Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (An Invitation to Explore)...

Emmanuel Levinas confronts us with a fundamental question about the ubiquity and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world in the wake of the Holocaust:

Is humanity, in its indifference, going to abandon the world to useless suffering, leaving it to the political fatality - or the drifting - of the blind forces which inflict misfortune on the weak and conquered, and which spare the conquerors, whom the wicked must also join? Or, incapable of adhering to an order - or to a disorder - which it continues to think diabolic, must not humanity now, in a faith more difficult than ever, in a faith without theodicy, continue Sacred History; a history which now demands even more of the resources of the self in each one, and appeals to its suffering inspired by the suffering of the other person, to its compassion which is a non-useless suffering (of love), which is no longer suffering 'for nothing', and which straightaway has a meaning? At the end of the twentieth century and after the useless and unjustifiable pain which is exposed and displayed therein without any shadow of a consoling theodicy, are we not all pledged - like the Jewish people to their faithfulness - to the second term of this alternative? This is a new modality in the faith of today, and also in our moral certainties, a modality quite essential to the modernity which is dawning.
Emmanuel Levinas, Useless Suffering, p. 164.

A young boy in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble following an air strike in Aleppo.

The world of the last century has witnessed an unfathomable concentration of trauma and human suffering. Two World Wars, genocide, hunger, poverty, abuse and neglect, disease, and an innumerable volume of personal or communal traumas which have been lost to history or held in secret. One thing is clear: Simple answers and "business as usual" is not only insufficient, but is immoral. It is time, as Levinas reminds us, for a "new modality" that moves away from the "explanations" of theodicy to the "suffering [with] inspired by the suffering of the other." But this shift, particularly from the grounding of Christian faith requires language and practices that for most believers simply do not exist. We simply lack the language and practices to respond in meaningful and generative ways to the sheer volume and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world, in our communities, in our churches, and within our own lives and the lives of those closest to us. 

The theological commitments and practices necessary to engage in the world as it really is will require a deep and pointed look at the Tradition we have received and the ways in which these things have (mis)shaped the church and its capacity to respond to trauma and human suffering. However, we will also discover that there are deep resources buried and obscured within the Tradition that provide powerful and redemptive tools for contemporary life in the world.

This November and December I want to invite you to join me in an exploration of the ways in which the Christian faith can respond faithfully and redemptively to a world that is so profoundly (mis)shaped by trauma and human suffering.

On Sunday mornings at 9:30 at the Dayspring Church of Christ I will be guiding us through the realities of trauma and human suffering, the history of the development of the Christian Tradition in response to these realities, and the theological commitments and practices moving forward that will enable the church to be God's healing presence in the world. This work, this joint commitment, this embodiment of the most fundamental convictions of the Christian faith culminate in what I describe as a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology.

Each week, as part of our discerning together we will engage in two practices: A form of Lectio Divina and an exercise in theological reflection. The goal in both of these practices is to examine the ways in which we hear and think about Scripture and to contemplate the ways in which our theological values and commitments shape (or misshape!) our faith and life together and for the world.

Here is what we will explore each week of this series together: 

WEEK ONE: The Grammar of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (Nov. 6th)
Drawing on some of the insights and metaphors of Joe Jones' marvelous systematic theology, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine we will begin to explore the kinds of language that will be necessary and informative for our time together. Particularly we will explore the meanings (or range of meanings) for terms and constructions like Moral Agency, Imago Dei, Sin, Ecclesiology, Trauma, Trauma-Formed, and Trauma-Informed. This week will enable us to get our bearings and to mark out the boundaries of our expedition in the Christian Tradition together.

WEEK TWO: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 1 (Nov. 13th)
Here we will explore the ways in which we might talk about the impingement of the Powers of Sin and Death upon human persons and communities. We will explore the ways in which the Christian Tradition has offered accounts of sin, particularly within the Augustinian tradition, that ignore or marginalize the most ubiquitous and malformative variety of sin: not sin done by us, but sin done to us. This expanded vision will enable us to think about how this reality pushes back on language that we use to describe God's saving work in the world, particularly for those who suffer.

