Lenten Book Study, ‘Final Words from the Cross’

Been way too long since I posted here. Of late, my blogging has been focused on stuff for my congregation, so I haven’t cross-posted. But this week I changed my mind. Maybe my reflections from our Lenten book study on Adam Hamilton’s Final Words from the Cross will interest a wider audience? I have no idea; guess we’ll find out.

I’ve cobbled together my reactions to the first three chapters of the book, which makes for a long post. Hope you’ll bear with me.

CHAPTER 1:

There was a time in my life (namely, as a college student) when I couldn’t be bothered to read the introduction to a book. I probably figured that if it was important it would be in the main part of the book. Now that I’m middle aged (though you should feel free to protest that designation on my behalf ;), I see the folly of that approach. As you are much smarter than I, you know this. Introductions set the stage. That is, they help define the context of all that will follow. Final Words is no exception.

Hamilton does a good job reminding us that the very name of the book is a misnomer. These are not seven final words from Jesus but rather seven statements. But even that isn’t really true either, as Jesus has more to say after he is resurrected. So in that way, the statements by Jesus that form the chapters of this book are neither just words, nor are they final. Though they are the final words from the cross. So the title doesn’t lie, you just have to read all the way through. With me so far?

More importantly, Hamilton reminds us right away that we are “confronted with the fact that the Gospels do not agree as to exactly what Jesus’ final words were” (9). This seems a good time to recall that the gospel writers were not investigative reports sent on assignment from Channel 5 to record and report verbatim what Jesus did and said.

Rather, the gospel writers were individuals living in a particular time and place writing with a particular purpose for a particular audience. We know some of those particulars, we guess at some, and tradition holds some. This is why the gospel writers are often referred to as ‘evangelists.’ They are purposefully trying to share a message. (And ‘evangel’ means gospel; that is, good news.) That’s why it doesn’t bother me in the least that we have four different accounts of how Jesus’ last hours went down. It’s not that kind of writing.

Anyway, on to chapter 1! “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Who are ‘them’? Who is Jesus asking God to forgive?

I think this is a great question. Read Luke 23 and list all the people who played a part in crucifying Jesus. List all who watched as Jesus was crucified. List all who ran away so they didn’t have to watch. All those people are the ‘them.’

But there’s more. Who else should be on that list?

Hamilton reminds us of the song, “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Here’s one of my favorite versions by Marion Williams.

Johnny Cash has a good one too. What other renditions do you recommend?

The other topic that Hamilton spends time on that I expect will be a focus of our discussion is theories of atonement. He uses the example of a scapegoat…and if that’s not a set up for talking about Rene Girard and mimetic theory, I don’t know what is! I wish I were better versed in mimetic theory. I always seem to stumble over my words when trying to convey it. From Adam Ericksen, “The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is…

He revealed the truth that our scapegoats are as human as we are. The druggies, the power hungry, the self-loathing, the smug, even the priest who is a potential pedophile, are more than their despicable qualities; they are broken human beings, just like the rest of us.

And there’s the truth we would rather avoid about our scapegoats. We would rather project our own brokenness and self-hatred upon them, and thus avoid taking responsibility for our own despicable qualities… What’s the alternative to uniting against a scapegoat? Hoffman pointed to the answer: to recognize our own broken humanity and respond to our cultural scapegoats not by uniting in hate against them, but by uniting with compassion, pre-emptive forgiveness, and love.”

I appreciate it because it takes seriously the communal aspect of sin, and because it avoids the horrific idea of God needing appeasement through violence. I’ll see if my friend, Adam Ericksen can be a guest speaker one week.

What part of the reading did you find particularly helpful or new or intriguing?

What part of the book did you find disturbing or frustrating?

What questions did the reading raise in you?

CHAPTER 1 POST SCRIPT

The Thursday morning group surprised me a bit: Hamilton’s “who is the ‘them’?” question wasn’t all that engaging. For those present it wasn’t a new question. They weren’t shocked or disturbed by adding their name to the list of those who crucified Jesus.

We did spend a good deal of time considering forgiveness: how it works; what stages of it there might be; if others are required to forgive us or if we are required to forgive others.

We also talked some about the doctrine of original sin and a little bit about theories of atonement. For further reading in this area that is theologically sound, engagingly written, and inexpensive, I highly recommend Tony Jones’ ebook, A Better Atonement. Best $3 you’ll ever spend.

Scapegoating was another topic of interest to the group. Again, The Raven Foundation is the best source I know of for accessible content on mimetic desire, scapegoating, and their connection with religion in general and Christianity in particular.

CHAPTER 2

I’m at a disadvantage this week. I was away for a few days participating in the Progressive Youth Ministry conference, meaning I was unable to attend this week’s group session. Which in turn means that I do not have communal wisdom to share with you here, instead I can only offer my reactions to Chapter 2. Missing the class also means the communal wisdom hasn’t had a chance to mold and correct these reactions of mine. Just another reason we don’t just want but need your input in the comments below! Don’t let mine be the only voice here; that’s just not healthy.

I offer all the above throat-clearing both because it is true and because, well, I thought this chapter left a lot to be desired.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)

It starts well enough: by asking good questions of the text. Namely, “what does this scene teach us about Jesus, and what dos it teach us about ourselves?” (Please forgive the lack of page citations. I’m reading on Kindle which doesn’t include page numbers.)

