Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (44) Condemned into Redemption: the Rectification of the Ungodly

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

Here, we join the concluding chapter. The title is designed to be arresting – we will explore what she means by it as we go.

She begins by reaffirming the uniqueness of the Christian faith – how extraordinarily radical and unlikely is the story it tells.

First;

“The Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by the decree of church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally erase him from human memory.” (571)

Second – and the main theme of this chapter – the central message of Christianity is the justification of the ungodly;

“In this, the biblical story differs radically from any others religions, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual … This cuts against the grain of all religious or moral teaching.” (571-2)

If ‘religion’ is about spiritual development, or becoming more godly, or approaching the divine in some way – then Christianity is not religious. It is most emphatically not about moral self-improvement.

A Universal Gospel?

Rutledge comments that this discussion of the ‘problem of the “ungodly”’ has been partially discussed and touched on throughout the book (see chapter 8 on the ‘The Great Assize’), but here at the end, it will get full attention.

Rutledge suggests that the justification of the ungodly is actually the goal towards which God, who wishes to save everyone, is moving the universe.

My Comments

The opening section of this chapter is rightly facing head-on a big and relevant theological question that is related to the cross. The issue at stake here, is the extent or scope of the ‘righteousness of God’ – God acting to rectify, or put all things right.

And what is the role of human faith in this?  

If God ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5) who are the ungodly? How ‘far’ does the grace and generosity and love of God ‘reach’?  Who, ultimately, is the cross for?

My sense, and from the earlier chapter we discussed here, is that she is developing some variety of theology of universal reconciliation where God’s righteousness in some sense ‘overwhelms’ all human distinctions and sins. But this is not clear at this point. Earlier she did also talk of annihilation of all that opposes God in the final battle.

Rutledge again:

Rutledge mentions the parable of the workers in the vineyard as an example of divine generosity – such generosity leads to the cross.

If the gospel ‘is not about human potential’ (576), then Rutledge is suggesting (again not explicitly) that all such human distinctions are radically relativised by God’s generosity.

Take Abraham in Romans as an example. The whole point is that he is chosen by grace – he brought nothing to the table. This is true of ALL who are justified.

There is absolutely no distinction says Rutledge – there is “no-one who is not guilty of perpetrating something on someone at some point.” (577)

The gospel, she is arguing, “puts an end to all these religious categories that separate people from one another.” (577)

[The question hanging over this opening section is, again, how ‘far’ does God’s overcoming of all such distinctions ‘go’? Or to put it more bluntly, is there a final ‘separating’ and ‘distinction’ between those ‘in Christ’ and those not? Or, due to the generosity and power of God, are all such distinctions overcome?]

Rutledge has a nice aside on the inevitable failure of even the most ‘inclusive’ churches to be inclusive of everybody. It simply can’t be done. Her point is that only God can overcome all distinctions.

I quote this in full not only because it rings true, but because it is mischievously funny:

No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself. Many a person has who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church without being greeted by anyone … The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Down syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street. The parish that welcomes a transgendered person might give up on a woman with a narcissistic personality disorder. Members of a congregation who do not hold all the views currently designated as correct will find themselves marginalized, even insulted. Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming and inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this live, all-embracing. There will always be someone for whom the sign ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you’ will be a mockery. There will always be some who, despite the United Methodist Church’s claim to have ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’, will find a less than open-hearted welcome … Therefore, new types of exclusions replace the old, more obvious race – or class-based types. It is part of sinful nature that this is so.’ (576-77)

The underlying question as I read Rutledge here is this: if God is the one alone who can overcome all these distinctions, how does this ‘work’ at the ‘great assize’ or last judgement?  

We will return to this in the final few posts. After all, we have to finish by Easter Sunday!

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (27) The Great Assize

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post sees us begin Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’. Or, in other words, the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

A question up front – what do you see broken in the world? In yourself? In human nature? How ‘fixable’ is the brokenness? And how can it be fixed?

This is a long, complex chapter which I found the hardest to read in the book. Rutledge weaves in multiple themes, but, in my opinion, the argument feels like they don’t quite form a coherent whole. A lot of disparate themes ideas are packed in.

The framework is something like this – and this is my take.

  1. Individuals are under a weight of judgement
  2. Human society is also under judgment
  3. ‘For all that is wrong in the world, a cosmic reckoning is required’ (312)
    1. This reaches its climax at the great and final judgement of God
    2. The death of Christ is inextricably connected to the law court and judgement.

      ‘In the judgement upon Christ, all judgements converge.’ (315)

  4. The Bible talks about this judgement in different ways
    1. Forensic (legal) judgement
    2. Apocalyptic judgement of the powers – Sin, death, the Devil
  5. Human unease with judgement – to get rid of judgement
  6. Pastoral implications of how judgement is understood
    1. The problems with a dominant forensic, legal understanding of judgement
    2. The good news of the wrath of God
  7. Justification / rectification – how God deals with sin
    1. The relationship of faith and justification
    2. The power of God to speak transforming words to the believer
  8. Reconciliation – where does it fit in?
    1. Reconciliation as struggle
    2. Reconciliation as eschatological gift
    3. Are we active or passive in reconciliation?

So you can see what I mean by complicated and long! There is overlap in this chapter with earlier themes (chapter 3 on judgement and chapter 4 on ‘Gravity of Sin’ especially). In a big book I think this chapter could have been edited down more.

