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 A Jewish kind of righteousness had been replaced by a righteousness that “comes from God,” i.e., a righteousness found in Christ.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?


Sarah Lewie said...

My question is, do we honor America/American heritage? We're to love our enemies, to hate evil and to love good; but our culture is given because of fighting our enemies, loving ourselves and loving treachery? I can't seem to find a balance (if I'm even supposed to) between honoring God and honoring America. I swear, if you could hear inside my brain during baseball games, you'd think I was a loony toon. "Do I put my hand over my heart? My heart belongs to God, not America. But America lets me hang out here and practice my beliefs. If I don't, I'll get yelled at, or at least, glared at. Is that more important than how I feel about Jesus? What would Jesus do? Seriously, Sarah - that went away in 1998..." and on and on it goes.

All that to say, I find myself constantly conflicted as to what is honor and what is not and how to practice that.

At least I've accepted that I'm likely a loony toon. =)

JD said...

just do(n't) it, sarah. i didn't pledge once at a baseball game. it was a good feeling.

the church i used to go to back home would have a time set aside each sunday where the congregation would stop, get silent, and say the pledge of allegience. sometimes, the pastor would get so worked up during worship that we would have an impromptu pledging. is it a wonder that today that church is splitting and those in charge don't see it?

i've always had a problem with the whole allegience to nation over allegience to Christ thing. apart from being the law, i never understood how a church could be comfortable with flying the us flag higher than the christian flag (as if either meant anything).

but then i think sometimes, "if i didn't live in america, then a lot of basic freedoms that i enjoy today would not be available to me. why wouldn't i want to pledge my allegience?" and then i think, "but of course i enjoy them. i'm white. white people enjoy whatever they want, while those of color or ethnicity are oppressed. man, i hate america for being that way. why would i want to live here? canada is pretty."

praise God there is no love/hate relationship with Christ.

Truth and Justice; not the American way.

Rev. Spike said...

"an impromptu pledging"?

WOW, I hope our brother has an impromptu prayer service from time to time!

Try growing up in the military and then relearning this. That has been complicated.

I have to remind myself time and again; love is the way... love is the way... even if it leads to my death.

The hardest part though is what I come to again and again, this all works out great on paper, but what would I do if someone was in my home and they were going to hurt my kids, my wife. Would I turn the other cheek, or would I risk dying by the sword. Even that statement, isn't it just Jesus talking about how it is; or is He telling me how it should be.

This stuff is hard. But SO worth it.

Rev. Spike said...
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Rev. Spike said...

Great quote from Witherington's Paul Quest:

…Paul’s conversion experience was not a matter of introspective reflection that led to change, but rather an intrusion into Paul’s life from an outside source that redefined his identity (Gal 1:15-16). A powerful experience, coming from an outside person, made it clear to whom he belonged, who he now was, what community he was a part of and what he must do. After his conversion, then, Paul still manifested dyadic ...has not suddenly become a late twentieth century Westerner.

Chris Ryan said...

I remember sitting in that class. One "lecture" that was truly life-changing.

Of course, since then I have almost daily struggled with the issues presented.

Like Sarah, I have wondered whether or not I can pledge my loyalty to America. And if a Baseball game is tough, try not pledging while surrounded by 500 Boy Scouts who follow the pledge with a rousing chorus of "God Bless America" as though He shouldn't even bother Himself with blessing any other country.

I have wondered how to counsel future church members who are considering the military. After all, can I really tell then that America is a cause worth their life?

How do I preach loss as gain, freedom as slavery, life as death, justice as mercy, peace as victory, etc. and keep a job? Or do we just live like the prophets of old who preach the truth and flee to the hills so they are alive to preach again?

And how do I live in a country that gives so much (to a WASP) and express gratitude for the gift while maintaining I don't need it? I feel like Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

Chris Ryan said...
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Chris Ryan said...

PS. Did anybody hear about the Kentucky church that is encouraging members to bring guns to church to celebrate the second ammendment?

Rodney Reeves said...

Thanks, everyone, for your honesty. Trying to be grateful for our country while at the same time reminding believers of the dangers of our monopolizing nationalism is a persistent struggle.

I'm wondering if a comparison could be made to circumcision? One minute, Paul acts like it's a horrible thing (don't get circumcised, or you'll be "cut off" from Christ). The next minute, he says, "Ah. It really doesn't matter. Circumcision is nothing, really."