WEEK THREE: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 2  (Nov. 20th)
Now that we have established a more meaningful account of the ways that the Powers of Sin and Death impinge upon human persons and communities we will turn our attention to how this changes our language about salvation. In conversation with the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa we will explore and discern how we talk about the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the fate of human persons. We will especially focus on the ways in which suffering has the capacity to complicate or compromise an individual or community's capacity to respond appropriately to the Triune God in history.

WEEK FOUR: The Trauma-Formed Tradition (Nov. 27th)
After exploring a deeper grammar of sin and salvation that is trauma-informed we return with clearer eyes to see the ways in which the Tradition itself has been trauma-formed. In other words, we will see some of the ways in which the history and practices of the church illustrate that the church has been more profoundly shaped by its experiences of trauma and human suffering than it has been responsive to those experiences. This is not a condemnation or dismissal of the Tradition; far from it. It is instead a testimony to the (mal)formative power of trauma and human suffering from which even ecclesial communities (and entire traditions!) are not immune. Together we will see this in an exploration of the Book of Common Prayer, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the commentary of John Calvin on a subset of the Psalms of Lament.

WEEK FIVE: The Ecclesial Turn: Theological Commitments (Dec. 4th)
Having sketched out together the fundamental shape of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology and the impetus for it (the Trauma-Formed Tradition), here we will explore three of the fundamental theological commitments that serve as the foundation of the theological model that I am proposing. In this session we will explore the ways in which our commitments about coercion and violence, the nature of the Atonement, and the ultimate destiny of human persons enable us to move into an embodied life in the world which is actually (for some, for the first time) Good News. 

WEEK SIX: The Ecclesial Turn: Embodied Practices (Dec. 11th)
This week we will have already come on a long journey together through church history, through the development of doctrine in the Tradition and the ways that language and practices have shaped our lives and our imaginations together. In this session we will turn our attention to the enrichment of concrete practices in our embodied, ecclesial communities. I will be helping us to think about how this Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology enables us to think more deeply and meaningfully about the practices of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession.  

WEEK SEVEN: A Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology in the World (Dec. 18th)
Here we want to explore the ways in which the church should live in the world after our vision and theological reflection are sharpened by being Trauma-Informed. What does it mean to be an ecclesial community that enters into the suffering of others and there find our mutual salvation? How might the church think about the ways in which we are called to confront systems of marginalization, oppression, and violence? And finally, we ask what does it mean to live in a world where trauma and human suffering is unavoidable but should not be met merely with resignation? This will enable us to think of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology that is committed to a particular kind of solidarity, resistance, and resilience. 

(December 25th at Dayspring will be a special time of fellowship and celebration during the class time.)

WEEK EIGHT: The Public Life of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology with Q&A  (Jan. 1st)
Briefly I want to give some insights into the ways in which a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology gives shape to the public life and witness of ecclesial communities and Christian persons. Not only do these theological committments fundamentally reorient our ecclesial language and practices, but they transform the way that we live and act in the world. I will help us to think about, for example, some of the ways in which this influences the way that followers of Jesus should think about public policy, missions, and life for/with the marginalized and the oppressed. We will conclude this week with an lengthy Q&A time to help you explore further the materials and proposals that I have presented in this ongoing series. 

An Associated Press photo of priests intervening in riots in Kiev in January of 2014. (via Huffington Post)

