Jesus was “handed over”: What that means for our own passion

Le baiser de Judas (ca. 1996) — James Tissot

Let’s start with the man Christians love to hate: Judas.

In chapter 16, Luke  introduces the twelve main disciples of Jesus and gives Judas an extra title: “the traitor.” The noun is less commonly translated “the betrayer.” Judas is famous for betraying Jesus, so you’d think that verb would be all over the accounts of his deed in the Bible. But this line in Luke is the only place Judas is directly called a betrayer. In the thirty-one other occasions he or his deed is mentioned another word is used: Jesus was handed over by Judas. That verb root  should be returned to its proper theological place. The Lord’s passion and our passion is more about being “handed over” or “given over” than being betrayed.

In the Gospel of Mark, when his account gets to Judas going out and coming back as a guide for the authorities, an entire change of literary viewpoint takes place. Up to that point, Jesus has been the center of action and the verbs are mainly about what he is doing. After Judas hands him over, the verbs are mainly about what is being done to Him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is waiting,  anticipating the judgment and violence of the powers that be. Then he is handed over to them. Previously in Mark, he had given his love freely and was the main power, even if hidden, in every scene — even now we can feel his affection as his love acts on us. But once he is handed over he enters into passion (which means suffering overwhelming forces). He is dependent on who loves him. Bearing our humanity, Jesus becomes vulnerable to overwhelming powers and waits for what will be done to him.

I think we often see Jesus, and so see the image of God in our own humanity, primarily through the lens of the first half of Mark — like Jesus is another action figure on the hero’s journey, mastering his suffering and moving into transcendence. But I think it is more true to the revelation in the Bible to see the passion experienced in the garden, then during the trial and then on the cross, as elemental to our own spiritual development and our calling.  The passion of being handed over is also an example for us. We are made by the God who waits; we are endued with the capacity for suffering love.

Peter says this rather plainly, doesn’t he?

If you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21;2).

[I was happy to run across an unusual book that inspired my refined thinking on all this. You might want to read The Stature of Waiting by W.H. Vanstone.]

Trying to be impassable in the zone of control

We are innately passable

In my therapy practice, I am often talking to a suffering person who, nevertheless, feels compelled to be impassable, not experiencing negative feelings or any feelings (same root as passion).  Their face may even be devoid of expression. They think it is shameful to have endured the trauma they have experienced or feel guilty because they are suffering. If they have grown up in the church, these poor people may have an impassable God as a model, which adds further motivation for trying to be in control.

Many influential theologians have seen God as impassable. Some people accuse them of caving into a Greek philosophical lens. Others suggest the earliest theolgians were contrasting God with the very emotional and volatile descriptions of Greek gods. They emphasized how God is not controlled by human emotions but is independent and unaffected by the whims of humanity.

You can see how this thinking might go too far and imply that God has no emotions at all, even though love is central to God’s character. So some theologians qualified the doctrine of impassability to mean God is not subject to sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotion unworthy of her character. (See this article).

I don’t think there is anything unemotional about what Jesus experiences in Gethsemane and Paul says Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is passable, or able to suffer. There is nothing we went through today that was emotion-free, either. We are also passable. Though we may use a lot of energy defending against suffering and suppressing the memory of it, we suffer every day. We suffer what is past and present, and even suffer what we anticipate the future will be. Jesus struggled the same way we do and struggles with us now. Take a few seconds, at least, and feel that Jesus cares about your suffering — so much so, he is bearing it with you.

Betrayed

I think there are some good reasons to cut the first translators of the Bible into English some slack. I think they unwittingly, repeatedly, mistranslated the words based on the Greek word “to hand over” as “to betray.” They even did it in Paul’s often-repeated “words of institution” of the communion ceremony in 1 Corintians 11:

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you [there is the verb], that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed [there is the same verb mistranslated] took a loaf of bread…”

The first Jesus followers made it a point to say “the night Jesus was handed over.” Handing over and being handed over were central to their view of Jesus, themselves and the world. Maybe we could say they were passion-centered, passability thinkers.

Paul uses the verb in other significant places, and it is translated accurately:

  • And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself (handed himself over) for me (Gal. 2:20).
  • He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up (handed him over) for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32).

