadn’t been ridden yet were often accompanied by their mothers). His meekness as a King is not one that lacks authority. He gets what he wants.

Some people like to emphasize the fact that Jesus came in on a donkey, and not like a Roman official would with the militaristic horse. This is not unique to Christ. Many peaceful officials would arrive on the assuming beast of burden.

But even in his meek form, there are people in the crowd who know who is he and they are declaring that he is the Son of David! He is well known in Galilee where he is from, but even in Jerusalem many know of him. And when they don’t, they are corrected.

Jesus shows us who he is on Palm Sunday. He models his meekness, his backwardness, and he fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy. He is making himself known.

But it seems to me the Jewish people think this Holy Week is going to be a week of triumph and conquest. They are ready to be freed from their Roman oppressor. But the way of Jesus is unique. It’s unique to the whole world. It’s available to them too.

Truly, the Jewish people that Matthew is writing to and that Jesus is showing himself to in the Triumphal Entry will be redeemed, but so will their Roman occupiers. The Revolution is not in the politics, though the church certainly can be political. It is Jesus and who he is forming us into as a body.

Jesus does not want us to form a nation-state that spreads its own Gospel. He doesn’t want a Messianic government that tries to save the world. He wants us, as people, to be his agents of salvation. We are the changed ones, changing the world.

The revolution is not based in principles. It’s based on a person. Jesus is the revolution. Jesus is uniquely the revolution. He is distinct. He can’t be replaced with a competing philosophy. I’m not even sure Jesus competes. I don’t really think he is just the best option of all the options. I think he transcends options and reconciles all of them.

A good question for American Christians is what divides us? What are the arguments that prevent us from following Jesus? I’m not really a fan of dumbing down Jesus, but I also don’t like Jesus with a lot of additives or extractions. I don’t expect Jesus to mix well with existing power structures, but I also think he is all things to all people.

Isn’t that a paradox? The narrow path, the cup of death that we all drink to follow Jesus, is welcome to all. But it’s not so easy to traverse the path and drink the cup. So many distractions, so many personal interests. Perhaps we want to sit at the place of honor. Maybe we think we need to triumphantly enter on a horse. But Jesus calls us to radical servitude. In that very sentiment, he subverted the Jewish tradition and culture, and does ours too.

When we usher in such a radical, but humble expression of the revolution; a meek, but audacious revolution, I think people find faith in Christ. So often the church is not known for that. My practical advice for how to do that?

Hold your tongue. Listen first. Respond in love and with something to say beyond a reaction. It’s so easy to just blurt out our defense or our argument. Just wait for a moment. Be known for your humility.

Be less concerned about your rights. Americans love individual rights. It’s kind of the basis of the Enlightenment. For a moment, think of someone better than yourself. Allow someone else to have them first.

Be OK with rejection. Put yourself out there. Make an invitation. Be vulnerable. Lead with your generosity. If someone rejects you, forgive them and let the Lord handle the dirty work.

There are more ways we can bring the revolutionary love of Jesus. It may not feel like a revolution has happened, but I think those who need the revolution and aren’t merely entitled to it, it will be known.

Dialogue is my drug policy

Monday’s Doing Theology meeting was really an inspiring and stimulating time for me. One of the reasons that we “do” theology, is because we have all been given something from the Spirit and we can contribute to our common good together. Rod led our discussion, but we spent the bulk of our time sharing our own ideas and thoughts. We are learning about God together. We are not having political or philosophical debates; we are trying to see God as the Spirit is represented in the body.

Drugs, both recreational and pharmaceutical ones, was the subject at hand. In Philadelphia, the latest discussion surrounding drug use involves the decriminalization of marijuana. Jim Kenney, former Councilperson at-large along (now mayoral candidate) with some activists have led the way for Philadelphia to decriminalize marijuana. I think it’s a good move for the same reason that I think legalizing most narcotics are a good move. It keeps people that need health care to treat their addiction out of prison. I’ve written a lot about the war on drugs and how it contributes to the prison population in the U.S., and what Angela Davis calls “the prison industrial complex.” Legalizing drugs keeps black people, who are predominantly imprisoned in the U.S. for minor drug offenses, out of jail and gives them the opportunity to overcome their oppression.

