Thursday, November 20, 2008

Justice, Jesus and Denzel Washington

I love Denzel Washington. He’s just so believable. I wish I could take his character out of film and unleash him, in all his crime-fighting-glory, on the real oppressors of our day. Last night, Neal and I watched Denzel kick butt in a movie called Inside Man. In this movie, one of the characters, we’ll call him “the banker,” is a man who made a fortune dealing with the Nazis during World War II. He’s spent the rest of his life doing humanitarian work to cover the blood on his hands. Dalton, the thief of the movie, says:

I was stealing from a man who traded his [soul] away for a few dollars. And then he tried to wash away his guilt. Drown it in a lifetime of good deeds and a sea of respectability.

The banker had the power at one time to protect his Jewish friends. Instead, he literally sold them out, amassing a fortune. While his safe deposit boxes inherited diamonds and treasures, the former owners of those gems smoldered in concentration camps.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak once on the Holocaust.

If evil were to ever show itself in an objective, raw form, the atrocities that marked the Holocaust would be its purest manifestation. Elie argued that discussions of absolute truth, morality and right versus wrong should find their starting point with the Holocaust. If the world can unanimously define (apart from some foolish bigots) the Holocaust as wrong, then philosophers, teachers, and everyday thinkers can then begin to define what is right. As an elementary teacher, I gingerly touched on themes from that era of history. In our discussions, the children could barely comprehend the concept of racism—genocide was something they would have to grapple with later.

Back to the movie, Inside Man. As I watched Dalton, the self-righteous thief, reflect on the banker’s plight, I questioned what hope a man like that might have. If one did participate in the genocide of a nation for personal profit, once the thrill of worldly success could no longer silence the conscience’s screams of guilt, what could one do? Without knowledge of the forgiveness of Christ, it only makes sense to attempt to “drown it in a lifetime of good deeds.” The banker confessed, “I sold my soul to the devil and I’ve been trying to buy it back ever since.” Dalton exposes the banker’s efforts as futile and what’s more, hypocritical. And, in a sense, they are.

The characterization of a man who sold Jews to the Nazis challenges my present belief in the gospel. I live, preach and breathe the truth that my evil is not only covered, but forgotten by a God-Man’s sacrifice. I look at this dying world through a lens of hope that it, too, might entrust its own evil to this God-Man, and thereby find true freedom and cleansing forgiveness. Humanitarian works are important, but they can never absolve one’s soul. Only an act of substitution can justify—my evil, which merits death, for the life of a Perfect One.

That is the gospel I believe. And, it all sounds good. Everything I’ve come across in my life, in observing this world, fits into this narrative. The Penthouse model I talked to at a bar in Tallahassee—yeah, she fits. She can find freedom, cleansing and new life in Christ. My favorite childhood artist whose marriage dissolved in front of the world—yeah, she fits. Again, forgiveness, cleansing, freedom.

But… the banker. Does he fit?

Let’s get theoretical. Let’s enter the movie Inside Man with a little creative license. Because I love Denzel so much, he’s gonna be the token Christ-follower. In the last scene, while he’s confronting the banker about his past, Denzel explains to the Banker how he has personally found freedom and a new lease on life through Jesus. Denzel then challenges the banker, with that wily smirk on his face, to surrender his life to God and the banker breaks down in tears. They pray together and share in a manly embrace.

Last scene of our theoretical movie—the banker calls for a press conference in which he confesses his participation in the annihilation of the Jews. He renounces all of his humanitarian awards because they were given in false pretense. He voluntarily submits himself to the authorities and asks for everyone’s forgiveness. He demonstrates, in all possible ways, the actions of true repentance.

My gospel says the banker is forgiven. My gospel says that on the Day of Judgment, when he stands before the throne of God, Jesus will stand up and tell the Father, “He’s covered. He can enter into our Kingdom forever.” (Don’t get all seminary on me—the details may be off.)

Really? Really. What about the victims? What about the hundreds of innocent people who met an inconceivable death at his hands? I may sound calloused and self-righteous, but I have to cry—where is the Justice? Where is the accountability?

It’s at this point in my imagined scene (which really will take place, the only difference being the names), that I go to the two most certain things I know of my God—Justice and Mercy. I can acknowledge his Mercy in forgiving the banker. But Justice has to fit in somewhere. In my Sunday School upbringing, I was taught that Jesus “paid the price” for our sin while on the cross. Scripture says that God poured out his wrath onto his Son in those excruciating moments. That Jesus literally "became sin."

If that is true, then I have to expand my understanding of what really went on at Golgotha. If Mercy means that God forgives the banker, and Justice means that God unleashed the banker’s punishment on His Son, then I’ve really had no clue as to the depth of Jesus’ suffering in the passion.