Paul’s letters were apparently written before the Gospels were collected. In those later writings, Judas is highlighted as the one who shows the nature of God in a significant way as he hands Jesus over and Jesus suffers the sins of humanity. Judas is still despised as a betrayer. But he begins the Passion. If he hadn’t been there someone else would have done the deed (“Is it I, Lord?”). Peter betrays him later in the evening, too.  The disciples all scatter like scared sheep. Judas just turns out to be central to Jesus being handed over, which is central to the Lord’s passion. I think the early church expected to be handed over, at some level, and encouraged one another to develop a deep trust for God instead of just a deep resistance to suffering.

I can see how the word betrayed overtakes handed over as translations evolve. For one thing, the word in the Latin translation, with which the first English translators were more familiar, is much easier to lean that way than the Greek. But I also think the word betrayed appeals to bloodthirsty humanity. Betrayed implies: “You thwarted my action. You stopped me cold. You defeated me in an underhanded way.” Doesn’t it betray your sense of agency, safety, value and power when you are handed over? Seen through the lens of betrayal, Jesus still looks powerful as he mocks the dirty deeds of sinners by dying according to God’s plan and rising up in their faces on Easter. (Check out the atonement explanations if you want to think this through).

I think the mistranslation contributes to our sinful assumption that following Jesus means we always have power over suffering and injustice — just do God’s will and it will all end up as a “win.” We have been betrayed and we should make that right. We feel entitled to such power, even though the main percentage of the Gospels are devoted to Jesus not exercising power and being handed over to suffering.

The glory of God in Jesus is also revealed when he finishes his active work and becomes subject to the authorities. As he taught quite clearly, his final passion is the ultimate turn of the other cheek. He does nothing to protect himself. He waits.

Life is not Wakanda forever

We’re all action figures here. It is Wakanda forever. There is goodness in that. Jesus is also about suffering love for the abused, oppressed and poor. But his love transcends the power struggle, just endlessly fighting the power. His own death vividly shows that the powers of the world are doomed to their redundant self-destruction and unavailable for resurrection.

Nevertheless, for most of my readers, only what we do is valued, what we produce. We don’t wait around. We inevitably introduce ourselves by what we do. If you are unemployed you are hard to see as a person at all. Retirees are expected to do things for themselves and they are reminded to keep active.  But eventually we all  will be subject to what comes upon us. Old people better hope someone loves them or they will be handed over to be housed by the state or processed by the hospital. During Covid (and for many, that is right now) we all got a taste of being passable; we were patients (from the same root as passion: bearing suffering), we were called on to be patient, since we were vulnerable – and we hate that, some people wouldn’t even submit to a mask.

The beginning of the great work of Jesus begins with being handed over. He waits for what will happen in the garden, assuming it means death. He does not fight it. Like John says, he told his disciples, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (9:4). The night came. Like John says, Jesus told Peter, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). The time came. We can’t always do something (I learned).

I got overpowered by ruthless church leaders and handed over to an unexpected future. When I complained about it, my spiritual director called the expereince “a passion.”  I did not like it. Passion, like Jesus experienced, was something I had almost never experienced. I had barely even been in the hospital. I had been pretty impassable, similar to the  heretical view of God that ends up tormenting so many people. I am still figuring out what it means to be vulnerable, passable, dependent on love or subject to the lack of love. How about you?

I hope W.H. Vanstone can sum it up and inspire you in this last quote (which is full of his  passive voice and his unassertive assertions). Your suffering has meaning, too. Your waiting for the impossible to occur is also like Jesus. Your patience in the face of tragic circumstances, your vulnerability, is also a vehicle for the love of God. Your passion is like God’s passion!

The divine image we bear may be an image of passion no less than of action; for the God Who is disclosed in Jesus in the One Who hands Himself over to be affected by the world, to receive the impact and the meaning of the world, to wait upon the world. It is of this God that we bear the image – an image that includes passion no less than action, waiting no less than working. Now within our human experience there is one kind or occasion of waiting in which it is not too difficult to discern at least the faint image of the God Who waits; and that is the waiting to which we destine ourselves by loving. In the human figure who, because he loves, finds himself exposed and vulnerable to what may be done to him, the image of God Who is disclosed in Jesus is not unrecognizable: one might almost say that that figure seems a ‘holy’ figure.

