Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Loss by Cross

The cross made Paul reconsider his Jewish identity—everything that used to define who he was became “garbage.”

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ . . . , and count them but rubbish [skubala] in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:5-8).

Actually, the word Paul used was more indelicate than “rubbish” or “garbage.” After Damascus, Paul considered his old identity, his old ways as “dung.” (By the way, college students revel in the idea that St. Paul used crass words like “crap.” Inspired by the apostle, the biblical term has worked its way into their vocabulary—talking about someone’s silly claim, they’ll say, “that’s skubala.” Ah, the benefits of education.) To be sure, these losses were painful. They were damaging. Paul was no polyanna. Nevertheless he was convinced it was worth throwing them away like trash. Why? Losing his identity in the old age was part and parcel of gaining Christ in the new. A Jewish kind of righteousness had been replaced by a righteousness that “comes from God,” i.e., a righteousness found in Christ. So, Paul traded his reputable life in Judaism in order to be “found in Him” (Phil. 3:9)—not only in his resurrection glory but especially in the loss wrought by his cross. For him, sharing in the sufferings of Christ’s cross revealed his true identity. Indeed, those opposed to this way of life were actually enemies of the cross (v. 18). They missed the point of what it means to imitate Christ: loss by cross is gain.

This is where we need to be very clear on what Paul was not saying. Paul didn’t see “losing to gain” as an investment strategy. “I’ll sacrifice this so I can get more of the same” (the mantra of the prosperity gospel). He did not give in order to get. He did not set aside Jewish privileges in order to win Christian privileges. Nor did Paul reckon the benefits of the crucified life as divine payback for giving up what mattered most to him. His experience of Christ didn’t work that way: “I’ll give this up for Christ so that I can gain more of what I desire.” No. As a matter of fact, for Paul just the opposite happened: from the Christophany to his imprisonment, Paul found that gaining Christ led to losing his life. The more he was conformed to the image of Christ, the more he recognized his loss as gain. Paul wasn’t losing to gain more. He saw his loss as gain. And, the only way he could see it that way was because of the cross of Christ. The cross turned losing into gain, shame into honor, death into life. The crucified life turned the world upside down, which made perfect sense to Paul. If death is the worst thing that can happen, and yet it’s the best thing that can happen for a Christ-believer, then no tragedy can overwhelm the good, no death can spoil life, no loss can erase what is gained—especially since loss is gain. The more he lost his life, the more Paul found it. Sacrifice does that to a man or woman. The more we sacrifice the more we realize what is important. Indeed, sacrifices reveal what matters most.

During our winter mini-term, I teach a course called, “The Bible and American Culture.” The class is designed to get students to see how the Bible functions as a protagonist and antagonist to American ideals revealed in cultural “texts,” e.g., films, plays, and music. It takes a while for my students to see how Bible stories have informed movie scripts, e.g., how “The Truman Show” is an American version of the Adam story in Genesis. The main character is the “true” man who discovers the truth of who he is when he rebels against the designs of his creator and leaves paradise (“Sea Haven,” Truman’s world, is a movie set, an anagram for “As Heaven”). What is even more difficult for them to see is their reflection in the Hollywood version of the biblical narrative, when the film functions like a mirror, revealing how American cultural texts have twisted gospel truth. The looks on their faces when they realized they’ve been duped by their culture—to prefer American convictions over biblical faith—is a pitiful site. Sometimes it’s hard to think like an American and still follow Jesus.

A student presented in class an analysis of his favorite film, “Braveheart.” He even came dressed for the part, looking just like William Wallace—painted face, wild hair, Scottish kilt, sword in hand. Wallace was his hero, a messianic figure bringing hope to the poor and oppressed of his homeland, just like Jesus. Illustrating his point, he played a clip from the film showing how Wallace sacrificed himself for the good of the people, inspiring followers to carry on with the mission of bringing freedom to the Scottish people. Then, the student ended with a passionate plea, raising his sword for dramatic effect: “So, like William Wallace, we Christians must raise the sword of the Spirit and carry on the battle of bringing freedom in Christ to all.” The air reeked of testosterone. The male students roared with delight; the ladies rolled their eyes.

Once the clamor died down, I asked the presenter, “What made you think Wallace’s death was a sacrifice?” The answer seemed obvious to him; the sequence of events leading to Wallace’s execution proved the point: he was betrayed by a close friend, beaten by the arresting officers, imprisoned by a wicked ruler; a woman offered Wallace a drink to ease the pain of his approaching death; strapped to a cross, the crowd mocked him as he was brought before his executioners; he was lifted up, suspended between heaven and earth with arms stretched out, screaming in great pain; his followers hid in the crowd, watching the spectacle in anonymity; a sword was thrust in his side; his last breath was a victorious cry. “Yes, his death portrayed in this film looks like a sacrifice,” I said. “But we all know it wasn’t. All who live by the sword, die by the sword, right? Wallace got what was coming to him. He was a murderer, and the law finally caught up with him. History does not give us the details of Wallace’s execution. So, why do you suppose Mel Gibson wanted Wallace’s death to look like the death of Christ?”

At this point, some of the presenter’s male compatriots rushed to his defense. Talk of “making the ultimate sacrifice,” and “dying for freedom while fighting your enemies,” and a “soldier’s noble sacrifice” filled the room. Then I said bluntly, “Wallace didn’t follow Jesus, did he? He didn’t respond to injustice like Jesus did.” Silence. “What if he did? How would the film be different if Wallace had followed the ways of Christ?” What happened next took everyone by surprise. A student said sarcastically, “Well, I suppose he would have visited all the villages, preaching peace and telling them to love their enemies. But we all know that doesn’t work.” An audible gasp could be heard from several students, followed by a pensive silence. The presenter’s face fell, his eyes looking down, as if he were inspecting the floor. He sheathed his sword, looked up at the class and said, “Why didn’t I see that before? I claim to be a disciple of Christ, and yet I would rather have a Messiah who kills his enemies than one who loves them.” The irony was delicious: there stood a young man dressed like William Wallace talking about loving his enemies.

Thinking like an American comes naturally to those of us who live in these United States. Thinking like a follower of Christ is far more challenging. In fact, American ideals often trump our Christian convictions, especially when it comes to living the crucified life. How are we supposed to love our enemies when we’ve been taught to kill them? How can I follow Christ, giving up my rights like he did, when I’ve been trained to protect my rights no matter what? Why does loyalty to America take precedent over loyalty to Christ, that pledging allegiance to a flag is nobler than swearing allegiance to a cross? To what extent is our American citizenship more important than our Christian identity? How many Christians act as if patriotism is just as important as the gospel—or even worse, an expression of the gospel? In several ways, the American way of life is at cross purposes with the crucified life; American politics cannot contain Christian faith. For example, politics makes enemies; Christians love enemies. Americans are taught to preserve national and personal interests at all costs. Paul taught his converts to prefer the interests of others. American consumerism is built on the idea that we should always want more. Paul was content with more or less. In light of these stark contrasts, one cannot help but wonder: if we were to live the crucified life like Paul—losing our identity in Christ—would our neighbors be compelled to accuse us of foolishness for forsaking the American way of life?