A Name Gained, A Deed Lost

“My criticism of the church is that you [study] the Gospels and then you go out and you don’t fight for them… If you define the anti-Christ as that movement which essentially defies everything Christ stood for, then, to me, the Christian right is the anti-Christ. It promotes greed, it’s the gospel of prosperity — Jesus comes to fulfill your material wants — it’s chauvinistic, it demonizes the other, all of which, I think, are absolutely contrary to the fundamental message of the Gospels.

-Chris Hedges

Sermon on the Plain

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” Luke 6:46

Jesus asks this question following his most radical sermon. The Sermon on the Plain. What stuck out to me after seeing this question, was why it was being asked in the first place. It is clear Christ was concerned with those who called upon his name, yet denied his message.

My last blog post was a personal modern rendition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this passage from the Sermon on the Plain, we are given the full revelation of the truth in Dostoevsky’s poem. A truth taken straight from the mouth of Jesus.

The message that Christ gives in the Sermon on the Plain is the message that nobody of my background wants to hear. Someone of my background is more interested in Romans where Paul explains the triumph of the elect. Or in Genesis, at Sodom and Gomorrah where the wicked are destroyed. Or possibly in Joshua where the Israelites conquer the evil Canaanites. We like the Bible when it makes us the victors. We like the Bible when God destroys the “bad” people, and honors the “good” people. This is one of the reasons why we are so obsessed with the idea of heaven and hell. We can’t wait for all these evil people on the earth to receive their rightful punishment. And while there is little we can do on this sinful earth, someday we know God will allow us to triumph.

But what happens when Jesus brings a new perspective? Unfortunately for someone like me, the message of Christ doesn’t seem to relate very well. Christ says blessed are the poor – My wife and I have a television in our apartment. When we want something else for our apartment, we go out and get it with little concern. If I wanted to, I could wear a different shirt every day for three or four weeks. If my shoes aren’t comfortable enough, I get new ones… Christ says blessed are the hungry – I eat three meals every day. When Carrie and I want to go out to eat to get a better fill, we do it. During Thanksgiving… well I’ll just stop there… Christ said blessed are you who weep – I do little weeping, and if I do it’s usually because I’m laughing so hard… Christ said blessed are those who are hated, excluded, and reviled – I am a white, straight, male in America. In other words, I am the member of a people that have willingly conquered those who were less powerful for the sake of riches, resources, religion, and empire.

I am not poor. I am not hungry. I am not weeping. I am not hated, excluded or reviled. I am rich. I have a full belly. Most of the time I’m happy. I am not part of any group that has been labeled deviant in our society. Yet, I did not do anything special to be where I am. I was born into a family that showed me how to work hard. I was born into a family that had money, food, resources, and entertainment. I have always been part of the in-group. I did not have parents in jail. I have parents that love me.

My point is, I have been set up to succeed in this world. I have always been loved and treated properly. For those of us who are in the same position that I am in, the most difficult thing is to recognize this. We don’t want to say that we are privileged. That would be offensive to all the hard work I have done my whole life. We don’t want to say that we are part of some in-group. That would make it more difficult to define someone outside of the in-group as being, “bad,” “wicked,” or “sinful.” We don’t want any outsiders coming near our homeland because that would be a threat to our safety and our success.

One thing I’ve realized is that people like me are incredibly afraid. We are so afraid that we might lose our positions as “successful” people. We are afraid someone else might take our spot. We tremble at the thought of being revealed as someone who didn’t actually earn everything they got.

And so we discriminate. We label “sinners,” and “right-and-wrongers.” We make everything about competition because if it is a competition, we know the winners will always be the people with lots of money. People who fit the in-group. People who have the most resources. People that the system was built for. We seek as much as possible to maintain the existing structures and systems that keep us in power. And we wage war against any threats to that.

But what is so startling about this reality is how contradictory it is to the message of Christ. I have come to realize that Christians like Paul better than Christ. Christ’s message is just a little too radical for us. We love the idea of Christ and we love to label ourselves as Christ-followers, but when it comes to the messages that say “woe to the rich,” and “blessed are the poor and excluded,” we only care about those enough to put a check in the offering plate at church that will send some missionaries over to another country. And to love our enemies? Yeah Jesus is love, we like to say that. But we don’t want to love those who disagree with our political agenda. We don’t want to love those who practice Islam. Christ critiques the rich a little too much for our liking. He sides with the poor a little too much. He’s a little too involved in the lives of the sinners. Really, he seems to like sinners too much for us.

As long as Christ is a threat to our status in society, the church will continue to ignore his radical message. The church will not ignore the figure of Christ. There will always be a cross, and there will also always be Christians attempting to coerce others into believing in Jesus so that person will be saved and not condemned forever in hell. The name “Jesus” will never fade away from the church. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t ignoring what Christ told us to do.

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

An Old Parable Revisited

A look into Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous parable

ReThinking Thinking

“I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity… And yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days… One because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

cc0293e737ce19c6b991aa0191f66123--ilya-repin-russian-painting

In 1880, Fyodor Dostoevsky finished what would be his final and most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. While reading the book, two back to back chapters completely reworked how I understood the world (the book has also had profound effects on many others like…

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An Old Parable Revisited

“I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity… And yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days… One because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

cc0293e737ce19c6b991aa0191f66123--ilya-repin-russian-painting

In 1880, Fyodor Dostoevsky finished what would be his final and most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. While reading the book, two back to back chapters completely reworked how I understood the world (the book has also had profound effects on many others like Friedrich Nietzsche, Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, Martin Sheen, Cormac McCarthy, Noam Chomsky, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others). These two chapters, called ‘Rebellion’ and ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ are considered by many the two greatest chapters in literary history. Carol Appolonio, a professor of the Practice of Russian at Duke University says this about Dostoevsky and his work particularly relating to these sections:

“You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket?… Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe! His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood.”

