Monday, April 18, 2011

Time to lose some Passion (Sunday Reflections for April 17, 2011)

Recently Michael Rinehart, an ELCA synod bishop from Texas, was discussing on his blog liturgical and preaching issues related to Palm/Passion Sunday. It seems to him that the trend is swinging back toward this day focusing exclusively on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. The Passion story then is reserved exclusively for Good Friday.

I don’t know if his perception of a trend is accurate but he seems to think this is a good idea. I believe he is correct in saying that this change occurred when attendance at Good Friday services had declined significantly. Growing up I only remember Palm Sunday but by the time I got to seminary the transition to Passion Sunday was all the rage.

I embraced the change (to the dismay of the senior pastor I worked with) and especially enjoyed the dramatic reading in parts of the full Passion narrative (usually replacing the sermon because of its length). For me, the high point (for lack of a better term) was always the moment when the congregation (taking the role of the crowd) shouted out, “Crucify him!” in response to Pilate’s offer of mercy.

Well, that was then. As the years have passed, my enthusiasm for all that has waned considerably. While I still appreciate the drama, I have found myself asking, “But what’s the point?”--not just what's the point of it liturgically, but also what is the point of the story?

Perhaps my attitude began to change when I served as interim pastor of a congregation in Omaha. We had a lay parish assistant who I respected a lot. She surprised me when she said she wouldn’t be at the Good Friday service (she attended nearly everything). “The story is just too sad,” she said. This was someone who probably could have explained Luther’s theology of the cross as well as many pastors, but for her the Passion story itself was just too much.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, biblical scholarship of the past two centuries has significantly challenged the traditional understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Basically scholars tell us we really just don’t know much about what happened. We do know, however, that a lot of what the gospels’ passion narratives say is unlikely and sometimes preposterous. In many places the gospel accounts contradict each other so obviously they can’t each be right; some of their reports then have to be wrong.

It’s now nearly certain that none of the gospel writers were eye witnesses to the events they report. (Mark, the earliest gospel, was written at least forty years after Jesus’ death.) Did they have eye witnesses as sources? We don’t know but that also seems unlikely. And what’s hard for us to understand is that they very likely didn’t care, either. Telling the message, the “good news” about Jesus, was their priority rather than historical accuracy, which is our modern concern.

In all likelihood, much of the detail in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’ last week was inspired by the writers’ Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Thus, rather than biblical prophecy fulfilled by the events of Holy Week, this scripture was the primary source for the gospel writers’ passion stories. They created a narrative with material from their scriptural tradition, which conveyed the meaning and importance of Jesus’ death rather than its history, which probably no one knew.

The question for us is whether the meaning and importance they saw (and the gospels themselves have differing views) is what we would now see or value. To me, there are at least two major problems for us today, and both contribute to the overwrought nature of the gospels’ telling of the passion story.

The first is the anti-Judaism present to some degree in each of the gospels, especially in the Passion stories. This problem has been recognized for a long time and, particularly since the Holocaust, various attempts have been made to remedy it.

Biblical scholarship has cast doubt on what role, if any, Jewish religious authorities would have had in Jesus’ death. Even the gospels strain to come up with a plausible connection, primarily because their own accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee give them little to work with. It is much more likely that Jesus was executed by Roman authorities, probably because he did something which made them consider him a threat to public order. The table-turning incident in the temple is one possibility.

So why the hostility to Judaism in the gospels? Because they were written at the time of the split between church and synagogue. Divorces can be angry, messy affairs and this one certainly was. That most Jews did not embrace Jesus as the Christ became an awkward embarrassment for the early church. If Jesus really was the Jewish messiah, then why did most Jews not accept him? Thus began the meme of the messiah’s rejection by his own people, portrayed most dramatically in his Jerusalem trial.

The second problem is the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. Again, the gospels have somewhat differing views on this (as does Paul). Yet they all agree that Jesus’ death was somehow necessary in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for humanity’s sin like the animal sacrifices made in the temple.

Today I’m not sure this is even understandable by modern people. More importantly, however, it makes God appear as some kind of ancient bloodthirsty ogre. While some fundamentalists still revel in this image, most people find it repulsive and just bizarre. There is a lot of anger in the Bible but today we can recognize that much of it is our own anger and frustration projected on God.

The obvious rebuttal to that portrayal is, of course, Jesus himself. This supposed divine need for justice and judgment that sent Jesus to the cross is most noticeably absent in Jesus’ own teaching and human interactions. Forgiveness and compassion is the heart of his life and ministry. As this has been rediscovered in recent years, Jesus’ death has been reframed as the ultimate act of that compassion and selflessness. Jesus’ death is saving for us by vividly portraying and leading us to the life of love that is our human calling. God is not “satisfied” by Jesus’ death but heartbroken.