Having said that, as throughout, there are gems on virtually every page.

In this post, we’re going to go back to points 1 and 2 – Rutledge’s argument that human individuals and human societies are under God’s judgement.

This is not a popular position to hold – especially outside the church but also within it.

Do we live in a ‘post-guilt’ culture? And, if we do, ‘images of Christ’s death addressed to this concern are of little use to us today’ (303). But Rutledge argues that

‘Sin and guilt are real whether we acknowledge it or not, because God is real.’ (304).

In an ‘age of anxiety’ people are

‘afraid that that they “won’t make the cut” or – here it gets more complicated – they worry that they will not be sufficiently inclusive of others … we are driven and riven by anxieties of various sorts.’ (305)

This is the human condition. Rutledge goes to Philip Roth, novelist and secular Jew, who says of his male characters that they are

“bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic engagements, consequential misjudgement, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying … men stunned by the life one is defenceless against.”

Cheerful fellow that Roth – wonder what he says about women!?

And if we reject that we are guilty or anxious, Rutledge proposes another trait of humanity that brings under judgement, we are obsessed with condemning others – regardless how much liberal societies educate populations about tolerance, society is riven by tribalism and groups protecting their own power.

And so Rutledge argues that such is the pervasive reach of sin in societies as well as in individuals, that

‘… it will help us to understand that the Great Assize is not just an event that transpires on the level of the individual. For the most part the Bible is thinking collectively, communally and, ultimately … cosmologically.’ The Powers that will be unmasked and sentenced by the Judge who is to come are the powers and principalities of this world, and finally Satan himself. (312)

In the next couple of posts on this chapter we will come back to some pastoral and practical implications of judgement and how it is understood today.

Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The call of the cross

A Good Friday Reflection

Without the croMonasterboice High Crossss, Christians have nothing whatsoever distinctive to say.

The cross is at the heart of all truly Christian theology. The Christian life is a life lived under the shadow of the cross.

The gospels can be described as passion narratives with extended introductions. While you might be uneasy with this (does it not relegate Jesus’ birth, life and preaching of the kingdom to secondary importance?) the fact is that the birth, life and teaching of Jesus are all cross-directed. They lose all sense and coherence without the cross.

Matthew captures the developing conflict with the authorities which leads to his climatic abandonment and death. All happening to fulfil the words of the prophets.

Mark consistently talks of discipleship in terms of suffering and the way of the cross  (8:34-8). Jesus’ own clear self-understanding of his mission is famously summed up in 10:45 where he comes not to be served but to give his life a ‘ransom for many’ – a reference to the servant of Isaiah in 52:13-53:12.

Matthew also links to Isaiah 53, a profoundly important framework for the mission of the Messiah (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21).

Luke describes Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, the place of his death and the focus of mission (9:51).

John opens with Jesus ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1:29). His whole gospel is focused on the death (and glorification) of the Christ. His link to Passover is echoed by Paul who calls Jesus ‘our Passover lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). Here is the cross as sacrifice for sin, a theme expanded on at length in the book of Hebrews.

Paul wants to know nothing but know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:1-2). He talks of Christ crucified being the power and wisdom of God. While Jews look for miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, ‘we preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:18-25).

The foundational act of fellowship within the early Christian communities is a meal to remember and proclaim Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26). In terms of the gospel, it is of first importance that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). To be a Christian at all means to be ‘baptised into his death’ (Roms. 6:3). If Paul is to boast in anything, he will only boast in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).

Take Colossians 2: 13-15. It is at the cross that sin is atoned for and forgiveness achieved. It is at the cross that condemnation and judgement are dealt with through Christ our substitute taking the penalty for sin. It is at the cross that a decisive victory is won over the powers and authorities opposed to the reconciling work of God.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Or back to Corinthians: It is at the cross that the rulers of this age are ‘outsmarted’ – they did not comprehend the wisdom of God seen in the mystery of the cross, “the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8?)

Take Romans 5:1-11: It is the cross which supremely reveals the depth of the love of God “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the cross which speaks of the immeasurable grace of God since we are powerless to save ourselves. It is the cross which leads to justification (being declared righteous) and reconciliation (peace with God). It is the death of Christ which saves us from God’s wrath.

Yes, yes, the cross must never be separated from the resurrection – otherwise it remains a brutal form of execution; a place of death and despair. Yes, the cross lead to Pentecost where the victory won at Golgotha leads to the outpouring of the promised Spirit.

But the Scriptures are insistent that something unique happened at the cross. The texts are packed full of images and stories and metaphors of what went on there – and quite rightly we should unpack and explore each one. But the very diversity of images should tell us something. No-one image or picture or theme can neatly capture the cross. We need so many of them because what happened at the cross is something that is profoundly mysterious and beyond easy explanation.

So let’s never get so wrapped up in debates about how the cross works, or what it achieves, that we miss what the cross of Christ calls us to.

It calls us to worship, to adoration, to thanksgiving, to humility, to self-giving lives lived to honour God. It calls us to die to ourselves and live for him. It calls us to be willing to suffer for our faith. It calls us to give up power and control and manipulation as routes to ‘success in ministry’. It certainly calls us to reject violence as followers of a crucified Messiah. It calls us to daily repentance and fresh seeking of the generous grace of God. It calls to wholehearted love of the one who first loved us.