It is not the interpretation of love as an ideal, a heavenly power, or as a commandment, but of love as an event in a loveless, legalistic world: the event of an unconditioned and boundless love which comes to meet man, which takes hold of those who are unloved and forsaken, unrighteous or outside the law, and gives them a new identity, liberates them from the norms of social identifications and from the guardians of social norms and idolatrous images. What Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as love of one's enemy has taken place on the cross through Jesus' dying and the grief of the Father in the power of the spirit, for the godless and the loveless. Just as the unconditional love of Jesus for the rejected made the Pharisees his enemies and brought him to the cross, so the unconditional love also means enmity and persecution in a world in which the life of man is made dependent on particular social norms, conditions, or achievements. A love which takes precedence and robs these conditions of the force is folly and scandal in this world. But if the believer experiences his freedom and the new possibility of his life in the fact that the love of God reaches him, the loveless and unloved, in the cross of Christ, what must be the thoughts of a theology which corresponds to this love? In that case it is a love which creates its own conditions, since it cannot accept the conditions of lovelessness and the law. Further, it cannot command love and countermove. As its purpose is freedom, it is directed towards freedom. So it cannot prohibit slavery and enmity, but must suffer this contradiction, and can only take upon itself this grief in protest. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. God is unconditional love, because he takes upon himself grief at the contradiction in men and does not angrily suppress this contradiction. God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love.
Jürgen MoltmannThe Crucifed God

9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me to Say #BlackLivesMatter

I have not been afraid within my social media space to say #BlackLivesMatter, or to speak about the longstanding racism within my own religious tradition. But the events of this last week have brought the conversation of racism, prejudice, and violence to a new frenzy unseen in my lifetime. 

DISCLAIMER: I am speaking for myself (and only myself) when I articulate "why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter."
I believe that there are compelling theological reasons for this commitment, and in response to these I continue to strive to embody my faith "with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12)

But I feel like it is important, as a contribution to a very important (and very complex) conversation, to explain why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter. And why it compels me to not only say something in my social media space, but in my faith community, and publicly within my city and state. So here are 9 reasons (though there are a number of others) why my faith compels me to say #BlackLivesMatter...

Because the Triune God, revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, is deeply concerned and committed to the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized, and this is the actual, real lived experience of millions of my black sisters and brothers. 

Hear the words of Isaiah the Prophet...

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
                                                                                              (Isaiah 58:1-7, NIV)

Because black lives are disproportionately affected the prison industrial complex. 

In 2010 blacks were incarcerated at more than FIVE times the rate of whites. While blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population. This is despite the lack of a comparable disparity in the rate of crimes committed between whites and blacks.  

Because black lives are disproportionately targeted by police for stops, searches, violations, and arrests. 

This can be seen for example in the experience of Philando Castile had been pulled over 31 times and hit with 63 charges. And the stop for a broken tail light that resulted in his death has been challenged by at least one eye witness. And the whole reality of "Driving While Black" has been substantiated for a long time and the literature continues to grow affirming not only that it is true, but that in many communities it is worse than ever.

Because our nation and its economy were literally built on the backs and bodies of black lives.

Our nation would never have become the economic powerhouse that it is today without the institution of slavery. Many of the fundamental icons of our nation were built with slave labor including the U. S. Capitol, the White House, and vast networks of railroad lines

Because black lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and economic oppression.

Data shows us that poverty for black communities and black families is very different than poverty for white americans. This is no mere coincidence, it is the "architecture of segregation."

Because black lives are harmed by the race-based and historical trauma of American society. 

There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates the psychological toll of racism, which is complicated all the more by the historical traumas of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the prison industrial complex, and many of the other things I have already cited. 

Because black lives are oppressed by systemic and institutional inequalities in education. 

There is marked disparity in education funding, discipline, and even course offerings. This comes with profound psychological consequences at all stages of life. (Check the data for your own community here.)

Because black lives are disproportionately destroyed by the so-called "War on Drugs."

At its inception, in its implementation, and its ongoing ethos, the War on Drugs was designed to crush the lives of black persons, families, and communities. 

Because churches continue to be some of the most segregated institutions in the United States. 

The racial disparities in churches are sharper than their surrounding culture. This is not helped by the high response rate of people who report that their churches are "sufficiently diverse" and did not need to pursue further racial integration. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words still ring true "that eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.

As a follower of Jesus I am called to live in a way that speaks up for those who are abandoned, who are oppressed, who are consciously crushed by the principalities and powers. And the call of the Christian faith is to join in the liberating work of God in the world. I am called to use my voice as a middle-class, white, straight, married, educated, male to cry out for justice, for reconciliation, for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. It is for this reason that I say...