I’ve been clueless.

In the past, I’ve meditated on Jesus empathizing with the pain I would experience in my lifetime. I’ve pondered Jesus absorbing my sin into his body and soul. But I’ve never before truly considered the Justice of God being poured onto that cross.

All that I experience when I think of the effects of the banker’s actions—anger, horror, repulsion—it was all accounted for on the cross. In my finite mind, it doesn’t seem possible. Forgive the heresy, but it doesn’t seem enough. Did the cross really cover the Holocaust? Does Jesus' blood really answer for those who shed the blood of 6 million Jews? Does the crucifixion satisfy the vengeance of God against humanity's worst offenders?

The God of my gospel says yes.

Moral of the story? You don’t want to watch movies with me—hot, black guys become Christians, Nazis repent, and the meaning of cross is exponentially expanded. Next time, I’ll just watch.

someone else's better-worded thoughts

So, I just have to share some excerpts from a book I'm reading, Total Church, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

On the topic of apologetics:

"What will commend the gospel are lives lived in obedience to the gospel and a community life that reflects God's triune community of love. People will not believe until they are genuinely open to exploring the truth about God. They become open as they see that it is good to know God. And they see that it is good to know God as they see the love of the Christian community.

As Francis Schaffer said, 'Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.'"

Mmm...good stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Glory of Dying

I’m sitting on the patio of my grand-in-laws’ country house, overlooking a lake and acres upon acres of Georgian woods. It’s November, and all non-floridians know what that means. Color. Crimson, hues of orange, burnt yellow and baby chick yellow, purple and stubborn green. These, and so many other colors, flank tall, gangly trees as they submit to the changing of the seasons. Some trees emanate an orange-red, as electric as a Las Vegas sign. Others have soft yellows that only glow when rays of sunlight shine through them. Over the past few days my husband and I have been eagerly scanning the trees for the most glorious, the most ostentatious displays of color.

Yesterday morning, as my husband and I sat on a fallen log near the lake, the irony hit me. The beauty in which we delighted was an outward sign of the tree’s death. The healthy trees, which had maintained the process of photosynthesis, were still green and we took no note of them. The leaves whose life was slowly seeping out of them caught our attention and earned our admiration. As the life of the tree escapes through its leaves, it announces its death to the world. The leaf is never more glorious than right before it dies and falls to the ground.

We were in awe of death.

I wonder if this is what Jesus intended for those who would follow Him. Before Christ, we had a death grip on life as we knew it. The cares, pleasures, and worries of this world consumed our thoughts and lives. We were like every other person, indistinguishable from the history of humanity that has preceded us. When Christ took hold of us, he told us to let go. He said that those who seek life in this world would lose it and those who lose their lives would find true life in Him. We let go of this life and submit to Christ’s death, symbolically, in baptism. As we’re raised from the water, we take part in a sacred ritual that represents the resurrected life.

Our lives should reflect the mystery of the Georgian trees. When we submit to dying to ourselves and this worlds’ agenda, our plans, ambitions, identities and passions seep out of our hearts and away from our souls. We begin to echo Paul’s words, “this life I live is not my own,” and we begin to identify with Christ and the losses he incurred while living here. It’s only then that we take on a glory we could never attain on our own. Radiant color emits from our beings as we announce to the word our death.

I’ve never before thought of death as beautiful. Baptism is celebrated because of the new life it represents. Easter is celebrated because of the resurrection. But right now, I think nature is speaking. I think that God is whispering a secret truth—that we don’t have to wait for perfection, we don’t have to wait for His return or our own resurrection to celebrate what is now transpiring.

Our daily choices to die to ourselves and thereby find life in Christ, separates us from the masses, from those indistinguishable evergreen trees. When we pass on the job promotion due to where God’s calling us, when we share God with our friend at the risk of losing the friendship, when we forgo dining out to be able to share our resources with the poor, these are the marks of life in Christ. The job opportunity may never come back around, the friend may reject you and God together, and the home cooked chicken may never get that craving fulfilled. The glory of these choices is that they speak to something beyond today, beyond this world. They challenge the world’s obsession with self and now. They demand a pause, and maybe even a thought, directed towards God.

Just as the sky is most radiant right before the black of night, and the trees are most beautiful right before the dead of winter, a Christian’s life is most glorious as she releases it from herself.

In this, there is an announcement, a proclamation of submission to One greater than ourselves. We do look forward to heaven, to resurrection, and to all things being made right and new. But, for now, let’s acknowledge the strange splendor of our lives; let’s celebrate the irony of this death we daily live.

This is the glory of dying.