Friday, February 26, 2010

Lenten Journey (4/4): Adult Education Program of Healing and Hope

Note: Post 4 of 4 in the Lenten series on healing the trauma of the crucifixion. Click the numbers to read parts 1, 2, and 3.

The unresolved grief and trauma caused by the crucifixion needs healing in real and practical ways. There are many ways to work through this "stuff" in the theologies, traditions, and rituals of the Church. We'd like to focus on one way forward. Our idea is an adult education program that seeks to explore how our understandings and practices of Christianity may change as a result of understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as an unexpected, unplanned, un-ordained trauma in the memory of the Church. The hope is that the class will be able to name the trauma as a trauma; understand the perspectives of the traumatized and bereaved disciples; work through the trauma and grief caused by Jesus’ unjust execution; celebrate the stories and memories of resistance and resilience; and then allow the grief to shrink in size as other stories are incorporated. Another goal is that this class can begin to develop understandings and practices of Christianity that replace the embedded violence and continued unresolved trauma in the distorted expressions of the early disciples, with more healthy expressions that more closely represent the mission and ministry of the God that has been re-presented to us through Jesus. For example, instead of understanding Communion as forgiveness of sins through the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus (i.e. “repetition compulsion”), it can be understood as the extension of the table fellowship of Jesus whereby people experienced – and continue to experience – the gracious presence and love of God as well as the Kin-dom come near. Ultimately, the goal is to help the adult education class explore understandings and practices of faith that help them more effectively be the resurrection community that continues the life and ministry of Jesus, with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

This project is designed to be an adult education program. It would be optimal if the class has had a positive history of exploring deep theological questions in the past through Bible study, watching programs such as "Living The Questions," and/or reading books like "Transforming Christian Theology." In any case, it's important to provide a safe environment where generative conversation can occur. Attention will now turn to the content of the project.

The project will be an adult education program that will occur over the time span of several months and include multiple mediums. Each block of sessions will focus on one major theme.

In the first set of sessions, Brian McLaren’s book The Secret Message of Jesus will be used to explore the content and meaning of Jesus’ message. In this book McLaren seeks to highlight and un-domesticate the radical, revolutionary, and life-changing message of Jesus. He argues that Jesus came to inaugurate a spiritual, religious, social, political, economic, and vocational revolution that that would help humanity to bring to fruition God’s vision of love, peace, and justice in the world. According to this perspective, Jesus came to teach about, and invite people into, an alternative reality - the Empire of God. The purpose of that reality
“…is to see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality [Jesus] is calling the kingdom (or empire) of God…This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. And you find your identity – your citizenship – not in Rome but in the presence of God” (17).
Instead of an Empire of exclusion, patronage, and brutality, the Empire of God is about mutual care, radical inclusively, and God’s loving presence. And this alternative empire is not just a pie-in-the-sky vision, instead, “the kingdom of God – with its peace, healing, sanity, empowerment, and freedom – is available to all, here and now” (59). This message and ministry helped to reconcile some people with themselves, others, God, and God’s Creation. But to the Roman Empire, Jesus was a troublemaker – and was killed by state execution for his seditious and rebellious acts against the values upholding the Roman Empire (68). Exploring the material and theology in this book are important in order to more deeply understand the revolutionary message of Jesus – and the Empire that chose to attempt to quiet him and his alternative Empire through state-sponsored terrorism – the cross. After exploring the implications of this book over several weeks of reading and conversation, the next session will focus on the crucifixion directly.

