Giving Up American Heresies for Lent

In the tradition of giving something up for Lent, I have determined to give up American heresies. Not all of this is uniquely American; much of this has long roots elsewhere and some are ancient. However, old roots transplanted into a new environment can give rise to something both old and uniquely modern. Just what do I mean by “American Heresies”? Here are the key ones:

  • Jesus came to earth to die on the cross to make restitution to God the Father for each person’s individual sins. If you (that is, you in the solely singular sense – not the plural) accept His payment, your sins are forgiven, and you will go to heaven when you die. If not, you will go to hell to pay for your sins in eternal suffering.
  • Jesus taught and showed people how to create the Kingdom of God on earth through a theocratic government. We need to get the right people in positions of power who will act as God’s proxies and direct everyone else in doing what God commands through them.
  • The ultimate goal of Christian life is to get to heaven, that purely spiritual afterlife. That’s where all the truly good things are. This line of thinking leads to one of two conclusions: Believers should suffer and sacrifice here on earth to have rewards when they get to heaven. – OR – Truly faithful believers are rewarded now on earth as a downpayment for even greater rewards and glory in heaven.

All of this heretical. At best, these heresies take some small piece of the Christian tradition … mix it with a hefty dose of American individualism, capitalism, and politics as religion … and what is authentic within the ancient practices and teachings of the Christian faith gets shifted and warped into something almost unrecognizable. Any and all of this heretical mess may be called Christian these days – but it has little to do with what Jesus, who was called the Christ, taught and lived. Jesus did not die and rise again for any of the ideas on that list.

True – the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus from Nazareth was to address the problems of sin, wrong-doing, and brokenness in the world … what we might, for lack of any better word, call sin. But this concept in this very little word is far bigger than one person’s individual misdeeds. We really don’t need this accumulation of elaborations from an ancient story of a garden paradise with magical fruit trees and a talking snake luring the first humans to do what they were told not to … which has been called the first sin … and then this sin was passed along hereditary lines to all humans after them – we do not need all this just to tell us that world we live in is not as it could – or should – be. Signs of the brokenness are all around us; we have to work in order to not see them. What that ancient story tells us is that God’s beautiful dream for what creation could be was broken. The original goodness of the creation is still there, but all the brokenness can make it really hard to see that original goodness… and we are too caught up in both to tell which is which sometimes.

If that’s not clear, here’s another way to look at it: Sin is in the world the same way mud is in a swamp. If you’re going through a swamp, you’re going to get muddy … and if you’re in this world, you’re going to get messed up by sin – no matter what you do or don’t do. Trudging through the swamp with a group of people, mud gets splattered everywhere, even if no one does it on purpose … pick up a foot, bits of mud move with it and away from it … set a foot down, mud gets splooshed up all around. There’s no way to control where it goes. Sometimes we get mud on each other by accident; sometimes it might happen on purpose … and then the offended throws some mud back at the offender … and when it really starts flying, the bystanders get hit, too.

Sin is part of the fabric of the world; there’s no escaping it. Even if we try to control or our own behavior and do no harm to others as best we can manage, we still do harm by accident … we still do harm because we cannot foresee all the consequences that ripple out from our actions or inactions. We are caught up in social structures and systems that often depend on some humans being used, de-valued, or excluded so that others can succeed, have more, and prosper. It’s just how the world works, and we do have to live in this world as it is because it is the only world we have.  We can participate in these systems unwillingly because there isn’t any other option or we can quite willingly participate in them and do our part to keep these things going … to make sure it continues to work for us and for other people just like us.

It is this endemic quality of sin that Jesus came to address. Sin is destructive; it kills all kinds of things. And since Jesus came to break the power of sin, well, sin had to kill Jesus because that’s what sin does. Jesus was not condemned to death for his innocence. He was condemned to death for teachings about God that were deemed blasphemous and heretical by the religious authorities of his time. He attracted the support of the wrong sorts of people and posed a threat to the uneasy peace between the religious leaders and the governing authorities. Although the religious authorities condemned his heretical blasphemy, when they took Jesus to the governing authorities for execution, the charge shifted to treason … advocating the overthrow of the occupying government … claiming to be a rival ruler to Caesar. And the accusers were not entirely wrong.

Jesus did advocate for a different governance, a different way of life in which God – not Caesar – would be the supreme ruler. Jesus called for a revolution of sorts – just not the violent way it’s usually imagined. Rather than trying to overpower a system built on some having power over others … rather than trying to change who had the power over whom, Jesus went under the whole system and let it do its worst, let it crush him. The only way out is to not participate … which is to say die to the ways of the world that is.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Even in the forty days of Lent there is no denying this solemn season will end … songs of joy and gladness will return … Jesus rose from the grave as the first fruit of God’s Reign and Realm, God’s dream for the world.

The confluence of the Minnesota & Mississippi Rivers, where the native Dakota people believe the world began

Rather than just skip to the familiar ending, though, Lent is an opportunity to pause and notice a couple things: Jesus became incarnate (took on a human physical body) and was born into this world. Jesus lived, taught, and died in this world. Jesus rose from the dead in this world. So whatever God was up to in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the man from Nazareth in Galilee …  whatever it was, it was about this world – not some other plane of existence.

Salvation, as described throughout scripture, is communal – not individual. We are given images of human beings walking in a garden with God, which is to say community … the Holy Mountain of the Lord, where predator and prey feed together without harm and the vulnerable ones play happily with the could-be dangerous ones and no one hurts or destroys anyone or anything … the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, where the river of the water of life flows from God’s throne throughout the city and the tree of life bears its fruit every season to nourish the uncountable inhabitants from every tribe and nation and people. Salvation is a communal experience – not an individual accomplishment.

A rabbi (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) wrote of having to wrestle with the existence of Christianity during his rabbinical studies. He eventually reached the conclusion that what Jesus did was establish a way of Judaism for Gentiles. I can live with that. The point of Jewish life is to join in the work of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world … repairing the brokenness … working toward God’s original dream for creation. The point of joining Jesus is his dying and in his rising is to participate in this new creation, this new thing God is doing in this world, joining the effort to reclaim God’s dream.

This will not – indeed, it cannot – happen by force. We cannot achieve God’s dream by replacing one hierarchical, repressive system with a different one. It just does not work. Christian Church history is replete with the horrific things that happen when the Church tries to leverage civic governance for the purposes of the institution and its leadership. The mission and purposes of the Church have not always been aligned with the mission and purposes of God. And if ever a theocratic state might have been able to bring in the Reign and Realm of God by human efforts, Jean Calvin’s Geneva of the mid-1500s was probably the best chance.  (If you’re not familiar with the history, suffice it to say it did not go well.)

This Reign and Realm of God is the new life, the rebirth into life from above, the life of God’s dream for all creation, the resurrection life. This is what Christians are called to live out … to demonstrate … to make real in this world as they live out what Jesus taught, demonstrated, and enacted. And the only way to enter is through death … joining Jesus in his dying … dying to the ways of the world as it is … dying so that new life, the resurrection life, the very life of Christ can rise up in us and empower us to start living the alternate ways of God’s Reign and Realm – starting here, starting now. As the ancients noted, all the way to heaven is heaven.

Interestingly, the major modern American heresies intersect noticeably with the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the gospel story for the First Sunday in Lent. In the variations of that story, the newly baptized Jesus is out in the wilderness for 40 days to be tested by the accuser. The accuser offers Jesus a series of temptations to take a different way than they way of the cross. Jesus refuses them all.  Would that modern American would-be followers would do the same!

Surprised or even shocked by this? Stay tuned – I’ll unpack them more over the remaining weeks of Lent.