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Saving Jesus From Those Who are Right – Carter Heyward

October 24, 2015

SJFTWARFundamentalism is a heresy of the modern world. Its followers believe that they alone are right anone with a different worldview must be wrong.

The ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ smacks of individualism and with capitalism’s need to acquire, possess, to expand and to dominate.

Heywood looks at the way that this sort of belief-system is the very opposite of what Jesus embodied and taught.

Unfortunately, she falls into heresy herself when she said: JESUS was divine in the same way we all are—together, in mutual relation with our sisters and brothers


Who say I am? Some, said Peter, say that you are Elijah. Now why would people think that Jesus was the long deceased prophet Elijah. Elijah was, of course, a highly revered personality in the religious life of the Hebrews. His defeat of the 450 prophets of Baal on the top of Mt. Carmel was a story that was known even by the little children. It was a commonly held belief among the Hebrews that one day Elijah would return and that would mark the end of the world. In the very last passage in the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi, we find these words: “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Most of you have read Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts. One day we see that the television is on but there is no one in the room listening to it. The announcer is talking about a golf tournament that is in process. He says: Smith has to make this putt to win the championship. There will be no tomorrow.” And just as he says, “There will be no tomorrow,” in walks Lucy. She immediately goes into a panic and starts running around and yelling to the other children: The world is coming to an end. They just announced it on television. Her panic quickly spreads as we see all the peanuts kids as they go wildly screaming about. Finally in the last square we see all of the children huddled on top of Snoopy’s doghouse waiting for the end of the world. And Charlie Brown finally speaks up with a puzzled voice: I thought that Elijah was supposed to come back first.”

Well Charlie Brown knew his Bible. Elijah was supposed to come back before the end time. When the disciples told Jesus that some people thought he was Elijah, they were expressing a common thought among the people that the end was very near.

 why it matters.

It mattered in the Crusades and in the witchcraze purges of strong women and other heretics in Europe and North America. It mattered on the mission fields in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It mattered in the

relentless drive to eliminate the Native American people, cultures, and religions; in the construction of slavery as an economic, cultural, and theological system in the South; in the Holocaust as “the final solution” to a “problem” in many ways created by the anti-Semitism which Rose­mary Radford Ruether has named as “the left hand of Christ°logy.”‘

It has always mattered what Christians believe and pass on to oth­ers about JESUS CHRIST. It has mattered to women and children of different races, classes, and Christian cultures, because as the centerpiece of one of the world’s foremost patriarchal religions, “JESUS CHRIST” has been used consistently and naturally to put women and children under the authority of fathers and husbands who have learned to assume that they themselves reflect most fully the image of God the Father. Moreover, as a religious system in which “morality” has been reduced too often to sexual control, Christianity has continued for most of the past two millennia to be a movement of men’s domination and women’s submission “in the name of CHRIST,” as Tom F. Driver has noted.2 Christianity has been, in many of its manifestations, a move­ment to repress those uppity women and men who have dared to resist sexual and gender control.

But what we Christians believe about JESUS CHRIST matters not only to people of minority racial, tribal, cultural, and religious heritages and to women, children, and all queer people by “queer,” I mean gays,

lesbians, bisexual, transgendered folk, and everyone standing in public sol­idarity with us. What we preach and teach and think about JESUS CHRIST matters in basic, life-or-death ways to all people, other creatures, and the earth itself.’ It matters because, for the past several hundred years and especially here as we turn toward the third millennium, C.E.         Christianity has been conspiring with capitalism to build a global system of economic, political, spiritual, and psychological control steeped in the material and psychospiritual assumption that the self matters more than anything—more than communities of any sort, more than others, more than making right relation with others, and certainly more than the earth and creatures that are other than human.

It is true that, as a global movement, Christianity has engendered a Western-style individualism that fosters an aspiration among men and women to become autonomous (albeit male-defined) beings who are entitled to certain possessions, rights, and freedoms of mind and movement. Certainly, this is not all bad the right to education, to health care, and to one’s own body and reproductive choices are spir­itual blessings and should be universal political rights. And many Asian feminist Christians, such as Chung Hyun Kyung and Kwok Pui-lan, and African women like Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Elisabeth Amoah bear powerful witness to the mixed blessings and curses that have been delivered historically to their people by Christian missionaries.

But Christianity’s respect for the individual self does not and can­not bear the moral weight that is absolutely essential today for the sal­vation of the world from the greed and gluttony and self-absorption of the so-called First World. We First World Christians have had more than enough of what Beverly W. Harrison has aptly called “capitalist spirituality.” Our self-preoccupation and self-absorption are the root of the moral rot that we in the Christian West and especially in the United States     have been transporting globally in the name of freedom, democracy, private enterprise, and the good life.

Ironically, many feminists, other political progressives, and theolog­ical liberals and radicals of all faith traditions share this deeply moral concern with our sisters and brothers on the “Right,” including many fundamentalists of different religions. But those “who are right,” I will suggest in this book, propose a solution to the problem of Western self-absorption that is very different from what many feminists, womanists, liberation theologians, and other theological progressives are affirm­ing. In fact, I am proposing in these pages that “those who are right” (of whatever religion or politic) tend to espouse authoritarian, moralistic, and adversarial relationships with those whom they believe to be “wrong” and, in so doing, tend to promote their own ideologies of self‑absorption. It is my belief  and it is the basis of this book  that many of us who are caricatured by the Right as being heretical, or wrong, need to be evermore public and enthusiastic in living relational spiritu­alities that are mutual, passionate (fully embodied and present), forgiv­ing, and nonviolent.

