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DEATH IN THE CATACOMBS
A Post-Christian Lamentation

by Mark R. Powell 

© Copyright November 3, 2011 by Mark R. Powell
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"Let us offer, then, as a working principle the following: 

No statement, theological or otherwise, 

should be made that would not be credible 

in the presence of burning children." -- Irving Greenberg, 

(a response to Christian silence during the Holocaust)


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I think of myself as reasonably tuned into what is happening within the church in the West. Through the social media tools that are available to me I think I am a somewhat informed pastor, understanding at least if not participating in the cutting edge movements now occurring within the church.

Let me tell you what I see in this regard.

I see very much triumph and very little lament.

And this seems odd.

At a time of such brokenness in the world, at a time when the world suffers from so many serious maladies all at once, one wonders how the church can so clearly focus on maintaining the triumph of its institutions, or by doing the opposite -- attempting to destroy them (both are focused inward), all in the name of our own survival, and doing do so while the whole world crashes down around our ears.




THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST 
BY ST. JOHN THE DIVINE

Since June I have been preaching through the New Testament Book of The Revelation, and it has been an interesting journey. It came as part of this year’s preaching theme for our contemporary worship service, that of HOPE...
HOPE FOR THE CHURCH

HOPE FOR THE COMMUNITY

HOPE FOR THE WORLD
The bible study I chose for the year that was meant to embody the idea of hope for the world was the Revelation, and I approached this study by asking this question:
What would John’s readers have understood him to be saying in their day, as they squared up against empire (Rome) and idolatry (Caesar worship), and all the terror that those two challenges entailed?
What I expected to find, supremely, was that John offered us hope in the midst of suffering and even death. I have not been disappointed. However, this textual exploration has been more difficult than I imagined.

Listen, the Revelation is nothing if not relentless. It details the tragedy of judgment (there is right and wrong and consequences), and it details the suffering of faith, all the while offering the presence of the blessed hope of GOD’s presence -- the Christ in the midst of his churches.

To read this book with any clarity at all is clearly to be stunned out of the church triumphant. One need merely to become acquainted with the seven letters that begin the book to see that the churches under John’s charge are filled with sin and idolatry. They are hardly at all ready for the persecution of empire, let alone a visitation from the Christ.

I wonder, do we think we are better than they?

We say: 
“I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” and Jesus says, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rv. 317)


REPENTANCE TOWARD GOD AND FAITH TOWARD THE LORD JESUS CHRIST

Also, quite stunning within the Revelation is the incredible violence that John presents to his readers; it still shocks our sensibilities. In fact, during this current preaching season of Ordinary Time, when some from my church would ask how my studies were going, I often resorted to this response: “Well, I’m hip-deep in the blood and guts of the Revelation.”


What must be remembered is that the Revelation’s apocalyptic violence finds its pattern from, among other stories, the Exodus -- with the Egyptian Empire channeling the Roman Empire (Rv.11:1-8). The Almighty’s purpose in both instances plays out as a call to repentance from idolatry, from everyone, including the Hebrews following Moses and the believers following the Christ. The goal here is not retributive violence but a repentance toward GOD. Here the message is clear:
Turn, now. 
Repent, now. 
Judgment is coming; 
return to the one, 
true and living GOD. 

This is hardly a popular perspective, but it is a message the church in the West desperately needs to heed. Surely we see that the stakes before us are greater than just Jesus and me walking off on the beach somewhere to the glow of a beautiful sunset. Surely we understand that to focus on our church success is to woefully confuse ends and means. Surely we see before us the clash empires and the tragic risk of our own true, abject failure of allegiance to the one whom we name as LORD. I do not mean to minimize our personal relationship with the Sprit of the risen Christ or our church mission, far from it, but as important as this is, it must take a backseat to the ultimate work of that same Christ whose undertaking is nothing less the reclamation of the entire creation project! (N.T. Wright)

If we fail to see this, and if our current myopia continues to lead us to serve only me and mine, we will have yet again hidden the light under a bushel, will have yet again become salt without savor and we will yet again be under GOD’s sustained judgment. (see Rv. 3:14-22)



LAMENTATION FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Still, all is not lost. Today, we stand at a great moment of opportunity. Christendom is cracking up, breaking apart like so much rotted wood. For many of us the restraints of the past are giving way to an unknown freedom. What will we do?

Instead of preparing ourselves to create the next church triumphant -- which may be defined as a grand spending party on ourselves, could it be that it is time for us to see beyond the next mega-church, to look past the next great author, the next wonderful worship song and the latest successful leadership strategy? Could it be time...dare I say it, to lament?

Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the prayers of lament, especially as found in the Psalter, are 
“a stylized form of speech -- usually poetic -- and was a preferred and characteristic way of petitionary prayer in Israel...the assumption is that God has a legitimate obligation to answer the prayer, because God’s own people, who are bound to God in a covenant of mutual commitment, are offering it.” (Reverberations Of Faith, pg.119)
Now, I want to be careful in describing what I mean for Christians in the West if we were to approach a prayer of lament. I am arguing that we must not lament for me and mine, but instead we must cry out to the LORD in authentic grief and lamentation for the entire world. We must see beyond our own success or failure, and look to the fields of the world no longer ripe for harvest. We must, instead, see the fields on fire.