One of the big questions the politicians the billionaires that employ will need to answer is: what is more profitable? Taxing drugs and selling them in the free market? Or continuing to support the prison industry with unjust laws? Both are major industries and they are competing. If drugs are legalized, what will companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer say? All of a sudden the chemicals they are making billions off of are available, in different forms, to people. That will further complicate it. It’s my contention that conservative morality is not what has prevented legalizing drugs, rather many of the other factors I listed above.

It’s problematic that the conversation around drugs has to do with individual expression and rights, and not the public good. Rarely is the discussion around legalization surrounding social justice, it is more a libertarian matter of individuality. That’s a problematic end because I’m not sure that one’s choice to consume drugs should happen in an individualistic vacuum.

But why would we think that we shouldn’t operate in that way? These days we get prescription drugs directly advertised to us. The commercials tell us to ask our doctor about a medication that we think we need. We are having the trust dialogue with the television. Our doctor, who may not be qualified to offer a behavioral drug may prescribe us an inordinate amount in the five minute visit. We don’t even need to consult a therapist or a shrink, who may know one thing or another about our mental health condition. The drug, which is supposed to be used to give us a starting point to start our recovery becomes the end.

If we haven’t been consulting with the TV, we may just be choosing to self-medicate. Caffeine, alcohol, weed—all of those drugs are usually abused to alleviate stress or fatigue, or any number of things. They are a form of technology that help us overcome the limitations of our body in, frankly, unnatural ways. Rod argued on Monday that we use drugs to progress through the oppression of creation. We use them to overpower our bodies to succumb to our wills. We use them to become free of pain and suffering.

What does all that do to our spiritual life? Drugs can offer us things that replace what God can offer us. We ca

If we are not listening to our body’s plea to exercise, rest, and turn off the blue screen, are we also ignoring God? If we are making these decisions by ourselves, are we listening to the body? Are we building up the body? Are we avoiding questions that need to be answered?

Fueled by for-profit interests, pharmaceutical companies and even advocates for legalization have ulterior motives that are not nearly as holy or as innocent as their commercials and speeches would have one think. I don’t want to have a “drug policy.” Call me a fundamentalist, but my doctrine is fundamentally dialogical. There are reasons to use medication, to be sure. It is a helpful technology for some people who are suffering and need help to take steps in the right direction. Medication may be the thing that motivates you to start going to therapy, which in turn might lead you to a cell, and a full life in the Body of Christ. But that’s, unfortunately, not always the case. I think we need to discern. Paul, in Romans 8, tells us to look after the weaker brother. For some people, drug use is going to be a major inhibition, for others, it won’t be. You are free to do as you want, but I think we need to consider what is best edifies the body.

Loving the world enough to save it; hating it enough to change it.

Adam Sandler’s Pixels seems weird enough to be entertaining. It is a tired story, but one that seems to be told every summer with millions and millions dollars of profit to show for it. The world is faced with its end and it’s up to a series of unlikely heroes to save it. You’ll see it in Adam Sandler’s movie, but also in Jurassic World, Independence Day 2, and even in a new Terminator movie. What are these producers really tapping into?

For those of us who love those blockbuster movies about the end of the world, they are tapping into our love for the world. We care about creation. We care about each other. We care about the fate of the universe. We want to save the world. It’s idealistic, but some of us still get enthralled and entertained by the drama of the world ending and salvific heroes. We want to be saved and we want the world to be saved too. Summer movies are all about that (and of course their trailers are released right at the end of winter when we are tired of being cooped up inside and are ready to get out).

I actually think that the United States’ statecraft takes advantage of this idea. Around election time, usually, we hear of world-ending terror and threats. It was Ebola a few months ago and the potential domestic threats of ISIS. Those things are still real and affect people today, it just seems like the U.S. propagandists lose interest once it isn’t their job on the line.

Lately, in the United States, we’ve been bombarded with messages about the dangers that Iran and its threat to Israel and the world, both by Congress and even Israel’s president. There is always an impending threat it seems, and it seems to be the same hysteria that sells movie tickets and wins elections.

We are looking for a savior of the world, perhaps because we need saving, and also just because the world is in constant threat. It was that same logic that started the War in Iraq twelve years ago, this week. We were all convinced that Iraq was a major threat to the U.S. and the world and so freshly injured off 9/11, the United States was ready to wage another war. Support for the war was through the roof. There’s nothing like a national security threat to garner political support. In fact, in March of 2003, just three days after the invasion began, George W. Bush enjoyed a 71 percent approval rating. People want to save the world and they are looking for a hero.