As we move into the twenty-first century, it may be that the only force in the world that comes close to being a serious threat to you might say that the JESUS in this book-does and says only those things that I myself can see or hear as I study the JESUS stories through particular lenses. Through these lenses, which I name in this text as the existential, political, and mystical moorings of my epistemology (how we know what we know), I have created the JESUS whom you will meet here.

Obedience, I am suggesting, is an uncreative, spiritually lazy, and damaging response to the love of God.’ While it may be the sim­plest way to teach children (of any age) right from wrong, it also guartentees that children will not develop the capacities for the inner-discernment and moral-reasoning that accompany mature life in Spirit. F. D. Maurice suggested that a child who is taught merely to it to the will or opinion of parent or teacher will “grow up a con­temptible coward, crouching to every majority which threatens it with the punishments that it has learnt to regard as the greatest and only evils.”‘

And yet, did JESUS not “obey” God, however we may image God—as Father, Parent, Spirit, Mother, whatever? To be sure, obedience is a time-honored image of the relationship between JESUS and the One he experienced as his “Abba” (dad). But we need to be mindful here of the extent to which JESUS used the image of obedience to God as a foil to the requirement that he obey religious and secular authorities. Like many African American Christians, JESUS submitted himself to the Source of all Creation, rather than to the rulers of the state; to the Spirit of the law, rather than the letter; to God, not mammon.

We, too, are urged by the Spirit, the One yearning for right rela­tion, She who is hungry for justice to roll down like waters, to obey God rather than the authoritarian principalities and powers of our times and places.

I examine some of the problems with the domi­nant Christian atonement tradition, which, with other feminist the­ologians, I also reject as being cemented in the patriarchal logic of blood sacrifice. Unlike some feminist Christians, however, I reject not only such violence at the hands of God, but moreover the patriarchal logic that has produced a deity—Father or even perhaps a Mother—who reigns above us and seeks our “submission” or “obedience” as chil­dren to a parent. Against an understanding of a Lord or Father who asks us to obey, much less forces us to submit to His will or destroys us (or an “innocent” in our place), the Sacred Power presented in this book is One whose very essence is to forgive us, to yearn for our repentance, and to wait patiently—generation upon generation, through evils of many kinds for us to turn in sorrow and repentance for our failures to love one another.

Aware that forgiveness often is misused and trivialized among Christians as a way of baiting victims to “forgive” those who have wounded them, I suggest that we cannot comprehend the Sacred Power of forgiveness unless we realize that it is, above all, a moral foundation of our life together in community. Forgiveness, to be granted and received in sustainable ways, requires not only that individuals repent and make amends, but moreover that our communities support these processes of healing and reconciliation and that all of us seek to build new ways of living together.

This is something we can only learn, and do, together with one another’s support and sometimes, in one another’s stead, for there are situations in which it is impossible for particular groups or individuals to forgive those who have violated them or destroyed their loved ones, so devastating has been the violence. In order to give or receive forgiveness, we need solidarity through community and friendship; we need to be involved in the struggles for ice-love because this can teach us compassion; we need compassion (commitment, irrespective of feelings, not to harm one another, including our enemies); we need humility (awareness that the ground on which we stand is common ground); we need to be honest with ourselves about what has happened (what we and/or others have done); we need to be able to imagine ourselves healed, liberated, and transformed; and we need to pray hard and meditate well on these things.

My primary concern as I draw the book to closure is to underscore what I believe to be its basis: the spiritual and political truth that, far beyond being simply a personal option, forgiveness is the hope of the world. Learning it together is the only way we can begin to move beyond the resentments and violence that are tearing our collective and individual bodies apart. Learning forgiveness, if we are, will involve our learning nonviolence as a shared way of life. Nonviolence is, at root, a public, collective commitment, not simply an option for individuals.

Learning forgiveness and teaching nonviolence should become a vocation and mission of the church and other religious organizations and movements. This is the only way any religion can truly be “a light to the nations.”

“only true Jesus,”

“the partriachal logic of blood sacrifice”), and asserts that “forgiveness is the hope of the world.”

Despite the sexist language and assumptions of its founders and j many of its adherents, and despite the narrowly Christian framework that some people continue to impose upon its meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous and some of its Twelve-Step derivatives are filling up church basements with Christians and atheists and Jews and pagans and political conservatives and liberals and others, while the sanctuar­ies of many mainstream white Protestant churches sit half full. The reason for this seems to me quite simple. Alcoholics Anonymous invites all people to come as we are and, through sharing our vulnera­bility, to touch our strength and share a Higher Power, however we may experience “Him,” or “Her,” or “It” even if our experience of

this Power is a void or a blur, an angry feeling or a painful spot some­where inside. There is no heretic. No one is right or wrong about the Higher Power. No one is even right or wrong about drinking alcohol unless, in our drinking, our lives have become unmanageable and our behavior irresponsible.

JESUS went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philip­pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” —Mark 8:27-29a

Image: They said, “You are the Christ.”

Re-image: I say, you are someone in whose way of being I see the power of justice, the power of right mutual relation. I say, you can help us see the power, love the power, claim the power, use the power.

And so we go, catching one view, finding another:

The more fully human we are, the more connected we are not only with other humans but with the rest of creation.

The more happily we assume our own relatively small places in the universe, the larger we become through right-relatedness with those who tug our lives and commitments beyond the boundaries of our own skins, tribes, creeds, and even species.

The better we see that in this expansive Spirit of justice-love we are connected with all tribes and creatures, the more confident we can be that God is with us and not just us—God is also with others, moving through and among “us” and “them,” empowering each and all to take only what we need and to share what we have.

