A God Who Suffers and Why the Crucifixtion Might Be the Least Important Part of Jesus’ Story

The Holocaust was a major obstacle for modern Christian theology. The body count was too high, the treatment too brutal, the target too specific, the apathy too apparent. What answer could possibly be given for a God that allows atrocities on the scale that occurred in concentration camps, often at the hands of Christians? This was not war. It was the murder of six million Jews and three million others who were from minority groups or were sympathizers. They were defenseless. The answers to the questions for why certain things happen to certain people were no longer adequate. Nobody could reason away that such abuse was God’s Will or was for the best; those regular platitudes Christians mistakenly offer so often as solace, not realizing the weight it places on the victim, become apparent in their inadequacies in this situation. It would have been impossible for the symbol of the cross to not raise questions and dilemmas about God for Christianity.

Traditional theology teaches that, “…God does not will suffering directly. Rather, having created a world with its own natural laws, a world, moreover, where human beings have free will, God allows or permits disaster to happen… Even when suffering is unjustly inflicted on the innocent, God allows it out of respect for human freedom. No matter what happens, God will bring good out of evil in the end.” (Johnson, 51) But this kind of modern theism almost takes God out of most of the story; placing the Trinity only at the beginning and the end. It reinforces this distant, uninvolved Creator that shook off the dust once the work of creation was complete. Furthermore, it creates the perception that if things aren’t fair now, it is okay because God will make it alright in the end. This can be dangerously manipulated to justify the act of doing nothing, of promising reward in the next life instead of seeking justice for God’s creations now.

That answer was, not surprisingly, inadequate to many. The inhumanity that occurred within the concentration camps (and the US unwillingness to be involved until forced, the Japanese internment, the brutality on all war fronts, the Rape of Nanking, nuclear bombs, etc.) made people all over the world question their understanding of Christians and their Trinity. Christian theology and the cross had to take into account the suffering of the people in a way that did not have God as a distant, top of the pyramid Lord indifferent to the suffering of man. Additionally, presenting God as someone who sacrifices His own undeserving Son would translate extremely poorly to those who lost loved ones in the War and in camps. It makes no sense without the context of the resurrection (which was often a theistic after thought). Atheism provides an unfortunately reasonable response to an indifferent God that creates Christians who are okay with torturing and murdering millions of men, women and children. Not surprisingly, faith in God is not at its all-time high in countries that went through the World Wars. And yet there is an even better answer to the issue of the crucifixion in ideas like Dorothee Solle.

Dorothee, a German Lutheran theologian who visited Auschwitz, is described in Quest for the Living God as coming “…to the realization that rather than being a dominating force or an ineffective form of love, divine power is a creative, noncompelling, life-giving good. This is power that flows through relationships bringing others to life, power as love.” (Johnson, 64) To her, God isn’t this omnipotent God, whose main attribute is power and whose primary concern is over who wields power and who submits. God also isn’t impotent love, dying helplessly on the cross, weaponless and without any power. God instead elects to sacrifice and suffer with humanity, and the full story of the cross is in the resurrection because it brings hope to those in the world who themselves are a member of the crucified. ”None of this Christian theologizing is meant to remove the terror of the Holocaust from the Jews… But the God who shared in the suffering and death of the cross and brought the power of life to bear in the resurrection of Jesus Christ was there, suffering in the death camps.” (Johnson, 64)

There were, as mentioned, other theological paths that could be taken following WWII; this is just one solution. However, if the idea isn’t the distance, absence, or indifference of God then another option is that God was present in the concentration camps, beside those who suffered or even suffering with them and hope rests not in endless suffering but in a God that resurrects those that suffer injustice. This is, right now, an aspect of God that resonates with me. A God that takes sides, whose power within his human story lies in his teachings, his life and in his power to be resurrected out of an unjust death and yet to be present with us always. In other words, the Trinity, who I’ve come to see most simplistically as The Giver, The Gift, and the Giving. But more on that later…

Prayer to Abba and Video

Hello, Abba. Tonight I give thanks for our relationship. For your pursuit and love. But Father, I have been feeling like a lost sheep lately. I feel like I am in a swirl of many voices who tell me what Your voice says. At first our relationship was a lot of receiving and now it feels like I can’t feel that part of you anymore. Abba, I feel and see your love for others. Fill me with your love, comfort me. I am not so old in this faith and need your help to lift some of the burdens I bring from my earthly relationships into ours. I am learning from you. I love you, Abba, and give thanks for your care. Amen.

