Monday, March 2, 2009

Lies My Preacher Told Me (During Lent)

A few years ago I read the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me." It's about how the depiction of US history in many textbooks is inaccurate and skewed. In fact, much of it is told from a Eurocentric perspective that makes Europeans out to be the true heroes and true Americans in the USA. This Eurocentric telling of US history negatively affects all peoples because it doesn't help us to understand history from a more broad perspective. Certain things get emphasized over other things - all at the price of a more helpful understanding of our history.

Christianity, especially during Lent, emphasizes certain aspects of Christianity over other aspects. It's no secret that Lent is a time to focus on the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. Suffering is the emphasis. And it brings with it the cost of justifying unnecessary suffering in the lives of some Christians. Like unhelpful US history, unhelpful theology harms us all. So, I'd like to address three lies that frequently get told during Lent. The hope is that exposing these lies can help us all navigate the season of Lent in more healthy and helpful ways.

(1) Suffering is redemptive. Traditional understandings of the cross suggest that Jesus' suffering and death was redemptive. Isaiah 53 is used to suggest to emphasize this during Lent. Verse 5 says, "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed." The message is that the suffering of one person can be redemptive for others. This idea can suggest that suffering is a good and faithful thing for people who want to be Christ-like. Some believe that suffering is simply "bearing one's cross" for God, like Jesus did. But not all "crosses" are good and faithful to bear.

"Crosses" that are worth bearing are the things we do to stand up for our faith despite their unpopularity. People like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. bore the cross of the civil rights movement. They risked their lives for the sake of helping others. And they helped bring healing to a hurting nation. This kind of cross can ultimately be redemptive for oneself and for others. It's a cross that's good and faithful to bear.

"Crosses" that aren't worth bearing are things such as cruelty, abuse, depression, etc. Some people refuse to leave abusive relationships because they believe it's just their cross to bear. Some refuse to get help for diseases such as depression because they think the pain they experience is their cross to bear. The list could go on and on. The point is simple. In these cases, their crosses are destructive without being redemptive. This kind of suffering only leads to more suffering for oneself and for others. Therefore, this kind of suffering should be addressed, resisted, and overcome. These are bad crosses for anyone to have to bear.

(2) To suffer is to love. Traditional understandings of the life of Jesus suggest that he selflessly suffered and sacrificed himself on behalf of others. His suffering is considered the highest form of love. Christians, as followers of Christ, are called to share this same kind of sacrificial love. In fact, John 15:13 says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." However, the suggestion that the greatest form of love is suffering and giving away one's own life can be deeply problematic.

Some self-sacrificial suffering is harmful even when the person is well-meaning by it. One example that comes to mind is the over-committed worker who puts in 60-70 hours of work each week in order to feel needed, important, productive, supportive, and faithful. This shows up in people who are CEOs, lawyers, pastors, etc. They all have high pressure jobs where their responsibilities are endless. They think that the more they work, the more they will be appreciated and the more they will be able to provide for their families. So they decide to self-sacrificially suffer through the long days. But the over-work that comes from over-commitment can become a destructive idol. Marriages become rocky because of the lack of time spent together as a couple. Families become angry because they feel the person has chosen his/her career over the family. And the person who over-works can begin to feel depressed, guilty, burnt out, and dependent on drugs. While the person may be well-meaning in their desire to sacrifice their life for their work and family, the sacrifice will eventually destroy their work, family, and person him/herself. This is an example of an unhealthy sacrifice.

Obviously some self-sacrifice is needed and helpful. New parents have to sacrifice time and money for the joy of having children. Employees working near a deadline may need to work extra hours in order to finished necessary responsibilities. Members of the military sacrifice time in order to protect their nation. All of these are examples of healthy sacrifices. The important aspect in applying Christianity's emphasis on self-sacrifice is to use it rationally and discerningly. Some self-sacrificial suffering is beneficial - and some is destructive. Some self-sacrificial suffering is loving and some is not.

(3) Silence about suffering is a virtue. Jesus is often held up as the model of silent suffering. He was meek and mild. He was obedient unto death. Isaiah 53:7 is often used to emphasize Jesus' willingness to suffer silently: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." In the face of suffering, Jesus kept his mouth shut and did not complain. So, in order to be Christ-like Christians, the suggestion is often that we should be willing to suffer silently through our troubles as well.

Silence in the face of suffering can be a great evil. We should not be silent about sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. We should not be silent about racism, sexism, and classism. We should not be silent about the aches and pains in our bodies that need medical treatment. We should not be silent about poverty, AIDS, and global warming. In all of these cases, the suffering needs to be brought out into the open so it can be addressed. If it's hidden away and masked with silence, then the suffering will destroy those who need help the most. And in our interdependent world, the suffering that affects one person directly affects all of us indirectly. Therefore we must all speak out against suffering so it can be resisted and addressed. Especially during Lent, we need to remember that Jesus frequently spoke out against the suffering, pain, and injustices that harmed people. As disciples of Jesus, we too need to raise our voices.

Jesus lived to lead the way to "abundant life" and "complete joy." He came to teach us how to live according to love, justice, and mutuality. He came to show us the best way to fully appreciate the gift of life. Jesus did not the come to show us the way to suffer through life. In the words of Parker Palmer, "The God who gave us life does not want us to live a living death." We're called to seek the beauty in life and resist all that seeks to tamp down that beauty. Thankfully we're a part of a cloud of witnesses who are already working on this goal.

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