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: Hospital Chaplain, Skeptical Christian

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.

God is Faithful

Compassionate ministry is perhaps, at its best, a reflection of God’s character through us. As I work through this course about questing for the living God, I think the most essential idea I’ve encountered so far in relation to compassionate ministry would be God’s faithfulness. As Bryan Stone tells us in Compassionate Ministry, “…there is a critical distinction to be made between knowing God and knowing about God.” (Stone, 46)  It can be difficult to pierce through the veil of darkness in this world and discern God’s faithfulness but it is the foundation on which our understanding of God’s compassion is built. Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for a Living God shows us that, “This human seeking for God is matched by the divine hunt for ones who are lost.” (Johnson, 11) I think that if we fully believe in our Father’s steadfast faithfulness then we trust; we begin to view the world in a very different way. We see how God must allow freedom for us to choose, we see the many ways God is present and continues to show up, and we see that we are never abandoned.

Many, including the prophet Nehemiah, proclaim the Lord’s righteousness. In 1 Kings 8:56, we learn of the ways our Lord keeps promises: “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses, His servant.” In Deuteronomy 7:8-9 we are also reminded of the many ways God has demonstrated faithfulness historically, “But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh King of Egypt.  Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” Then, when we are unable to keep the commandments, God faithfully comes to us in the Flesh to give us a path of reconciliation to God; in this way obedience becomes an expression of love rather than a checklist you can never complete.

Often in our lives we experience moments of frustration, injustice, times where we question why God would allow something to happen if God were, indeed, faithful.  A Lament is even a type of Hebrew poem, one that looks at an injustice or complaint about the state of the world and accuses God.  It eventually comes around to saying that God’s people will trust that God will be faithful. And yet this poetry exists because we, God’s people, struggle with our understanding of this world and our God. We struggle with trusting in that faithfulness. We have difficulty in knowing that this is not a perfect world because of us, not God; that the Kingdom is still coming and battles are still being fought. This world is not broken and cannot be restored if everything were fair, and if everything were fair, we would live in a much graver situation.

But God is still faithful today. “Only the living God who spans all times can relate to historically new circumstances as the future continuously arrives.” (Johnson, 23) Instead of the response we saw in Ferguson with violence and riots, when Cincinnati was faced with the brokenness of this world in the shooting of Samuel Dubose, I believe God showed up.  We had thousands of believers of diverse backgrounds from all over the city come together in worship, prayer and mourning. Additionally, Samuel’s family was God-inspired, they prayed, and they asked for non-violence. The city’s response was also much better than Ferguson but I believe it shows that God shows up with His People both to mourn and to heal. The same could be said for the Charleston church shooting in which 9 tragically died, murdered during prayer because of the color of their skin and a man who was heavily influenced by the evil in the world. Yet our Father showed up even then in mourning and healing on the side of the broken-hearted: in the response of the church across the street all the way to my church in Cincinnati, through the people who spoke prayers over the shooter instead of curses, and causing a shift in perception throughout our entire nation.

In this way it is clear to me that God is with us, and instructs us on how we can enter into a deeper relationship. “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.” (Deut 4:29) There are few things that you can seek with all your heart and soul without being changed by it; I suppose this is why God asks us to lead with it. Since God is love, what better avenue to feel than through the heart? If God is not of this world, what better way seek than through the soul? It just further emphasizes the faithfulness of our Lord who then works through us. As Stone pointed out, it confuses some when we hear that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28) and then in another book are told we are “justified by works, and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) These don’t really contradict each other but rather Romans speaks in support of James, “If we take into account the biblical witness as a whole, we must finally say that our lives, actions, commitments, and works finally justify or condemn us.” (Stone, 52) In other words, if we seek God, we come to know our Father’s faithfulness and compassion. As a result, we are changed and our action must start to reflect the character of our God to others, thus leading to compassionate ministry.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People… and God

This video is a lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner and he knows something about this topic. The video is going to seem dated, but there is a lot to be learned from what he has to say. It is nearly an hour long but I encourage you to find time for the whole thing. Some of it might feel encouraging, scary, healing, uncomfortable or even dangerous. I would just recommend taking it all in. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Nonviolent Jesus: Humility, Simplicity, and Charity

Jesus often modeled humility, not elevating himself or speaking only of his rank and status. Rather, he did the exact opposite. In Luke 22:27, he teaches “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Here he shows the position he has chosen to take in obedience to his Father, and it is a humble one. He emphasized this point over and over again, although one of the most poignant moments is described in John 13:5, “Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”

It was not only in how he served that he was humble, but also the company he kept. Many expected the Messiah to be the kind of Warrior King they would recognize, a ruler that kept company with other rulers, great leaders and warriors. The Pharisees expected cleanliness which meant not interacting with those who were considered unclean; but that was not Jesus’ way. In Matthew 9:10-11, we see that “… as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” He proved through word and action that he was going to take a role in the world that was ‘from below.’

He also modeled simplicity. Luke 9:58 tells us, “And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” He was not caught up in belongings, in building a house that kept him in one place. He instead kept his possessions few and traveled to spread his gospel. This was an expectation he had not only for himself but for his followers when he sent them out to preach the Word and rely on those along the way to care for them.

But his simplicity is not just in His belongings but in His teachings. He taught in a way that invited the new person in but gave depth and greater relationship to the believer. Jesus was both high invitation and high challenge, but he kept much of what he said simple. When asked what commandment was most important, his response was both simple and the foundation of his actions. Matthew 22:37-39: “Jesus answered: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.”

Lastly, Jesus constantly modeled charity. I often feel like, when reading the Bible, Jesus taught more on charity and love than any other aspect. I wonder if this is because if we do these things we cannot help but have our hearts changed by it and come more in alignment with God. Perhaps this is why Jesus says in Matthew 25:35, “’For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” 1 John 3:17 asks, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? “ This is the question that Jesus constantly tries to get people to ask themselves. Jesus is charitable through his works, his time, his healing and ultimately through his sacrifice. Jesus is all things charitable.

By looking at the parables and examples that Jesus himself provides, we begin to see a type of leader form; a servant leader. By emulating him and these virtues, I would argue that if applied as Jesus meant them to be, ordinary humans would unintentionally become nonviolent. This is because you cannot apply all the things He called us to do and simultaneously behave in a violent nature. They are at two ends of a spectrum. Jesus was at his core nonviolent; he allowed himself to be sacrificed for others. That being said, it is best to pay attention to any violent inclination or tendencies to condone violence so we can understand why and address the discrepancy.