About a week ago, a president of a Christian university stood up and made some very brash statements about guns. Jerry Falwell Jr. said he wished that more people would have guns on them so that they could “end those Muslims.” Now, he later clarified that he meant Islamic terrorists. But of course, the student body didn’t wait for that clarification before unleashing a cheer.
Falwell has not backed down from his comments. He’s made media appearances to back them.
Today, I went to go see Spotlight, the new movie with an incredible cast depicting the Boston Globe’s investigation of abuse of children by priests in the Boston diocese of the Catholic Church. It’s a great film with a really compelling story and cast of characters. The abuse itself is horrifying and stomach turning to know about and of which you hear plenty of victim testimony. Maybe more horrifying is a scene where one of the reporters walks in to the back of a sanctuary and watches a Christmas program. A choir of children sings Christmas carols as, all the time, symbols of the Church surround them and a priest (who is not even a character in the movie, just more a piece of the scenery in this scene) watches with the congregation.
There is nothing menacing in the scene at all. Except everything about it.
Donald Trump is a self-proclaimed Presbyterian that doesn’t ask for forgiveness (or maybe he does?). As do most politicians, he puts on the garment of religion to speak to a wider group of voters who are looking for a candidate. He recently spoke of barring Muslims from entering the US, even current citizens who may be out of the country. Leaving aside whether he would have the power to do this at all as President, his proposal has been alarmingly popular as people fear for their safety as Americans with unseen enemies wandering the streets. This Presbyterian has leveraged people’s fear for his own popularity.
“Make America Great Again!” and “God Bless America!” mingle on people’s lips.
As I drove away from the movie theater this afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of all these images and more as I thought about the Church in America. I didn’t think Spotlight was at all a preachy anti-Church movie. On the contrary, there are real moments of pain and longing as people wish they could trust the Church again. The pain of the abuse in the Catholic church mingled in my mind with the images and words spilling out from public Christians. This is not a judgment on policies or handguns or anything like that. Maybe I’ll write more about that later. But there is just so much anger and fear associated with the Church these days that more and more I feel the weight of our culture’s skepticism about the Church.
I don’t mean to say that I have doubts about Jesus. Everyone doubts, of course. That’s part of the life of faith. But I’m not plagued by or particularly convinced by my doubts.
But I can’t help but see more and more of the Church like the world does. We seem so angry, but often times at the wrong thing. Christians will defend institutions that need to be prophetically chastised. We’ll defend “our” candidates when we should be calling them to account. We’ll accept the logic of fear and power and scream that we would have done the deed to shoot down attackers. “We’ll end them!”
The Church sounds too often like a part of the kingdom of this world. We’re just a particular wing of it.
But there is something otherworldly about the kingdom of Jesus. Maybe we’ve forgotten this because we’ve not known it as sharply as the rest of our global family has known it. Not for a long time, any way. But when the early Church proclaimed the Gospel, they were proclaiming a present King who subverted all the other orders of the day. The Church was so different from the world but so in tune with what humanity has always longed for. People were made powerful and important, not because of scheming or power but because of the humble power of Jesus stooping down low and drawing them into the life of God. Enemies were crushed by the inarguable power of Spirit-born ability that made their servants serve them with love.
I’m not making any comment on any policies or politics because I don’t know much about those things. They’re worthwhile investments of time and thought. I’m saying that it’s dangerous for the world to think that we’re just like them. I think that we’ve given people plenty of reasons to think that we’re no longer a strange people from a strange land, we’re rather a player on the political board. We’re not weirdos with a sideways view of the world. We’re conniving power-brokers that protect our own and try to push our agenda.
I’m afraid for the symbols we have to wear. The symbol of the Cross is powerful in its subversive proclamation of the sacrificial death of the most powerful person in the universe. But now the Cross is viewed as a power-weapon in the hands of politicians and shady religious institutions dedicated mostly to self-preservation.
The Cross isn’t any of the things for which we want to misuse it. The Cross is our Victory through Defeat, Just Judge made Scapegoat, King of Heaven made Slave to Death. There is something so fearless and absurd about the Cross that we will tarnish if we plug it into the logic of the world. We cannot turn around the Cross and use it as a weapon the way the world uses its weapons. We have to reclaim the Holy Absurdity of following Jesus.
Perhaps now more than ever we need Christmas to remind us of the strangeness of Jesus. The Incarnation, the strange miracle of God becoming man, is nothing like what the world anticipated. The world’s system would say that, if there is a God, He should descend from heaven with an army and wreck all those who stand in his way. This is the way of the world. Power overwhelming opposition. Strength crushing the mustered strength of your enemies.
But God invades in the least sensible way possible. As a baby born to an unwed teenager. St. Jerome, reflecting on the ornamental silver manger that commemorates Jesus’ lowly birthplace writes, “Now, as an honor to Christ, we have taken way the manger of clay and have replaced it with crib of silver, but more precious to me is the one that has been removed. Silver and gold are appropriate for unbelievers; Christian faith is worthy of the manger made of clay. He who was born in tha tmanger cared nothing for gold and silver. I do not find fault with those who made the change in the cause of honor… but I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay.”
We can’t let our identity be swapped out for anything other than our identity in Jesus. We have to resist the temptations of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. We have to remember that Judas walked with Jesus for years and turned away because Jesus wasn’t what what he was hoping for. Jesus is so unsettling, maybe most of all to people who know him best.
From time to time, we need to remind ourselves of that. Is Jesus unsettling enough to us? Do we sound different enough from the rest of the world? Do we have family resemblance with those earliest Christians or have we deluded ourselves into something other? Am I marked by the Cross or am I marked by something else?
Too often, I fear the answer. Today, I fear the answer about myself. Am I a “gold and silver” sort of person, or am I person of the mud and clay? I think the things that enrage and baffle people about the Church today have their roots in something good (the want for security for our families and love for our institutions are no bad things). They can be twisted by the logic of the kingdoms of this world and by our own sinful compulsions. And we are left cheering the “ending” of our enemies or scrambling to protect child abusers. It can all happen so quickly and easily.
The kingdom of God is at hand and its symbols remind us that it is entirely different from the kingdoms of this world. Jesus comes in power that looks like powerlessness. The defeat of his enemies is wrought by birth “surrounded by dung,” as Jerome says, and on a Roman instrument of execution.
Are we that “going low” kind of people? Does such surprising humility mark us? Does it mark me? I don’t know. I’m afraid of the answer.
Advent is a season to look forward and backward to the God who comes. I need his invasion desperately. I think we all do. This Advent season, I’m reminded again to pray, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”