God Is With Us, If We Are With Them...

“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.
This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
(Luke 22:19, 20, NIV)

Christians have argued for millennia about what exactly this means that the bread and wine “are” Jesus’ body and blood. And I certainly don’t want to rehash that discussion here.

But I do want to make a proposal:

Those who come and receive the “body and blood” of Jesus in turn become the body of Jesus in the world.

So it isn’t necessarily about what happens to these items, as it is about what happens to us, and in turn, to the world. The Apostles Paul and John remind us of this:

"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
(1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV)
"In this world we are like Jesus." (1 John 4:17, NIV)

But it is all too easy for the church to think that this [the church building] is the place where we come to meet God, like the Temple or the Tabernacle of the Hebrew Bible. The Apostle Paul abruptly reminds us:

"The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything."
(Acts 17:24-25, NABRE)

This is not to suggest that God is not here, quite the contrary. The Triune God is here, but God’s presence is among us in order that God may send us out. Because God “does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands,” instead, he dwells among those who suffer, those who struggle, the oppressed and the poor, the sick and the lonely, the forgotten and the left behind.

God is in Greystone Upper Elementary School where children are being left behind because of their economic status and their race,
God is with the women and children who experience abuse and neglect,
God is at Children's Hospital where illness destroys the bodies of precious little ones,
God is with the senior citizen on a fixed income, who is more lonely than they are poor, 
God is with LGBTQ persons who are ostracized and harmed or murdered because of who they are,
God is in the prisons who are filled with people who are traumatized, victimized, and criminalized,
God is with those who feel excluded or unwelcome here, in our church,
God is with the single mother struggling to make ends meet month after month after month,
God is in the streets sleeping under the stars in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, and in the snow,
God is with the depressed and the hurting, the alienated and the suicidal, with the people who don’t have it all together, and with those who have nothing together,

And God is with us, if we are with them.

God through the Prophet Isaiah tells us:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

                                                              (Isaiah 58:6-12, NIV)

The Triune God is here to meet you, to make you into his agents of reconciliation in a world that needs so desperately the perfect love that casts out fear. Come and receive his body, broken for you, and his blood, poured out for you that you may go and find God where he is waiting for us to meet him.

Thank you Father, for love for us and for your Son, who died and rose again for us and for the whole world, in the power of the Holy Spirit.   

The Christian Outrage Machine: A Counter-Proposal

This is a mini-lecture/presentation that I shared today at Oklahoma Christian in a chapel service, and while certainly not everything that could be said is here, this is a good start I hope to a new way forward...

Maybe you've heard that there are some people in the world who say stupid things. This is complicated by the fact that those who agree with them and those who oppose them typically respond by saying their own kinds of stupid things. 

Two examples that have been cascading through the Christian outrage machine that is the Internet have been Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the country along with creating some kind of database requiring registration and increased surveillance. This could include Trump suggested the closing of some Mosques and the blocking of US citizens from returning home if they visit nations associated with radicalization. 

To pour water on the grease fire, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a school at the center of conservative, though some would say fundamentalist, Christianity, suggested that students follow his example in carrying concealed weapons on campus. The university even provides a free course to acquire your licensure. He suggested that in doing so the school could defend themselves from terrorists. He ended his "sermon" (which never quoted Scripture by the way) by suggesting that these measures would help to "end those Muslims" if they ever came to Liberty. 

My first reaction to both of these stories was... NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHAPEL AUDIENCES.

My second reaction was condemnation. And so I took to the place of reason and dialogue,of good faith and good will to express my rejection of these ideologies: Facebook. 

I signed a petition asking Church of Christ universities to collectively condemn this rhetoric, I posted a meme about the "liturgical bankruptcy" of Evangelicalism. (Yes, theologians post crap like this.) And believe it or not, I did NOT feel better. In fact, I felt worse. 

Because I found myself in conflict with two fundamental convictions of my Christian faith that I hold dearly and struggle mightily to embody. 

