‘Tis the season to be reminded of the poor and oppressed. We hear it every week in the Advent scripture readings at liturgy. We are asked to give financially to a whole host of charities during this season. And inevitably, we hear some harangue about how “we” (the “we” in this harangue may be aimed at one’s local congregation, or denomination, or city, or nation, or even the U.N.) are simply not doing enough to help them.

My thesis today is that such harangues are likely a product of what those in recovery call an “enabling” or possibly a “codependent” relationship. At the heart of codependency is the reality that both parties are broken and use the relationship in order to either cover up or pass blame for their own brokenness. As long as I am helping the addict (no matter how inappropriately), I can avoid dealing with my own issues and deny my own brokenness.

So it is with the poor and oppressed. Jesus said we ought to help them, but oddly he never told us to fix the problem. The Old Testament prophets certainly went after kings, nobles, and governments for allowing these conditions, but fixing poverty seems to have never been high on the agenda of God’s commission to the Church. In fact Jesus said that the poor would always be among us. As a result almsgiving – helping – (in  contrast to social justice – fixing) is given a high priority.

I propose the reason for this is that poverty and oppression are not the problems; they are rather symptoms of a much deeper problem. The deeper problem is sometimes called “sin” and sometimes called “injustice” in scripture, but both terms are notoriously vague and difficult to pin down. Paul even calls it “death,” which seems a bit weird given what we mean by that term today. Within a couple of generations after Christ the Church began to identify this part of the sin problem specifically as “corruption.”

Because of their initial sin, Adam and Eve “died” and passed death on to their offspring. In this context death refers to our separation from God, who is the source of Life (because he is Life itself). Like a Christmas tree that begins to dry out, fade and lose needles, even though it’s kept in water chock full of nutrients, cut off from the root, the tree begins to die. For us humans that death manifests itself as “corruption.” Our bodies don’t work right, our social systems don’t work right, etc.

In Christ we are joined back to true Life and in the Holy Spirit true Life begins to once again flow. The Spirit is the Source of Life and we (the Church in its grandest mystical meaning) are, in a sense mediators (or as Peter calls us, “priests”) of that Life to all creation. (Don’t ask me exactly how it works; this point clearly falls under the category of “ineffable.”)

But we can cut off the flow of this true Life because our sin (either our ignoring of the effects of the corruption on others – the poor and oppressed – or the outrage and anger toward all those people and institutions that aren’t fixing the problem) is not dealt with. We must become vessels that can hold true Life before we can effectively be the priests and mediators through which that Life enters into the world.

But dealing with our outrage and anger and a whole host of other sins, from pride to miserliness, to lust, to laziness, is extremely difficult. It requires humility and discipline and the gentle help of those around us (whether confessor or friend or person who sits in the pew directly behind us). It’s far easier to become an “advocate” and rage against the system that has failed the poor and oppressed than it is to deal with the rage.

Helping the poor and oppressed and enacting systemic change so that the oppressed get a fair shake is not a bad thing, but rather than rage, it must grow out of our joy and wonder of God. Just as oppression is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, so is our rage against the system is symptomatic of our own codependency and denial. Instead of joining an advocacy group, maybe we need to first join Oppressed-A-Non so that we can become the priest and mediator of true Life that we are called to be. Only then will our almsgiving and advocacy become truly transformative, both for me and for those being helped.


What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

Further Thoughts on Shame

In the previous essay  I claimed (following the lead of John Climacus) that we can only be saved by embracing our shame. Living in a family that has a multi-generational issue with alcoholism and the shame that can both cause alcoholism and be a result of it, I recognize this advice might sound rather horrible. I therefore want to delve a bit deeper into the issue.

Shame is the proper internal reaction to sin. Conversely, being shameless is is the hallmark of ungodliness because it indicates we have lost all reference to God and thus lost all sense of our moral standing before God.

