The Cognitive Dissonance of Resurrection Faith

There’s no denying that Resurrection Sunday is probably the most joyous Sunday of the church year.  With Easter comes the joyous message of Jesus rising from the dead and triumphing over the devil, sin and, of course, death.  As Jesuit priest James Martin along with many others on social media thoughtfully communicated: Easter changes everything.  We leave our churches on Easter Sunday morning in the sure hope of the resurrection of the dead, of the sure hope that death does not have the last say, of the sure hope that this fallen world is not the be all end all.  We leave hopeful and happy.

But then it happens, like it did this past Sunday. Easter Sunday, that is.  News reports came in telling us that another terrorist attack had occurred.  This time in Pakistan, with 69 murdered, most of whom were Christian.  One can sense the embittered atheist or naysayer of Christianity saying “Where’s your triumphant God now!?” And one must admit that he or she has a point.  I encountered such an imaginative person on Monday morning on my way to get coffee as I listened to NPR and first learned of the said attack. So much for the Resurrection now, so much for God changing everything.  It’s also in that moment that I realized that believing in the Resurrection is really a stupid endeavor.  But I suppose that’s the point, though.

Easter does change everything but in a far more signifiant way than I think we might realize.  It goes so much deeper than death being done away with on the Last Day.  It has to do with how we approach, view and live in the world. The Resurrection gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds to comprehend the world in ways that would not be possible without it.  It’s a sort of cognitive dissonance.  It’s why the early Christians could stand before Caesar and confess boldly that Jesus is Lord even though the physical evidence before them said just the opposite.  For it was Caesar’s Empire that they resided in, it was Caesar’s armies who had brought “peace” and civilization to the known world, it was Caesar’s soldiers who arrested them and it was Caesar’s jails that they had sat in.  For all intents and purposes Caesar was clearly Lord and Savior of the world.  But they knew that there was more than meets the eye.  They knew that the true Lord was from Nazareth, had been crucified on a hill outside of Jerusalem, had been raised from the dead by their Father in heaven who exalted him above all and made him Lord.  They believed this even though it seemed so stupid.  For “cursed is he who hangs on a tree” in the eyes of any faithful Jew. For the Lord and Savior of the world was found on coins and statues not on a humiliating instrument meant to invoke fear and terror in all those who looked on such as a Roman Cross.  What folly it must’ve seemed to Romans.

But that’s the point.

The Resurrection of Jesus calls us to look beyond, to lift the veil, when it comes to the world around us. For terrorist attacks are not just the product of men who wish to do harm to innocent civilians but also the product of a deeper reality: the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  The spiritual forces that prompt these men to kill are the same spiritual forces that prompt Americans to abort babies and feed the military industrial complex endlessly.  The same spiritual forces that prompt us to consume endlessly in order to stimulate the economy are the same spiritual forces that wreak havoc on underdeveloped nations and eventually create terrorists.  It’s all interconnected.  The Resurrection reality prompts us to mourn with those who have suffered but it also prompts us to say no more, to not play the world’s game of tit for tat, to not be consumed by the fear and pragmatism of this present evil age.

The Resurrection of Jesus prompts us to a repentant life where we draw upon the Crucified One and seek with repentant hearts to lift the veil and see beyond what the spiritual forces of evil would have us believe.  Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus should prompt cognitive dissonance from the world and its ways.  For the Resurrection reveals that there is only one true reality, that of Jesus and his Kingdom.

 

 

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What Brussels Might Teach Us This Holy Week

It didn’t take long for people to change their profile pictures to that of the Belgian flag after the terrorists attacks occurred in Brussels yesterday.  It was a thoughtful response and a way to show solidarity with the victims and the people of Belgium.  This is now the second ISIS attack in Europe that has wrought fear and anxiety throughout the West.  Previously, we saw French flags adorning profile pictures after what happened in Paris.  With the advent of ISIS terrorism seems to have taken a front seat in our minds and consciousness not witnessed since right after 9/11.  There doesn’t seem to be any way to get away from it, particularly as we get closer to November 2016.  I must tell you that that this attack having occurred on Tuesday draws me even deeper into the story and dynamics of Holy Week.

Tomorrow evening we will read, hear and recall how Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  In the midst of this betrayal blows will be taken, swords will be drawn and ears will be cutoff .  One of the disciples will even ask Jesus if they should strike the guards with their sword (Lk 22:49).  A compustible situation becomes deflated because Jesus tells his disciples to put down their swords.  The men, unable to use their swords, flee.