Is this a fair analogy? Circumcision=Patriotism

JD said...

i tend to see patriotism almost as its own religion (at least where i come from: pledging over praying, stars and stripes over cross and stripes, independence day over easter day, etc). somewhat of a form of caesar worship. so to me, patriotism and christianity has more of a syncretistic relationship.

though i see you're coming from. patriotism has become almost a defining characteristic of american christianity (or nazi luthernism. i'm sure examples abound). to be a christian in america is to be patriotic, and almost to be patriotic one would assume at least a christian upbringing (and a belief in Jehovah God, though not necessarily Jesus or the HS.)

circumcision was certainly a "patriotic" symbol for israel; you couldn't be a jew (and therefore, and israelite) without it. in many american christian circles, a church cannot be part of the "elect" without a star-spangled banner somewhere in each classroom (not to mention the hearts of the congregants?).

but also in these circles, patriotism takes on a new life. states' rights are above the rights of believers (are there any?), the national economy is above God's economy, tax exemption is the hallmark of a state recognized congregation, fighting america's enemies is more important than loving Jesus' enemies, dying for the flag is more honorable than being a martyr, etc, etc, etc, etc. the flag and the country and the soldiers and the war and the man in the white house has overshadowed the cross, the church (kingdom), the missionaries (aren't we all?), the spiritual battle, and the Man in our hearts.

when i think of patriotism, that is what i see. idolatry. not just a defunct entry point into a legalistic religion, but a religion in and of itself, with its own psalms, sacred texts, high priests, sacrifices, temples, rituals, sacred lingo, etc.

although, it could all be considered idol meat in the sense that Christ is above all things and all things will be put into subjection of Him.

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Chris Ryan said...

I don't know that I would consider Patriotism as akin to circumcision, either. As JD pointed out, both are national identifiers.

But it is hard for me to have the attitude towards patriotism that Paul has towards circumcision. There is no "Let them be acursed," but "it doesn't really matter." I guess I have read too much Bonhoeffer and see too much of the attitudes of Nazi Lutheranism creeping into American Protestantism (especially Southern Baptists). I find it hard to serve two k/Kingdom-s, and like Jesus said, "You cannot have two masters." And if I can only serve one, I have to choose God and His Kingdom.

Yet I sit in a church on Sunday that has three flags displayed in the sanctuary, two of which are larger than the cross in the baptistry. My preacher routinely rails against one side of the political isle while being unable to see where the other falls short of godliness (even excusing Guantanamo from the pulpit because it kept American soil safe). Last Memorial Day we watched a video that blatantly equated the death of an American soldier with that of Christ on the cross.

And I have to wonder, have we become so blinded by our patriotic sectarianism that we cannot see, celebrate, and commit to a Kingdom which operates beyond all geographic, ethnic, language, and cultural boundaries? And if we can see that Kingdom, how do we excuse our willing embrace of the former except by saying "God must love America more. We are the light to illuminate the rest of the world" which all sounds very Roman-imperialistic. And I am sure Paul had some words against that part of Roman agenda.

Darryl Schafer said...

I think Dr. Reeves might be on to something with the patriotism/circumcision comparison. If we take Acts to be reliable, Paul did occasionally pull the citizenship card to get himself out of the fire. If heavenly citizenship were all that mattered to him, I don't think he would have done so.

Have you read Rodney Clapp's "Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction"? His conclusion has some rather careful and timely remarks regarding citizenship and patriotism.

JD said...

i think a distinction can be made between being a citizen of a particular political nation and being a patriot of a particular political nation. even those who hate america and protest everything are citizens; no patriotism required (one of the great things about our country that would harken back to sarah's comment).

Chris Ryan said...

Furthermore, Paul used the benefits of his citizenship but I don't recall a time where Paul ever boasted of any nationality but God's Kingdom. Paul never shouted out, "Thank God I'm a Roman," or even, "Thank God I'm a Benjamite." Rather it was always, "Thank God I know Christ and Him crucified."

When Paul did use his citizenship cards, he always used it in such a way that the Gospel message was furthered (he mentions his Judaism to explain why it is rubbish by comparison to his Christianity; he mentions his Roman citizenship to get him to Rome). That seems a far cry from the patriotism oft expressed in our American churches today.

Jay L. Wilson said...

Good stuff Rodney. Reading your words makes my heart smile. I too have often pondered what I call the "American Distortion of the Gospel". Your words are inspiring and refreshing. I hope your students appreciate the gift you are to them!

Rodney Reeves said...


It's been a long time. Good to hear from you. Last I heard, you were ministering in a church here in Missouri. Is that still the case?

FYI, Jay and I were college buddies here at good ol' SBU many moons ago.

Chris, Darryl, and JD,

I think it's interesting that we're parsing the difference between political identity (patriotism) and religious convictions--something no first-century Jew would have considered doing (especially not Paul). In other words, for their world "being Jewish" was political. Now we hear even more loudly the implications of what you're saying: is "being American" more than politics?