Dostoevsky takes it upon himself in these two chapters to see how the thing which he held most dear, his faith in Christ, would hold up against the most powerfully opposing arguments that could be constructed. He uses his most intellectually proficient character, Ivan Karamazov, an athiest, to construct the most critical examination of a belief in Christ. I am going to focus here on ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter. I encourage you to read The Brothers Karamazov if you ever get the chance, but if not, at least check out this chapter. It will rock your world. Because I believe that this chapter focuses so heavily on issues that are just as common today as they were in 1880 Russia, I would like to write my own rendition of this parable, set today in America. Keep in mind Dostoevsky’s version is far more elaborate and philosophical, but I will try to simplify it in order to relate it to today.

“My story begins in 21st century America, where America and the world are surviving through some of the most divisive and devastating times. Mass killings seem to be a regular, while hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires destroy people’s homes, families, and lives across America. The people are destructively divided. With protests being responded to by counter protests, and people screaming hopelessly at their leaders; it becomes difficult to imagine the world in any sense of light. But one day, Christ comes to earth.

“He comes softly, unobserved, and yet everybody recognizes him. People are irresistibly drawn to him, they surround him, they follow him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in his heart, light and power shine from his eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He approaches them in their riches and in their poverty, in their sickness and their health, in their criminality and in their lawful obedience. He approaches the unwanted, the untouchable, the unapproachable. He heals the sick, pardons the sinner, and claims the unwanted.

“As Christ is among the people, he is called out by a great leader among the church. Christ is told to come with him, and he follows. The great church leader brings Christ to his church. A church of the biggest congregation, the most beautiful structure, and the greatest of influences. He brings Christ up the stairs to a room at the top of the enormous church. He leads him into a dark, quiet room. A room that seemingly no one has been in for some time.

“The leader is old and wrinkled, and seems to have a burning anger in his heart.

‘Are you truly the one? The one that is told to return among us? Is it truly you?’

Christ sits in silence.

‘What have you to say? I know in fact what it is you would say. And I have no interest in hearing it. We have tried your way of life. It does not work for us. I’m sure you know that soon after you left we escaped anything resembling your calling for us. It was too difficult. You didn’t give us the answers we wanted. You didn’t give us what we needed. All we could do was suffer, starve, and wither away. You say freedom? To hell with freedom. You rejected bread, claiming man does not live on bread but on the Word of God? You failed to give us pure proof that you are God? You refuse to give us a kingdom that expands as far as the eye can see? I’m sorry to claim that you, in fact, were quite wrong in what you offered to us. Man does not want freedom. Man just wants the bread. Man just wants the proof. Man wants a kingdom. Man wants a system that they can be a part of that explains everything they are supposed to do. Man wants to be part of something that is not so ambiguous as the message you chose to offer to us.

“‘Luckily, we – the church – have, along with our country, taken on this role. If we would have spent our entire lives choosing to follow your message, we would be in utter disarray. That is why I had to stop you as quickly as I could. You cannot be blessing the poor! Don’t you realize all they do is take other people’s hard earned money? Don’t you realize that these are the lazy people of this world who merely refuse to work and take on the benefits they get from those who choose to work hard? How can you be out among those people? And how can you be hanging out with the criminals? These are the people who are deliberately choosing to behave outside of what we have deemed right. These people have no regard for the law! And I heard you were with the homosexuals and the sexually impure? Don’t you realize that these people are the enemies of the church? It is not our goal to walk along side these people but to cast them out! Far out! And what was it you were doing with the blacks? Do you not realize that these people are but criminals who are blatantly unpatriotic? And the refugees? These people are a serious threat to our safety! Don’t you know that these people are radical Islamic terrorists? We cannot welcome these people as you choose to do. Again, it is no wonder we chose to disregard what you offered to us. And the immigrants! These people are taking our jobs and committing heinous acts of terror against us! How in the world could you walk among these people?

Christ continued to sit in silence.

“We have learned over the last 17 centuries that what you have called us to simply will not work. Your name still carries influence, so we use it, but we have disregarded your teachings. While you chose to give us freedom, we have chosen to give security. We give people a clear understanding of how they are supposed to act. We give people the security of an enormous military defense. We give to those who obey us, and throw out those who do not. This is what people want. They want to see those who are wrong suffer, and those who are right succeed. People don’t want a church that has no ambition of national pride. People want God and country to be lumped into the same sentence. Yet, you chose against that. And in doing this, you chose everything that the church and nation are trying to fix. You were wrong! Don’t you see? People want security! This is what we are giving! This is what we are offering! And look at our massive following! But your message is a lost contradiction of reality! It does no good for anyone! And this is why we cannot allow you out there. Don’t you see the suffering? Don’t you see the pain? We are eradicating it! But you have chosen the contrary! Do you not see!? Will you not answer!? Do you not see the pain and the suffering!? Answer me!’

“The old man saw that Jesus had been listening intently the whole time, looking gently at his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something. His face was full of grief as it seemed he had the entire weight of the world upon his shoulders. He fell to his knees sobbing. At that instant, Christ approached the man in silence, and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. This was all his answer.

“The old man shuddered. He went to the door, opened it and said to Christ, ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let him go out into the dark alleys of the town.”