The Violent Jesus

For more than 37 years Saturday Night Live has presented comedy sketches that offer up parodies of our culture and our politics. The targets of these sketches have not exempted any significant cultural or political targets. Targets can be of any race, creed, religion, ethnicity, gender, political party, sexual orientation, education level, or even planet or origin. While that may be true, it is also true that when my group is the target of a sketch I can easily begin to feel singled out and persecuted. It was funny when they went after the Pope or the aliens (of any kind) or whoever you think deserves to be parodied. After all, those other groups offer much more opportunity for parody and therefore deserve their place in the satirical bullseye much more than do I or my group. Let me insert at this point that, personally, I would not be comfortable making fun of the religious views or practices of any group no matter how wrong or bizarre I thought them to be. I just don’t think that is a kind thing to do and I doubt that ridiculing any group or any belief system is the way to get the adherents to that system to seriously reflect on their beliefs. So if Lorne Michaels had called me and asked for my opinion on presenting a skit that aired recently, I would have said I didn’t think that would be a very kind thing to do. But then, SNL is about making money for NBC, not about being kind. So they aired a two-minute sketch recently entitled, “DJesus Uncrossed.” In spite of the title, the sketch is not a parody of Jesus or of Christianity but rather of the director Quentin Tarrantino whose most recent film, Django Unchained, had been nominated for some Academy Awards. The sketch imagines how Tarantino might do a movie about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In the sketch, Jesus emerges from the tomb and we are told, “He’s back, and he’s preaching anything but forgiveness!” As a ninja he attacks and slices up a group of Roman soldiers. Peter (as Brad Pitt in Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds) tells the apostles that they are going to do one thing: kill Romans. Pontius Pilate is terrified. A shotgun toting-Jesus blows a hole in Judas. The point being that a typical Tarantino’s version would be the gory revenge exacted by Jesus upon his return from the dead.

As expected, there was a firestorm of protest from those who thought the sketch went far over the line of propriety. The fact that the target of this particular sketch was Tarantino, not Jesus, was either missed or ignored by these critics. Or (and much more likely, in my opinion) it inadvertently touched a deep longing in the heart of many believers who actually desire a Jesus like the one portrayed in the sketch. Many of us actually prefer the un-crossed version of Jesus to the crucified version. We prefer the SNL version of the Jesus who comes back take names and kick some butt. Mark Driscoll, Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington and a self-described “charismatic Calvinist” is no stranger to controversial statements. He has said or written the following on several occasions: “There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some (want) to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” Online comments show great support for Driscoll’s views among contemporary Christians. In his blog, Jordan Hall echoes Driscoll, “My Jesus says ‘if you don’t have a weapon, it’s time to sell your coat and buy one.” If this is the view of Jesus that one holds, and many do, then there is not question as to why one would be offended by the SNL sketch. That version of Jesus is exactly the one created by the gory, violent mind of Quentin Tarantino.

Here’s my problem. Theologically I am virtually the polar opposite of Driscoll. The first time I saw the SNL sketch, however, I was astonished and somewhat frightened by something inside me that wanted to stand up and shout, “Yes! You go, Jesus!” Revenge just feels so good. Good enough that we can find many ways to justify it. Making violators responsible for their actions. Holding people accountable. Justice requires it. Culture supports it. Must be okay. Unless I am serious about following the teachings of Jesus. He may have told his disciples it was time to sell their coats and buy a weapon, but I think that was more warning of the opposition they faced than a literal call to use their credit cards. When confronted with the possibility of actually using such a weapon — even in his own defense — Peter is told to put away his sword because doing so leads to death. Love your enemies. Grant forgiveness rather than extracting revenge. Oppose evil wherever you confront it, but do it non-violently. Be creative. Jesus’ message was that love and forgiveness and non-violence are ultimately more powerful than hate and revenge and violence. But, we argue, it got him crucified. Yes, it did. And that’s why that voice still lurks somewhere in my mind and soul. But that is still what Jesus believed and what he called his followers to do. He never told them to “kill all the Romans they could.” He never told them to avenge his death. All sounds pretty wussie (one of Driscoll’s frequently used, disparaging terms for people who see Jesus as I do). If Tarantino, Driscoll, and much of contemporary Christianity has it right, then Jesus had it wrong. Did he? Or maybe he was just kidding about all that non-violence stuff. I and each of you reading this must decide which version of Jesus is the real thing and which is the counterfeit. What do you think? It makes all the difference in the world.