Darryl Schafer said...

Dr. Reeves,

Good thoughts. MSU's done wonders for raising my interest in civil religion. I'm actually thinking about doing my thesis on a Pauline ethic of citizenship (a VERY tall order) and its implications for civil religion within American evangelicalism (just as tall an order).

I'll let you know when I have it all figured out. Don't hold your breath.

Chris Ryan said...

Dr. Reeves,

I hear your concern. Certainly no first century Jew would have thought that his Jewishness attached him to any nation but Israel. That is why they so chaffed at Rome (although we see Paul exercising the benefits of his Roman citizenship, it never makes it on his list of boasts. I think there is good reason for that). But if I follow that line of thought, my Christianity should not attach me to any state other than the Kingdom of God (the very title of which implies it as a political reality).

This is where I think Barth goes wrong (just finished his "Church and State," very provoking but I disagreed a lot). He says that the church cannot be viewed as an alternative state, and I think here he is correct. But that the church can (and I think must) be viewed as a portion of a different state, that being the Kingdom of God, he does not even consider. But if I see my Christianity as binding me to the nation of the Kingdom of God, just as the Jew was bound to Israel no matter how far away they were, how can I swear also to the kingdom of America? Indeed, what need have I for America at all (I think a question many Jews asked of Rome)? If I live under the reigning authority of this Kingdom of God, the indwelling Holy Spirit, then any just law which America would pass I will already have be following (for the law and the prophets are summed up in this...) and any unjust law I will be duty bound not to obey (for as Augustine put it, "An unjust law is no law at all.")

Therefore, I think the question you leave us with is backwards. If I use you frame of mind which you identitied before (wherein politics and religion are equated), then America has to be seen as more than political. Thus we hear so many conservatives today clammoring that "America means Christian." I think that equation is inevitable, but I think that equation is wrong. It is too narrow. I shouldn't concern myself so much with "America means..." unless America is my first loyalty. Rather, I must concern myself with "Christian means Kingdom of God."

That is a scope far broader. Within it, I cannot forget that my neighbor whom I should love may be the enemy of the nation in which I sojourn. Nor can I forget that my God's love is not limited by ocean, forest, or desert. If His Kingdom can go around this entire hunk of rock we call Earth, then so does my mission to see His Kingdom expanded.

Rodney Reeves said...


There is much to talk about here--you've raised several good issues, i.e., the relationship between the kingdom of God and the Church, Paul's identity, as well as the question we've been discussing--the political implications of the gospel.

Perhaps I'll save my remarks about the first two issues for a later post. Regarding the issue under discussion, I think we're all a little reticent to speak of the gospel and politics because of the recent abuses of both the moral majority/Christian coalition and the "social gospel" movement of the early 20th century. So, I think you've misunderstood what I'm suggesting (or perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, e.g., I'm not sure I know what you mean by the "nation of the kingdom of God").

What I'm asking is this: to what extent have we safely quarantined our gospel from American politics so that we operate with a dangerous dualism that is fueled by the tried and true baptist doctrine: separation of church and state. And, let me hasten to add, when I'm talking about American politics, I'm not consigning such discussion to overt political processes. I'm also especially thinking of the covert political inclinations that operate almost as if they were second nature to us, e.g., speaking of American law as if it were some pristine guide to life. (Along the same lines, I bristled at one line of a famous American anthem sung in our worship services yesterday, "O Beautiful." We're singing about God "mending every flaw" of our country, then the line: "Confirm thy soul in self control, Thy liberty in law."

Can you imagine Paul every saying that? "God's liberty in law"? We Americans are obsessed with law, therefore it's no wonder we tend towards legalism when it comes to the gospel. Grace and law are mutually exclusive.

Chris Ryan said...

Dr. Reeves,

No, I can't imagine Paul saying that. It seems to me that Paul sees law restricting the ability of the Spirit to speak to concrete situations each with their particular peculiarities. Therein, mercy truimphs over law because mercy examines each situation in its totality with fewer (if not no) preconceptions.

But, back to the topic of the post... The Gospel has been quarintined from American politics in any meaningful way. I think this is precisely because of our overuse of the overt political processes without meaningful engagement in the covert. We have examined party platforms, but Hauerwas is one of the first (that I am aware of) to examine the philosophical foundations of capitalism, democracy, and modernity from the perspective of Christian theology. Without agreeing with all of his conclusions, I think that his project is what we need if we are going to start speaking as a part of American politics with consistency and a renewed prophetic voice. We need to recover Christian convictions and speak from our story, rather than assuming that our story is compatible with the American story and thus American values should properly be understood as our values (ie. law). When we learn to speak to political issues as Christians rather than as Americans, our voice will be that much clearer.