Said differently, we must forgo seeking the victory of our ego and our own empire; we must see beyond our own personal hope of church success, and we must look to the swollen bellies and the fly covered faces of the children of the world. We must weep for entire populations, people not like us, who through the accident of birth stand in the way of men with guns, who daily slam these innocents with revolution and genocide. 

Brueggemann tells us that the reason these prayers of lament have fallen away from the liturgical practice of the church is that, 
“they are too raw, candid, and abrasive for ‘nice Christians,’ and they are too robust in hope for modern people who do not expect a God who hears and acts.” (IBID. 119-120)
I will offer another reason. We like the way things are. To be sure, we hope the world somehow gets its act together (this is better for us), but as for the slaughter of the innocents, well, c’mon, what’s a person to do?


AUSCHWITZ, REVISITED
What is a person to do, indeed?

Nothing?

Nothing in the face of genocide after genocide? Nothing after the rivers of blood from the 20th century have amassed before us, so that now this raw brutality continues in the 21st Century flowing unabated over the banks?

Have you ever thought what would happen in the world if all Christian believers acted, collectively, for the sake of the world? “Certainly, this is not going to happen,” you say, “this is a pipe-dream,” and sadly, I think you are correct.

Where are the Christians? Where are those who name the name of the Christ, especially those of us in the West who still have power and money and influence? What are they doing?

Well...

We are absent. We are silent. We are at our own party.

Perhaps the current colossal failure of the Christian’s nerve can be traced to the same response of the Christian church in the 1930’s. Perhaps the soot of Auschwitz has settled within our collective soul, paralyzing us. Perhaps, and this is what I believe, our theology died with the chosen people in the gas chambers.

Mark this down: Without some sort of theological spine we cannot act. Theology is the power behind our practices. And what I am suggesting is that the Shoah severed the spinal cord of the church’s theology. And now, not willing to face our own complicity in the Holocaust then, and unable to do the heavy lifting in our shattered world now, and finding no clear path to theodicy, we have turned inward toward theological self-preservation and the salvation not of the world but the church that Constantine built. This, truly, betrays our mission.

When I say our theology died I mean, first: How could our historic, theological understanding of GOD include what seems to be the total abandonment of the chosen people, Israel? The Shoah has caused in the West either a massive theological unlearning (Brueggemann) -- the crack-up of theological hegemony, or a massive theological denial -- holding our noses and doing business as usual.

The second element associates with the first: How could modern Christian believers conspire with the Nazis through direct action or through neglect, consigning millions of people, including the Jews, to the fate of the ovens? What in our Christology opens the door to this collusion? When we say we are disciples of the Christ, what does that mean in the face of burning children?

Let me further open this idea using the words of another. In 1979 Emil Fackenheim wrote to Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer, asking if Bonhoeffer had lived would he have been able to write a post-Holocaust Christian theology. Bethge responded by quoting Bonhoeffer in 1940, who remember, knew nothing of the Holocaust: “The expulsion of the Jews from the West must entail the expulsion of Christ, for Christ was a Jew.” Fackenheim goes on to cite the American theologian William Peck’s powerful response to Bonhoeffer: “...if the expulsion of the Jews is the expulsion of Christ from the West, what is the meaning of their annihilation?” (To Mend The World, pg. xivii)


WHERE WAS GOD? & WHERE WAS THE CHURCH?
I have chosen the Holocaust as metaphor for the acute suffering of the world primarily because it is so deeply tied with Christian believers. As GOD’s chosen people, the Jews were handed over to the death-camps without the gift of choice, and no matter how pious or impious, they were slaughtered. The theological questions might seem to be simple: Where was GOD? and How could GOD let this happen?

But this misses the real question, for it seeks to remove our responsibility. If we were to shake our fist in the face of GOD and accuse the Almighty of culpability in the face of the final solution, I think we can hear the Almighty saying, “Where was I? Where were you? How could you let this happen? How can you who were to love the world in my name and care for it, how could you abandon it so?

What is clear is that Christians of the 1930’s faced an “anti-Christian explosion of Christians against their own value system...The classic villains of Christianity, the Jews, became the prime objects of extermination, the Nazis.” (After Auschwitz, Rubenstein, pg. 4) Which provokes the very solemn question: Who are villains for Christians today?

Anyway, the foundation of the decision made in the 1930’s is unambiguous, really. When faced with the choice between empire and Christ, the majority of German Christians chose Empire. They were Germans first, then Christians.

I heard N.T. Wright say one time that the only real power the dictator of Empire has over its people is the power of death, which the Christian, if they believe in the bodily resurrection of the Christ as new creation, has conquered. But, I wonder, do they really believe this to the point of laying their very lives on the line? Or has Enlightenment Rationalism secretly (or not so secretly) ripped away any semblance of their truth and hope?