Violent Night, Holy Night

The year was thankfully drawing to a close. 1968. What a year it had been. It began with the Tet offensive in Viet Nam. That led to Walter Cronkite, America’s “most trusted” journalist, voicing his conclusion that the war could not be won. That led to President Lyndon Johnson concluding that if he had “lost Cronkite, he had lost” either the American people or the war (according to which version you accept). That led to Johnson’s decision not to run for another term. That led to a Democratic Convention in Chicago that resulted in riots. Along the way were the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy. It was year of turmoil. College campuses were erupting in protest over the war and cities erupted in violence over the assassinations. In December of that year, NASA launched the first manned mission to the moon and on December 24, 1968 the crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders in a live videocast from lunar orbit read portions of the creation account from Genesis 1 and then signed off by saying, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the Good Earth.” That referenced the iconic picture taken from lunar orbit of earthrise above the lunar horizon. That awesome “blue marble” streaked with white clouds rising above the desolate lunar landscape and suspended in the blackness of space. Someone would send a telegram to NASA commending them for having “saved 1968.”

Here we are at the end of another year, which has also seen its share of turmoil. Another presidential election year. Another war in a small country thousands of miles away, dividing us and draining our resources. Then came the events of ten days ago in Newtown, CT. Horrible words. Pictures. Memories. We’ve seen it all too often, but even once would be too often. Twenty-seven people shot and killed. Twenty of them just children. The President weeps on national television, and he weeps for all of us. And all of this happening just before Christmas. But Christmas has always had a connection with violence. The angel chorus decreed that it was a night of “peace on earth,” but violence of the human heart has fought that every step of the way. The very birth of he who would be called the “Prince of Peace” was the cause of a king of this world, Herod the Great, to order the slaughter of male children who were of an age to possibly be the One who would challenge him. The violence of 1968 and of 2012, as well as every other year, demonstrates the struggle in which we are engaged.

Some voices in the last ten days have tried to simplify the problem to being one of us having somehow kicked God out of the public square, out of the schools. Why, they ask, should we not expect to experience such violence after we exclude God from our public lives? Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association took it a step further on his radio broadcast when he said even as the events were still unfolding, “I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.” Such a pathetic, puny view of God in which we have power to cast out the Almighty! And such a vindictive view of God. Watching innocent children be slaughtered when he could have intervened to stop it but did not because his pride was hurt or to prove a point. What kind of “gentleman” would stand by and allow such things to happen without doing everything in his power to stop it? Neither you nor I would behave that way. That’s not a gentleman. That’s a demon. And so far from being the Father about whom Jesus spoke and whose very being he enfleshed.

Then where is God when these events occur? That’s really the question that disturbs us, isn’t it? We have invested in the idea of a God who matters, who makes a difference in our lives. Events such as these confront us with the simplicity of our understanding of what that means, or doesn’t mean. God was there in Newtown that day. He’s always there. Everywhere. Every day. He just doesn’t always look like we expect him to look. We expect him to look like Santa Claus, gathering the items on our wish list. Or standing by to deflect bullets in mid-flight. Or suspending the laws of his own creation in order to deliver us. Instead, God often comes in the appearance of a first responder. Or a stranger off the street. Or even an enemy who offers a hand in friendship. Two thousand years ago the people whom God had prepared for this very moment were looking for a king who would be born of royal blood and who would appear at the head of a divine army to deliver God’s people. Instead, God entered his world as a powerless peasant child, and most people missed him.

On Christmas Eve of 1968, as the astronauts were reading the creation account from lunar orbit, I was watching the television coverage of that event from the father’s waiting room in a hospital. Our daughter was born that day, and she became for me the incarnation of the words being read from the moon. Nobody else listening probably had that experience, but I did. And for me, she (not Apollo 8) saved 1968 for me. It’s not too late for 2012 to also be redeemed. Once again we celebrate the coming of the Almighty to his creation in the form of a human baby. This child came to redeem and can also redeem this year. But we’ve got to be looking in the right place and with the right expectations. Emmanuel. God is with us! Again. Still.

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