I want to emphasize the significant theological and ethical, pas­toral and political, difference between trying to “be right,” on the one hand, and the struggle to generate more fully mutual, or right, rela­tion on the other. In the former instance, our efforts to be right are wed to rules, abstractions, ideas about right and wrong that may or may not help create faithful, just, and loving relationships. Creating “right relation,” or mutuality, by contrast, is a dynamic relational process that draws on a Sacred Power that is essentially ours only in the struggle for more fully mutual relation. This process spontaneous­ly generates more of itself, more right relation, more mutuality, more “righteousness” or “justice.” Sedeq, which refers in Hebrew Scriptures both to the right relation of humans to one another and to the rela­tional covenant between God and the people of Israel, is not an abstract notion. Sedeq refers to a dynamic relational commitment and struggle “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with N our God” (Mic. 6:8b). To be in right relation, according to the prophetic tradition of Israel in which JESUS himself stood, is to “let jus­tice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

I make this point about Williams for two reasons—first, to illus­trate that “those who are right” are not by any means simply the most vocal Christian traditionalists in the United States today who are lur­ing the Republican Party to the right; second, to suggest that it is not hard to imagine the slippage of good faithful people increasingly toward assent to what we assume to be a benign theocratic state.

It is easy for those who are more sophisticated theologically to dis­miss Peretti, and most other producers of such “Christian” books and artifacts, as simple-minded and ridiculous. But we need to be aware that it is authors like Frank Peretti, not James Cone or Rosemary Rad­ford Ruether and not even the currently very popular liberal theolo­gians Marcus Borg or John Spong, whose books are reaching millions of adults and children today. Moreover, for each person who reads a book today—even a Peretti book there are dozens who watch television and are reached by the 700 Club and other “Christian” programs designed to capture the imaginations and stir the fear of very large numbers of an increasingly multicultural population.

Interestingly, as I began reading materials and listening to voices of the Christian Right, I realized how seldom they mention JESUS CHRIST in their public political work. Such men as Pat Robertson, Jerry Fal­well, Ralph Reed, and Gary Bauer have a great deal more to say about Bill Clinton’s sex life and Tinky Winky’s sexuality than about the man from Nazareth.

being a white middle-class teenage girl in the United States South in the 1950s and 1960s was itself a form of spiritual and sexual abuse.

The mainline churches’ theological understandings of both incar­nation and atonement, in our own time as well as historically, have been stunted intellectually by the failures of Christian leaders to pick up our beds and walk beyond the boundaries that “right-thinking” the­ologians have established as necessary to Christian faith. This book is one effort to re-image the heart and soul of Christian theology. To do so will mean pushing boundaries intellectually, politically, and spiritually thereby parting theological and political company with many brother and some sister theologians, past and present.

As a theological image the Trinity, rightly understood, should expand our God images, not constrict them; it should stretch our capacities for wholeness and holiness, not shrink us; it should sharpen our religious imaginations, not dull our sensibilities. God as Trinity means t whatever is Sacred is relational, never self-absorbed; always mov­ing beyond itself to meet the new, the other, the different, never set in its ways or stuck on itself as the only way.

A trinitarian faith rooted and grounded in the love of God would never require that people be Christian in order to be saved; that only males be priests; or that others be like us in order to be acceptable to God. A strong trinitarian faith, which most surely was the faith of Jesus in God, in himself, and in others, all in relation to one another is never acceptable to those who are right, those for whom God must be an authoritarian power.

And how do we live a trinitarian faith? In our struggles for mutual relation, we are breaking free from the self-absorbing and authoritar­ian religion that distorts the image of what is most fully human and fully divine among us.

It is harder to examine how our own lives in particular are impli­cated, often in mundane ways, in the doing of evil, the betrayal of right relation. But unless we see that we ourselves are never far away from evil, we cannot participate in its undoing.

Through dynamics of domination, howev­er, our erotic power is skewed and twisted. In the patriarchal context of authoritarian religion, it breeds an ethic of obedience. Through patriarchal socialization, many people develop masochistic connec­tions (emotionally, spiritually, and somatically) between the desire for God (to be known, loved, and protected by the very source of our being that we have learned to image as our “Father”) and our embod­ied sensibilities (feelings) that this spirituality requires that we be dis­ciplined for our “sins” (the countless ways we go against our Father, failing to obey His rules, letting him down).

Scrupulosity is a spiritual problem because it distracts us from rec­ognizing our real sin and the real evil that we do in it. We are so busy counting angels on the head of a pin—which new diet program to fol­low, how not to lose our temper next time we are angry, how to purge our sexual fantasies of all lust—that we miss altogether the elephant in the living room: our alienation from one another, which, in contem­porary capitalist spirituality, is a problem of radical self-absorption.

Self-absorption is a form of deep spiritual isolation. It is a way of turning in upon ourselves so completely that we come to imagine that our own isolated selves can tell us all we need to know about God, the world, and who we are. Like alcoholism and other forms of addiction, self-absorption is “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” Self-absorption does not always seem “selfish.” It can take the form of “doing good for others.”

Among Christians, this is the form it is supposed to take. We “do” for others, not for ourselves. In fact, this inverted selfishness generates only more of the same spiritual problem that spawned it: a dualistic gulf between “self” and “other” and the objectification of both. You become my object, and I become yours. I act on behalf of your well­being rather than my own, and you act on behalf of me rather than yourself. If we are able to live this way to any degree, we are likely over time to build up resentments, or perhaps become depressed, even anguished, for having given up so much of our own lives. And if, like most people, we are unable to live such “selfless” lives most of the time, yet have long believed we ought to, we’re likely to harbor deep senses of guilt and shame.