 Disclaimer: this video is borrowed from Crossroads YouTube. If this hits home, you might want to check out the Daddy Issues Series.

God is Entrepreneurial

I went to a Christian entrepreneurial conference late last week,  the Unpolished Conference in Cincinnati, and it really made me think. The truth is,  I’m not particularly entrepreneurial. I would say walking away from it I’ve learned what I really enjoy and am best at is helping expand, execute and realize the ideas of others as well as problem solve. And yet I also do some very entrepreneurial things. Why is that?

I think it is because if we are in a deep relationship with God, we feel called to do things that are far beyond our current resources, require abnormal risk, and often either grows us or fulfills a need within our community. My friend, who doesn’t see herself as a home builder or entrepreneur, bought land and is looking at ways to build in the city. A man I know who is resistant to growing his business (he is a liberator of God’s people, providing transportation to the disabled) opened up to the idea of adding a person and is now seeing the abundance God provides on the other side of His promise. I feel called to do an art installation project to create a deeper sense of community in Cincinnati (a project of which I am wholly unqualified for) but it will grow me outside the corporate world.

I think if you asked any of us if these are things we particularly want to do, we would probably tell you we were instead doing what we felt called to do. That doesn’t change the entrepreneurial characteristics required of us. It just means we lean less into ourselves and more into God and our community, giving the glory to them.

Prayer for God’s Love

Abba, the depths and span of your goodness, wisdom, and grace are unknowable and I give thanks for the opportunity to take to heart what I can of your character. I come humbly before you knowing the things to which I am called, knowing the ways in which I am unqualified, and pray that through me your purpose is served anyway. When I doubt, it is not in you,  but in my faithfulness, so again I give thanks for your grace, Father. My heart overflows with love, love I see in the love you have for myself and humanity. A love I seek to understand more deeply through the Trinity. I strive to love as you love, forgive as you forgive, and serve as you serve. Holy Father, bless me with the capacity to which I can handle your love for myself and others. Bring me closer to you so that your will is mine. Amen.

Everyday, We Choose to be Christians

I haven’t finished “processing” the Holocaust yet, not that one ever can. It is something I studied for a very long time and used, when I was an atheist, for proof of both God’s non-existence or callousness and the evil of Christians. Yet as I dive further into this challenging issue I have begun to gain a deeper and deeper understanding of why Jesus said he brought good news to the poor.  It is because it was not perceived as good news to the rest of the people and if we repent and believe, our faith calls for our actions to speak for us. Unfortunately, there are Christians that don’t hear this call to action and don’t see this perspective of Jesus and they are often the most vocal and visible on television and comment sections online.

Jesus did not tell us, first and foremost, to condemn. To lecture. To tell people that they shouldn’t have abortions but if they want to take care of that kid they should have, then they should go to college to get a degree so they can get a job whose pay  will maybe lift them out of poverty after they pay the loans off in ten years (or much more offensive bits of condemnation masked as wisdom). In fact, Jesus tells us to do this:

Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love in the Hebrew context is not making a heart shape with your hands at someone; it isn’t only words or gestures. Love is action. Jesus is telling people that loving your neighbor is as important as loving God and it is loving them in a physical, actionable way. It is sometimes sacrifice of time or resources. Jesus makes it even more clear that He means this in this next verse:

Matthew 25:34-40 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Two important things to note here.  One, Jesus put himself in, and suffers with, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers (foreigners), naked, sick, and IMPRISONED. He didn’t mention the rich, or even the comfortable. Jesus speaks of people who are condemned, who are insulted, who are blamed for their condition by society in Jesus’ time and  today.  Two, those are the people God sides with, and there are sides. This is because God cannot abide injustice. God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit to right these wrongs, to fix the injustice of the world, to comfort the sick. Christians are called to do God’s work, to bring God’s Kingdom from heaven to earth, and when we ignore that call and continue to support the mechanisms of oppression in our systems, businesses and government, we are part of the problem.