I think some of us got tired of the world police rhetoric. The war drug is one. More Americans were being killed. It was costing the U.S. billions of dollars. It was like the summer blockbuster movie that never ended. People only have so long of an attention span for world saving, it seems. Promises don’t get fulfilled and we become cynical. Some of us even think the thing that the world needs to be saved from are self-appointed and self-interested saviors.

For some of us, we need to be saved from the militaristic United States and the imposition of its wealth and dominance on the whole world. We don’t care very much about the fate of the world because the people saving it are actually harming it. They are using Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde to kill Pac-Man! We don’t care about the world being saved, we think it’s going to hell in a handbasket. We want to do anything but save it, we just want to survive it, and be minimally enslaved.

I think Jesus is missing from both perspectives. On one hand, lovers of the world may think that some hero, or the government, or a police force might save them. But I think Jesus is the only savior. I think Jesus is our only hope.

On the other hand, if we have no faith at all in the world, I am not sure we even think Jesus can save it. We might think it’s too far gone. But I suppose we have to open our eyes wide enough to actually see the good in the world to love it.

So what does someone do? We are talking about finding faith in the world today, but it seems to be a complicated premise, as you can see. What does a follower of Jesus do? Love the world? Hate it?

Picture1When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3, it’s an intimate, private conversation. In this honor and shame culture, Nicodemus comes by night to see Jesus and he wants to be convinced of the Way. He is open and receptive. Perhaps the most famous verse in this iconic exchange is John 3:16.

You might say that Jesus is idealistic at the start of his ministry, or at least how John portrays it. He is hopeful. God loves the world. Jesus is the offering that God is sending him to save the world—God’s only begotten son is coming not just to save us from death, but to save the whole world. He isn’t here to wish it death and doom. He isn’t here to condemn the world. In John, Jesus seems to eventually get a chip on his shoulder. But here, he seems pretty excited about the prospect of his death freeing us all of the curse.

I suppose we can be that judgmental sometimes. I know I am. There is so much in this world to condemn! So much evil in the world and so much foolishness!

I think sometimes we have Jesus to judge the evil in the world and make it right through violence. I suppose that is often how we think the world needs to be saved—through death and violence. And if we don’t trust the state to carry out its self-destruction, the least Jesus could do is bring a revolution.

But Jesus’ life is all about saving the world through death. Saving our lives by losing it. This kind of backward way of looking at the world, both carries an admiration for it, while also compelling us to change it. He is getting to know his own destiny and the challenge of life on earth.

What does it mean to lose our life in order to be glorified with Jesus? Lent is all about figuring out what we need to lose inPicture3 order to gain fullness. Jesus’ death is the ultimate example of what self-sacrifice looks like. We sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of others.

This is not an easy place to be in. In fact, Jesus seems to be struggling with his own death. He may have lived quite a satisfying life so far, in fact. It’s hard to know how comfortable Jesus was or what kind of success he enjoyed, but it seems to me like he wants to keep living. In fact, he is just in his early thirties considering his own mortality!

By the time we get to chapter 16, he is passing the cup of death and persecution to his disciples, he is conscious of how we will find trouble in this world, but also why that’s OK. He has overcome it. He has conquered it. He has gone through the trouble and persecution of this world, this world that his Father so fervently loved, and has made something new of it.

Jesus is helping disciples to find peace, oneness, unity, fullness. This world will give us trouble. This world will hate us. And we can go along hating it. We can spread the anger and the rage. We can just hate back.

Jesus’ response is love. But not just loving what is, but loving the world in order to change it.

The debate for us isn’t about preserving the world for what it is. Again, the world is filled with evil. But you aren’t. You are filled with goodness, perhaps because of your distinct separation from the world. Christian separatism isn’t enough. We have to go back. We need to go back into the storm, back into the fire, and save who we can. Maybe we can even put out the fire!

I’m not sure there is anything in this world that is worth dying for. But Jesus tells us to die to save the world. We need to let go of the idea that in this world we will find our salvation. But just because the world won’t save us, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth saving.

G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy wrote this, which I think can serve as a motivation for those of us caught in the paradox.

Picture4No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.

That truly is what Jesus brought to us. A walking contradiction. A man who was despised by the world, a man who was hated by the world, and in fact a man who, himself, was disgusted at the world’s wickedness. But also so in love with us and so in love with the world that he put his whole life on the line to save it.