Most of us do not take to heart each day the fact that, in God, our lives are connected at the root of who each of us is and who all of us are. In this way, I fail to realize that your well-being can only be secured in relation to mine. In fact, the only way we can live really cre­ative, caring lives here on earth, lives rooted deeply in the Spirit, is to learn to struggle together mutually      to build communities, institutions, and relationships in which everyone’s well-being is secured.

Radical self-absorption is indeed the sin of the world, and the source of our damnation

JESUS’ life and ministry was a struggle against evil—the treachery of betrayal, a story not only of sleeping disciples, of Peter’s denial, and Judas’ betrayal but, moreover, of people’s general involvement in a socio-spiritual self-deception by which they were delivering them­selves, as a society and as individuals, into the bondage of obedience to a corrupt state and feckless religious leadership.

We are tempted to make peace with the devil, the evil that sur­ds and invades our lives. The temptations are daily and more or constant: to fulfill our bodily hungers, our personal needs and desires, at whatever cost; to strive for more and more of whatever we have and want—wealth, status, fame, admiration, achievement, even “love”; to leap into “magical thinking,” stepping off the edge of our own best judgments about what is possible and what is not in our daily affairs.

Each is a temptation to betray not only others but also, always, our­selves as well—ourselves in right, mutual relation—and our power in relation, the sacred energy in our midst. We need to be aware, if we hope to wrestle courageously with evil, that it is a universal, com­monplace condition of our life together.

The “temptations of JESUS,” as recorded by Luke, illustrate not only the social and emotional force of the evil we encounter in ways small and mundane as well as dramatic and exception4 but also the moral purpose of religion—to help us cope with evil in ways that are healing rather than by betraying who we are; to help us meet evil not with more evil—responding to one betrayal with another—but with love.

The Devil in the story is usually a larger than life “character.” In a postmodern world, the Devil is a corporate, impersonal character, seldom a person with a name and face we can recognize. In fact, when we decide that someone is evil—a particular politician, criminal, or business leader, for example—we usually are short-circuiting the more honest and difficult task of finding the even greater evil in the situation.

Citing a leader of the Christian Right as evil, for example, while perhaps not always entirely inaccurate, does little to help foster an understanding of the larger evil forces—social, economic, and Political behind the individual spokesperson for these fear-based politics. The larger public evil today is not the individual right-wing preacher, ambulance-chasing lawyer, or champion of “family values” and tax-cuts, however self-absorbed such people may be. Far more evil, seductive, and dangerous is the massive, elusive structure of the global political economy, which the “haves” keep up with on Wall Street and which the growing numbers of “have-nots” are being devoured by. It is this global capitalist network that has funded right‑wing groups like the Rutherford Institute and Heritage Foundation.

And it is these groups that have targeted Bill and Hillary Clinton, ostensibly for their personal flaws and failures, but more truthfully because they are perceived as representatives of the “have-nots” by networks that represent some economically powerful and politically savvy “haves.”

It is also important for us to realize that, as we rail against the evil being done by such senators as Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, we may easily miss noticing the evil that we do every day in our own lives, per­sonally and systemically, privately and publicly. Moreover, we may eas­ily miss making meaningful connections between how evil is driving the Christian Right and its apologists like Jesse Helms and how that same well-funded, consumerist, “we can have it all” lure toward self-absorption is driving us in our relationships and our work, our sexual practices, investments, and patterns of life.

The Devil who tempts us, and who tempted JESUS, seldom approaches us with horns and a pitchfork, wearing a swastika, publicly advocating violence, lies, or seduction. Rather, the evil one comes just like we do when we want something with a smile, in a generosity of spirit, and often, as Shakespeare noted, quoting Scripture!

This Devil always has the same message for us, a message conveyed as “good news”:

Either our own needs or those of others matter most. We cannot both matter most, ourselves and others relative to one another, for the Devil does not permit mutual relation. Self-absorption is the Devil’s birthplace and eternal home.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting more of a good thing—like money provided we get it honestly and work for it ourselves. We have a right to acquire and possess anything we can.

God will take care of us if we obey Him. The deity in this schema is a paradigm of patriarchal authoritarianism. He is the Devil disguised as the God of love.

Long before capitalism emerged as an actual historical movement, the Devil was pulling us human folk, with JESUS, into the core of what in our time has become “capitalist spirituality” the radically distorted spiritual assumption that we can set our own lives apart from the lives, and desires of others and can view their lives and well-being from our own.

The temptation to evil is always a lure toward setting ourselves and others apart, our own wishes and dreams apart from those of our neighbors, our own fears and sorrows outside the realm of common human and creaturely experience.

The temptation to evil is always to betray our neighbors and our­selves and God with us. We cannot be in right relation when we are exempting ourselves or others from our common life. Turning to our­selves or to others, to our own or others’ needs as most important, our way or someone else’s as best, we pull away from the Spirit that is our power in mutual relation, the eternal source of all that is creative, lib­erating, and healing.

JESUS’ responses to the Devil, who was urging him to rise alone above our commonness and be a (patriarchal) god of control and pos­session, was to remind the evil spirit that the Jewish Torah does not permit this setting of one person apart from others by lifting oneself up above the kingdoms of the world or by throwing oneself down.
For JESUS, right religion fosters right relation. The law and obser­vances of Judaism are to be interpreted in such a way as to generate love justice, compassion, and mutual respect among all people.

Anything less is an act of betrayal of one’s faith, one’s people, oneself, and one’s God. Anything less is truly the work of the Devil, the essence of evil.

Had Peter known in his bones what JESUS’ whole ministry’ had been about, he’d have been more confident in the power of the Spirit JESUS’, his own, and ours—to secure him, Peter, publicly and proudly, as JEsus’ friend. Perhaps his fear was not simply of being put to death with JESUS but moreover of standing with JESUS in a world in which all men are brothers and all women sisters.

This sacred realm is constantly undermined on planet Earth br crucifixions (violence, unjust death, human cruelty) and by our denials and betrayals of our friends but it is not eliminated. In God, we meet JESUS and Peter as our real brothers, from whom we can learn. In God, we move from one generation to the next, sparking inspiring teaching igniting our confidence in ourselves and one another together as theotokos, God-bearers.

In contrast to the Peter whom we see huddled by the fire, the JESUS whom we meet through the gospel narrative was largely confident in the Sacred Power of his relation with others to uphold him as he experienced rejection and denial, betrayal and even death. JESUS did not live a safe life. He was not experienced by those who held religious and secular authority as a nice person. He did not attempt to keep the peace at whatever cost. He was not in control of what happened to himself or others. He was not a respectable man. He did not let the demon fear dictate the terms of his life.

Perhaps through the shameful personal experience of having denied a brother whom he loved, Peter’s faith grew. His confidence in the power of his relation with JEsus, their friends, and others grew stronger and more threatening to established authority. Perhaps the seed of this radical personal and political transformation, which would lead in time to his own crucifixion, began to grow for Peter as he “wept bitterly.”

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul: rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matt. 10:28-30)

In what sense is our fear of God, our power in relation to the whole created order, a betrayal of ourselves and God? In what sense is this fear also, paradoxically, “the beginning of wisdom”?

When we live in this fear, when we are afraid to embody and show forth the creative, liberating power that is ours by God, we undermine the power of the Spirit in history. We pull against it, as if there were a character named “God” at one end of a long rope and we humans at the other, locked historically in a game of “tug-o-war,” pulling fiercely against each other in opposite directions. This surely is how much Christian orthodoxy has portrayed the divine-human relation, and it is not hard to see why. History often looks and feels like a battleground between good and evil, with human beings in the latter role.

But Christian theologians seldom have reflected on God as our relational power; on our fear of God and ourselves, our own godding, as the root of our sin and the evil we do in it; or on evil as an act of betrayal against ourselves, not only God.

Fearing ourselves in our Sacred Power, we split ourselves off from God and one another. We generate oppositional, dualistic images to secure our experiences of fear. This dualistic theological (political, social, psychological) portrait God over humanity, humanity under God, forces locked in opposition—distorts the integrity of creation and tears at the relational fabric of our lives.

F. D. Maurice is one of relatively few Christian theologians who has affirmed the goodness of our “fallen” creation. Without neglecting the force of evil among us, Maurice enthusiastically asserts that “human hearts have a profound sense of [Charity’s]17 necessity for them, an infinite craving to possess it, and be filled with it.”‘ This “craving” is driven by our relational power, the Spirit of God. It is a yearning for relation that is mutual (of benefit to all), just (right or righteous), and loving (the very essence of God/ Sacred Spirit).

Sin, as Maurice sees it, is “essentially the sense of solitude, isola­tion, distinct individual responsibility:”

I do not know whether that sense, in all its painfulness and agony, ever comes to a man more fully than when he recollects how he has broken the silken cords which bind him to his fellow; how he has made himself alone, by not confessing that he was a brother, a son, a citizen. . . . The preaching Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, has always been the great instrument of leveling hills and exalting valleys. It will be so again. The priest and the prophet will confess that they have been greater rebels against the law of love than the publican and the harlot, because they were sent into the world to testify of a Love for all, and a Kingdom for all, and they have been witnesses for separation, for exclusion, for themselves.’

Maurice is suggesting that for us to “break the silken cords which bind [us] to our fellows” is to experience the death of the soul (Matt. 10:28) and that this is a greater source of pain and agony than an­other misfortune or violence that might befall us. This breaking of the cords that bind us to one another is our betrayal of our own human­ness and of the Spirit that makes us fully human. In deserting the well­being of our sisters and brothers, we abandon ourselves.

Falling away from the image of a God who is none other than our power for creating right relation on the earth, we fall into an illusion that each of us is on his/her own, destined to be a separate being in the image of a heroic [and quintessentially patriarchal] God. We mistake individual identity for “soul” and autonomy for “freedom,” and we set ourselves on paths that lead us further into social alienation and isola­tion from one another—and into supposing that, in our privacy, we are most clearly in the “image of God.” In this spiritual condition, our sense of powerlessness sets us up, every day, to play the part of Peter as the passion story unfolds.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daugh­ter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be mem­bers of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:34-39)

There is a deep mystery at the heart of things, and a strong undercur­rent of the irrational. Evil takes root in our resistance to that which we cannot fully understand, such as the spiritual necessity of being “set against” those whom we love the most.

We are not set against one another simply because one of us is right and the other wrong, but because we genuinely see the world differ­ently and in our different perceptions—including our views about good and evil—we collide if we are living honest lives. If we are pres­ent to life, speaking up, standing to be counted, we will find ourselves set against one another. This is part of what JESUS is saying here.

But there is more. The standard by which we are to be measured by ourselves and one another is our willingness to suffer—bear up—the consequences of living, JESUS with us as brother and spirit-guide, in our Sacred Power. And the context of our daily lives is more one of mystery and ambiguity than of clarity or certainty. In life, we are invit­ed by the JESUS story not to put our faith in a religious system of beliefs or rules but rather to “take up the cross and follow [JEsus].”

As many students of Anglican history know, Professor Frederick Denison Maurice was fired from his teaching post at Kings College, London, in 1853. Ostensibly, his removal was the result of a dispute over his refusal to accept the doctrine of eternal-damnation, a position set forth in the last chapter of his Theological Essays (1853).21 As Mau­rice scholars have noted, however, the controversy that swirled around this publication reflected the broader theological question that Maurice raised in his life and that we too need to be raising today: Should theology and ethics serve our tendencies to set systems of beliefs and rules above the contingencies and complexities of human life; or should theology and ethics always be done in more open-ended, dialogical processes of discovering God in our midst today?

Maurice’s chief adversaries at the college in the dispute about eter­nal damnation understood that the doctrine of hell was an important ethical instrument of social control, the basis of an ethic of obedience. (Make people obey by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t, an adult version of the doctrine of Santa Claus bringing switches to naughty children). Maurice’s opponents feared that any equivocation of this doctrine would give license to immoral behavior among Angli­cans. Maurice also understood that teachings about eternal punish­ment were related to human behavior as well as divine activity. He rejected the notion of a loving God who would damn people.

Maurice was concerned that the church’s popular teachings on the subject’ originated in a distorted experience and understanding of what God is doing among us here and now, and of ourselves, and of the divine-human relation. Maurice believed that the church seldom conveyed as deep and immediate a connection between God and humanity as is, in fact, the case through CHRIST. Christianity, in Mau-rice’s judgement, is too much a system of doctrine and assumptions about future possibilities and too little a way of life in the immediate here and now.

For that reason, as popularly conceived among Christians, “hell” and “heaven” referred to future “places” to which people’s souls “go’ after our bodies die. Maurice believed that this image of a future-oriented salvration and damnation was mistaken theologically and ethically that “eternity” needed to be understood as an immediate, and perpetual possibility. In essence, if we have fallen away our “fellows” today, broken the “cords” that bind us, we are in right now, a spiritual place of damnation, “eternal” in its presence , as well as in, “time” as we know it. Listen to Maurice on the subject: I know what it [eternal death] means all too well while you let me connect it with my present and personal being, with the pangs of conscience which I suffer now. It becomes a mere vague dream and shadow to me, when you project it into a distant world.’

It was not that Maurice rejected the idea or reality of eternal damnation­, but rather that he believed that it is a perpetual state of hell into which we fall as we break our connectedness with our brothers and sisters. Moreover, Maurice insisted that the constancy of God—the power and presence of love itself was eternally stronger than our capacity for sin and evil; and that this, in fact, was what we see through the resurrection and eternality of CHRIST, wile) is the presence of God with us: And if you take from me the belief that God is always righteous, always maintaining a fight with evil, always seeking to bring His creatures out of it, you take everything from me, all hope now, all hope in the world to come.’

The significance for Maurice of his affirmation of the power, as well as the goodness, of God should not be missed: God is neither absent nor powerless in history. The power of God in history, which is the power of love itself as the cord that binds us to our fellows, is real and strong and dependent upon our faith in “it” that is, in God’s presence and power with, and through, us. Maurice understood that Christians name this power and presence “CHRIST,” by which we mean both the risen JESUS of Nazareth and the eternal Spirit of love that we meet in our love for our neighbors.

The church’s teachings not only about good and evil but also about human experiences of power and powerlessness need to be rooted and grounded in a shared faith in our own power            through God to embody, through our life together, a deep and abiding love for our fel­low humans.

For Maurice, our sin    the breaking of the cord that binds us—has its own historical roots in an “evil spirit” or “devil,” which he experienced as a terribly real and eternal, mighty and mysterious force. Yet, the Devil was, for Maurice, a force that is eternally less mighty than the Sacred Power of Love, contrary to most of our rational data and per­ceptions, then and now, when we consider the depths of human cruel­ty, greed, slavery, violence, and betrayals of all sorts.’

So the primary ethical issue between Maurice and his opponents was not whether there is an evil spirit with which we must contend (for both, there was); nor whether there is a place of eternal death into which we fall through our sin (for both, there was); but rather how much license, or freedom, we should give one another and our­selves to contend against evil and to strive for good.

Maurice held out for our freedom, our moral license, to wrestle with moral complexities and, presumably, make mistakes as we live.

Such freedom, Maurice believed, provides the basis and substance of our “consciences.” His adversaries, by contrast, proponents of an ethic of obedience, assumed that we often can avoid making at least some serious mistakes if we adhere strictly to Christian teachings.

The basic theo-ethical questions implicit in this tension, which is strong and lively among many of us today, are these: How much ambiguity and mystery can we affirm in our life together, especially in rela‑

tion to our understandings of good and evil? How much license should we grant one another to make mistakes that do (or might) cause more violence, abuse, cruelty, or suffering? To what extent do we need rules and other systems of control to keep us in check? To what extent do we need greater freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

Not only do I agree with Maurice that such freedom is an invaluable moral foundation, I also agree with him that we cannot teach one another simultaneously to strictly adhere to rules and to exercise free­dom in such a way that a strong sense of conscience is developed.

Most middle strata and affluent Christians have learned along the way that this story of JESUS’ encounter with the rich man, along with the description of early Christians as “holding all things in common” (Acts 4:32), are not to be taken literally. No one really believes that God requires us to give away all our possessions in order to “follow JESUS” and walk a sacred path in life I think there is some truth in what we have learned—but also something very false.

JESUS’ encounter with this man is not about whether a wealthy per­son can live a faithful life. JESUS confronted the man, whom he loved, with what he believed to be true. In effect, he said to this person what he, or any lover of God, might well say to any of us: “You may have kept the commandments and done good deeds all your life, but there’s something you haven’t done. You haven’t come to terms with what you fear, and you can’t do this as long as you’re hiding from yourself and everyone else—in your case, cloaked in wealth.”

Wealth, in this story as in real life, is a metaphor for denial, and a powerful one it is. It is also a mechanism that enables our denial. We often use money as a cover-up—to hide our vulnerabilities, feelings, deepest yearnings, and certainly our fears, as much from ourselves as others. When we are hidden from ourselves and one another in this way, we cannot tap our sacred relational power because we are so frightened of it. And we fear this God because—like the rich man in this story—we know, do we not, that if we actually go with this power in mutual relation, our lives will be changed radically. A transforma­tion will take place at the root of who we are.

So we slip into denial: “Money a problem in my life? What on earth does that mean? I can assure you I don’t love money more than God or my neighbor. In fact, I use my money for good give to the church, to charities, to justice movements, to various causes.”

But in our denial, we are out of touch with the sacred. We proba­bly do not know we have much relational power. We may not have a clue what it means sacred power in relation? What we do know is

that we have money    and thereby some social, political, and economic power. And here we stand, believing (if we are conscientious Christians or Jews or practitioners of other religions) that we are doing exactly what lovers of God are supposed to be doing: keeping the commandments, worshipping God, living as responsible and respectable citizens, giving to charities, teaching our children right from wrong, doing our best by both God and our sisters and brothers. Of course, wealth literally is an effective means of denial and, in our advanced capitalist society, the accumulation of wealth and the lure of possible wealth are sophisticated mechanisms for keeping the Spirit down and out. It is vital to capitalism that the Sacred not be tapped or recognized, precisely because God is the basis of our yearning for mutuality, justice, and compassion which, if actually embodied and celebrated, would undermine capitalist spirituality. This is why it is even more difficult today than in JESUS’ time for the rich to “enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Still, the story of the rich man is not, I believe, about wealth per se, but about our proclivity, fearing God and ourselves, to hide from the Spirit that draws us toward mutuality as a way of life. Wealthy and poor alike have many ways of cloaking ourselves in denial in order to protect ourselves from God: We use alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex, shopping, sports, having children, obsessions of many kinds. We become ideologically rigid, wed to certain positions or opinions from which we will not budge. We use violence and war to make our points. We become certain in our narrow-mindedness, or in the arrogance of our open-mindedness, that we are right.

Unaware that our own addictions and self-righteousness are sources of evil in history, rich and poor alike, we are stunned to imagine that we cannot be faithful lovers of God or one another unless we come out of hiding, out of denial. With the rich man in the story, we are likely to turn away instead, grieving that we cannot have it all—our hiding places and ourselves in right relation; our fear of mutuality and our yearning to god; our love of wealth and our love of JESUS.

Rachel “weeps . . . and refuses to be consoled because they are no more.” Many of our tears are for children violated through war, beat­ings, sexual exploitation, neglect, torture, starvation, murder. Evil: We know it when we read about it, hear about it, see it on the news.

But what makes us recoil from the very notion of child abuse even as, more often than most of us can bear to imagine, we our­selves are involved in it, through denial and apathy and, sometimes, as its perpetrators?

It is not simply that children are innocent, although relative to the crimes done against them, they are. Nor is it that they are powerless, although in relation to those who abuse them, they are. Violence against children is especially horrifying to us because it confronts us with our own sense not of power but of powerlessness and, along with our own collective and individual failures, with the apparent power­lessness of God—to do something, anything, to stop the atrocities! Through child abuse, we are met with spiritual questions like those that haunted Elie Wiesel as he confronted the depravity of the Holo­caust: where is God as children are thrown into furnaces? Moreover, where are we?’

A lack of compassion and, with it, the willingness to hurt others are dimensions of human reality—the reality of evil—that confound our senses of both ourselves and God: Can we not do better than this? Is God not a holier spirit than one that could “allow” such violence to take over a nation or even a planet?

But again, the scope of the violence done against the children of the earth and against the earth itself is so vast as to propel us into a yearning for saviors to deliver us from our own apparent incapacity not to

destroy one another. If we sometimes wonder why sweet, gentle little boys are so drawn to “superheroes” with names like “the Punisher” and “the Avenger,” and why babyboomers have been so attached over the

years to “Superman” and “Batman,” we might think of these fantasy-concoctions as spiritual icons for children who are inheriting an earth filled with evil and violence from which they, and we, need protec­tion. “The Punisher” who, with one mighty swipe, wipes out the evil forces is more interesting—and credible—to a ten-year-old boy than a story about a poor carpenter who tells us to love our enemies.

And what on earth does the JESUS story have to say to us, or teach us, about child abuse? intimate violence of any sort? the ravaging of the earth and its creatures? homelessness in the United States? “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo? genocide in Rwanda? Faced with raw, unmistak­able evil in the slaughter of “the holy innocents” by King Herod, what good was the baby JESUS then, and what good is he now?

The point of the JESUS story, then and now, was not to lure us away from ourselves toward an adoration of JESUS of Nazareth whom we have named “CHRIST.” Not to turn us toward “God” as a spirit dwelling beyond us in the heavens. Not to empty us of “self-love,” nor to alien­ate us from our sensual, sexual bodyselves, nor to invite us to submit ourselves to a god who desires our selflessness or our suffering.

The JESUS story is about our relational power. It is a story told to empower us. A story told to cut through the illusion that we are impo­tent in relation to evil. The story of the brother from Nazareth and his friends is about making connection among ourselves, building com­munity, for the purpose of rooting and grounding the love of God in the world around and between and within us. That is the only response to evil that has a prayer of working.

The governments of the world, like superheroes, can use muscle, bombs, death chambers, terrorist units, CIA, FBI, more police, more prisons, and many threats in many forms in their efforts to curb evil, the violence being done to us all. But it will be to little avail. For vio­lence generates only more violence.’ This is what little boys with with their plastic spidermen and their guns (toys or the real things) do not realize. It is also what politicians and governors with their capital pun­ishment do not see. We cannot teach one another not to kill by killing those who do. We cannot engender compassion by seeking to hurt people who hurt us.

“No,” many will protest, “You’re an idealist, a bleeding heart lib­eral, trying to live in the real world. The only way to curb crime, drugs, and violence is to flex muscle!”


The Christian Right, and most of the rest us too, are simply wrong about what kind of power will change the world. Not the power of guns, punishment, or even money, but rather the power of the radical love that is mutuality that is God. In the context of massive violence and evil, such radical idealism is the only solution. Its antithesis is not “realism” but rather the cynicism that reflects a disbelief in humanity’s capacity to learn and do what is right.

To believe that we can and, moreover, that we often do, struggle together to love—and that in our struggle is great redemptive power for us and others is not to be out of touch with reality. It is to be deeply involved with and in God, “engaging the powers,’ changing ourselves, one another, and the world. Only love the embodied commitment to struggle together for right, mutual relation can work the miracles required to create justice in the midst of exploita­tion and peace in the midst of violence. No Batman or Punisher, no god in the image of superman, no “CHRIST” sitting at the right hand of such a god, can help us.

Although I still regard Billy Graham with some per­sonal affection, I don’t think the “CHRIST” I gave myself to on that occasion had much to do with JESUS of Nazareth. He was more of a coping

device. The “CHRIST” “JESUS” and “God” all rolled into one whom I latched onto at the time became my spiritual beacon, a lure away from things carnal, sensual, and real, including the real brother who walked in the Galilean hills

Atonement, making right relation with God, occurs in the context of wrong relation—relation steeped in authoritarian, moralistic, violent dynamics. Consider the case of a father who is abusing a child. The father is not God. The father here is a violent man who is doing evil. The child cries out—surely this is the voice of a suffering God. The older sibling steps in on behalf of the child—surely this is an act of a liberating and suffering God. The violent father turns on the older sib­ling, creating even more suffering.

JESUS’ sense of an externalized deity entirely beyond himself whom he followed, nor his sense of identity with God, as if he himself were divine and his own voice the voice of God. I believe that JESUS was following the dictates of neither simply a god above him nor only his own inner voice. I believe that the “something special” about JESUS was his passion: the fullness of his embodied life, the depth and power of his , embodied spirit, the openness of his body to risk and struggle in the spirit of God. I believe that JESUS lived in this passionate spirit of One who was both with and in him       and other than him; the God who was with and in him—and with and in others; the Holy Spirit of love in his­tory, the sacred energy moving through JESUS, stirring among the peo­ple, acting through them all, and even today as much with and for one of us JESUS as for us all.

To come out as a passionate lover of God and the world does not require an extroverted personality. It requires persons—quiet, reflec­tive, flamboyant, charismatic, scholarly, activist, artistic, hard work­ing, playful, prayerful—who are confident in their own and others’ abilities to god, and their willingness to struggle together toward embodying the justice-love of God.

It is not that God “hates” rich people and “loves” poor people individually. It is the structures of society, the shape of the world we people are making, that God moves against and, in this sense, “despises.” Remember that we are not talking about an anthropomorphic deity who “feels” like we do about these matters. God is a spiritual force, an energy, a drive, and in that sense a relent­less yearning for justice.

His healing of the man’s hand, the disciples’ plucking of heads of grain also on the Sabbath, and his general attitude toward religion and state leaders were grounded in this God. That they were perceived to threaten the good order of Judaism was a consequence, not a motive or aim, of his actions. That JESUS and, sooner or later, many of the disciples would be put to death as rebels, traitors, and criminals was a consequence, not the goal or purpose, of their struggles for right relation.

To walk a mile in the shoes of an abuser is not thereby to legitimate his or her behavior or to soften our condemnation of the violence. What it does is give us a window into the person’s humanity.

This poses a critical challenge to educators, healers, and religious leaders, including those working-largely with the middle class population, who are con­cerned about the interrelatedness of economic justice, spiritual well-being, and mental health, and also about how we learn to experience ourselves as persons who are being empowered—or more disempowered—in relation to the work of social change and political activism. We ought not be turning the middle classes into a bunch of psychological conformists who are preoccupied with our “inner children.” God and the world need us to be “coming out” as much as “going in” and to be learning how to do both at once—moreover, learning how to be healer and healed, strong and vulnerable, simultaneously. We need fewer “professionals” (in the late-twentieth century U.S.A. sense) and more real presence among us all.

Eighth century Greek theologian John of Damascus used the word perichore­sis (mutual permeation), which seems to me close to the concept of coinherence (mutual inseparability and mutual essence) to describe the intrinsic relatedness of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Whether the Christian Eucharist can be experienced and understood as a thanksgiving for God’s real presence among us here and now rather than for God’s “holy sacrifice” of Himself (His Son) is a critical pastoral as well as liturgi­cal question for many Christian feminists How we answer it depends on whether we can loose ourselves and one another from our dreadful patriarchal religious moorings in which “holy sacrifice” requires the letting of blood and giving up of life. Can there be nonviolent Eucharist in which we celebrate the giving up of our isolation and self-absorption and in which we give thanks not for JESUS’ (or anyone’s) violent death but rather for his and our own passionate lives together in God one day at a time, sisters and brothers in Spirit? The liturgical resources in the final section of this book—especially the first and last ones– reflect several attempts to lift up this kind of theological movement.

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