Phillies lost, Fetterman won: What do we do after all that?

It has been such a bad few years for many of us! I think we will finally get a decent interpretation of what came over us before too long. But, right now, I think most of us are still a bit shell-shocked — I know 2020 started a series of traumas for me! Nevertheless, it seems like we’re finally perking up a bit — like how you feel when you’ve been sick for a week and you take a shower and wash the bed. I, for one, was recently taken up in the tornado of Bryce Harper and Dr. Oz — the former’s quirks and latter’s quack. And I am glad all that is over. What now?

The suggestions I am about to offer for “What now?” are hardly new ideas. But they are tried and true contrariness. It is true, isn’t it, that Americans think steaming on and making progress is reality and anything less than constant growth and achievement is mentally ill. If you don’t keep up with the madness of all that, you’re contrary.

I’m suggesting being contrary to madness like this: Goop’s “mind architect,” Peter Crone, counsels the folks at Muscle Intelligence to “create your reality to express your greatness.” Crone is also on Netflix’s Heal show, which says he “redesigns the subconscious mind that drives behavior to inspire a new way of living, from limitation and stress to freedom and joy.” And it is not just us looking for the shortest road to our personal perfection; in the Times of India, the headline reads: “Rewire your brain in just 21 days!”

I deeply appreciate how much we know about neuroplasticity these days and how we can change what feels unchangeable in us. Nevertheless, I regularly suggest to my avoidant, individualistic, wounded clients that taking charge (a la Peter Crone) and improving their “zone of control” in a new way is a positive rendition of the godlike project they’ve been failing at for years. Their “immanent frame” is the proverbial bubble (or tomb) they live in and feel obligated to gain power over. No amount of rewiring can permanently change that misperception. Let’s get out of the zone.

So my suggestions for what to do after the TV does not traumatize you every day lean toward being released (for a while, at least) from your preoccupation with imminent things beyond your control — like Swarber hitting a home run every time he gets up to bat, or like global warming and democracy being your personal responsibility. My suggestions lean toward being released to do something other than what you think you can control and relating to something immanent — being given over to something beyond you, something deeper, something communal, something that is more about love than calculation, something more mutual than contractual, something more at home in the present environment than faithfully making the factory run for future rewards. You get the idea. So here are my suggestions.

Rest

Joe Biden probably said it, I don’t know. But while he was crowing about not being as defeated as expected, he must have said “There is still a lot of work to do.” All politicians say that because it is a truism everyone believes around here. And it is true, work will always be there if work is all there is. Contrary to that bondage is sabbath, which is central to Christians and most other religious people – but, what do you think? Do about 10% of us actually practice such deliberate resting?  Even if you are super lazy, you probably feel guilty for resting; it is reputedly so unproductive! What would it mean for you to rest?

Get out of the media

I got to the point where I didn’t even like watching the Phillies – all that tension! I would not even follow the Eagles to Prime; I’d had enough. And I was so glad to not see Matt Cartwright commercials on YouTube! Poor Georgia! They are going to get a bonus month!

How about a semi media fast of some kind? Not just abstaining, necessarily, but doing better things. Try leafless forest bathing. Take a sick day – a sick of it day and get into the fall light and wind. Enjoy wearing a sweater. Call all your friends – leave cheery messages if they don’t answer; talk about them, not Trump, if they do answer. Make something: art, food, love. Read something fun.

Do something spiritual

There is only so much godlessness a person can take. Americans (and maybe everyone) think their government should save them. There is another way. I admit that most of my faith expression right now is personal or one on one. But why not go to a church meeting? I went to a meeting I might not return to last week. I found plenty of goodness and redemption in it. And I did something.

Write or sing a prayer song – or listen to one if that is the best you can do. Read that serious book that’s been laying there – here are my Goodreads suggestions. Talk to someone about where your heart is post-pandemic. This is so important! If you are married, have you even brought this up as a topic yet? Will a friend listen to you?