What’s with all the blood?

Christians seem to always be talking about blood. Especially during Lent. We keep talking about the death of Jesus. For people not familiar with Christianity, and increasingly, people are not familiar with it. In fact, a recent anecdote I heard about the death of Christendom, involved an elementary student asking her teacher who the man on the cross was? She didn’t get indoctrinated. Christianity is losing its cultural value; in Europe, it seems like it’s long-gone. In the United States, especially in the Northeast (and Northwest), it is also dying.

People are wondering more and more about the tenets of Christianity because they aren’t being delivered through popular culture any longer. So the notion of a Palestinian dude being pinned to a cross to save humanity. Well, that just doesn’t make any sense to many people in 2015.

So, let’s start unpacking it.

The notion of sacrifice which is at the root of the Christ’s death is an old idea and not novel to Christianity.

Most of the time, animals and humans, throughout history, are satisfied to appease a god or a spirit. Sometimes sacrifices were performed in order to manipulate nature, or cause a greater harvest to come. To a postmodern person, sacrificing anything is really weird.

I mean, we still see some “sacrificial” images in the modern culture. I think the military still uses the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good in its propaganda. That is a little different than a straightforward sacrifice because it implies a mission that ends in sacrifice, and not value in sacrifice alone. But you can still see how powerful the image is.

For Christians who read the Bible, the Jewish sacrifice is probably the most known and in fact images from the Old Testament are often what color how we think about Jesus’ crucifixion. Rembrandt’s depiction of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a familiar image. The ram that God provided to take place of Isaac is a restorative and hopeful image of a loving, providing God who is faithful to the faithful. It’s a mutual relationship.

The image of Jesus being the lamb that took our place is also a very common one, often drawn from the New Testament. Like when Peter writes that we were ransomed with the precious blood of Christ—like a lamb’s. Paul tells the Corinthians we are made new in Christ’s sacrifice, our lamb. John the Baptist calls him the Lamb of God, which would clearly have meaning to his Jewish audience. That’s an important point to note, the image of the sacrificial lamb had cultural meaning to its audience, and clearly in 2015 in Philadelphia, it doesn’t carry the same meaning at all. But we still use it. Christians love doing this and we hear it in our songs all the time. It’s kind of bizarre, but we always seem to be singing about the blood of Jesus that washes us clean, lambs that are worthy to be slain. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino movie sometimes. If we aren’t conscious of how weird that can be, we might very well alienate the average person walking up Broad St.

These days people don’t even want to see their own blood and they rarely interact with it. We’ve become immune to the sight of blood. Some people even become queasy when they see it, even if it’s their own. Blood is associated with death. Vampires sucking blood kind of gave us that association. The AIDS pandemic in Africa makes many of us fearful of becoming in contact with someone’s blood. The historic practice of bloodletting was severely criticized and debunked. The idea of blood leading to restoration and life seems so far from the truth.

But for starters, rather than associating blood with death, what if we thought about it as a rejuvenating substance? In fact, we all need blood and healthy blood to survive. If we lose too much, we lose consciousness or even die. Moreover, as we share blood, we are spreading love. I suppose you could say there is enough blood to go around. It is a self-rejuvenating substance and we all need it.

One startling image I recently encountered on a NPR interview involved the new blood giving new life to an old rat. This isn’t the most pleasant image, but an older rat was stitched at the elbow with younger rat. After a few weeks the two creatures started acting like one and the younger rat’s blood literally gave new life to the older rat who began to act and think in new ways. Amazingly, the new blood changed the old rat.

That’s a way we can see the blood of Christ. It infuses us. And we become new! Paul tells the Galatians that he has been crucified with Christ, that he no longer lives, but Christ lives in us. It’s like we are stitched to Christ and he to us. Now Jesus influences us and changes us.

Moreover, as the Body of Christ and the church is infused with new blood, we change too. Sometimes the community gets too focused on itself and its problems, like a body struggling to survive. Infusing that community with new blood, young blood, next generation blood, is good for its revitalization.

So let’s consider a new friend as new blood to us, a new way to revitalize us. Let’s think of Jesus’ blood as binding us together, redeeming us, and changing us. I think everyone feels better when we are inclusive.