The_Ear_of_Malchus_James_TissotJesus surrounded himself with an interesting cast of characters, not just fishermen and tax collectors but also zealots, that is “terrorists” in modern day parlance. He’s got Simon the Zealot, Thomas the twin and Judas Iscariot.  Such men are the forebears of the terrorism that we witness today.  While the former were Jews and the latter are Muslim both are cut from the same cloth.  Both believed or believe in the sword to make things right, both were reacting to the oppression of foreign occupiers.  There’s a reason why Thomas was ready to fight (Jn 11:16), there’s a reason why the disciples had swords on them at the arrest of Jesus.  There’s also a reason why Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.  Many believe that Judas Iscariot’s surname is derived from the word “sicarri”.  The sicarii also known as the “dagger men” specialized in urban political assassinations and kidnappings. They were a highly effective group of Jewish terrorists in the time leading up to the Jewish Revolt and during it.  One theory is that Judas thought he was helping Jesus by betraying him, by bringing him to the point of revolution.  Another idea is that Judas, being a zealot, gave up on him once he realized he was going to do away with the Temple and would not begin a Messianic movement in the vein of King David.

No matter the cause, the reality is that Jesus found himself surrounded by zealots, by terrorists, by men with such a disposition.  He was even traded for one.  The crowds wanted Barabbas, who may have been a member of the sicarii but nonetheless was a zealot, an ancient terrorist.  All of these men were waiting for the prophecy from Daniel to be fulfilled at any moment since the 450 years had passed.  Some even believed that they could fulfill it or that they could help bring about Yahweh’s vindication and the cleansing of the land from pagan filth.  The prophets spoke of such things.

Does this not also sound like ISIS?  There’s the same apocalyptic desire. ISIS attacks to get revenge, to provoke, to bring about restoration of their version of Islam. They want to bring about the battle of Dabiq.  The prophet Mohammed foretold that there would be a showdown between Christians and Muslims which would serve as a precursor to the apocalypse in this city located in Syria.  These men and women are willing to die to bring about the end days and restoration.  It’s undeniable that ISIS and most of the terrorist groups of these last thirty years are but the result of Western and, in particular, US foreign policy.  Such policy has had a disastrous effect on the Middle Eastern peoples.  Just as the Jewish terrorists and bandits had the Romans to fight so do Islamic terrorists have Americans and Westerners to fight.  Remember, such desires and destructive tendencies do not come out of a vacuum.  While ISIS and other terrorist organizations would perceive the US and the West as the great oppressor and great Satan, the zealots would have perceived the Roman Empire and the Sanhedrin in a similar vein.

The disconcerting reality is that in many regards the disciples of Jesus, those who sit around the table with Jesus tomorrow evening, had much in common with the terrorists of today.  That should give us pause and prompt us to think through the implications.  From a sociopolitical perspective we have so much more in common with Pontius Pilate than with the others we encounter in this story.  We often think of the exchange between Barabbas and Jesus as simply being about an exchange of a sinner for a saint but it goes much deeper than that.  Simon, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Barabbas, the bandits who are crucified at Jesus’ right and left, the other disciples, are all very much the product of oppression, of the sins of the privileged and the elite.  Barabbas is what happens to a people who feel that they have no voice, who feel that they can’t take it anymore, who have been beat upon and pushed around for far too long.  Disciples who bear swords to defend their rabbi with the hopes that this will begin the battle, the war to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth are what happens to a people who have been kicked around far too long. They resort to methods and means that can actually make a dent on an enemy that seems insurmountable like Rome or like the US and its Allies.

To see ourselves in Thomas, Judas or Barabbas or any of the other disciples is far too easy.  We must go deeper than that as Christians who live in the wealthiest society the world has ever seen.  Rather we must see ourselves as those who they sought to fight against.  We must see ourselves as the Pilates, the Sanhedrin, the scribes, for, like them, we have much to lose if the status quo is shaken.  The implications for such an understanding are vast.  It might make us realize that we shouldn’t consume as much, that we should be turned off by fear mongering leaders.  It might might make us realize that we need to look to the Creator and not so quickly trust in weapons and military action. It might make us realize that we need to be praying for peace and for our enemies the terrorists. It might make us realize that we need to take Jesus’ words seriously and not always look for the easy word of grace that leaves us comfortable in our sin. It might mean understanding that love for our enemies does not simply get nullified by some worldly Niehburian pragmatism.  It might mean shaking off our Americentrism realizing that terrorist attacks happen continually to non-Western countries such as Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Nigeria.   Most especially, it’s important for us to realize that we may be more culpable than we realize when it comes to the terrorism that afflicts us now.

