I know Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “Christians should give more offense, ” but, to be completely honest, I’m getting really tired of Christians who are offensive for all the wrong reasons.
And I don’t just mean the “Ned Flanders” variety of Christians whose experience of an insular religious ghetto produces some genuinely ghastly results whenever they try to “reach out” to the rest of us from that strange land of Christian kitsch.
That kind of cringe-worthy stuff is funny and almost endearing. I remember, when I was in my first year at university, seeing some guy in a philosophy tutorial wearing a t-shirt that “Jesus Christ – The Real Thing” – a not-so-subtle take-off of the Coke logo. Surprised and a bit embarrassed by what I thought was a brother who didn’t realise the cringe factor of his attire; I introduced myself after class and asked if he was a Christian too. He burst into laughter and said, “No! I just think this shirt is f***ing hilarious.”
But I say again, sweet minded, sentimental, tastelessly-tacky-Christian-kitsch is not what I’m referring to when I say “offensive Christians”. I’m talking about Christians who are offensive because they are known by the way they hate, not the way they love: those who are known for their hardness of hearts, rather than their hearts of holy compassion; those who scapegoat the vulnerable that Jesus named as his favoured friends and closet companions; those who are known for their exclusion and rejection not by their inclusion and grace; those who reject the power of cross-shaped love and its shameless solidarity with those despised by society, and instead trade in our attachment to Christ in the anawim for a “more practical program of societal change” through positions among the religious elite and influence in the courts of Caesar through access to Pilate and Herod.
In short, I’m tired that so many people seem to think that those who claim to be in Christ actually walking like he walked is some novel or “fresh approach to faith.” I’m tired of Christians exhibiting un-Christ-like behaviour claiming that they are “suffering for Jesus” when challenged.
Nowhere in the Gospels will you find Jesus saying “blessed are you when you understand righteousness like the Pharisees and scapegoat the vulnerable in society then cop a backlash for your bigoted remarks.”
Yes, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). But as I am often quoted as saying, “a text without a context is a sure sign you are being conned.” Maybe we all need to ask, what is the context – both of Bonhoeffer’s remark and Jesus’ words from John’s Gospel?
But let me first state as clearly as I can that the Christian Gospel is offensive, foolish and scandalous. But the offense is far worse that kitsch t-shirts recycled by culturally savvy (and predictably cynical) art students. The Gospel is far more offensive than the cruel scapegoating of the fearful who hide behind their faith. The offense is even worse that what N.T. Wright would call the “sub-biblical” distortion of the Gospel that depict Jesus as a kind of divine punching-bag for a diabolical deity with anger management issues.
(Now, before I’m branded the biggest heretic since Rob Bell, let me say clearly that I do believe in “substitutionary atonement.” I believe it is essential among the various atonement motifs in the New Testament. I believe it to be at the heart of the Gospel and of breath-taking beauty when understood as the early Christians understood it. What I reject is an unorthodox – albeit very popular – understanding that protects us from the horror of the cross. The real horror of the cross is far more “monstrous” than some projection of our depravity onto the First Person of the Holy Trinity, this Super-ego idol we build to shield us from the beauty of what Slavoj Zizek has called “the monstrosity of Christ.”
What by grace I am seeking to totally reject is our self-constructed diabolical deities that defend us from the horrific reality of God[!] being fully revealed in a tragic, tortured, figure considered a pathetic failure of a messiah who hangs naked only covered by our shame, that he knowingly took on to transfigure as the true Israel and true God. This starts to get at the offense of a God who is love. The shields of sub-Trinitarian—no good news at all—“gospels” that are preached are often revealed to be fraudulent by the way they divorce from the Cross essential doctrines like:
- Initiated Kingdom and Coming Consummation
Doctrine is not a boiling down of the Biblical narrative but as N.T. Wright helpfully suggests, it’s a suitcase where we can carry around the story with ease but we must constantly unpack the story and cloth ourselves with its content. All these doctrines are GRACE!!!
Practically, one of the most obvious signs the offense of the Gospel has been forsaken for a fraudulent legalistic morality movement is the way it so quickly forgets “we have ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and sets itself up as being more ‘righteous’ than another group praying; “God thank you I’m not like a, b or c because of x, y and z.” The Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans in particular, makes it blatantly clear if there is an “axis of evil” it runs not along political, or religious, or national boarders but through the heart of us all. But these things might be an article in itself for next Easter.)
