What follows is a variation on the theme from “Healing Passion.” Some portions of that earlier post form part of this one.
A recent movie called “God’s Not Dead” has received attention in various Christian circles. While it’s not on my to-see list, I do know that it turns on the idea of proving God’s existence and includes as its antagonist a philosophy professor who insists that God is dead.
Apparently, a crucial element of the plot is that this professor requires students to sign a document rejecting the existence of God or to receive a failing grade in the class.
Just for the record, I taught the classical proofs for God’s existence every semester as a philosophy professor. None of my colleagues would have dreamed of having students sign such a ridiculous document. Instead, we taught students the critical thinking skills needed to think through their faith and to defend it for themselves.
Many if not most of my philosophy colleagues in fact believed in God. Their spiritual objections were not about God, but about the idea of God peddled by so much of organized religion.
Apparently, my former colleagues have much in common with today’s young adults. They are likely to say that they are spiritual but not religious. The God they hear many churches talking about—the God they see proclaimed in the attitudes and behaviors of many church-going people—contrasts sharply with the holy longing they feel in their souls and the glimpses God has given them of himself in their lives.
And no wonder. Listening to what some pastors and some believers say about God, I don’t believe in him either. That’s because they make God sound remarkably like the graphic novel character Judge Dredd.
So I want to take some time talking about who God really is by focusing on his self-revelation in the Passion of Jesus. An appropriate title for these reflections might be “God’s Not Dredd.”
For starters, I had better say a few words about the character Judge Dredd. “Dredd is an American law enforcement officer in a violent city of the future where uniformed Judges are empowered to arrest, sentence, and execute criminals at the scene of [the] crime.”
Characters like Judge Dredd derive their popularity from our sense that things have gone horribly wrong and our desire for something, for someone, to set things right. News outlets churn out story after story about crime.
Just this weekend a white supremacist yelled, “Heil Hitler,” just before murdering an elderly man and his grandson outside a Jewish community center in Kansas City. Then the shooter drove to a nearby Jewish senior living facility and gunned down an elderly woman.
A year ago the Tsarnaev brothers killed and maimed participants and spectators at the Boston Marathon.
There are scores of unsolved murders, rapes, and thefts in Shreveport and Bossier City, to say nothing of the mountain of cases police forces across the country have been unable to close.
In our shock, horror, and indignation, we predictably look for someone to blame. We want to fix things, to put things right. We figure that finding out who is to blame and punishing that person will give us the justice we crave.
That’s where Judge Dredd comes in. He places the blame and applies the punishment. Maybe that’s just fine for a comic book. However, the blame-punish narrative does not remain confined to the pages of graphic novels. Many of our fellow Christians have woven God into a kind of blame-punish narrative. In their universe, God is a cosmic Judge Dredd.
Many of us have heard that Jesus died on the cross as a punishment, as a punishment that we deserve. In other words, God blames us for the world’s ache and solves the ache by punishing his own son in our place.
This makes God sound depressingly like Judge Dredd. As one who blames and punishes. And the truth of the matter is this. There is an ache at the very heart of the world. We yearn for it to be set right . But blame and punishment cannot mend this ache.
At least ten people were killed and thirty injured. These young people represented the very essence of the American dream.
Promising lives cut short. Dreams turned to dust. Families left with spaces forever empty at every meal and every holiday.
How do you ever set a thing like this right?
There is an ache at the heart of our world. The story of this crash brings that ache into sharp relief, just as millions of other lives might do should we draw near enough to see and to feel.
Parents grieving children who die before their time. Children terrorized by abusive parents or crushed by want and neglect. Victims of unspeakable sexual violence. Families shattered by insurmountable poverty. Lives consumed by chronic hunger.
There is an ache at the heart of the world. How do you ever set it right?
Punishment-centered solutions to the ache—solutions that use violence and coercion—leave a human remainder: shattered bodies and broken hearts, wounded families and lost dreams.
That is not God’s way. God acts decisively in Jesus to heal our ache. Instead of punishing offenders, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the very ache that’s killing us.
In contrast to the blame-punish narrative, the Passion Narrative of the Gospels shows us that God embraces and heals. And so I invite you to think of Jesus’ suffering and death in precisely those terms.
Let’s consider what Jesus is doing on the cross as the continuation of what God began in creation and continued in the Incarnation.
God created everything that is in order to be in relationship. God loves. He can’t really help himself. It’s who he is. God created frogs and red tail hawks and Golden Retrievers and protons and black holes and mosquitos (and yes, he’s got some explaining to do). He created these beings just to love them.
God did not create the universe to watch it and grade it. He created it to be involved, to impart to everything and everybody the joy of being, the joy of loving, the joy of self-giving that is his life.
In Jesus God embraced everything that is human. He made himself utterly vulnerable to skinned knees, weary feet, pollen allergies, the common cold, wrenching grief, cruel rejection, bitter disappointment, and crushing sorrow. Get your head around this. In Jesus God lets us in. We get under his skin. Our wounds become his.
With this in mind, remember what Jesus says on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In Jesus, God has made himself vulnerable to the ache. He feels it for himself. Every shame and regret and sorrow, every fractured heart and shattered dream. God refuses to keep a safe distance. And so he suffers and fears and weeps along with us.
He refuses to break relationship with us even when we feel godforsaken. In a way that I still find hard to wrap my mind around, Jesus even lets himself feel our own godforsakenness.
Jesus knows what we feel like when we need God and we wonder what on earth, what in heaven’s name, is keeping him.
And yet, Jesus does not yield to despair. And there lies our hope. There lies his redemption for us.
Jesus says, “My God.” In the midst of horror and suffering and humiliation Jesus knows that God is with him. God is bearing him through this present misery to a new place that he cannot see clearly yet.
Rob Bell illustrates what I have in mind in a NOOMA video entitled “Rain.” Bell is hiking with his one-year-old son Trace in a backpack carrier. Miles from home, a powerful thunderstorm rolls in. Pounded by a torrential rain and rocked by peals of thunder, Trace begins to wail. He is terrified. His whole world is nothing but that drenching downpour and those ear-splitting thunderclaps.
Rob Bell stopped, knelt down, took him out of the carrier, and clutched Trace close to his chest. Carrying him the rest of the way home wrapped in his jacket next to his heart, Bell says again and again, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you!”
Jesus can say, “My God,” precisely because he hears God saying, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you.”
In Jesus, especially Jesus on the cross, that is just what we hear God saying to us. So long as we we think of God as the blaming punisher, we’ll waste our lives trying to straighten up, trying to put on our best self in preparation for our final presentation to God as Judge Dredd.
By contrast, when we know God in Christ as our holy healer, we can bring ourselves to him in whatever messy, dysfunctional, confused, flattened state we find ourselves. Instead of having to get ourselves all together before coming to God, we can come to God to be made whole.
And the whole into which God forms us is more than we could have made for ourselves. God doesn’t just put us back together after life has dropped us carelessly on the floor and shattered us. God is making us a new creation.
On the cross Jesus shows us once and for all that we are never godforsaken. We may be shattered or pigheaded, hysterically misguided or willfully self-destructive, lost or in hiding. But God is embracing us. Making us whole in a way that we cannot yet see.
In the meantime we can hear him say from the cross, “I’ve got you, Buddy! I’ve got you.”
This meditation was given at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport. A portion of this meditation is drawn from “Healing Passion.”