That every human being is made in the image of God...even Donald Trump. That I am called to love my neighbor as myself. 

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? 

Often times people appeal to the capacity to think and reason or to create and to understand the world in which we live. While this has some credence it doesn't make sense of our experience with everyone. Not all human beings contain this kind of capacity, and yet we would quickly affirm that they too are made in the Image of God.

What if the Imago Dei is instead the capacity not to understand God, but to reveal God? 

What if the vision of speaking of us as eikons is that we contain capacity to point beyond ourselves to who God is? 

I want to suggest that the Imago Dei is this:

That each and every human being has the capacity to reveal something about God in an unique and irreplaceable way. 

This is not to say that I cannot learn the same thing about God somewhere else, but that I cannot learn it in this unique and "God-breathed" way from anyone else. And that there is something about God that I can experience, and that particular experience can come through you and only you. 

This is why the Imago Dei imbues each and every human being with inestimable value and worth. This is why it is fundamental to the Christian faith that dignity, honor, and most importantly love be shown to all people. 

Even Donald Trump. Even Christian university presidents who call people to take up weapons in the name of Jesus.

But this brings me to the second conviction that I hold, and which for me, is currently the most difficult text in all of Scripture:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV) 

Another translation articulates that last line like this:

Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV)

I had condemned what Trump had said... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that. I rejected the suggestion of Falwell that Christians take up weapons to "end" anyone... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that.

But I had also done all of this, in the name of my Christian faith, with an utter disdain for those two image-bearing neighbors of mine. 

In my attempt to fulfill the law, I had undermined it entirely. And this is not a tension easily resolved. 

Karl Barth in his commentary on Romans, which is incredible, comments on this passage:

Therefore—Love worketh no ill to his neighbor. Love is the good work by which evil is overcome (12:21). Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order which no revolt can bring about. In this lies the strange novelty of love. In the cycle of evil unto evil, of reaction to revolution, it plays no part. Love is the inversion of all concrete happening, because it is the recognition of the pre-supposition that lies in every concrete event. Love, because it sets up no idol, is the demolition of every idol. Love is the destruction of everything that is—like God: the end of all hierarchies and authorities and intermediaries, because, in every particular man and also in the ‘Many’, it addresses itself, without fear of contradiction—to the One. Love does not contradict; and therefore it cannot be refuted. Love does not enter into competition; and therefore it cannot be defeated. ... If, therefore as a protest against the course of this world, I cease to love, I thereby simply—do not love God, offer no sacrifice, and do not renew my mind (12:2). This is the relentless, impelling, earnestness of the command of love; and—Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 496-497

So what are we to do? How are we to learn how to live and to love in this way? 

I believe we must rediscover the meaning of one thing: Mercy. 

The words of the prophet Hosea, picked up again by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13, NRSV) 

Pope Francis has called for this year in the Christian calendar to be a Jubilee of Mercy. A year in which the church learns to embody the mercy of God in the world. 

I want to leave you with he prayer that Pope Francis has written to usher in this new year, which just began last week. It seems to me that if we ever needed a year of Mercy, it is now.

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
“If you knew the gift of God!”

You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.

You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.  

We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of
Mercy; you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and


The World was Not Worthy of Them: Martyrdom, Resurrection, and the Death of Death

I have found myself deeply conflicted in the last few days after news broke of the martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this week. A whole range of emotions and reactions have moved in and around me as this photo has burned itself into my memory. 

  • What kind of people are capable of such acts of depravity and wickedness? What has become of the Image of God in them that this is even possible?
  • What would be my last words before my gruesome death?
  • Does the way of Jesus as the Prince of Peace mean anything to people who have so aligned themselves with the powers and principalities that they can commit such acts?
  • Why do the churches I know worry about the sound system and the thermostat when our brothers and sisters are being martyred? 
  • More seriously, why do I care about those things too?
  • How do I speak to my kids about this in a way that is honest, redemptive, and that equips them to live in a world where not only such things happen but that they are public, blatant, and unavoidable?
  • How should my family and my children respond to the people of Muslim faith who are our neighbors, my children's classmates, and our fellow human beings?
  • Why doesn't God just go "Old Testament" on these people and save us all the death and heartbreak?
  • What does it say about my own heart that my knee-jerk reaction for justice is the suffering and destruction of someone who is as valuable in the eyes of God as myself or my wife and children?
  • How should these martyrs be remembered in my own life, in my family, and in my church? 
  • How does this shape foreign policy, domestic policy, and the way in which I live among my neighbors?
  • Why does the church seem so deafeningly silent?

