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Powerless Christianity

By Eugene R. Schlesinger 

I gave my back to those who struck me
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
—Isaiah 50:6


Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave
—Philippians 2:5-7

For a long time, one of my favorite features of the Holy Week liturgies (which have an embarrassment of riches) is the reading of the passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. In particular, I’ve always been moved by the way in which we, the Christian community, are placed within the action, giving voice to the crowds who call for Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s an uncomfortable situation, being placed in this position of culpability, but it’s also a vivid reminder of why we’re all here, rehearsing this story year after year: Jesus Christ died for us, and did so while we were still enemies of God (Rom. 5:8-10).

This Palm Sunday, my parish, which is located at the heart of Los Gatos’s Old Town area, began our liturgy with a procession from a park to the church. We all sang “All Glory Laud and Honor” (as is meet and right to do on this day), accompanied by instrumentalists (guitars, trombone, harp, violin, bodhran, tambourines, maracas, and so on). As we marched, our priest handed palm fronds to the curious passersby we encountered along the way. This is one of the few ways that Episcopalians still evangelize (and our membership statistics reflect that), and it felt good to enact our faith in this public way. In general, people seemed glad to see us.

One person fairly adamantly refused the palm frond, and I wondered how the church had hurt her: sadly, there is no shortage of options. Over the last seven years, I’ve been increasingly aware of the large number of folks who’ve been alienated by the church, and in my teaching and scholarship, have tried to better account for the ways in which Christianity sometimes goes horribly wrong, because until we reckon with that, a better pathway will not be found. And so this woman with her unknown issues with the church, and so many others like her — including some of my dearest friends — was on my mind as we entered the church.

During Mass, as the lessons were read, the passages from Isaiah and Philippians that I excerpted at the beginning of this essay stood out to me as never before, and I thought, not for the first time, “I don’t see how anyone could attend to this story and come away thinking that Christianity is a means to gaining power, or that Christians should be attempting to exercise power.”

Of course, for rather a long time, Stanley Hauerwas and those influenced by him have been decrying the Constantinian temptation. And before him, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor embodied the church’s self-perversion through the grasping of power. So I claim no originality here. But it bears repeating (cf. Phil. 3:1b) that we follow a Christ who precisely refused to exercise coercive power, and who redeemed us by emptying himself (ekenōsen). The gospel calls us to a similarly kenotic stance.

When Christians attempt to wield power over others, opting for coercion rather than persuasion, we turn our backs to the cross and to the one who bore it for our sake. When we attempt to wield the power of the state in an attempt to control others — even if we were materially right in our assessment of how things should be, which is not a foregone conclusion, especially since Christians disagree on any number of political and moral questions — we insert ourselves into the passion narrative in yet another way. We go beyond an identification with the crowd, which in fickle short-sightedness calls out for Jesus to be crucified. We go beyond the recognition that our sins called for this divine remedy. Instead, we come to occupy the position of Pilate and the imperial apparatus that crucified the Lord, as they had crucified so many before him, and as so many have been crucified since.

The greatest threat to churches is not external, not hostile powers arrayed against us, however we may imagine them. Rather, the greatest threat we face is internal, our temptation to betray the gospel by trading the way of the cross for the power of crucifixion. While it is not only this that alienates people from the church, leading them to find our gospel message incredible, in my experience, few things have damaged our credibility more than our grasping for and wielding power. And our greatest hope is to recover the vision that we have nothing to offer if not the gospel of this powerless carpenter from Galilee.

While we must never lose sight of our complicity with the crowd, and while I believe our survival depends upon renouncing our alignment with Pilate, there are yet further figures with whom we might identify in the passion narratives. What of Simon of Cyrene, who, though unwillingly perhaps, helped Jesus to bear his cross? How might we ease the burdens of those on whom this world, those on whom the churches, have imposed crosses? What of the women, who accompanied Jesus to the very end in solidarity and compassion, and who tended to his corpse after his death? What of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who took Jesus down from the cross, and provided him with his resting place, temporary arrangement though that proved to be?

As the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino noted, the most basic vocation of those who would be followers of this Jesus is to take crucified peoples down from their crosses in hope that God will raise them up.

This Holy Week, as we contemplate those great acts by which we have been redeemed, as we revisit again and again this story, which discloses this mystery, let us take stock of where we stand in the narrative. And let us commit ourselves, for Jesus’ sake and with his help, to adopt a posture more in keeping with the way of the cross, by which he has brought us life.


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