Tony Campolo tells a story about a parent-teacher meeting he once had while a professor at Eastern University.
A father of one of his students had demanded a meeting with his son and Tony because he was upset about some of the things Tony was teaching his son about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.
What Tony was teaching was simply too radical for this father. He was incensed that his son had taken the gospel literally, given up everything he had, and was now out on the street serving the poor in his community.
“I don’t mind being a Christian…up to a point!” the father shouted to Tony.
“And what point is that, dad?” replied the son.
I was reminded of that punch-to-the-gut anecdote this week as I read through some of the responses to my posts (and other articles across the Internet) about ISIS, Islam, and how we as Christians our called to love our enemies.
It didn’t come as any kind of shock to hear the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Sadly, any call for compassion and understanding towards our Muslim neighbors is almost always met these days with outrage by folks who have no problem separating themselves from fellow Christians who do evil things, but find themselves unable to extend that same grace to their Muslim neighbors.
But what was a bit surprising was the response of fellow Christians whose words were, for me at least, an echo of that confrontation between Tony and his student’s father.
Folks went out of their way to either reinterpret the words of Jesus to mean effectively the very opposite of what he actually said (and did) or they would do theological gymnastics to excuse Christians altogether from following Jesus…all the way to the cross.
In one person’s justification of violence, they said that the message of the gospel is “protect the innocent and defeat evil.”
Another quoted Psalm 18:40 to explain what loving ISIS the way God loves them really looks like: “You have given me the necks of my enemies that I might destroy all who hate me.”
That sort of sentiment was far from unique. A chorus I heard repeated often went something like this, “We’re called to love our enemies, but because we love others too, we need to wipe these people off the earth for everyone’s safety.” In others, as one person put it, “Yes, Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, but that doesn’t apply to real and actual life threatening attacks.”
All of that was undergirded by a theological argument I have seen increasingly often in recent days – particularly in response to Islamic terrorism – which I find not only absurd, but bordering on the heretical. It goes something like this: “Yes, Jesus told his disciples not to defend the most innocent person in history when he was arrested and, yes, he himself refused to respond violently when his enemies came after him, and, yes, he allowed those same enemies to nail him to a cross, but that was a unique event that occurred for a redemptive purpose. It has nothing to do with our we should treat our enemies today.”
In other words, as Christians, we should follow the example of Jesus’ life and teaching…up to the point of the cross.
Now, it is true that the effect of crucifixion – our salvation – is unique, but the example of the passion narrative, in particular Jesus’ willingness to follow God’s call and love his enemies even if it cost him his life, is at the very foundation of the Christian life.
As Jesus himself said in Matthew 16, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s almost like he anticipated the very argument we hear so many Christians making today that the cross is just about our salvation; it’s not an example of how we are supposed to live our lives (or defend the innocent).
Paul, of course, famously echoed Jesus’ call to the cruciform life, declaring in Philippians 2 that as his followers, our lives should be like that of Christ who emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Like Jesus, Paul too seemed to anticipate today’s attempts (or more accurately, he saw them in his own day) to downplay the centrality of the cross in the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians, he readily acknowledged that preaching Christ crucified was a stumbling block for some and foolishness to others. Paul knew and no doubt had already encountered folks who were ok with most of Jesus’ teachings and would gladly claim him as Lord so they could be saved, but weren’t willing to follow him all the way to the cross because loving enemies, non-violence, and giving up one’s life is just not the way to combat violent enemies who snuff out the lives of innocent people.
Centuries later, as war broke across Europe and Hitler began his campaign to exterminate the Jewish people (along with homosexuals, gypsies, and countless others) Dietrich Bonhoeffer would once again remind the Church of the centrality of the cross and the cost of discipleship, “When Christ bids a man to come, he bids him come and die.” For most of us that call is metaphorical, a way of sacrificial living that puts the needs of others before our own. For Bonhoeffer, the call to come and die was very literal.
Today, the cross seems to have become an inconvenience once again, a theological stumbling block to be reconciled and then pushed aside as we righteously blaze the path to war and the utter destruction of our enemies. As important as it might be to securing our eternal salvation, it has little relevance to our life in the here and now.
Or at least, so we tell ourselves.
Which is particularly ironic given our love for all things “radical.”
We love talking about having a radical faith and being radical for Jesus. We slap it on t-shirts, relentlessly post about it online, and have libraries full of books that promise to teach us how to be radical in our faith, but in a world defined by power and violence, wherein the clearest and most radical thing we can do is say “no” to both, our claim to being radical has become nothing but a bad joke that amounts to little more throwing a few extra bucks in the offering plate or spending a week taking selfies with poor kids in Africa.
Actually being radical the way Jesus was radical requires real sacrifice, real courage, real faith, and maybe even our lives. It flips our way of looking at the world upside down by saying “no” to power and violence. Actually being radical like Jesus was radical certainly involves a call to defeat evil and stand up for the innocent, but it’s how those things are accomplished – non-violently, through love, grace, and forgiveness being extended to those who don’t deserve it – that makes Christianity genuinely radical. But that sort of cruciform life is risky, if not altogether terrifying in the face of evil like ISIS. And, if we’re being really honest, it’s sounds like complete foolishness when we’ve got so many bombs we can drop on their heads instead.
Which is why moments like the one we find ourselves in today so clearly expose the scandal of the cross and the truly radical nature of the Christian life we have been called to live. For if we reject the way of the cross and respond like the rest of the world responds to evil, we will be no different than our neighbors, we certainly won’t be radical in any way, and the cross itself will be stripped of its unique, world changing power.
No matter how righteous our cause may be, as Christians the cross remains in front of us a stumbling block on the path to vengeance. Which, I think, is why so many of us in the Church are so willing to go out of our way to justify our dismissal of the cross as a way of life. Killing our enemies is just easier. It’s quicker and more satisfying than finding a non-violent solution. And it doesn’t require the struggle that comes along with loving and forgiving people that want us dead.
The cruciform life, on the other hand, demands total surrender to the will of God, unconditional love for everyone, and death to self. But we can’t imagine or perhaps don’t want to imagine any other response to power and violence than more power and violence. So, we come up with theological reasons to dismiss the cross as nothing more than a cog in the wheel of divine activity that has little practical relevance to everyday life.
But when we do that, when we relegate to death of Jesus to an abstract background role in the Christian life, the cross becomes nothing more than a guarantor of magic words we said at an altar. Sure, the cross still plays an important role in our belief system, but it is no longer a central and defining part of how we live our lives.
When that happens, when the cross becomes irrelevant to how we actually go about living out the Christian life, we become the very thing Paul warned about: a people who possess a form of godliness, but deny its transforming power.
In other words, our lives become Christianity without the cross.