But after that brief ADD adventure in tangents, back to Bonhoeffer and the red letter words of our Lord. Jesus’ words in John 15:18 come in the middle of his injunction to his disciples to love like he loves – in other words, to let our definition of “love” not be found in theories or feelings, but in the example of Jesus’ own deeds and the pattern of his life. Hence, in John’s Gospel and Epistles, whenever we read the word “love, ” we are to read “what you see in Jesus.”
This dovetails neatly with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually said:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favour of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”
There is without doubt a place for Christians to cause offense, but that offense is caused only by the determination to live the kind of love that Jesus Christ lived – a life that can only be lived in the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. Our only offense must be the grace of the cross, as revealed in the New Testament’s nonviolent Messiah. In a world scarred by war, our offense is what our mate Greg Boyd would call “Calvary-shaped love.”
During ANZAC Day celebrations across Australia people heard John 15:13 wrenched out of its context – “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends” – and few Christians would have given it a second thought. This is because the ANZAC Day long-weekend is perhaps the most “holy” event on the Australian calendar, so much so that it is common place for Australians to take “pilgrimages” to the shores of Gallipoli and other sacred sites.
And when someone dares to raise concerns over the way that ANZAC Day is celebrated, that is the closest we come to “blasphemy” in Australian culture. Despite the arguments of historians that we are really commemorating the ANZAC tradition (but rather celebrating war as a national creation story), the vast majority of Christians remain silent by failing to allow the cross of Jesus Christ to stand over against and critique the way we remember the tragic deaths of the young people who have never returned from war.
And instead of listening to those who have returned and are forced to live with the daily trauma of what they have seen, done and had done to them – much less listen to the family members of those who did not return from war – too often ANZAC celebrations only valorise the experiences of those that do, encouraging more young women and men to take up arms.
But being a Christian demands something different of us. It means that we have undergone a baptism into a new Spirit and identity that eclipses all other allegiances. It means that we’ve been immersed into another story that has at its heart the “monstrosity” of a crucified God who elects and empowers us to love our neighbours, and enemies, like Christ has loved us.
In this light, to then allow ANZAC Day to be turned into a kind of sacralised justification for war – and thereby to ignore the pleas of the “Diggers” never to forget the horrors of war – is not only to be a bad Australian, it is to be an unfaithful Christian.
This leaves Christians in a tough place: for if we say that war is wrong, we dishonour all those soldiers who bravely served and died for their countries; but if we say that the way to defeat one’s enemies is through violence, then, like those in Matthew’s passion, we spit in the face of Christ.
While we cannot condemn those who don’t claim to be Christ’s disciples for not following Christ’s commands, isn’t it a damning indictment of our Christianity if we remain silently complicit as our government sacrifices the precious lives of young people on the altar of unwinnable wars, and then scapegoat vulnerable people in Jesus’ name?
And this, ultimately, is why most secular Australians shouldn’t want Scripture taught in public classrooms: the God whose hands were pierced for our transgressions and who was raised embodies a radical and utterly offensive critique of everything that doesn’t conform itself through the love revealed in Jesus Christ.
Regarding the tweet of a prominent Christian lobby group in Australia who tweeted:
“Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”
I am not a war historian and I can’t tell you how many gay or Muslim service people were serving, or if ANZACs generally died to defend against those scapegoats the religious right just love to hate. But the Gospels make it offensively clear that Jesus died for them. That Jesus died for the very people that we most want to defend and define ourselves against, to exclude from our lives and keep on the fringes of our societies. This will be a stumbling block to Pharisees of every era, but that’s the kind of God we find in the Gospels and the kind of love we see in Jesus.
Father, forgive us when we substitute the offense of your Gospel for just being offensive – we don’t know what we are doing. Holy Spirit, empower us to live your offensive grace, the love revealed in your Son Jesus, in a world that is addicted to war and that scapegoats the vulnerable. We long to witness to your kingdom. Amen.
Jarrod McKenna is the National Advisor for Youth, Faith and Activism for World Vision Australia. He is a peace award winning founder of EPYC and co-founder of the Peace Tree Intentional Community in Perth. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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