festivals of atonement

In G.K. Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse he describes the scene when Viking hordes invaded and nearly conquered England.

Our towns were shaken of tall kings with scarlet beards like blood:

The world turned empty where they trod,

They took the kindly cross of God and cut it up for wood.

The Vikings didn’t just destroy the world. They emptied it. How do you empty the world? You empty the world by removing any signs of the sacred, or better, by turning the sacred into the merely conventional. They turned the cross of God into firewood. The sacred becomes a utilitarian means to an immediate end.

I’ve been thinking about that Chesterton quote a lot lately. A whole lot has happened over the last few weeks. Yesterday a new President was sworn into office. Two weeks previously, an angry horde of Trumpists stormed the Capitol Building, shocking us all. A lot of jarring images emerged from that day, but the juxtaposition of these two images continues to arouse all sorts of emotions from confusion, to sadness, to anger.

To be clear, I believe very strongly that Christians have a legal right and often a moral obligation to participate in peaceful protests. It is not inherently un-Christian to protest. Also, I recognize that I don’t know the specific reason why this man felt the need to bring a cross to the protest. But the mere presence of the cross and the gallows thrust together as a part of the same political moment should give pause to all of us who hold the cross to be sacred. The gallows and the cross have a lot in common. The gallows is merely a technological innovation on the cross. In this case, the gallows was intended as a threat by the LARPing revolutionaries who came to Washington. I’m not sure of the intent of the cross. The one thing that is clear, at least to me, is that the cross was changed that day from something sacred to something profane. The cross was an implement used to kill the “God-made-flesh” for the purpose of our reconciliation and peace. But something about its presence there in that idolatrous and anxious display made me think it was announcing the death of God. The cross exists to judge earthly power. The cross brings low earthly kings and kingdoms. This display turned the cross upside down. It cynically turned the cross into a means to an end, a mere agent of political power. Those marching on the Capitol Building took the kindly cross of God and cut it up for wood. Jesus turns gallows into a cross. Politics turns the cross into gallows.

What happened in Washington was shocking, but it wasn’t new. Carrying a cross to an insurrection testifies that, ironically, religious belief has lost power and significance in our culture. When the cross is put into the service of our politics, our religion must be weakened to prop up our politics.

It was much less dramatic and alarming, but this tweet demonstrates the same tendency among politically progressive Christians.

You might disagree with her politics, but her point is valid. Given the choice between political and moral principles, we will choose politics almost every time. The Catholic Church wouldn’t imagine taking the type of stand that might offend or rebuke a newly elected President.* I’m not questioning the reality of President Biden’s faith. I actually believe he is an authentic believer. But this is yet another illustration that in our secular age, the priest bows to the king, not the other way around.

Whenever I lecture on postmodernism, I get the question from students about what comes after postmodernism. This insight is not unique to me, but my response for years has been that when a society abandons belief in objective truth, the only alternative becomes tribalism. If we lose all hope that common ground can ever exist, we are left in a position where we must ally ourselves with marginally like-minded people and fight for every piece of territory we can get. There is no making converts. There is only defeating our enemies with escalating rhetoric, animosity, resentment, and ultimately violence. In such an atmosphere even sacred faith gets reduced to tribal cannon fodder. It’s amazing how quickly love disappears once truth is abandoned. Biden has talked about unity. I hope and pray he is able to heal old wounds and restore our faith and trust in each other and in our institutions. You’ll excuse me if I’m not a little skeptical. One does not reverse the course of tribalism with a single election. Our problem is not Trump. Our problem is that our tribalism is the last gasp of a culture adrift.

I began this post with Chesterton. I end it with Nietzsche. In the most famous section of The Gay Science, Nietzsche’s madman chastises those who have thrown God aside. In his rant, he essentially grabs us by the cheek and forces us to look at what we have done. Killing God is not without its consequences.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us–for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.

Murdering God does not bring peace. It brings about a crisis of despair. Wiping away God and putting ourselves in his vacated place, we cut ourselves off from any final hope of repair. There is no one to either receive or to offer forgiveness. There is no making things right. There is no water of cleansing. In the absence of God, we shall have to invent festivals of atonement. We shall have to invent our own ways of making things right. We shall have to invent our own ways of making ourselves right. What we saw in Washington was such a festival of atonement. What we saw in Washington was a group of people attempting to bring about atonement through sheer will and power. Jesus was there, but not in person. What we saw in Washington was the practical atheism of tribalism. But what we saw in Washington was also an ugly picture of ourselves. Our world has become full of tribes screaming and fighting with each other, posturing for power, threatening vengeance and punishment on our “enemies,” settling old scores, giving ourselves over to our resentments, searching and clawing for an atonement that will never come.

In such a moment as this, those of us who follow Jesus must become deeply reflective and repentant. To what extent have we contributed to these festivals of atonement? To what extent have we emptied our own faith of its meaning and turned it into only a means to an end? Our culture, our world is not without hope. That hope is found where it has always been – in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds platitudinous, but it is also correct. There is no other hope for our world. It has to start with us. It has to start with Jesus-people reclaiming the radical Truth that binds us together. This truth does not produce a new tribalism, however. It binds us together in a community, but it is also outwardly facing in love. The truth of Jesus rebukes our idolatries. The grace of Jesus rebukes our resentful tribalism.

*Before conservatives get too smug, we should face the fact that in regards to abortion many of us have really done the same thing. I don’t know of too many conservative politicians who would put their position on abortion above their desire for political power. Too many conservatives see abortion and other moral issues as merely means to political ends. The Trump presidency proved the fact that when faced with the choice between power and morals, we will choose power.

One thought on “festivals of atonement

  1. A compelling and damning exposure of our harlotry before the idols of power and retribution. When the dust settles and the images of those about to do violence kneeling and loudly lifting up the name of Jesus endures, we will be left trying to defend the indefensible. Our self-imposed polite silence might one day be seen as an abandonment of core Kingdom values every bit as reprehensible as the rampaging mob that mixed Christian clichés with ugly vulgarities as they vandalize the capital.

    Our King once told a government official to look around and note that his disciples were not mounting an insurrection. They were not fighting. He pointed out this was because the kingdom over which he rules is not of this world. If he could have seen America on January 6th, maybe Pontius Pilate would have said, “See. I knew you were just like us.”

    Liked by 1 person

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