I have tried, as I feel emotionally capable, to hear some reflections of these and other questions. Jonathan Storment has written a piece that has moved me this week. Miroslav Volf has reminded me that my distance from those people is not nearly as far as I would like to think. And the brilliant, even if long and complex account from The Atlantic by Graeme Wood reminds us that answers and solutions are not easy to come by. 

And while all of these questions and emotions have been swirling inside of me I have been drawn back to a text from the book of Hebrews:

They were put to death by stoning; 
they were sawed in two;
they were killed by the sword. 
They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, 
destitute, persecuted and mistreated —
(Hebrews 11:27-28a, NIV)

It is undeniable that the world was not worthy of them. But what is left without resolution at the moment is the reaction of those who follow the same Lord who was on the lips of these men as they were martyred. 

I was moved at the story reported over at Christianity Today about the way in which the families of those who were martyred were reacting to the loss of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and fellow believers...

Beshir Kamel thanked ISIS for not editing out the men's declaration of belief in Christ because he said this had strengthened his own faith. He added that the families of the ex-patriate workers are "congratulating one another" and not in despair: "We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs," he told the programme.
He said: "Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."

This is a remarkable response to an experience that is in many ways beyond words. 

But perhaps this is the problem. 

The word where we get the English word martyr is the word that we often translate as witness

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NIV)

There has been a tendency at different times in the history of the church to value martyrdom above all other things. In fact, at different times in Christian history, there have been those who teach others to actively pursue situations and outcomes which would result in their martyrdom. We think back to the early Church Father Tertullian whose statement, "We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed." has evolved into the powerful sentiment: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. 

And this is undoubtedly true. The surrendering of one's life for the sake of the gospel is the most powerful testimony to the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth. It defies explanation, it destroys the power of the oppressor and the perpetrator, it transforms a gruesome death into a moment where the life of God is made manifest for all to see. The Hebrew writer is correct: The world is not worthy of them. 

There is a level of conviction, a deep, visceral commitment that the Gospel is in fact true, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again that is necessary to live the kind of life that can be lost. And as a part of a culture that fears death and the unknown, it is increasingly difficult to live our lives as people who are martyrs/witnesses, who embody the reality of the resurrection, and who celebrate the death of death. 

CHRISTUS VICTOR - A Rant-Poem of Sorts by Josh Graves

I know that many people feel powerless about how to respond to the martyrdom of these 21 men, to the millions of people who have been murdered or displaced or traumatized, who may still be alive but are living a real-life hell, due to war, famine, poverty, sex trafficking, forced labor, genital mutilation, forced marriages, AIDS, malaria, ebola, loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cancer, PTSD, and envy and hatred of their neighbor. 

How can we possibly live well in a world filled with so much death, so much suffering, so much hell, so little redemption, so little relief, so little escape from the pain, the anxiety, the loss, and the inevitability of our own death?

The answer that many of us who claim to follow Jesus is this:

We are witnesses who have seen in our own lives and who believe that in Jesus there is both resurrection and the death of death. 

We believe that not only does death not have the final word, it has an expiration date. 

Not only do we believe that death cannot destroy us, we believe that we will be alive in a way in which death no longer has power over us, and when that day comes, we, together with all of God's people will be witnesses of the death of death. 

We believe that we are learning what it means to give our lives away because we have been given new lives, ones that cannot be taken from us by violence, by illness, by age, by tragedy, or by death itself.

We believe that in Jesus Christ, death is doomed. 

And that is a reality that no one, no power, no circumstance, a no kind of death can take away.