Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Palm Sunday and Nonviolent Living

A weaponless, army-less liberator rides into the violent polis on a colt. Is he crazy?

WATCH CLOSELY NOW. It is not likely you have ever before heard this take on Palm Sunday. Here it is: in theological and anthropological terms, I imagine Palm Sunday to be as much about ushering in nonviolence as anything. 

NAIVE SOCIAL MOMENT? Palm Sunday is at once an outwardly na├»ve social moment and at the same time an inwardly authentic signal of a new way of living and leading.  It is not that Jesus has not thoroughly exemplified nonviolence before now. It is that he is now allowing himself to be publicly declared Messiah in the heart of the polis and the stakes are ever so much higher. Watch him ever so closely now. Strain to observe as he faces his foes and darkest hours having completely renounced violence inside and out.

SIGNAL AND CONFIRMATION. His disarming and symbolic procession into the city on a colt amid shouts of "Hosanna!" isn't just a stunt. Renunciation of violence is heard in Jesus' voice and seen in his actions throughout his last week. The profound shift Palm Sunday signals is confirmed in what we call Holy Week. The nonviolent way of living and leadership Jesus has taught in the towns and rural areas is manifested in the city center and in the crucible of power. Even Jesus' effort to drive religious profiteers (mere pawns of a corrupt system) out of the temple should be taken as a near comical expression of the futility of violence. What does it accomplish? 

STRENGTH TO LOVE. But never mistake nonviolence for weakness. Jesus is not at all powerless as he enters Jerusalem. It becomes clear as the week advances, even as the cross is planted and the tomb is sealed, that Jesus is the controlling enigma. His chosen response to intimidation, pressure, accusations, betrayal, desertion, condemnation, suffering, violence, and even death is a nonviolent nonresistance based on love. It is not about giving in to fate or conceding anything. Instead, it is about exercising power that is nothing more or less than faith and trust in a loving God to bring meaning and life to one's existence, journey and mission.

ON AN EXCEPTIONAL PEDESTAL? When it comes to thinking of nonviolence as a way of life, it is a mistake to set Jesus on a heroic pedestal. It is a mistake to think of his actions as exemplary, exceptional, unique, and unrepeatable. It is a mistake to surmise that Jesus' pattern is not intended for our own lives or social and political behaviors. It is a mistake to sentimentally accept Jesus as personal savior and Lord, but immediately bracket and set aside the very core of his witness and pattern. It is erroneous to think of Jesus' nonviolence as limited to--and intended only for--his redemptive acts on our behalf.  How can it be that we want his forgiveness and laud his sacrificial life, but are not willing to live nonviolently, nonresistantly, lovingly, trustingly, powerfully ourselves?  Is this not, in the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer's phrase, "cheap grace?"

SAYING ONE THING, LIVING ANOTHER. For all our words, worship, songs, and altruistic actions, when it comes to the most powerful aspects of Jesus' witness, do we imitate Jesus? We say we trust God, but do we make a mockery of faith in God's name before the world? We act as if we are certain the future of the world is best left in our self-defending hands and in our calculating control--better yet, in the hands of self-serving politicians and power brokers who give lip service to Christianity but live and act by the same power sources as did the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate. And we bless them.

CHOOSE YOUR POWER SOURCES CAREFULLY. In Jesus, particularly in his so-called triumphal entry scenario, we are challenged to continuously renounce our violence every day in every encounter. We are given opportunity to renounce the subtlest uses of threats, intimidation, controlling, fear, and shaming. We are invited to let go of the impulse to be self defensive or to coerce others for the sake of keeping the peace or promoting just causes. Whether the arena is our household or the global stage, the opportunity is the same. We are shown how to live from a different place in our soul when it comes to making decisions, facing violence, and exercising power. It is a place of strength, the strength to love. So, choose your sources of power carefully.

A ROAD LESS TRAVELED. Nonviolence is not easy. Folks try hard to be nonviolent. It takes more energy and determination than going with the flow of violence that defines our culture. It is a road less traveled. It is marching to a different drumbeat. Sometimes we can be quite militant in our vigilant commitment to nonviolence, to the point of taking on a violent spirit. I am convinced that a commitment to and actions for nonviolence are not enough. Renunciation is pointless if not for a surpassing love that transcends violence and endues us with a higher power, a life-giving source.

AN EMBRACED TRANSCENDENT LOVE. Nonviolence apart from an embraced transcendent love remains mere idealism. It is right, but only partly so. Renouncing violence is unsustainable personally and socially in merely humanistic terms. Without a spiritually inward transformation, I am not sure that as a social agenda it will work. It seems to me that nonviolence can only lead to shalom if violence is supplanted by agape love.

