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Why Did Jesus Die?

by John K Stoner  (March 28, 2018)

    Why did Jesus die?  Or, put differently, why was he killed?   A question for Holy Week.
     The second way of asking it is better, because it shows an intention to take the history seriously.
    Good Friday has been a great Christian celebration across centuries and continents.  The crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday is the focus of the celebration.  Why celebrate the death of Jesus?
    Let’s start with the hardest and the worst of it.  Over the centuries a tradition developed by the church and believed by millions of Christians holds that Jesus died because God willed and/or needed Jesus’ death.  Notice, however, that this tradition attributes not a bad motive, but a good one, to God.  God did it in order to make possible the forgiveness of human sins.
    Now let’s be honest—human failure, or sin, is common and big.  Who can look at their own life and not know that?  And we find it is not always easy to forgive ourselves, and consistently try to do better.  So, our forbears looked for a big solution to a big problem.  Let’s make it God-sized, and see how God solves our problem.  They picked up on religious traditions of sacrifice to the gods, and lo and behold, we get a notion of sacrifice in which the very son of God is the sacrifice which pleases God and makes the forgiveness of sins possible.
    If that doesn’t work well for you, fine.  Join tens of millions of other fellow humans who are appalled by such an image of God and way to deal with our problem of recidivism in sin.
    There is a better way to understand Good Friday and the crucifixion.  Start by asking who killed Jesus and why.
    Start with the obvious.  He was killed by people who thought that killing a person was acceptable human behavior, and—we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt—that they could improve the general human condition by performing an execution.  Maybe we can give them a little more:  they killed him thinking he was a bad person.  They were wrong about that, so his death was collateral damage. 
In short, Jesus was killed by bad people for being a good person.
    Let’s parse that a little.  Bad and good are relative terms, but that does not mean they are meaningless or useless.  The bad here is the ancient and widespread human belief that some other individuals or groups are so bad that they  must be killed in order to cleanse the land.  They are scapegoated:  those bad must be sacrificed for the sake of us good.
    Jesus taught a different thing, another way.  He said that none of us are so good, nor so hopelessly bad, that we can indulge this practice of killing each other to make the world a better place.  The world is not improved by pillaging and burning.  Scorching part of the earth will not save the whole earth.
    So Good Friday was a contest over the central teaching of Jesus.  Who understands best the real human nature/condition (or the will of God, to put it the other way)?   Is it Jesus, who says that the way to deal with human imperfection or sin, is to forgive one time after another, to help each other try again, or those who killed Jesus, believing that some bad people have to be killed so that us good people can inhabit the world peacefully?
    The vignette of Peter’s denial is a microcosm of this contest.  There is a double sadness in this story: that Peter denied, and that the church has so universally misunderstood Peter’s denial.  It was not a denial rooted in human weakness as generally understood, but rather in what is generally thought to be human strength and greatness.  By both his actions and words Peter stands out as a brave man, ready to fight and die for Jesus.  What he was not ready for was the disclosure of Jesus’ nonviolent response to the attacking enemies.  Peter was overcome by unbelief and embarrassment when he saw Jesus refusing to take up the sword and defend himself, and he denied that he was identified with this man.
    The story of Jesus is so irrepressible and universal because he taught this way of compassionate forgiveness, and placed it in tension with the prevailing practices of dominating power over nature  and justified killing of humanity.  Every person and every culture/nation lives in the tension between these ways of running the world.  It is the existential choice of humanity, standing on the verge of ecological collapse and death by war.
    But then, in the ironic words of W. Edwards Deming:  “It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory.”

Robert Koehler "Normalizing Violence"

by John K. Stoner (March 6, 2018) 

On January 29 I introduced a voice for peace, that of Robert Koehler click here .  I return to Bob today because he has written another wise reflection on this country’s problem with mass shootings.  He is telling us that we can’t , as a nation, promote bullying violence on the wholesale level as the way to run the world, and hope to restrain it on the retail level for our own culture.  This is a simple truth, but who is speaking it?
The Raven Foundation, dedicated to helping us understand and challenge our culture of violence, carried Bob’s essay here click .  Bob brings back, from 50 years ago, the voice of Martin Luther King.  I quote the “normalizing violence” article today, the voices of King and Koehler.  I cannot improve on what they said.  I hope you will click on the article and read the full text.  It will help you know how to help our teenagers to address this violence problem realistically.