The transformation of inclusion

Andrew Yang’s particularly interesting and engaging talk last night at the public meeting got me thinking about the church at large. Andrew was talking about why the church was a force that could resist and restore throughout the world, even if it is imperfect, and can fight the systems of oppression.

It got me thinking about why I love the church and why I am part of the church. Immediately what came to mind was my study of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory. In Ronald Richardson’s excellent book Becoming A Healthier Pastor, he makes the point that doing research into one’s own family is an important way to achieve the self-differentiation necessary for health. In other words, knowing more about where we came from and who we are helps us become our own persons. Sometimes in family systems the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that such objective research is impossible and it can lead to “cut-offs.”

I fear that in the church, we eventually get too anxiously disappointed that we “cut off.” We leave the family, we leave the system, we get over it. The United States specializes in this individualism. We don’t want to be a part of our own family, we want to go it alone. We are Lone Stars. We are Han Solo. We don’t need a savior, because we save ourselves, and we certainly don’t need a community.

Effective organizations (like the military or ISIS or Comcast) have figured out that doing something together with mutuality is often more effective than doing it alone. The church seems to be caught in its in-fighting so frequently that it can’t organize to change the world or transform people. We don’t include people into our family because we are ashamed of the insecurities. On the other hand, we could try to include someone and just cover up all of the problems, like my mother making sure the house is Spic-And-Span before company comes over. Part of that is hospitality, but the other part is trying to maintain an unreasonable sense of honor, really.

When we so often see evil working out in the collective, like the insurance companies, or a media conglomerate, or a police force, we tend to not burden individuals with their own sin. For example, we might not consider our insurance salesman to be responsible for enslaving us to these greedy, opportunistic corporations. Heck, we might not even burden Barack Obama for his deadly and immoral drone campaign! All of these people, we could say, are merely victims of a system.

Andrew was making the point that often people are involved in a sinful life without even knowing it. For example, a cop might not know that he is enforcing a racist policy when he profiles or stops-and-frisks. So merely calling him a racist or accusing him of something, while it could be true, might not be an effective way to help him change.

The big question for us is this: Does “institutional change” happen at a personal level?

On one hand, perhaps not: killing Hitler doesn’t end the Holocaust. On the other hand, if Jesus transforms the lives of enough people, real change can happen.

I suppose that is really why I love the church. It’s an incubator for transformation. People can be made new in Jesus through his Body. Killing Hitler may not have stopped the Holocaust, but what if he were a Christian?

Some of you are reading this and saying: Hitler claimed to be a Christian and look what happened. In fact, many evil people that made things worse claimed to be believers too. Are you saying there are “good” and “bad” versions of Christianity or even Christians? I’m not sure. And I really only want to speak for Circle of Hope right now, which I think is a good and transformative expression of the Body of Christ. Perhaps made better by you. Moreover, everyone “in the church” also needs to undergo transformation continually too. We are all being made better, not just by our own virtues and motivation, but the leader of the whole church, Jesus Christ. One of the reasons that postmodern relativism is subverted in the church is because we aren’t led by our own version of morality. Prejudicial cops and war hawks consider themselves “moral” too. To quote Walter Sobchak: “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

I suppose that’s why the church “works” or at least why it can, if it submits itself to Jesus and not its own agenda. If it includes others to transform them, not merely to tolerate them, then I think we can be effective at creating the alternative to the domination system, to those powers that Paul says, in Ephesians, that our fight is against.

