You can turn off the news, but you cannot turn off the images from lingering, from burning in your dreams: The youthful optimism in the eyes of three Muslim students before being gunned down in idyllic Chapel Hill, NC at 5:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon. The haunting image of masked men brandishing swords, seconds away from slicing off the heads of 21 Coptic Christians, some of them yet praying. Entering into Lent this year, we enter into the rhythms of the earth’s own travail, of her loss and of her longing. There are no words. There is only grief…then rage. We know Craig Hicks was responsible for the Chapel Hill slayings, and that ISIS is responsible for massacring the Christians. But the weight of so much pain is greater than we can place on such a small group of people, much less ourselves. The grief is too searing to just sit with for long. Restless, we hunt for more people to blame.
How did we get here? Is all of this because of violence somehow intrinsic to Islam? Are Christians reaping what they have sown in their own historic injustices to Jews, Muslims, perceived heretics, Native Americans, and African Americans? Is religion itself the problem? Is this because of something President Obama did, or did not do? Where did it all begin, and when will it ever end? Tell me now, Billy Joel—who exactly did start the fire? Feeling the outrage swell within us, there is only one thing we know for sure: it’s not my fault. I didn’t kill a Muslim in a crusade. I didn’t kill Jews or Anabaptists like the Reformers. I didn’t set a black man on fire like our great-grandfathers did. I didn’t drive nails into a cross. My hands are not soiled with the blood of my sisters and brothers. Someone else must take the blame for this.
As Lent takes us on the slow climb that ends at Golgotha, the radical edge of the cross of Jesus can be easily lost—perhaps especially among those use it as a name brand. When Peter got up to preach on the Day of Pentecost to preach, he said “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” The Son of love entered into the creation, but you despised him, you rejected him. Beauty itself came to you in human skin, and your response was to maim, torture and kill him. The “you” here is not, as famously misunderstood in a dark time in church history, the Jews—it is inclusive of all of us. The you is both individual and corporate. The scandal of the cross is the scandal of our own complicity in a love-denying, God-crucifying world. We have all played a role in the violence and injustice of the world. We look in the mirror, and in our own eyes we see the kind of person that killed Love. As the one who denied Jesus, Peter preached this message knowing that he, too, was complicit in the murder of God.
Hyper-conservative political ideology cannot tolerate authentic Christianity, because its radical individualism cannot tolerate the gospel message of corporate complicity. Pseudo-Christian folk religion says, “I’m not the one who killed Jesus—I wasn’t even alive back then. Whatever is wrong with the world cannot be my fault.” We do not want to identify with any particular tradition, because we do not want the baggage of any particular tradition’s sins. We do not want to take the responsibility that context would demand of us. And for those evangelicals who want the world to burn down to expedite some kind of rapture, there is no future for us to take responsibility for, either. The functional church history taught in such a climate can be summarized in a single sentence, “Nothing important happened here before us, nothing important will happen after us.”
There is no corporate responsibility for anything, because there is no “we.” There is an “us,” but only insofar that there are others who blame the proper “them” alongside of us. In the nationalistic folk religion we are making up as we go, the differences between good guys and the bad guys are not theological, but political. Our identity is not in the Eucharist, in the broken body and shed blood of the rejected one, but in current political ideology. We have no history, so we have no hymns—only a shared chorus of “lions and Muslims and homosexuals, oh my!” There are then no corporate prayers of confession, and no corporate pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins. It is not just health care and education that we want to privatize anymore, but salvation itself. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?
Like Pilate, we have washed our hands of responsibility for the murder of God. It is not yet the “second Adam” (as Paul calls Jesus) that we follow, but the first Adam—who when confronted with his sin in the garden pointed at Eve and said, “it wasn’t my fault—it was all her fault.”
Yet over and against this pietized, de-historicized faith is the witness of the prophets, from Jeremiah to Isaiah to Martin Luther King, Jr.: you are complicit in the brokenness of the world. Over and against the allure of contextless Christianity is the voice of Peter that says, “You killed the author of life, but God has raised him from the dead.” Lent sets us again on a collision course with the horror of the cross, which is the terror both of our complicity in the violence of the world and of God’s unflinching love hanging over us in the midst of it. The violence that burned in Cain to kill his brother Abel burns in us too, as did the violence that burned in the hearts of the mob that killed Jesus. In the torture and crucifixion of the innocent One, the very mechanisms of blame are exposed before us—and defeated by the love that speaks a better word than all of our curses.
Like the images we have seen in recent days, the cross burns in our imagination, if we behold it long enough. The cross burns away our cartoonish notions of us and them, melts away our childish games of cowboys and Indians. We can no longer demonize; we can no longer vilify. We proclaim the cross with the humility of Peter, who knew all too well his own dark role in the crucifixion of Love. No wonder the cross can be so easily obscured, even by those who preach it. It is still foolishness to the wisdom of this present age; it is still a stumbling block to Jew and Greek alike.
We enter into Lent again, so that the cross may once again ruin every idea we once had about the world we thought we knew. We do not allow the suffering we see in the world to goad us into blame and outrage. We instead bear her sorrow, letting the sword pierce our own hearts. We rebel against the spirit of the age, not with rhetoric, but with repentance. We take our place with our ancestors, with Judas, with Peter, and the terrorist Saul of Tarsus. The spectacle of the cross hovers over us, victims and perpetrators, accusers and accused, and envelops us underneath its shadow. We gather underneath, as the enemies of God, where the tender voice of the crucified one calls us “friends.” Giving up the idolatry of personal identity, we join the multitude of guilty forgiven ones—the multitude that no man can number. Humbled, we join the church across the ages to bow and pray a treasonous prayer:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we earnestly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name.