May we keep the victims and the terrorists in our prayers this Holy Week as we ponder our Lord’s great love for us.

 

 

Choosing Barabbas and Making Sense of Trump

As we stand on the precipice of Holy Week we are about to encounter various situations and persons in the Gospels that we only hear about in church once a year.  On Good Friday we will hear about Barabbas, the man who Pilate released to the crowds over and against Jesus of Nazareth.  That the crowds would call for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified is a piece of great political manipulation on the part of the chief priests and the Roman Governor Pontus Pilate.  In the midst of a mock trial we witness a sort of democracy at play, the people decide between two prisoners.  The problem, though, is that the game has been rigged.  One of the prisoners will be chosen not through free decision-making but through the manipulation of those making the decision.  It’s a set up.

Initially, the crowds who called for Jesus to be crucified were on his side.  They were “astonished” by his teaching and hung on every word he said.   This is why the chief priests and the scribes feared these same crowds as they sought ways to get Jesus arrested. They knew that they could do nothing out in the open other than try and trap Jesus in his words.  They had to be stealthy and move in the darkness of the night and amid the shadows. During the trial of Jesus their work behind the scenes finally gets them what they desired all along for Jesus: crucifixion. They do so by stirring up the crowds at the trial. These leaders know their people, they know the crowds, they know what makes them tick, they know what drives them.

As Donald Trump gets closer to becoming the GOP nominee for POTUS many continue to be stunned.  There are talks of a GOP implosion of sorts.  It’s fascinating to watch.  One of the things that has brought Donald Trump to this point is something very simple: he knows his audience and he knows them well. He’s not so much leading as he’s giving a voice to the opinions of his supporters. Remember, Trump is a reality TV star, became a household name in the 1980s through his real estate successes, is the author of “The Art of the Deal” giving hope to many Americans that they too could achieve the American dream of wealth and status.  He has been in a McDonald’s commercial and even appeared on WWE.   As reporter, Ali A. Rizvi, put it:

“Trump is an astute opportunist who is incredibly smart, recognizes his audiences, and plays to their ignorance — capitalizing on their anger, fears, and sense of victimization to further his political stature. It’s classic, dictionary-definition demagoguery. (There’s no comparison, of course, but this is exactly the kind of thing leaders like Hitler were so good at.) His victimhood-peddling allows him to disguise hate and prejudice as hope and justice for poor, anxious Americans.”

My wife, who has quite the background in acting and performing, often points out that Trump knows how to stay in character when on stage or in interview.   In other words, Donald Trump is a man who has been trained in performance art.  In a sense, it’s not that Donald Trump is leading the way it’s that he’s capitalizing on the fears, worries and anger of the people.  It’s really masterful what he’s done.  He’s skilled at playing the crowds.  Trump often claims that he’s not a politician but in many regards he’s but the result of the political game that has gone on for centuries.  Playing on the fears of people, oversimplifying issues, claiming to have the solutions and being concerned with the little guy.  It’s all part of the deal.  The problem, though, is that Trump is part of the elite.  He was born into wealth and having wealth played a big part in his creating more wealth.  Smoke and mirrors my friends.

And this brings me back to what I writing about earlier.  The chief priests and scribes played on the fears, worries and genuine concerns of the crowd.  The livelihood of many in the crowd depended upon the Temple system.  Think about how a priest like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, would react to someone claiming that the Temple would be destroyed and that he is the new Temple.  Think about how someone who sold merchandise in the Temple court reacted to Jesus when he flipped their tables and drove out their livestock shutting down their economy.  The Temple industry employed many people in various ways and means in and throughout Judea.  For Jesus to attack the center point of Jewish life and worship in such a way was not only scandalous but also threatening.  And so the chief priests stirred up the crowds and got them going.  They capitalized on their fears and insecurities.  The crowds are controlled without realizing that they are.  The desire of the powerful become the desire of the masses, the crowds.  They go from being astonished by Jesus to calling for him to be crucified.  They become possessed, crying out like those possessed with unclean spirits for Jesus to be crucified.