What I’m learning from the serial dramas

I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine about how I use pop culture. It was interesting to reflect back on TV shows that I watch and how I use them for the sake of Jesus. I certainly enjoy the media for entertainment value, but there’s more to the story. I learn a lot about how people relate by what they consume. In fact, it seems like Netflix captivates people more than the living God does sometimes, so certainly there is something to learn in that. For one thing, I learn that people desire connection. They want to relate and they want to belong. It is not so easy to find that. In Downton Abbey, so much of the identity of both the aristocrats and the servants in rooted in the grand estate, which is not adapting to the new British economy. They enjoy their lives because their lives are Downton. When Downton ceases to exist, what kind of existential crisis will they face? For Christians, we find our hope and identity, not in something as fleeting as an estate, or a church, or even our jobs. We find our hope in Jesus. As the aristocrats and the servants who are nominally connected to the Anglican church (God seems to be a character that’s totally missing from Downton’s plot) try to find hope in what will fade, I think our hope is in Jesus and our belonging is in his body. I hate to be so negative, and I love Philadelphia, but I’m not here for craft beer, cheesesteaks, and its incompetent sports teams (all of them after Chip Kelly’s free agent moves this year). I’m here because Philadelphia is where I have a home, a community, and a mission. Certainly, those things could go away, but the Lord led me here, not an estate. Another thing I notice is that people actually want faith. In The Americans and House of Cards, it seems like God compels the characters quite a bit. Paige, a daughter of Russian spies in The Americans, is beginning her faith journey, much to her atheist parents’ dismay. But they are finding a common ground, particularly in their anti-U.S. military thoughts. In House of Cards, even the heinous Frank Underwood, questions God and how to lead like Jesus, even as President. It seems to me like the writers of the show are tapping into the fact that people are made to relate to God, and it shows even in these simple examples. Moreover, people want another chance. Don Draper in Mad Men and Walter White in Breaking Bad are trying to reinvent themselves—become new creations, if you will. Don Draper is literally becoming a different person (and dealing with the cost of not repenting as a path to transformation). Walter White wants so bad to be respected and affirmed, and take vengeance on his old opportunistic partners, he breaks bad, selling meth to make ends meet as he slowly crawls to his cancerous end. But, far and away, more than anything else that I notice in pop culture is that it helps me understand social construction. These days, that is the rule of society. I just mentioned Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but coupled with Walking Dead, The Americans, and House of Cards, there is no clear protagonist in the story. Everyone is hateable, yet still likeable. We fall for characters and accept them for who they are, not who they are becoming. They create their own realities. We are sympathetic and justifying of a drunk cheater in Draper. A sociopathic meth dealer endears us because of his earnestness and because of the evil of his enemies. Two Russian spies who are ruthless killers inspire us because of their patriotism (not to mention that the entire show is reconstructing the Cold War). I find myself rooting for Frank Underwood mainly because I have gotten to know him. We are inspired not by stories of transformation, but stories of acceptance. Though some of us cringe at Draper and Walter White, these manboys, who are not truly grown up, still entertain us and as a result, we accept them. Ironically, our most discerning quality as we consume all of TV is how entertaining it is. I suppose that is the ultimate barometer for our consumption. We look at aggregate review websites, get friends’ recommendations, so that we are assured that our experience is as best as possible. Whatever it does to our minds and souls, well, that might just the cost of the fun of the television. I want us to develop critical eyes for what we are watching, at least that is the start. Rather than mindlessly consuming what the advertisers and executives tell you to, why not think about it? Try writing a little about the shows you watch. Talking about them with your friends, or even listing out what you liked and didn’t like, what reminded you of God and what isn’t can be helpful too. I think you may find some good reason to know what the culture is consuming, and it might make you a little more relatable.

Nietzsche misses the point: Jesus changes our desire

nietzscheFor some of us, Lent is about darkness and grieving. Some of us can’t bear the oppression and condemnation that is associated with Lent or Christianity at large. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like how wicked we are became a prominent feature of Christianity. So much so, that postmodernists like Nietzsche relativized what wickedness was in a way to subvert Christianity and our own morality.

Nietzsche argued that we had to find it within ourselves to become who we really are—we had to embrace our envy, and use it to allow us to move in the direction we desire. He thought Christian morality was merely circumstantial. Christians were too cowardly to embrace what they really wanted (money, sex, power, brilliance), and so they sided on purity, goodness, and forgiveness. Nietzsche gave birth to the idea that what we desire is the root of our own morality, and Christians are just too weak and dumb to figure that out. Though he thought faith was a good way to cope with the horrors of life and lamented the death of God, he thought Christianity was as much of a sedative as alcohol was, numbing us to our pain.

Nietzsche’s caricaturizing of the church sticks with us. The church’s reputation as an institution that oppresses populations that it condemns isn’t just derived from Nietzsche’s philosophy but it certainly re-enforced the point. And it lingers with us today even as we may resist Lent. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s criticism didn’t free us of our pain, it just noted that the church isn’t helping.

Nietzsche’s salvation comes from giving in to one’s envy and doing what it takes to become who we are. As many of us know, consciousness about our desire does not necessarily give us that desire, nor is it really what we want. The “Christian Guilt” that is so often stereotypically associated with the Catholic Church and its confessions is rooted in some truth of people’s experience and I think that stays with our culture today. You can see why someone, like Nietzsche, and all of the people he influences, would think that Christianity is oppressive and Lent is oppressive.