When we lose our reference to divine things, we can become “shameless,” or callous. The celebration of debauchery is a form of such shamelessness. When this happens we might say that such a person has become agnostic on a practical level because their actions have no reference to nor consideration of God.

Shame can also manifest itself in a completely different manner, which is every bit as agnostic but not shameless or callous. This happens when a person develops an overwhelming sense of shame that is self-focused rather than divine-focused. Alcoholism, eating disorders, and other forms of self-destructive behavior are frequently driven by this second sort of shame.

It appears that these two problems are opposite ends of a single spectrum and one might assume they need to be dealt with in quite different ways, but this appearance is false. It is the same problem but with two different manifestations. The primary difference is that the seemingly shameless person focuses the self-loathing externally while the overly shameful person focuses the self-loathing internally. In both cases, the problem (as is the case with nearly all sin) is that the focus is on the wrong place. Healing for either sort of shame only comes when we look upon God and go through the discipline necessary to travel the paths that God in Christ has traveled.

When we look fully and openly on God we find it necessary to look away because what is looking back at us, in the form of the energies of God flowing from him, is unconditional love, and that unconditional love is too overwhelming or embarrassing to receive. We are accustomed to being looked at critically or dismissively or having the experience of having people look right past us, as if we do not exist at all. But as we train ourselves to look fully and openly on God and simply accept those energies of unconditional love and acceptance flowing back over us and into us, we can begin to see ourselves as God sees us. Said in this way, it sounds simple. It’s not. This is a lifetime of work, forcing ourselves to stop looking either loathingly or lovingly at ourselves (ie, idolatry), and, in turn, to truly turn our attention on to God.

The Navigators (a Protestant parachurch organization I grew up with) accomplishes this through scripture memorization and contemplation of God through scripture. The Orthodox Christian Church encourages personal devotion through the means of scripture, especially the Psalms, but also through hymns and simple prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the Trisagion Prayers. Roman Catholics often use the rosary. While each method has strengths and limitations, the aim of each is the same: to help us learn to put our full and (eventually) unflinching attention on God while, through his energies, he gazes back at us, knowing us as we are, and accepting us in all our corruption and immaturity, and inviting us to  travel with him where he, to hell and back again.

When I can finally see myself as God sees me, then (and only then!) can I embrace the true shame I ought to feel. On the one hand, I’m not nearly as good as I believe I am (false pride). On the other hand, I am not nearly as bad as I have convinced myself that I am (false shame). I am created in the image of God and because of that, I am an inherently and exquisitely good creature, a creation of the good God. Simultaneously, I am dead, and the rot of corruption makes me smell like a corpse, act like a zombie, and loathe both myself and circumstances in which I find myself. I learn, as I gaze unflinchingly at God, to be ashamed of the stink while simultaneously holding in wonder the glory of myself created in the very image of God.

And as I slowly but surely learn to gaze unflinchingly at God, God’s energies flow into me, give me life, where before there was only death, and transform the corruption into what God intended me to become in the first place. This is the journey into the very heart of Hades … not by myself, but holding tightly to hand of Christ the Victor. And once I have arrived in the heart of Hades … and only from that spot … can I see, in the distance, the glorious light of Heaven.

One of Elder Sophrony’s most beloved aphorisms is,  “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can take it no more. Then have a cup of tea.” (The abyss he’s referring to is Hades, or as Fr Stephen described it so perfectly, it is simultaneously “the Gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise.”) Gazing at God will utterly undo us. It is disconcerting and even terrifying. In short order we must step away. But Elder Sophrony’s advice is wise. When we step away, don’t step away in shame that we cannot look into the face of our Savior, for that is the nature of being dead. Don’t step away in embarrassment, just step away and (in his classically English manner) have a cup of tea. Try again this afternoon. In God’s time, and with self-discipline you and I will eventually learn to gaze upon the abyss that is simultaneously The Abyss and God and be utterly undone. Only then can God make us anew.

Thanks be to God.