Sadly, though, the crowds fail to detect that they are nothing more than pawns in a game which becomes even more clear with Pontius Pilate.  Pilate had the tradition of releasing a prisoner to them every year during this time so as to placate them and keep them from revolting.  Things were tense between the Romans and the Jews. The Roman occupiers know that a little give and take is needed in order to keep the peace with a deeply religious and oppressed people such as the Israelites.  With this as the backdrop we can better understand Pontius Pilate who was known for being rather ruthless and politically astute.  Pilate walks a very fine line.  He questions the crowds about Jesus’ innocence and guilt not for the sake of justice but to put them into a position in which it is their decision and not his.  Such a maneuver protects him in the event that not all goes well or according to plan.  And so the crowds will call for Barabbas to be set free and Jesus to be crucified.  Pilate will give them what they want for the sake of political expediency and keeping the peace.  This was a faux peace, though, it was Pax Romana.

The crowds will get an insurrectionist, a bandit, a revolutionary, a terrorist who would fight and kill for the Temple, for Yahweh’s honor.  He will draw Roman blood, he will draw corrupt and unclean Jewish blood in an attempt to set his people free and bring about restoration to his people Israel.  He’s old wine in old wineskins.  He brings hope to a world and to a people who recall the days of Joshua and David defeating their enemies in the name of God.  There’s nothing new when it comes to Barabbas.  Interestingly enough, Barabbas and those like him will end up failing.  In AD 70 the Romans will crush the Jewish revolt and destroy the Temple along with it.  Jesus on the other hand is just too much or maybe not enough, his Way leaves something to be desired. According to the world it’s impractical.  In the process of following him, all could be lost so it’s better to go with the familiar.  The crowd’s desire for Barabbas, however manipulated, is but the expression of their core values and hopes.  Jesus is great but when he refused to pick up a sword in the garden all was lost for him.  That’s when many lost their hope in him, he would not begin an armed revolt against Rome and the corrupt Sanhedrin.  It was time to look elsewhere.

Source:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/the-real-reason-donald-tr_b_8820192.html

 

 

 

 

 

Making A Deal With the Devil: Presidential Politics 2016

Living in an age in which Donald Trump could end up being the president of the United States of America has the ability to make one cynical, or at the least, grow in their cynicism. I am not immune to this. Cynicism is an easy alternative, an easy coping mechanism when faced with the prospect that either Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton could be our next president. While Donald’s problem is himself, both Cruz and Clinton remind me of why Trump has become so attractive to many voters. Cruz claims God while wanting to carpet bomb ISIS and having ties to Goldman Sachs. Clinton, well, we all know about Clinton.  She’s the quintessential politician who, while claiming to be principled, will do or say just about anything to get elected. Her flip flopping on issues is highly entertaining when you think about it. She claims she’ll go after Wall Street while being paid by them to give speeches to them.  Is it any wonder then that Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate in the eyes of so many Americans? Lest I forget, I must tell you that I like Bernie Sanders, I think he’s the only one of all the candidates who actually has integrity. Unfortunately, I find him problematic as well. He has said that Ed Snowden ought to be prosecuted and has no problem with partial birth abortion. Also, if he does become president I doubt that he’ll stop the drone strikes that have given President Obama an infamous reputation. I probably sound too picky, sorry about that.  The reality though, at least for me, is that believing in Jesus tends to get in the way of my supporting any political candidate.  I just can’t reconcile the way of worldly politics with the way of Jesus.  I’m not willing to support someone who claims to be a Christian but will vigorously build up our military and use it viciously.  I’m also not willing to support someone who has stood for the rights of others while turning a blind eye to the most helpless and vulnerable amongst us.  Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil which is rather disheartening when you think about it, isn’t it?House-of-Cards-586361

What compounds this thinking of mine at this time is my watching of the Netflix show House of Cards. Now, I know what you may be thinking. It’s just a show, it’s just fantasy, things don’t really operate like that. Well, not according to Bill Clinton who claimed that the show is 99% true as well as many others who say that it’s truth is undeniable. Sure, there are naysayers, but if one looks closely at the naysayers they usually have skin in the game of this thing we call Washington.  While we like to pontificate on the beauties of government, of our Founding Fathers, of that which is good about Washington, the reality is that there is a dark underbelly to it. So much so that it should cause any serious Christian to be ponder Satan’s words to Jesus, that all the kingdoms of the world have been given to him (Lk 4:6). Politics is the art of persuasion but it’s also the art of getting ahead, of triangulating and of using people to get what you want or what others want. I don’t see how we don’t connect this to the rebellion of humanity in the garden, but I digress.

