In the Strife of Truth with Falsehood

Get ready for the verbal assaults.The PAC ads. The disinformation and misinformation media campaigns funded by big money with big interests that know how powerful words are.

Words are POWERFUL! Sometimes those of us who stand in pulpits doubt that our words matter. But reading this paragraph in Timothy Egan’s NYT,Deconstructing a Demagogue,”reminds me of just how powerful words are:

Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

And that’s just the beginning of the story of how language is used and abused for purposes of social manipulation. Gingrich knew that language is “A Key Mechanism of Control.”  Those who are well-schooled in theology and politics know that language is the primary mechanism of mind control: truth becomes falsehood and falsehood becomes truth; beauty becomes ugliness and ugliness becomes beauty; goodness becomes evil and evil becomes goodness, twisted by the language of innuendo and word association.

The cynicism that pervades the American electorate is due, in part, to this demagogic use of language. Words are precious things. Holy things. Sacred things. When they get twisted, they become vulgar and profane, one might even say ‘demonic’ in the sense in which Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’: the twisting of the good. “The claim of something finite to infinity or to divine greatness is the characteristic of the demonic” (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

Paul Tillich, “The Courage to Be”

Paul Tillich was one of the first university professors fired during the Third Reich in 1933. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he came to America where he taught at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. Tillich and his academic colleagues in theology, philosophy, and ethics (Willem Zuurdeeg, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Elie Wiesel) left us a rich legacy of linguistic analysis of the language of demagogic use of language.They speak with authority because they each paid a price for their opposition to it.

There are those who say that Hitler won his war after all. His ingenious use of language and rhetoric is the substance of Language: a Key Mechanism of Control. Newt Gingrich is not Adolf Hitler. And we are all well-advised to be very careful with contemporary references to him, the Third Reich, or the Holocaust. Yet the language that once led a nation regarded as “the most sophisticated culture” to swallow the toxin of twisted truth is with us still. The demonic poison how rules the day in America, peddled as cure and candy by candidates bought and sold by the private corporate powers whose PAC ads control the airwaves.

Words are sacred. And those who abuse them enter into the darkness of the demonic twistings that led James Russell Lowell to write the hymn lyrics I sang as a child:

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood…. Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet t’is truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim

unknown, Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch above His own. – James Russell Lowell, 1945, “Once to Every Man and Nation”

The PAC ads are coming. Plug your ears…or…better yet, listen carefully, listen critically. Then speak out “in the strife of truth with falsehood.”

A Sermon on Suffering

The post of my friend Steve Shoemaker’s poem “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” and the comments that you posted prompted the sermon I delivered this morning at Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Churchin Chaska, MN. The sermon never would have happened without your thoughtful, penetrating comments on the earlier post. THANK YOU. Here’s the sermon.

THE FLAGELLATION

“Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him ‘Prophesy! Who was it that struck you?’ And they spoke many other words against him and reviled him.”  Gospel of Luke 22:63

Two months ago I created a blog. One of my seminary classmates, Steve Shoemaker, wrote the other day to say that he was impressed by how prolific I was. I thought maybe he meant “wordy” until he said that my productivity embarrassed his laziness as a poet. So, he said, “Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. For every piece you put up on your blog, I’ll write a poem.” Steve is 6’8 and a basketball player in college. Clearly, he hasn‘t lost his competitive spirit.

A poem arrived last Friday. It’s a reflection on a painting by sixteenth century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In the painting, Jesus is bent over on all fours after he being mocked and beaten.

Christ after the Flagellation

Steve’s poem, “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” changed the direction of the sermon this morning.  Here’s the poem.

The human had been tied to the whipping

post, a pillar that had been used many

times before by the Romans (and ages

earlier by the Greeks–but for a much

different purpose). Now, his pale skin looks

translucent (should it not have been darker,

with more blood?) His mother recalled his bris.

They had both cried then, too.

A strong young man, broad back, thick arms, now on

hands and knees, but head raised with eyes open:

seeing a cross that’s even worse ahead…

Still, unflinching, resigned–no, determined

to go on, face more pain, indignities,

shame, even death (there is no sign of God.)

Shortly there arrived a brief comment from a blogger who blogs about the daily struggle with mental illness.

“This poem brought tears to my eyes.”

Score one for my friend Steve.

Later in the day another comment arrived on the blog in response to Steve’s poetry. Like the first comment, this one also comes from someone with a history of some kind of long-term suffering. It reads as follows.

I have a response to the stories of Christ’s beating that often leaves others aghast. So brace yourselves:

He was beaten for several hours, or a day or two? Big deal. Those of us who have suffered years of abuse and terror know what real suffering is.

I don’t find focusing on Jesus’ suffering, or any of that 12 stages of the cross crap, to be helpful at all. I find it to be insulting. As if there is something noble and glorious about suffering. Nope, not a damn thing to recommend it. I know that Jesus voluntarily placed himself in the position for that to happen. So? Doesn’t help.

Please, fellow readers, don’t think that I am an isolated one, or few. There are lots and lots of us feeling this way.