    And if this is so, then what we have emerging here is not simply a movement for stricter gun laws but a new civil rights movement, with a voice as clarion and courageous as the voices of that earlier movement. And the scope of the movement is violence itself.

    The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” Martin Luther King told the nation, and the world, at Riverside Church, a year before he himself was murdered.

“…The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

    Here’s how educator Gabriel Paez put it recently in The Socialist Worker: “Ultimately, we need a completely different society that is freed from terror and mass murder, from mass incarceration and war. In the society we strive for, prosperity and freedom would not be measured by access to automatic weapons, but rather by access to health care, including mental health care, housing as a human right and global peace.

    I have no doubt this is what America’s teenagers are demanding: a legal and social structure that values life rather than feeds on it.  click for full article

Daniel Berrigan, Part III, Prophet in Our Times

by John K. Stoner (March 9, 2018)

In my December 29 blog I promised further blogs on "those who use the methods of peace to pursue the goal of peace."  I've written two on Daniel Berrigan; this will be the third and last on him.

It was reading Jim Forest's recently published book that set me to drawing on Dan's voice from the past--my focus for this series is on voices in the present.  But I want to commend his book to you--AT PLAY IN THE LIONS' DEN: A BIOGRAPHY AND MEMOIR OF DANIEL BERRIGAN (Orbis, 2017).  Jim Wallis wrote this about it:

As a young activist, who had been kicked out of my home church over the issues of race and war, Daniel Berrigan was the first Christian I heard of who was against the war in Vietnam.  So I thank you Dan, for keeping my hope of faith in Christ alive.  You were among the biblical prophets who showed us the way.  And thank you, Jim Forest, for this superlative spiritual writing."

Wallis says he was kicked out of his church--it was a conservative evangelical church.  Berrigan avoided being kicked out of his church, Roman Catholic, over his peace activism, but just barely.  There is a lot in this book about how he painfully struggled with his church and the Jesuits, the Catholic order in which he had taken vows.  It is instructive to read this history, including correspondence between Berrigan and Thomas Merton, on destruction of "property," and obedience to "superiors." 

So I suggest, lay aside THE TIMES and THE POST for a few days, and read a prophet from OUR TIMES.   

Daniel Berrigan, Part 2-- Order and Disorder

by John K. Stoner  (March 5, 2018)

In last Friday's blog I quoted Dan Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine apologizing "for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children."  Perhaps you have reflected a moment on that.

Americans have a strong distaste for civil disobedience, and my readers may be like Americans in this.  (Principled civil disobedience, that is; I've noticed high tolerance for unprincipled civil disobedience such as disobeying speed limits.)

I'm featuring Dan Berrigan for several days because we live in a time and place where civil disobedience may be a much higher civil, moral and spiritual duty than we have been trained to think. How do we prepare our minds and spirits to do the unfamiliar and difficult?  One way is by paying attention to people who are experienced in what we need to learn.

For burning draft files the Catonsville Nine were charged with disrupting  public order.  The defendants spoke to this:

We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize.  For the sake of that order we risk our liberty, our good name.  The time is past when good men may be silent."

In the future, perhaps not the very distant future, you will have opportunities, you will be invited, to participate in acts of civil disobedience which expose the evil of civil obedience, of going along to get along, of being silent in the face of blatant evil.  When the time comes for you, will you be ready?

I know, we tend to think that such behavior is for a few specially called people, like the prophets of the Bible.   Forgetting (rather conveniently, I guess) that Jesus blessed those who are persecuted for good behavior, and said that this was the experience "of the prophets who were before you."  (Matthew 5). I think he was saying, "My followers should expect to be like, and be treated like,  the prophets who were before you."   For us then, this could mean civil disobedience as it did for the prophets.  

Daniel Berrigan -- Truth in Action

by John K. Stoner (March 2, 2018)

Dan Berrigan spoke truth and acted on it.  I just finished reading AT PLAY IN THE LIONS' DEN -- A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan, by Jim Forest (Orbis, 2017), and want to resume this blog, after its month's siesta, with several reflections on Dan.  Today, just a few pungent words from the press release Dan Berrigan and 8 friends wrote to explain their action of burning draft files.

On May 17, 1968, Berrigan and 8 others entered an office where draft records of men conscripted for the war on Vietnam were stored, carried out armfuls of them, and burned them in the parking lot.  Why did they do this?  Was this "destruction of property" justified?  Let the following excerpt from their explanation inform your thinking.

"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house.  We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."