This artfulness of deception particularly hit home for me this past summer when I was writing an article for Lutheran Forum on the parallels between the Tea Party movement and the LCMS.  During my research I came to learn of a former LCMS pastor turned lobbyist named Bill Hecht. In the last 40 years Bill Hecht has been a big player on the Washington scene.  He served as the head of the Tobacco Institute, worked in the Reagan campaign for president in 1980, and has since operated a lobbying firm representing clients such as the pro-apartheid South African government as well as Big Tobacco. He has a questionable history when one considers that he lobbied for a government that was pro-apartheid and also lobbied for a group that tried to convince the American people that the dangers of tobacco were being greatly exaggerated. Yeah, I’m not kidding here. He’s one of the major players in the creation of the Center for Religious Liberty that the LCMS has recently opened in DC.  Having been immersed in the DC lifestyle for over 30 years he operates with the sort of mystique that could be likened to Don Corleone.

hecht2

Lobbyist Bill Hecht (dressed in white, center) seated at the celebration of the opening of the LCMS’ Center for Religious Liberty.  You’ll note that both 4th Vice President Scott Murray and President Matthew Harrison are sitting across from him.

On the surface, all seems good to Hecht and maybe it was and is but when you go deeper there are problems, there are deficiencies.  One can almost sense a hardening of heart going from point A to point B.  But that’s how worldly power often works, doesn’t it?  King Saul looks pretty good in the beginning only to turn into a terrible king. David starts out as a faithful shepherd boy only to transform into a murderous adulterating king. Solomon ends up becoming just like Pharaoh enslaving his very people in building projects.  All noble and well-intentioned men at the beginning who end up leaving much to be desired. It’s really not a long shot from King Ahab to those who work in Washington DC.  Jesus was presented with such an option as well.  Satan presents Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world if he would just bow down and worship him.  The challenge with this temptation, as well as with the others, is that it was one representation of the Messianic hopes of Israel.  Jesus could be the Davidic King who freed the people from Roman oppression, restored God’s nation and brought honor to Yahweh.  As Walter Wink notes, in a sense these were all good things but they were not the best options for Jesus.  Jesus could become a Davidic like king and restore the former glory of Israel but how long would that last?  Jesus could also become the priest to cleanse the Temple of corruption but how long would that last?  Jesus could also become the new Moses garnering a following right away but, again, how long would that last?  In the end, Jesus does what is best by truly listening to God’s voice.  This is where we Christians ought to take note.  Doing so does not provide Jesus with the easiest or safest way, in fact it is quite hazardous and dangerous.  In fact, it is quite costly for he loses everything including his life.  Yet we also know that he rose again from the dead in spite of the powers and proved them to be ultimately powerless.  We American Christians would do well to ponder this deeper reality, understanding its political implications.

We who claim Jesus as Lord now find ourselves in the midst of competing narratives that sound very good. “Make America Great Again” “Make America Whole Again” “A Future To Believe In” “A New American Century”.  These are all good and positive statements.  Beneath them, though, lies much malignancy. “Make America Great Again” is bolstered by a man who does not see the need for forgiveness. “Make America Whole Again” comes from the campaign of a woman associated with endless corruption. “A Future To Believe In” comes from a man who thinks it okay for a baby older than five months to be aborted.  “A New American Century” comes from a man who will continue to build America’s military even though its already the strongest by a longshot.  There are a lot more problematic beliefs and statements from those vying for the job of President.  If we listened to them, to the pundits and to the strategists we might think that we are on the cusp of some apocalyptic meltdown.  But again, if we are attuned to what we believe, we know that there is something deeper.  This is why we ought to be suspicious of the anxiety of this age and the anxiety of this presidential race. It is God who orders the nations and allows them to rise and causes them to fall.

While it’s not the perfect example, whenever I listen to the rhetoric of our presidential candidates I often find myself being reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples about the coming destruction of the Temple.  Let me explain.  At this time there are voices clamoring for our loyalty, clamoring for us to follow them, claiming that they will lead us into something better.  “Follow me, I will fight for your religious liberty!” “Follow me, I will make America great again!” “Follow me, I will make America whole again!” “Follow me and we will bring about a political revolution!”  There were many voices clamoring for the loyalty of Jesus’ disciples around the time of the destruction of the Temple as well.  The problem was the Temple had become null and void, it was a representation of the former age.  The New Age had been ushered in by the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the new Temple.  Through the Cross the powers had fallen.  Yet, due to various loyalties of family and nation the disciples of Jesus were still tempted to fight and to latch on to one of the revolutionaries.  I find a similar tug of war today, to go after such leaders and believe they will make things better, that they are the answer.  But is that not to make the power of the Resurrection and Jesus’ Lordship void?   Times such as these ought to prompt us to pray even more fervently the words our Lord gave us, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.