Here is hard news for many “first world” people. Each day, we choose to be liberators or oppressors. We choose whether or not we follow Christ’s teachings. Personally, I never realized how much I was a part of a system of oppression. That doesn’t free me from responsibility though. Sticking my head in the sand, turning the news off, or ignoring the sadness in my heart doesn’t stop the suffering in the world; personally I think the only thing it does is breaks God’s heart because that’s how the Trinity speaks to us. Through our heart, soul and mind.

I think God is reaching out, that the Holy Spirit is calling to us to have compassion, to do the Lord’s work, to bring the Kingdom through charity, empowerment and justice. When I look at the Bible, this is how I see God operate. Generally, it is through relationships with people, not God acting alone. We act with God and when we don’t, we deny our Creator. Choosing to be ignorant to the suffering of God in humanity seems to be an unacceptable option, personally, so I continue to work at improving this.

This is not to say that our actions earn us anything. It doesn’t; but it does speak to our relationship with God and suffering humanity, with whom Jesus says He is with. It makes clear who our King really is, who we really believe is our Savior, and where we really believe the Kingdom lies. How we spend our money, where we choose to live, what companies we support (fair trade, ethics, etc.), the way we spend our time and treat people. These things matter deeply.

Let us not forget these very important points:

  1. Jesus had the humblest of births
  2. Jesus in adulthood travelled and was therefore fundamentally homeless; Jesus often relied on the charity and goodwill of others and was also in solidarity with both the foreigner and the poor in his living condition. He gave similar conditions to his disciples at times.
  3. Jesus kept company with those considered to be outsiders of his faith, people that others would look down on he looked at with love and compassion.
  4. Jesus suffered and died the brutal, violent death of a criminal (prisoner).
  5. Jesus was resurrected, a promise of hope to all people who feel the solidarity of Jesus Christ in their suffering.

It seems like these are sometimes glossed over, or that Jesus did all that just as a side note.  You don’t dedicate 30+ years, coming into the world and leaving it in the most humble of ways, without good reason. Not Christ. The Prosperity gospels tell you that if you do the right thing God blesses you with wealth and health which conversely means that if you’re poor and sick, God thinks that’s what you deserve. I just don’t see that God as the good God I know.  If you look at Jesus, His blessings are all for people in a place of suffering and oppression. His freedom is not a freedom for you to become more rich, but for you to find freedom in salvation so that you can bring more freedom to others.

Just a few thoughts. Still trying to process it all.

Before We Get Hasty, I Hope You’ll Hear Me Out.

This made me think about why diversity of perspectives is important and why it is always important to have an open-mind but a discerning heart; listen. Take in everything. Learn about humanity. Understanding doesn’t have to equal agreement.

J.S. Park

I’ve been blogging now for over fifteen years, and have noticed for a while an increasingly alarming surge of accusatory, polarized, one-sided comments that quickly shuts down any chance of discussion. It’s often so comically shrill and angry that it comes off as a parody, like all those news shows that make fun of other news shows to prove how narrow-minded the rhetoric really is. There’s an instant reflex to dismiss what’s being said. I can’t imagine anyone would be so serious about such binary, “black-and-white,” dogmatically stubborn remarks — but it’s deadly serious, with the flag raised higher than the pole, on the furthest side of the narrowest platform on the tiniest soapbox possible.

