There is no rescue without suffering, no transformation without a wilderness, no kingdom without a cross.
This difficult message, more often than not, is rejected by Christians, not by skeptics. Skeptics, in fact, are strangely attracted to the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus draped in the American flag or the Jesus whose message apparently sells self-help, victorious-Christian-life books. No, skeptics are suspicious of this Jesus, and rightly so. Rather, it is us – Christians – who are more apt to embrace a kingdom without a cross.
Somehow, we’ve come to believe that since Jesus ventured into the wilderness and suffered, even to the point of death, that we don’t have to. Many of us live with a sense of entitlement – religious entitlement (if I live by faith, my life should be successful), economic entitlement (want to offend someone? – tell them their taxes are being raised!), political entitlement (supposing the world is going to hell in a handbasket if supposed ‘Christian’ policies on the left or right are not embraced), social entitlement (our desperately codependent need to be connected all the time), and psychological entitlement (my parents shouldn’t have failed me).
I saw so much of this on display over the past week during the healthcare debate, which seemed to draw out every angry, embittered, idealistic emotion our culture corporately carries. On the one side, evangelical friends were outraged that they’d be forced to be inconvenienced (taxed!) for the sake of others, or at least this was my take. On the other, those on left seemed, once again, convinced that real community and care could be somehow mandated by law. I struggled to see the Gospel in any of it, in the sense that I didn’t see an honest wrestling with what it looks like, as a society, to come together wisely to care for the least of these – bringing in the kingdom through the cross of personal suffering and inconvenience for the sake of the other. Let me assure you – sprinkling a little Jesus on Ayn Rand or Karl Marx does not make for a cruciform kingdom…
…which leads me to wonder – will we, Christians, need to suffer more to see that becoming followers of Jesus requires crucifixion? Our confidence in changing and transforming the world politically – whether you’re on the left or the right – is false security. It is an idol that will break in a thousand pieces. And I say this no matter the method. I tell my clients – those who think psychology will make it all better – that good psychology only leads you more deeply into the wilderness in order to meet God. The idol of optimistic self-help will also explode. Moreover, the confidence in the all-powerful, all-knowing Market may be our biggest idol. Thomas Hobbes warned John Locke that the humanistic belief in well-intentioned, altruistic people was nonsense, and would come back to bite us. His prophecy was too true. What the market has produced is wealth for some, to be sure…and many cultural goods. But it has also produced a thriving porn industry which degrades young women, the idolization of image, obsession with people’s tragic lives on reality television, the false belief in the 2000s that middle-class families could actually afford 2000 sq foot homes, psychological dependence on each new technology, the collective narcissistic false self of the American, a growing psychological sense that we deserve more and more, the militarization and economization of ‘security’, the church as “small business” in competition with others, the professionalization of the clergy, and the marginalization of those who don’t fit the collective narcissistic image of success.
I believe in the paschal mystery – the path of life through death patterned in Jesus – and this leads me to wonder, at times, if we might not need to face a cultural death in order to experience real life and revival. We, Christians, may be most in need of this humiliation, and perhaps ought to pray for it. We seem to excel in hard times. I was reminded by a white South African friend again recently how black Christians in Africa led the call to forgiveness and reconciliation for those who systematically abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even raped them. May we suffer so as to learn forgiveness like this.
As an election season heats up, we’d do well to extricate ourselves from the back-and-forth which is so enticing and addictive, as if a Supreme Court opinion or an election can save us from our desperately entitled, narcissistic selves. This is my own spiritual discipline in this season – God help me. I will be asking myself – what is the way of the Cross? What false securities have I embraced? But watch out what you pray for. That which we hold to, cling to, attach our identity to may be taken from us – our business, our secure portfolio, our reputation, our idealism.
And may God’s peaceable kingdom emerge amidst the rubble in a way that skeptics might see Jesus in us, instead of despite us…