LOVE AND VIOLENCE. But why is it that many who claim the name and love of God never renounce violence? Why do we not include personal and institutional violence when we declare, in the great confession, that "we renounce Satan and all his works?" Why do we continue to live in reflection of a violent god? Why is the spirit and example of Jesus on Palm Sunday and Holy Week not incorporated into the pattern and practice of our lives--personally and collectively? This remains an open question for me. It puzzles me. It keeps me looking forward.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Death March?

Our trek through Lent journeys with Jesus in a celebration—not a denial—of life

CROSS WALK. Lent tracks with Jesus as he sets out resolutely for Jerusalem...and a cross. But even after he began to walk and talk disturbingly about his and his followers' crosses, everywhere he went life broke through. 

PARADOX OF THE CROSS. The way to the cross is filled with paradox--hope intersects despair, understanding intersects confusion, promise intersects pain, life intersects death. It would be a mistake to walk through Lent--or any other season of life--with a somber heaviness, as if on a death march.

TWISTED IMAGERY. How does one march to death? Marching, after all, is most often an imagery robust with triumph and pageantry--with music of bands and prancing of horses and rows of rhythm-stepping regiments. Most often a march celebrates a victory, graces a holiday, or highlights heroic efforts.

ANOTHER'S AGONY. But not a few marches truly have the stench of death. One group's triumph is another's agony. Our family lived for a few years in Oklahoma, where Native Americans were marched from their homelands in what is now called the Trail of Tears. Many died along the way. I ponder 65-year-old photos of French spectators weeping despairingly as Nazi tanks and troops rolled into a Paris pounded into submission. History is full of prisoner-of-war and ethnic-purging marches that served to grind oppressed people into oblivion.

BREATHTAKING JOURNEY. But Jesus' march toward Jerusalem was neither morbid nor despairing. Though one of his disciples resignedly said "Let us also go with him that we may die with him," he did not understand either the spirit in which Jesus journeyed or the redemptive mission he resolved to fulfill. Jesus’ trek was no denial of life; nor is ours. The journey will be as breathtaking as heart-rending, as life-giving as disturbing. Let us grapple with the specter of the cross in light of the hope and life and grace that loom larger on the horizon.

CHRIST'S TRIUMPHAL PROCESSION. The Apostle Paul writes in terms of a marching procession: 
"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Who, indeed?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Poetry of Lent

Let's not be so morose about our 40-day journey

The poetry of Lent tends to be

Still, it can be poetry of

We cannot feign

So, let us
toward the Cross.

Rather than toiling

Let us stride
where Jesus leads.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Love: Openness to God, Openness to People

Kallistos Ware's statement strikes me as helpful and corrective

"This idea of openness to God, openness to other persons, could be summed up under the word love. We become truly personal by loving God and by loving other humans. By love, I don’t mean merely an emotional feeling, but a fundamental attitude. In its deepest sense, love is the life, the energy, of God himself in us. We are not truly personal as long as we are turned in on ourselves, isolated from others. We only become personal if we face other persons, and relate to them."

This quote by Kallistos Ware, the best modern-era articulator of Orthodox faith, came across my email inbox today in "The Daily Dig" from Plough Publishing.

This statement works on me, works me over.

The statement is common sense. But it is at the same time a corrective for many of us who earnestly try to be holy, to connect with God, to be tuned in spiritually. And, those of us who presume to lead others in spiritual formation--pastors, teachers, counselors, mentors, disciplers, faith leaders, theology professors.

Strangely, in the pursuit of godliness, many of us have gone through stages of being less than loving and even careless regarding people. We think we are being holy and leading people into holiness by preaching and teaching a "God first" policy. But "God first" priorities actually reflect an ungodly dualism. One is not above the other or at the expense of the other.

Jesus was pretty clear about the damning outcome of using devotion to God or deeper spirituality to excuse oneself (or a community of faith) from not being so attentive or responsive to loved ones and neighbors. 

Delivering sermons is not delivering people. Leading people in worship on Sunday does not supplant or supercede leading in loving neighbors and communities.

John Wesley, the forebear of my own theological stream, not only defined holy living as loving God and loving neighbor, but declared "there is no holiness but social holiness."

Kallistos Ware makes the point that only by loving people do we "become truly personal," or truly human--fully alive--ourselves.

Clearly, healthy spirituality--healthy living--translates love for God with love for neighbor. It's never either/or or one above the other. It's always co-equal--however difficult this sometimes seems. Loving neighbors is a lot messier and riskier than loving God. A faith community trying to love a neighborhood can be frustrating and at times feel all but impossible. We don't get to pick and choose neighbors. We just don't. Whoever they are, who we become depends on how we regard and treat them. 

Loving enemies, as Jesus compelled, gets crazier still. That could turn our world upside down.

Loving God, loving people. I take it as a fresh challenge to hold these two equally in heart and action. Come what may. 

So, God help me.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA