• Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Journey


    The shadow of a cross on a cemetery wall in northern Spain.

    ASH WEDNESDAY AND THE LENTEN JOURNEY
    (Ash Wednesday 2021 is February 17.)

    THE UNVARNISHED JESUS
    LENT Day 1 (Ash Wednesday)
    Mark 8:31–38 | Jesus Foretells His Death

    We begin our Lenten journey with Jesus by hearing him tell us that he’s not headed to greatness as the world esteems greatness, but to the cross and to death. Peter and the rest of the disciples understand that Jesus is on his way to the capital city of Jerusalem to lay claim to the throne — to become the King of the Jews. But without any ambiguity Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer many things, be rejected by the chief priests, and finally be killed. Yes, Jesus also says that his apparent defeat will be turned to victory when he is raised on the third day, but his disciples probably hear this as an idiom referring to the resurrection of the righteous at some point in the future — as when Hosea says, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up.” That Jesus could become King of the Jews through suffering and death is inconceivable to Peter. For Peter, a messiah who is killed is a messiah who fails, and Peter didn’t sign up for failure. Jesus alone seems to understand that a breakthrough into new life is only attained through the experience of loss. Martin Luther was right, Christianity is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. But to choose the way of the cross over the way of glory is a hard lesson to learn.
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  • Of God and Genocide

    Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
    Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
    God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
    God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
    The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
    Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
    God says, “Out on Highway 61”
    —Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”

    Let’s play a little game. I’ll ask a few questions and you answer them. Okay?

    First question: Did God tell Abraham to kill his son?

    You say yes? But hastily add that God didn’t actually require Abraham to go through with it — it was just a test of faith.

    All right.

    Next question: Did God command Joshua, King Saul, and the Israelites to kill children as part of the ethnic cleansing of Canaan?

    Is that a hesitant yes I hear, like walking in untied shoes?

    My next question is simple and straightforward: Does God change?

    I sense your confident answer of no to this question. And you are quite correct. A cornerstone of Christian theology has always been that God is immutable — that is, God doesn’t mutate from one kind of being into another kind of being. The immutability of God is the solid ground upon which our faith stands.

    Next question (brace yourself): Since God doesn’t change, and since you have already acknowledged that in times past God has sanctioned the killing of children as part of a genocidal program of conquest, is it then possible that God would require you to kill children?

    You say you don’t like this game? I understand. I don’t really like it either. But bear with me a little more; we’re almost done.

    Last question: If God told you to kill children, would you do so?

    I know, I know! Calm down. Of course, you answer without hesitation that under no circumstances would you participate in the genocidal slaughter of children. (At least I hope that’s how you answer!)

    Yet in answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether you would kill children, are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? After all, the Bible says God commanded the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of the land during their conquest of Canaan, including children…right? Yet (hopefully) you find the very suggestion of participating in genocide morally repugnant. So what’s going on here? Is genocide something God used to command but now God has reformed his ways? We already agreed that God doesn’t change, God doesn’t mutate. So if God used to sanction genocide, and God doesn’t change…well, you see the problem. You’ve been painted into a corner.

    So where do we go from here? Our options are limited. We really have only three possible courses.
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  • The Dangerous Heresy of Christian Nationalism

    The Dangerous Heresy of Christian Nationalism
    Brian Zahnd

    The insurrectionist attack upon the Capitol on January 6 was the most disturbing American moment since 9/11. Like millions of others I watched this awful event with grief-stricken horror on live television. As an angry mob of aggrieved Trump supporters surged up the Capitol steps, I saw among the flags and banners a “Jesus Saves” sign. My first thought was, “that’s what it means to take the name of the Lord in vain.” Among the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, white supremacists, and QAnon theorists, there were Christian nationalists who honestly believed they were somehow serving Jesus by participating in a violent insurrection. On January 6 we saw the danger of Christian nationalism on full display.

    Christian nationalism is the idolatrous conflation of Christian faith with American patriotism. Those under the sway of Christian nationalism essentially confuse America for the kingdom of God. The Bill of Rights is held as sacred as the Beatitudes and the Second Amendment is as revered as the Second Commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself.”). Baptismal identity is eclipsed by national identity and rightwing politics overshadows the Sermon on the Mount.

    I don’t place too much blame on rank-and-file Christians who have departed from the true faith for the idolatry of religious nationalism — they are the inevitable disciples created by forty years of evangelical nationalism. But I do blame the pastors, preachers, and false prophets who have led the sheep down this disastrous path. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, Paula White, Robert Jeffress, and all the rest share a deep culpability in the distortion of Christian faith into the heresy of religious nationalism. They should know better.
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  • Why I Don’t Own A Gun

    Why I Don’t Own A Gun
    by Brian Zahnd

    I don’t own a gun. I never have. Why?

    First of all I don’t hunt. I have nothing against hunting. (After all, I’m not a vegetarian.) I don’t hunt like I don’t golf — it’s just something I never took up. So I don’t own a shotgun or a hunting rifle for the same reason I don’t own golf clubs. And for the same reason you probably don’t own crampons and an ice axe. Since I don’t hunt, I don’t need the equipment.

    Secondly, I don’t own a gun because I don’t want to shoot anyone. Shotguns and hunting rifles are designed for the purpose of shooting game. Handguns and assault rifles are designed for the purpose of shooting people. But I don’t want to shoot anyone. So, once again, I don’t need the equipment. I’m perfectly content to allow a trained and authorized police force to handle this equipment on behalf of society. I think that’s a good idea. (If you don’t think that’s a good idea, well, then we just disagree. Don’t shoot me.) I’m not a police officer, so I don’t need police equipment. I don’t own surgical equipment either, because…well, you get my point.

