The Guilt of Belief

The anger always surprised me.  There he stood, helpless and in misery, unresisting, bloody.  Like a trampled rose, he had no beauty left but still, that strange and penetrating odor that you loved or hated.  There was no middle ground because he was not a symbol of something else, subject to interpretation.  He was the thing itself, and so, I suppose, not so helpless after all.  He was the thing itself, a simple solid presence which, even while silent and bleeding, commanded the scene and defined the terms.  It was not enough to kill him; we had to hate him, to gather up our powers to curse like you gather up a mouthful of saliva, and spit with the full art of our malice, to baptize him in our hatred.

I know, this sounds so harsh, so out-of-touch with the veneer of niceness that overlays much of our public discourse.  Jesus’ horrifying torment has, over the years, accumulated a layer of dust which preserves the general shape but insulates us from the barbarity.  It would be comforting to regard this whole episode as an isolated governmental excess or a religious drama, rather than a predictable and repeatable expression of resentment toward God.   But I have a reason for thinking that we should dust off that horrible memory…

Remember how God intrudes:  He knows the secrets we try to keep secret even from ourselves.  He is responsible for this shame which we dare not confront yet cannot escape.  We want dignity but he does not allow it; he exposes us in the most devastating way and in our least protected place: through our own knowledge, that is, in the quiet sanctuary of our own hearts.

Yes, he was kind, though in a huge and lonely sort of way that is hard to understand.  True, he did fix all sorts of broken people;  humble people who knew they were broken.  But there was always the ultimatum, implicit in everything he did; “Come to me as one broken or remain outside.”  Inflexible, authoritative, self-assured; he did, in fact, act like god and treated us as possessions; we who – above all else – insist that we own, at very least, our own self.

And for this, we killed and hated him.  It did not matter, really, that he was good or even that he was correct.  Pity even the god who thinks he is god; hell hath no fury as self-determination denied…or maybe that is the object of all hell’s fury.

I mention this because the tide has turned.  The American culture of my youth, in which Christ was publicly respected if not personally revered, is passing rapidly away.  His enemies in this nation have never been so numerous or bold and, perhaps better than his followers, they understand the scandal of Jesus.

The scandal always begins with an intrusion, with God butting into some carefully constructed system from which he had been, we thought, successfully evicted.  But we cannot evict him from our hearts, even those who love him least, and his presence is that bit of sand, rubbing in a tender place, that produces rage.

It grates most upon the hearts of those who intrude furthest.  The thief does not hate God; he thinks creation is good and takes what he can of it.  It is the social engineer who hates God, who resents God’s authority to name and define, who longs to be preeminent.  The social engineer is a fundamentally religious figure for whom God is not so much a threat as a hated rival.  He is, in fact, a child of the first creature who thought it better “to reign in hell than serve in heaven”.  He proves his lineage by what he loves.

Note that those most anxious to evict God from public discourse in America are not thieves.  They are high-minded; they do not want more of creation, they want a new creation.  They are never more fierce than on questions of intimacy and innocence:  they run straight to the heart of things, dagger in hand.  If God’s heart is tender toward children, they will target children.  If God designed us to be male and female, they must warp the design.  If God wants man to be free, they must stop man’s tongue, dictate his thoughts and confiscate the assets that allow him to remain independent.  It does not matter that their reign should make a hell of earth, for their father loves these things, loves all that is unnatural and painful to our father’s heart.

And so, the rage that crucified Jesus lives on, steps further from the shadows.  The battle to throw off God’s authority and designs grows more fierce.  The number of people caught in the middle, with God’s clues in their heart and his enemy’s arguments in their heads, reaches critical mass and Christians become a suspicious, if not hated, minority.

As members of the early church were prosecuted, not for the religious ideas that they affirmed, but for those they rejected, so the pressure will build on Christian churches to affirm the new religious rites of our day.  Do not speak or act against those who target children.  Do not speak or act against those who target marriage.  Do not speak or act against those who reign.  Keep and enjoy your religious forms and worship what you will, but it is our father whom you will serve.

If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.

John 15:18

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