Face something personal, not just existential

I am not talking about perfecting your avoidance with any of these suggestions. But I do think we are so eager to control our environments (or so overwhelmed by not being able to do so), we are in a general state of anxiety which generally feels terrible. Given how little I like Mr. Crone, I might avoid an internet-mediated processes for facing something personal. Instead, try sitting quietly for an hour and taking an inventory of what feels good and what does not. You don’t have to take a test to do this. Let the thoughts and feelings rise from what you already know or what God will show you. Gently examine what you think and feel. Take one thing that needs some help and do something. Forgive someone. Clean up your desk. Consider how you use porn. Have that conversation. Make a connective gesture.

Prep for the holidays

Have the holidays at the level you choose, but choose. Holidays should be holy, but even if they are not, they certainly should take days. I know it is irritating when Mariah Carey starts again (another thing I can’t wait to be over every year). But how about not looking at all the bad stuff, not gritting your teeth and getting through the holiday season? This would be a great year to make a plan for what you want to do with the season and doing what you want to do, rather than having “one more thing” you have to deal with. We’re needy this year.

Get a head start on 2023

What do you really want to be and do next year? I don’t mean what should you be and do, but what do you desire? What’s more, what can you really do? Americans generally respond to new years by making plans and having resolve. I have one acquaintance who makes a plan to get drunk and usually succeeds! But most of us make a plan to get paid somehow and proceed accordingly.

Am I being too hard on us? Don’t we think that doing something for free is a waste of time? Aren’t we’re generally a very contractual bunch? A partner in a couple I counseled realized, “I don’t want to forgive, so I decided no one needs to forgive me” — give up on reconciliation and all sorts of problems get solved! Some people don’t want to feel guilty, so they go with Peter Crone’s advice to “name yourself perfect as you are.” So, in looking toward the new year, you may have already said, “I don’t want to be disappointed in myself or in 2023, so I will not have any expectations.”

When I say “Get a head start on 2023” I’m not talking about revving up for a productive year. I’m talking about being content, happy, joyful – somewhere on that spectrum, and getting started on that. Get ready for a year of heartfelt goodness and love, and a glimpse of the truth. What can I loosen up? What step can I take? What long-term reformation can I begin? What stirs me, just thinking about what might come after all this?

 

Three ways to stop the argument in your head

Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.

This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.

Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.

Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!

Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .

Shutting off an internal argument

These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.

  • Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
  • Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
  • Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
  • Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
  • If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
  • Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.

Working through the feelings

These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.

  • Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
  • Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
  • Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
  • Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.

Having a healing interpersonal process

These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.

  • Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
  • Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
  • Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
  • It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.

 What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?

Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably  would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.

If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.

For light where the darkness is deep

Oct 29 moon

Don’t give up, stars!
Shine through the night,
through the CO2,
around the airplanes,
over the missiles and drones.

Don’t give up moon!
Rise over the divided nation,
over the atomized children
fingering their elusive controls,
taking a drug to save or salve
their isolated souls,
afraid to look into the endless sky,
averse to wonder oversold, overun.

Don’t give up on us light!
Surround my children with hope.
Sneak into dark rooms and dark thoughts.
Surprise people when the beauty
they visited comes home with them.

I light my candle defiantly,
like Galadriel fighting orcs,
like MLK loving racists,
like Francis bleeding
at the mouth of his cave —
Elijah listening, Ignatius surrendering,
Neanderthals painting in the flicker.

I light it for everyone stuck in their bunker today,
for all the once-were, could-be saints
suffering in their self-imposed shadow,
walled in by trauma, spite, cynicism, despair,
who gave up on the stars,
who never love the moon anymore.

Touch them, touch me, touch us all
with your mysterious presence,
Light of the World!
It is dark enough,
drought has cleared the sky enough
for stars to make us dizzy
from looking up for once,
looking beyond for twice,
and seeing right into the Third Day.

You might be a green martyr sprouting despite your wound

ImageI was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual,  new place like an Anabaptish weed.

Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.

Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!

Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.

Red, white and blue/green martyrs

As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.

The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.

The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.

When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.

Red

We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo VadisThat clip still gets my own blood stirred up.

White

By the 3rd  and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”

In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade

Green

The Celtic Church added  the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green of blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).

The martyr colors need an update

The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.

The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.

The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.

Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people  I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.

Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.