Can the gospels’ Passion narratives be saved? The disinterest in Good Friday and the resistance to imposing the Passion on Palm Sunday are pretty strong indications of how average Christians feel. I think we need to pay attention. The image of the cross is certainly important and powerful and should not be lost. Ironically, however, the stories that for centuries have swirled around it are now preventing us from seeing it. Somehow the church has to find a way to clear the air.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

All hell (Sunday Reflections for April 10, 2011)

This coming week will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As we all remember from our history lessons, the conflict began on April 12, 1861 with the bombardment by Confederate forces of Ft. Sumter, located on an island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The conflict would end almost exactly four years later on April 9, 1865 with Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, a few hundred miles north in Virginia. Symbolically, however, the war’s last shot came a few days later on April 13, with the tragic and pointless assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

I visited Charleston for the first time the week after Christmas. It’s a lovely and fascinating historical tourist Mecca, with buildings dating back to the 1600s. There’s little evidence now of the wreck it became at the end of the war as a result of the fighting prior to its capture by Sherman’s army. I saw Ft. Sumter but did not take the boat ride out to it. I did tour Ft Moultrie, however. Built during the American Revolution, Ft Moultrie had been evacuated by Federal forces for the more defensible but unfinished Ft Sumter. It was used by Confederates in the bombardment and saw service off-and-on until World War II.

Cleaned-up and tourist friendly, most historic sites have a bit of a Disneyland feel to them. The exception in Charleston came when we stumbled upon the old slave market building. It looked like any other building on any other block, as it was probably viewed at the time. It was just another business establishment, like the butcher, stable or dry goods store. It just happened that the business here was the buying and selling of human beings. Walking through the simple building and looking at the displays I couldn’t help thinking this was America’s Auschwitz.

Last week over five nights, PBS rebroadcast the award-winning, blockbuster documentary, The Civil War, by Ken Burns. It’s so easy now to forget the scale of the conflict and the resulting destruction of people and property. Over 600,000 died; more than in all the rest of American wars combined. Millions more were wounded, many with life-long injuries, especially the loss of arms and legs.

With the exception of Gettysburg (in Pennsylvania), all the major fighting was in Southern or Border States and the region was devastated. The Burns documentary was possible because the Civil War was the first major war anywhere to be photographed. Mostly taken after the fighting was over, the pictures are not much different from those of World War I or II: blocks of burned-out buildings, torn up railroad tracks, soldiers’ bodies lying in open fields or trenches, living soldiers exhausted and hollow-eyed, dazed refugees, and emaciated prisoners.

Famously Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman summed up the conflict saying, “War is all hell.” Unlike the early romanticized expectations of most civilians and politicians, many of the commanders on both sides knew what a protracted horror the war would be. Historians now see the American Civil War as anticipating the carnage of the world wars of the next century. The trenches of Verdun were foreshadowed at Petersburg and Grant’s nine-month siege. Concentration camps had their roots in places like Andersonville, whose commander was executed after one of the first war crimes trials. His defense: I was just following orders.

The Civil War was also one of the first “people’s wars,” which therefore required ongoing popular support. There is little doubt, for example, that the North would have ended the conflict had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, as looked very likely through most of that year. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that September seemed to turn the tide, however, convincing enough voters that victory was in sight.

Nonetheless, the official explanations of the conflict by political leaders on both sides shifted as it went on: preserving the Union or defending states’ rights, abolishing slavery or defending slavery. Different people saw different purposes in the war, which showed that the war had really taken on a life of its own.

In both the North and South, many saw the war as a religious crusade: God was on their side. For the North, Julie Ward Howe summed up the sentiment in her stirring Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yet the religious potential for horror was also shown in the pre-war attacks of John Brown, who today would be labeled a terrorist or even jihadist.

Lincoln’s view was different. He had no known religious affiliation and rarely attended worship, yet he frequently quoted scripture in his speeches and framed events in theological terms. As he saw it, the war was God’s judgment on the entire nation. The whole country had practiced or tolerated slavery, and the conflict was the result of a moral breakdown across the board. There would be no winners in this war. Its conclusion, however, would bring the possibility of reconciliation and rebirth.

Lincoln, like many of the war’s generals, saw that war really solved nothing. It was a necessary evil. The real work, and the real chance for a better society and better lives for its people, would come after the fighting was over. After it had gotten it out of its system, the country could get back to its true purpose of being a commonwealth, a place of life and opportunity for all. War, on the other hand, was always and could never be anything other than “all hell.”