But the missteps begin right after that as Hamilton writes, “Jesus allowed the prostitute to wash his feet with her tears.” Ugh. Here’s what’s actually in the text, NRSV-style. “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”

You can argue that the “who was a sinner” clause is a euphemism for prostitute. And you may even be correct. But here’s the problem: to assume such a thing about this woman is to perpetuate the still-ongoing, extremely harmful stereotype of women as either saint or slut.  The text does not say she was a prostitute. Why make that assumption? This woman offers this beautiful, meaningful act that moved Jesus to praise her. Yet she remains nameless and voiceless. Why denigrate her further?

I know there is a tradition that says she is a prostitute. There is also a tradition that says this woman is Mary Magdalene. Then there’s the tradition that conflates the two and makes Mary Magdalene into a prostitute. All those are wrong and I’m disappointed Hamilton included it. Doing so feels lazy to me.

Plus, this opens up a whole other rabbit hole that needs to be explored: patriarchy in the bible, in the church, in society and the ways those are connected. Patriarchy in the bible and the church help prop up patriarchy in the real world. Seemingly small things like this – making a woman not just a woman but a prostitute – add to the oppression of women in the church and in the world. I expect Hamilton to be better and smarter than that.

Hamilton does a good job of examining Jesus’ words, breaking the statement down into ‘today’, ‘you will be with me’, and ‘paradise.’ But it seems to me that Hamilton’s deconstruction doesn’t go far enough. He never makes it to the big picture; he uncritically accepts Paradise/heaven as “being transported to some other plain of existence.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m convinced, with Paul, that not even death can separate us from God’s love. Whatever happens to us after we die, I expect that, in some way, we continue to live in God’s loving presence. However – and contrary to the way I read Hamiltion here – the book of Revelation describes the eschaton (the end of the world as we know it, the end times) as a new beginning. But it is not a spirit existence somewhere else. It is a new beginning here, in this world, on this earth. According to Revelation, God is renewing all of creation; redeeming it; saving it.

This is important. The proliferation of the disembodied, otherworldly vision of heaven has harmed the Christian witness and our planet. For far too many people, the goal of faith is essentially a “get out of hell free” card. This has led to far too many Christians caring only about their individual “salvation” to the exclusion of any concept of communal and global salvation. This has led to far too many Christians treating the earth and her environment terribly. Not only that, but for some it has also meant actively fighting against those who are trying to care for creation!

Hamilton has a big platform and I’m very disappointed he let all these opportunities to dispel bad ideas pass him by unacknowledged. Again, I know he is smarter than that and I expect better of him and his work.

CHAPTER 3

I am looking forward to what our group has to say about this chapter. I need their inspiration, their insights as this chapter left me anguishing in yet another battle in the never-ending, intra-Christian culture wars. Yuck.

This chapter, “Behold your son…behold your mother”, is fine. I think its ultimate message, “care for other people like they are your own family”, is good and right and true…if a little bland. However, I’m thrilled that – unlike the missed opportunities in chapter 2 – Hamilton acknowledged the progressive manner in which Jesus treated women, the unquestionably vital role women played in Jesus’ and the early church’s ministry, and the unshakable affirmation that women are leaders and pastors in the contemporary church.

But this week? This week there is no way we can talk about our call to be parents to those in need without talking about World Vision and their train wreck of policy change announcements. This week there is no way we can talk about our call to be parents to those in need without talking about the real harm that is being done to some of the poorest children in the world by the virulently anti-gay sentiments of some who claim the name Christians.

If you have managed to miss this story so far this week, well, I’m sorry to burst that particular bit of bliss…

On Monday World Vision made this encouraging announcement: it will no longer discriminate against gay employees. At least those who are married. “The organization’s U.S. branch will recognize same-sex marriage as being within the norms of ‘abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage’ as part of the conduct code for its 1,100 employees.”

And there was much rejoicing! At least among people who understand that treating people equally – that treating other people the way any of us want to be treated – is a good and Jesusy kind of thing.

But not all Christians saw it that way. The next day, World Vision told its employees they’d lost 2000 sponsors of children over that announcement. Think about that. Those who withdrew support essentially said, ” You’ll hire openly gay people, World Vision? Then I can no longer support the hungry, impoverished child(ren)…who lives somewhere else in the world and has nothing to do with this decision.”

But wait, there’s more. Wednesday – just two days after the initial announcement – World Vision turtled, offering this statement. “After announcing earlier this week that it will no longer define marriage as between a man and a woman in its employee conduct manual, Christian relief organization World Vision reversed course Wednesday (March 26), and said it would no longer recognize the same-sex marriages of its employees.”

World Vision got bullied into submission. And then apologized to those who bullied them. “We’ve listened,” World Vision president Rich Stearns told reporters. “We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking them to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.”

Ugh. An ugly couple days. It seems to me at least 2000 people need to read this chapter of Hamilton’s book. At least 2000 people need to be reminded of the call to “behold their children.”

Use the comments section below to offer your thoughts on the chapter and/or your reactions to my reflections.

2 thoughts on “Lenten Book Study, ‘Final Words from the Cross’

  1. Wow Dave – love Adam Hamilton and have learned so much from his writings, his sermons, and most importantly, his actions and the actions of COR. Thank you for the info about World Vision – I wasn’t aware. Their bowing to pressure is the exact opposite of leadership, discipleship and certainly the mission of World Vision in my opinion. Don’t worry, God has the last Word!

    1. Hi Laurel,
      Thanks for chiming in. I know you respect Hamilton – so do I. His congregation does amazing things. But I don’t think that makes him above or immune to critique. So far I’ve found this book to be the weakest of the four of his I’ve read.

      As for WV, it’s really sad and quite the mess. It’s mind-boggling to me how so many followers of Jesus actively work to harm LGBTQ community, or, well, anybody.

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