    Can you come up with an imagined scenario where I would wish I had a gun? Probably. Can I come up with an imagined scenario where you wish you did not own a gun? Just as easily. (And my imagined scenario turns out to be a whole lot more common in real life!)
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  • O Little Town of Bethlehem

    I’m currently writing an Advent devotional entitled The Anticipated Christ. It’s the companion to my Lenten devotional The Unvarnished Jesus. Today I wrote three meditations and I’m now about halfway done with the book. I thought I would share the most recent meditation with you.

    O Little Town of Bethlehem

    But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
    from you shall come forth from me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
    whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient of days…
    He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord our God.
    And they will abide undisturbed,
    for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
    and this one shall be our peace
    (Micah 5:2-5)

    The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, prophesying seven hundred years before Christ. Micah is best known to us as the one who prophesied the birth of Messiah in Bethlehem. Of course, Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, so it makes sense that the messianic Son of David would also be born there. Nevertheless, Bethlehem was only a small and seemingly insignificant village, but this is in keeping with the ways of God — the work of God often emerges from quiet obscurity.
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  • “Above All — Don’t Lie”

    “Above All — Don’t Lie”
    Brian Zahnd

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the seductive nature and ruinous consequence of embracing lies. I’m alarmed by what seems to be a deliberate move toward a post-truth society. Euphemistic language is eroding veracity. Lies are sold as “alternative facts” while uncomfortable truth is dismissed as “fake news.” Political tribalism requires adherence to an approved “version of the truth.” Propaganda and conspiracy theories have become the mind-addling narcotics of groupthink. The Information Age is swiftly devolving into the Disinformation Age. So I need to say something: With all my heart I urge you to resist being swept away in a current of lies. There are few things, if any, as destructive to the soul as embracing untruth. As the Proverb says, “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Above all — don’t lie.
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  • “Only the Suffering God Can Help”

    “Only the Suffering God Can Help”
    Brian Zahnd

    Very early in the development of Christian theology the doctrine of divine impassibility ascended to an unquestioned status. Commonly understood, divine impassibility asserts that God is not a subject of any passion, including pain and suffering. Throughout long centuries the doctrine of divine impassibility rested undisturbed and rarely visited in the library of Christian thought. But then came the twentieth century when advancements in technology tragically increased the capacity for human suffering. At the same time that our species was making significant advancements in medical science that lessened the suffering of disease, we also learned how to mechanize war and how to subject large portions of human beings to totalitarian control. From the Gatling gun to the hydrogen bomb, from the Third Reich to Pol Pot, the capacity to inflict suffering became exponential. The crematoriums of Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia haunt our memories and torture our imaginations. In the ghastly light of the Holocaust the language of divine impassibility became untenable. From his cell in the Flossenbürg concentration camp shortly before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these words: “Only the suffering God can help.”
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  • The Jesus Movement Revisited

    The Jesus Movement Revisited
    Brian Zahnd

    My friend Shane Claiborne asked me about my experience with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, so here’s an excerpt from Postcards From Babylon where I write about it:

    I began to follow Jesus during the heady days of the Jesus Movement — the Jesus-centered spiritual movement that began among counterculture young people in California, spread across the country and eventually became significant enough to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. The center of the Jesus Movement in St. Joseph, Missouri was the Catacombs — a Christian coffeehouse in the basement of a dive bar in a seedy part of town. The Catacombs was mostly a music venue for the emerging Jesus Music scene. We usually hosted local Christian artists, but occasionally nationally known artists like Keith Green, Second Chapter of Acts, and Sweet Comfort Band would play the Catacombs.

    The Catacombs was an apt name for our Jesus Movement coffeehouse — it spoke both of our dingy, subterranean venue and the connection we felt to early Christianity. The catacombs in Rome are the underground labyrinths created by the early Christians for the burial of believers and occasionally for Eucharistic worship. The Roman catacombs have become a kind of symbol for pre-Constantine Christianity; a subversive underground movement challenging the idolatrous claims of empire; a dangerous counterculture society confessing that because Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Christians praying underground in the Catacombs and Christians martyred above ground in the Coliseum have become the two enduring icons of the Christianity that predates Christendom.
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  • Put Not Your Trust in Princes…or Presidents

    Put Not Your Trust in Princes…or Presidents
    Brian Zahnd

    In my time of prayer this morning I prayed Psalm 146, and it resonated so deeply within me that I would like to share it with you. Please take a moment and acquaint yourself with this ancient Hebrew hymn.

    Hallelujah!
    Praise the LORD, O my soul!
    I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
    Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of earth,
    for there is no help in them.
    When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
    and in that day their plans perish.
    Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
    whose hope is in the LORD their God;
    Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
    who keeps his promise for ever;
    Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
    and food to those who hunger.
    The LORD sets the prisoners free;
    the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
    the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
    The LORD loves the righteous;
    the LORD cares for the stranger;
    he sustains the orphan and widow,
    but frustrates the way of the wicked.
    The LORD shall reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
    Hallelujah!

    During the final throes of this tumultuous election season the thing that troubles me most as a pastor is the degree to which those who ostensibly confess that Jesus is Lord put their trust in political princes, parties, and presidents. Day after day I hear high-profile Christian leaders announcing with frenzied alarm that the cause of Christ hangs perilously in the balance and can only be saved by a particular election outcome. These religious alarmists speak breathlessly of the need for a politician to “save Christianity” or “protect God.” It’s political hyperbole of the most ludicrous kind. But the ancient psalmist knows better than to fall for that blather. Rather the wise sage says in the song,
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