I can’t talk with someone whose mind is already made up. There’s no room for questions, a dialogue, a real conversation, a hope that others can learn. It’s so snide and abrupt that I wonder…

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Three German Theologians Post-Holocaust

Jurgen Moltmann hypothesized that God’s suffering is real. He theorized that it was relationally flowing from authentic love. Summarized below are some of the ideas contained in Moltmann’s theology.

Jurgen Moltmann, a German post-Holocaust “political theologist,” placed suffering into the being of God and described this idea as the “crucified God.” Before this, it was assumed in most circles that the suffering experienced by Jesus was relegated to the flesh and that the divine nature was out of the reach of this suffering. Moltmann’s proposal presented the startling vision of a God that truly suffers with those who suffer in the world. During the crucifixion, Moltmann suggests that not only does the Son suffer a brutal physical death, but the Father also suffers in the separation from His son and out of their mutual love the Holy Spirit comes into our sinful and broken world. It is really important to note that God doesn’t have to do go through this; God freely chooses to suffer out of their love for humanity. This does not justify evil or bad things happening in the world; instead it is a reminder that God is a God that sides with the suffering and rests in the depths of it, desirous for the freedom and restoration of the Creator’s people.

Dorothee Soelle worked through three “theological positions” by which she shapes her conclusion that “divine power is the silent cry of life in the midst of suffering.”

     Dorothee Soelle is a German whose family helped hide a Jewish family during the war and elected to visit Auschwitz as a young Lutheran theologian. Bearing witness to such events caused her to re-evaluate the classical attributes ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. As Elizabeth Johnson says in Quest for a Living God, “…she went from classical theism’s omnipotent Father who requires obedience, to the powerless God on the cross who models the impotence of love, to the crucified and risen Christ in whom the divine victory of life over death empowers our own participation in God’s power of life.” (Johnson, 63)

First, she questioned why we would be encouraged to worship a God whose most important characteristic seems to be power and disliking of independence. She eventually finds this incongruent with the character of God. Then she goes on to the idea of this passive, selfless love in Christ who dies on the cross. The portrayal comes across as weaponless, that love is impotent and that it creates apathy in followers in the face of real-life human suffering (as one might see in those who allowed the atrocities of WWII to happen). Soelle came to believe this was because it was neglecting the whole story of Christ, excluding the value of the resurrection. Finally, she arrives at the conclusion that the Divine is, “…a creative, noncompelling, life-giving good. This is power that flows through relationships bringing others to life, power as love.” (Johnson, 64) While nothing justifies events like Auschwitz to her, the belief that God shared in death and suffering as well as brings this kind of power through the resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of a loving and justice seeking God we can worship and with whom we can be in relationship.

Johannes Metz didn’t find the suffering God image helpful. Instead, Metz theologically positioned the problem of suffering within the constellation of considerations. Several components of theology guided the development to his two part approach.

Metz actually fought on the front for the German army at the age of 16; while he was delivering a message his company was attacked and he came back to only bodies where just a day before there were youths sharing hopes, dreams and jokes. His Catholic confidence in a good God  and orderly world began to separate and the Holocaust created a gap that couldn’t be bridged by ignoring the issue, as many in theology were doing.  Nor did Metz agree with the “God who suffers” that fellow Germans Solle and Moltmann had concluded upon. He felt this internalization made suffering beautiful and eternal and therefore went a different path. Suffering was outside of God. There aren’t simple answers. “Toward that end, Metz proposes two intertwined steps: remembering and lamenting unto God.” (Johnson, 65)

First was to remember. Jesus Christ stood in solidarity with all humanity. Through recalling his sacrifice and resurrection, we should also remember those who suffer throughout human history.  This is done because it takes victory away from the conquerors, the writers of history. It also connects each individuals story to the story of Christ in a concrete way, in a way that promises hope for them and also that reminds us of the dangers of inaction; the power of evil.  Second is to lament to God, to keep the question to our Father open rather than wrapping it up in a neat package. “So too, suffering of past and present must drive us toward God protesting, complaining, lamenting, grieving, crying out of the depths, insistently questioning “How long, O Lord?” (Johnson, 67)  This keeps our hopes alive.