In the second series of sessions, Marcus Borg and John Crossan’s book, The Last Week, will be used to explore what led up to, and contributed to the execution of Jesus. The authors discuss, through the lens of the Gospel of Mark, what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life. They begin on Palm Sunday with Jesus entering Jerusalem from the east in his “peasant procession” with his message of the importance of the Empire of God, over and against the “imperial procession” entering Jerusalem from the west with their message of the importance of Empire of Rome (2). Clearly, Borg and Crossan, along with McLaren, make the argument that there are dueling Empires at work during the life of Jesus. They also make the argument that Jesus’ ministry is about the Empire of God, which has political and religious implications. For example, Borg and Crossan write explicitly about the meal ministry of Jesus and how the meals were enactments of the Empire of God, a place where all were welcome to share in the presence, justice, and love of God to be found in community (cf. 114ff). The authors not only talk about Jesus’ run-ins with the imperial powers, but also with the temple authorities that colluded with them (cf. 58ff). This book makes it clear that it was the Roman Empire's intolerance and domination that killed Jesus; not the will of God or self-sacrifice of Jesus. To that end, the authors point out that “Jesus prays for deliverance” and “it is never the will of God that the righteous suffer” (123). Also helpful for this discussion is that fact that Borg and Crossan talk about how “the followers in the years and decades after his death sought to find meaning in the horrific execution of their beloved master” and “they retrospectively see providential purpose in it” (141). The first hope is that this book can help the class understand Jesus’ crucifixion as a trauma for the disciples and his later followers. This trauma had not been healed and, in fact, came to expression in distorted ways such as suggesting that Jesus broke his body and shed his blood for the forgiveness of sin, as in the “words of institution.” The argument proposed is that this is not history remembered, but instead, a trauma that has been passed on and a theology of providence interpreted into Scripture by a traumatized communality seeking to make sense of the death of their leader and friend. The second hope is that this book can help the class name the execution of Jesus as a trauma for the early Church as well as for themselves; and then attempt to heal that memory as a community of faith.

In the third block of sessions, the class will watch the movie Pay It Forward as a way to tie together the major themes of both of the books through a video, narrative medium. In the film, a boy named Trevor comes up with the idea of “paying it forward.” It’s the simple concept of helping people with a task and then asking them to pay it forward to someone else instead of paying it back to the helper. Like the message and ministry of Jesus, this concept had a powerful and resilient impact on the lives of others. In the end, Trevor’s message helped and inspired many people – but not all people. Like the death of Jesus, Trevor too, was unjustly killed by an act of brutal violence. While Trevor was trying to help a classmate, he was stabbed by one of the school bullies. This story serves as an analogy for the life and death of Jesus. Trevor, like Jesus, did not want to die or mean to die. He did not sacrifice his life for others. He simply did the “right thing” for people and his life was unjustly taken from him. Both deaths were ambiguous losses with no easy answers. The goal in watching this movie is to help the class explore and grieve the injustice of Jesus’ murder on the cross. This movie is also an excellent place to begin to explore where “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5) – to attend to the stories of survival and resilience in the movie as well as in Bible. At the end of the movie, while the mother is grieving her son's murder, there are many people who show up outside of her house with candles. These are people who have been impacted by Trever's message. They are the lights in the darkness who will continue the “pay it forward” movement. This particular part in the movie may help the class to name and claim the stories of survival and resistance they see in Scripture and in their own lives. The hope in this session is that people would be able to see and share stories of the persistence and resilience of God, Jesus, the early disciples, and their own community of faith.

In the final block of sessions the class would explore possible understandings and practices of Communion based on all the material and conversations from the previous sessions. Things like the Eucharist might look different after working through the trauma of the crucifixion. In fact, maybe Communion should look more like a party than a memorial. The party could celebrate things like the persistence, resilience, and survival of the Church and Jesus' vision of love, justice, and mutuality. That will be an emphesis in these sessions. In the first class there would be a worship service that will include celebrating Communion, understood as a continuation of the meal ministry of Jesus and taste of the Kin-dom of God (click here for an example). Afterward, there would be a discussion to explore the reactions, feelings, and experiences of the class to the Communion liturgy. Then, in the next class, the leader would facilitate a discussion about how Communion may look if it's understood as a part of Jesus' meal ministry and part of the overall message of the Empire of God among us. After this discussion, the class would be invited to collaboratively write a Communion liturgy that is authentic to their own context and understanding as a group. Finally, in the very last session, the group would come together for a culminating worship service to celebrate Communion with the liturgy that they have collaboratively developed as a group. The goal with these last classes is to help the congregation integrate the collective grief over the crucifixion of Jesus into the greater stories of the Church's persistence and resilience, so the trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion may shrink and the hope in the resurrection power of God may grow. Hopefully this will help us all “move on” from the trauma of the crucifixion, knowing that we are the resurrection community of Jesus. We are the ones who continue his life and ministry, despite real violence and injustice in the world. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we help to make the Empire of God a reality on earth. The Church itself is a story of survival, persistence, and resilience. And we are all a part of that story - of God's story.

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