I’ll never forget the day that in a class on “Jesus and the Gospels” at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Dr. Ray Pickett made this comment: “Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s response to Jesus; resurrection was God’s response to the Roman Empire.” I loved the power and simplicity of that statement.
In Proverbs of Ashes authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker make a compelling case against both traditional and contemporary Christian interpretations of Jesus’ death, but the greatest power of the book lies not in its theological arguments – though they are very strong – but in the vulnerability displayed in the telling of their personal stories involving violence, childhood sexual abuse, and other forms of victimization experienced both in their own lives and in those of others they encountered. Parts of the book are emotionally devastating. Ultimately they question whether anything remotely like salvation can ever come from violence.
Had he desired to do so, Jesus could have wrought the reign of God through power and might – some of his followers may have even expected or hoped for that kind of outcome – but Jesus went the opposite route; he became completely vulnerable to his tormentors. It’s typically taught that his sacrifice is what saves us.
Many years ago, I went through a wrenching heartbreak when a man I was dating chose to date someone else. Up to that point, both of us only had a tentative toe in the dating waters, keeping much of our hearts behind a curtain – or wall – of fear. We both feared rejection and I feared vulnerability, and so we confronted an impasse rather than relationship. But a day or so after he broke the news, we opened up to each other in a way we’d not yet done, disclosing our innermost thoughts and fears. As I drove in tears the next day to visit friends in another state, I thought about our hearts broken open, at the freedom that brought, about Christ on the cross, and about how it seemed when we were at our most vulnerable, we were really at our most powerful.
And in that moment, I felt the presence of God in the car with me.
In the book, Rebecca Ann Parker writes of her repeated sexual abuse as a five year old at the hands of her next door neighbor. She describes one especially horrific episode this way:
When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die – and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed…In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘greater than’ death, and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me. This Presence could not stop the man from killing me, if he chose to. And, at the same time, it could stop him. Because, I knew, if he noticed it he would be stopped. You couldn’t be aware of this Presence and do what the man was doing to me. He only could do it by not noticing, not knowing. So, this Presence did have the power to save me from death and there is a way in which I believe it did. (p. 211-212)
Parker recognizes that our awareness of the Presence of God is sometimes made keener in such moments as when we are near death or in crisis, but she’s equally adamant that the Presence is with us – and available to us – all the time and everywhere.
But we have to be open to it to see it, to feel it, to recognize it. We have to be a little bit vulnerable.
Note: One of the best talks I’ve heard about vulnerability is the TED talk Brene Brown delivered a few years ago (that has now been viewed over 6 million times). It’s well worth a watch.