The world is full – FULL – of people who have suffered much worse for decades or lifetimes. Think of people who live in North Korea. Or poor girls growing up in India. Or young girls in Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints settlements who get married off to much older men and are then raped daily for the rest of their lives. Jesus’ few days of humiliation are nothing in comparison.

The Lenten/Easter season is my favorite church season because I am reminded of how deeply I am loved and how quickly I am forgiven. Jesus’ brief beating plays no role in that….

The writer is hardly alone in his thinking about this. What do we say about those whose tenures of torture and suffering far exceed the relatively short period of Jesus’ suffering?  Is focusing on Jesus’s suffering and the stations of the cross insulting to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, for decades or for a lifetime?

How would you reply to the writer?

Here’s how I responded:

Your thoughtful response calls for an equally thoughtful reply. So I’ll try.

The cross, in my theology, in no way minimizes or disrespects the suffering of others. Nor does it say, as it is too often understood by sacrificial atonement theology, that suffering itself is noble or glorious. The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and execution. The Jesus who was tortured and executed, as were thousands of his Jewish contemporaries, is not somehow God masquerading in human flesh. That being said, moving the cross to the sidelines of Christian faith and reflection is, in my view, a mistake. Well meaning because it reacts against the twisted theology that understood it to be separate from, and above, all other human suffering, but mistaken nonetheless.

When I look at the cross, I see all these people. And I see myself there as both the crucified and the crucifier. What I see in the crucifix is total abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And in some way I hear not only the cry of Jesus but the cry of the God Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the Divine Center we push to the edge of the world.  I see in the Christ-event the tragedy and the hope of the divine-human encounter.

Sebastian Moore (The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and The Inner Loneliness) and Joseph Campbell awakened me to this richer Christology. Moore: “We have to think of God as closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of God not as standing at the end of the way we take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us IN our evil, as the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid

“Redemption through the blood of Christ is (wrongly!) interpreted as the bending of Reality itself to man’s great dream of himself. And it is exactly the reverse. It is the ending of the dream. It is the beautiful collapse of the whole enterprise. It is the invasion of man by himself, with God at the center as love.” (Bolding added  for emphasis.)

Closer to home, another great theologian, my wife, Kay, reflected on the cross the other night at a Lenten series on “The Place of the Cross”:

“The Apostle Paul used to talk about all of his theology in terms of transformation at the foot of the cross. If a theological insight couldn’t go to the foot of the cross and be transformed there, then it wasn’t of God. This darkness is not for lightweight faith statements or testimonies. The annihilation of all goodness and all love which takes place in the action of one human being in violence to another human being—it cannot be redeemed by any other force but God’s pure love. That is a faith statement that lives inside a vacuum until manifested. There is no meeting of love and abandonment, they are mutually exclusive realities. We are lost. Period. And if God is to find us, then it is all about God’s initiative.”

From today’s perspective, Moore’s language is too gender- specific, not inclusive. But the substance of his Christology is totally inclusive. We’re all there. Anything short of that either drifts off into a new utopian project or into some new rendition  of the power of positive thinking. The power of Christian theology is its gravitas: it doesn’t turn away.

I told the blogger, “Love to hear more…. Hope we can keep the conversation alive.”

Hours later, an email arrived from the second blogger who had watched “The Leper” on the blog saying s/he was moved and grateful for the sermon.

If I could sit down in a coffee shop or in a living room by the fire to continue the conversation, this is what I would say.

The cross of Jesus does not minimize other suffering. It casts a light backward and forward into all darkness for all time. From inside the light we see the darkness of all human violence and abuse, and at the foot of the cross, we look up to realize that the protest against the suffering we impose on others and our own self-imposed suffering – our own reviling of others and our reviling or ourselves — is not just our protest. It is God’s. It is the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world. And the word for “they reviled him” is the same as the word “blasphemed” him.  Whenever we treat others cruelly, or treat ourselves cruelly, we blaspheme God. We are reviling and whipping the back of God.

From Jesus’s cry to God – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – there comes an echo from the heavens: “My children, my children, why have you abandoned me? My children, how could you forsake Me?”

The cross calls for an end to the reviling of others and our own sorry self-flagellation, as though those we revile, or we ourselves, would be or should be beyond love’s reach.

Who is the “the human tied to the whipping post”? Who puts her there?

Will you join the suffering of the God who wants it all to stop? Will you rejoice in the inevitable, eternal reach of God’s love and redeeming grace?

Footnote: Here is Steve, the poet, among the Bristle Cone Pines at 11,000 feet in Colorado:

Steve Shoemaker

..

A fellow student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, we’ve continued the friendship for 47 years. A published poet, Steve was the Senior Minister of the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Director of the McKinley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Illinois for many years. He hosts “Keepin’ the Faith” on WILL, Illinois Public Radio,. He and his wife, Nadja, a research biologist, live in a geo-thermally-heated house on the prairie outside Urbana, IL where his neighbors often spot Steve’s kites riding the winds of the prairie skies.