To be sure, German Christians of the 1930’s would have suffered dearly for a decision against Empire, and it might not have had much affect in the end, except to swell the number of dead. But I wonder, if it were the German Christians who were disappearing and dying, would the Western powers have so easily turned their heads as they did with the Jews? We will never know.


THE GREAT WESTERN CHURCH CRACK-UP
The upshot of all this is fairly straightforward. Most of us are disciples of something, but not of the Christ. In our cultural captivity we have found a level of comfort and escape that allows the world to burn without our notice. The constant and mind-numbing stream of self-styled information offers us a continual distraction from the blood and guts brutality of the world. Said differently, the apocalyptic visuals of the Revelation has nothing on our world, where the blood runs in the streets daily.



Discipleship Without The Christ

In part, this occurs because we have committed one of the oldest heresies of all, docetism. This is the doctrine that believes Jesus only appeared to be a human being, but in reality he was not. In our fear that Jesus will somehow not be thought of as GOD, we have abandoned his humanity for his deity, thus abandoning all humanity for an other-worldly Platonism. Our heresy is that, we see spirit as the all-in-all and soul-salvation as the only goal. Let the world of flesh-and-blood human beings sink into oblivion, lets just get them to heaven when they are beheaded or starved.

Said differently, we have lost the Christ of history and of the New Testament and found a Christ of our own making. If Christ is not rooted in his flesh and blood Jewish history, he then becomes whatever we want or need at the time (Ernst Kasemann). Do we want the American Dream -- then Christ wants you healthy; Christ wants you wealthy. Do we want the American Empire, then Christ wants the MX missile or whatever is the latest weapon system. (You might think this is far-fetched, but I have actually actually heard this argued). Do we want a successful church -- then Christ is our marketing agent. Jesus saves, but he also sells.


Church Without The Other 

Of course, there is a much deeper issue. The most pressing problem facing the church in the West is the continued self-destruction of our own unity. By our self-dissection into waring groups we say to the world, “Our message is not true (Jn.13:35) and therefore Jesus did not in fact come from the Father (Jn.17:21).”

We say to the world, “Move along, and don’t bother with us, for we have nothing new to offer; we’re just like you -- fractured, cracked-up, at loose ends.” In fact we prove what they already know, our words are mere self-styled rhetoric meant only for ourselves. To the world we are part of the problem for they see through us; they see us pushing a personal agenda, a Western agenda, that on occasion only accidentally has something to do with the Christ’s true mission for the world.

But the problem is still deeper. In the end it is not just our words at issue, but our actions as well. Western Christians have continued to vilify and ostracize not only each other, but also the one not like us, especially the one not religiously and socially like us.

This practice stands over and against the announced purpose of the Christ himself, who came to seek and save the lost through sacrificial service. Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, came to his people and challenged them to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. He offered them a renewal of the calling first given to Abraham -- to be a blessing for the entire world. And this calling and this challenge also now falls to those who name his name. Surely, this is clear.

What must be just as clear is that, if we name Jesus then we must walk his way, which is no easy task. His is the narrow and difficult way. His is the way of struggle. His is a path without much comfort or fame or even recognition from the one who calls us. His way pushes against success stories and self-aggrandizement. His is the way of convulsion and impairment, of standing with the one not like us, of keeping vigil with the broken and butchered peoples of the earth, even though they worship another, doing this until we too are broken and butchered. His way means we acknowledge the other’s pain, offering lamentation and prayer as intercession for their suffering (believing GOD will answer), and then working tirelessly to end it, or sacrificially supporting those who can.

But that is not all for in the end his path gets considerably worse. His path also moves us against our own self-interest through empire. His path ultimately costs us our way of life. His path shuts us out of silence and comfort. His path negates going-along by getting-along. His path leads us to a prophetic stance against empire when necessary. In short, his path is the way of suffering and lamentation, in the very face of empire, for a world gone to hell on our watch.


A POST-CHRISTIAN LAMENTATION TO THE UNKNOWN GOD




O GOD, where are you? 

Why have you forsaken the world? 

Why have your choice blessings staggered 

off with dusk? 



O child, I am with you. 

Remember, I have joined your dereliction; 

I participate in your anguish and grief. 

It is now my own. 

I am here. 



O Child, I am here, but where are you? 

Where are you when the children shun and starve? 

Where are you when the lights bang out on the aged 

and the forgotten and a little silent life that holds 

no money or power? 



Weep! Weep! for the world! 

Offer a dirge that includes the other. 

Force a vigil for the one who is enemy. 

Cradle the neighbor with different color 

and different hair and different prayer. 



Weep! Weep for the ones enduing 

rage and uproar and the compression of empire 

and the hated of faith. 

Basket the babies let loose 

by mothers 

adrift 

for lack 

for fear 

for commanded 

darkness. 



Weep! Weep! for the women 

secreted away, chained for use 

and misuse and discarded 

like cardboard for another. 

Pull back the dispossessed 

with arms strong with weakness 

splay them wide with fretful care. 



O, Yes. And Weep, Weep for the 

brutal and the hateful 

even as your prayers stand against their 

beastliness and brutality. 





© Copyright November 3, 2011 by Mark R. Powell

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