But I want to undo that negative thinking about the Church and Christianity and Lent. Galatians can help us. Paul’s letter togalatians Galatia, probably the southern region of the Roman province in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey, makes a major Pauline theological point: faith that justifies us in front of God—not our actions.

The backdrop of the epistle to the Galatians is the Council of Jerusalem, which is cited in Acts 15 as well. The basic discussion the apostles are having during the council revolves around Jewish purity laws. They are debating whether circumcision and other matters of the old Jewish Law are merely cultural or should all Christians adhere to them? Paul, in Galatians as he does in Romans, makes an appeal to Christians to be an inclusive group of people who do not let cultural limitations and obstacles stand in the way of someone’s salvation, circumcision being the one most frequently cited.

In fact, in chapter three, he makes quite possibly one of the most inclusive statements heard in the entire world at the time, famously uttering that we are all one in Jesus—we are children of God. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Paul uses some of the most colorful language in Galatians to describe the extreme opposition he has to dogmatizing cultural constructs and social norms and mores. In other words, if we make a list of rules that people need to adhere to be saved, we are missing the whole point of the message. He is making this argument specifically to the Galatians because of their insistence of conflating Jewish custom with Christian salvation.

Paul, in Galatians, is making a point that our faith transcends culture. That it is about revelation, and is not merely a cultural artifact. That all are welcome to participate in it. In fact, he is saying that Christianity is a pluralistic faith, welcome to all people, and not just limited to Jewish people. In fact, he is reminding us of our own proverb in Circle of Hope: All cultures are fallen, yet Jesus reveals God in all of them. The church does not need to force people to leave all aspects of their culture in order to worship God through Jesus Christ. The temptation with such a radical statement is to denude our diversity and our personalities and who we are as people, in order to fully submit to Jesus. Paul is not making the argument that the things that make us individuals are not valuable, they are simply not required. Paul is saying, like Nietzsche in fact, that we are destined to become who we are in Christ. But Paul’s identity is wrapped up in Christ Jesus, just like all of ours is. We are our true self in Jesus.

Our current idea of self-worth and self-love is not often referenced in the Bible mainly because of that kind of concept wasn’t even in the local vernacular at the time. Sometimes Christians quote Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as a way of arguing for the Scriptural proof of self-love, but I’m not sure Jesus meant that, and I don’t want to force a 19th Century concept into a 1st Century Palestinian mind. The scripture cannot mean to us what it would have never meant to its audience. With that said, when we read the end of Galatians 2, we see something that helps us care for ourselves, which I think is at the root of Lent.

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

Paul says that his old self no longer lives. Indeed, it is Christ that lives among us. The self-sacrificing servant. We are mourning our distance from God who transformed us during Lent, and we are feeling the worth and the love that he gives us and moving closer to him.

Undoing the patterns of our old self is a challenge. The Jewish Galatians know that as they force everyone to obey their cultural standards. But we are fighting toward a sense of our new selves and our true selves. We are moving closer to God. If you think you are a dope, I think you will have trouble being redeemed. If you think lent is all about realizing how terrible you are, you might not ever get better. Lent is about learning how much you are worth and then striving for that worth in totality. Nietzsche thought that Christians were too weak to assert themselves, and they called that goodness. That they couldn’t actually take revenge on someone, so they called that forgiveness. That they hated sex, so they invented purity. But living in a selfless way is ultimately the best way to find our self-worth. Those actions that Nietzsche thought were so stupid are in fact Christ living in us. We end our enslavement to the Law that regulates what we should do and not do, because Jesus transforms our desire. Our old self is crucified with Him and our new and true self is resurrected!

This Lenten season let us strive to “no longer live,” but allow Christ to live in us. Because Christ lives in all of us, we can be radically inclusive. Our new identity is formed, so all of the world’s identity constructs are welcome. We are all worth something. We are all children of God. Jesus, himself, is the great equalizer. We are made new—Christ lives in us. And, as Paul concludes his passage, we now live in our bodies—actively. We are actually living right now. We aren’t just redeemed for a later time or enslaved to the Law because wickedness would dominate us otherwise. We are transformed and now positioned to do something great in the Body of Christ. Lent is all about having faith that God transformed us; new faith in ourselves.