St. Anne and the forgotten grandmothers we need

Saint Anne ca.750 Faras Cathedral (Nubia) in present-day Sudan

The wall painting of St. Anne, above, from the now-submerged Faras Cathedral, was saved from the waters of Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia in Sundan) in the early 1960’s as Aswan Dam came into service. Polish archaeologists discovered her under the plaster of more recent redecorators. Now Anne is secured in Warsaw in the Polish National Museum. She looks like she might still be pondering what happened to her.

No one knows why she is holding a finger to her lips. She could be encouraging silence for prayer. Or she could be modeling a common pose for praying, guarding one’s lips against the entrance of evil.  I think it is fine if you invent whatever meaning suits you, since Anne is an invention herself. The purported mother of Mary, entered history in the late 100’s or early 200’s when the author of the Gospel (or Protoevangelium) of James added her to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Legendary or not, St. Anne became a very popular saint by the late Middle Ages in Europe and is still widely venerated. Where I come from in Southern California, the friars among the Portolá Expedition were naming mountains on her feast day in 1769.  So we have the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Ana River flowing from them (or so they thought), which leads to the present day city of Santa Ana, near Disneyland. In the early 1800’s the Moraga expedition named the river that flows through the southern half of the Central Valley of California after Anne’s husband San Joaquin. Anne and Joachim are the grandparents of Jesus in popular imagination. As a grandparent myself, it is nice to vicariously feel necessary.

The Holy Kinship — Matthäus Gutrecht the Younger (c. 1500-1510). Philadelphia Museum of Art

I became interested in Anne as I read Margaret Guenther’s nice book about becoming old  called Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life. She uses Anne as a centering image for what she writes.

“Image” is an important word when it comes to Anne. She is not written about in the Bible, but she is depicted all over the Bible-for-illiterates: the medieval church building. When Guenther interpreted  the many images of Anne and the family that grew along with her legend in Medieval and Renaissance art,  she revealed scenes I wish were influencing the Jesus followers of today:

Typically, God the Father is in the sky, watching over the scene in the garden, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove directly over the Christ child. The matriarchal, earthly trinity is, of coure, comprised of Anne and Mary, with the child between them. It is an immensely satisfying picture of the union of divine and human.

At the heart of it sits the grandmother in the garden. If she is a typical grandmother, she is convinced that the child she holds is perfect, gifted, and beautiful. She has no trouble loving him unconditionally and his divinity is easily apparent to her, for grandmothers can see the divinity in every child even when the parents cannot.

Can you think of many Annes in the hagiography of popular culture today? The world did stop for Queen Elizabeth last month. Was she an outlier, or are there more? Oprah? Jill Biden?

I’m not sure our old people even want to be old people or display a lot of wisdom to call on. It seems like a lot of young people rarely even relate to their grandparents, who tend to pop in on their way to their latest destination, or who must be visted in Florida, or who just get in touch when they can’t master a new bit of virtuality.

Our own secret St. Anne

As soon as I saw St. Anne peering out of the Faras icon, I thought, “I think we have a picture of St. Anne I have been ignoring for over 40 years.” I had to ask if we still had it. It used to be over our fireplace in the old house; as it turns out, it is now in the bathroom off our guestroom. Here it is.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne — DaVinci

Whenever I looked at that painting, I thought of the dear freind who gave it to Gwen, and did not give much thought to St. Anne. Maybe I was not ready for her.

Anne is a commanding figure in DaVinci’s painting, but she is still, like many grandmothers, comfortably in the background. The action is all about what Mary is going to do about the baby Good Shepherd already going after sheep. I think Anne looks on with a serene confidence which speaks of knowing a lot about how things work, how to live, and how to die.

Anne is not only associated with the Holy Family of Jesus, which calls us to kinship and connection, people light a candle in front of her statue (or pay attention to spiritual directors like Margaret Guenther, writing in her old age) for many reasons.  Women consult her when they would like to conceive or can’t, since she, like Hannah, conceived miraculously in her old age. She’s all about healing and about the arts and crafts of homemaking. She is help for the troubles of birth and present for the blessings of a “good death.”

I have been known to light a few candles myself. I love being part of the communion of saints, historical and legendary, saints living (like you) and dead, saints closeted away in my DVD collection (where I found Francis on the 4th) or tucked away in European museums. I especially love Anne, right now, because she was, in her time, a much-needed antidote to too much patriarchy, as men made her daughter, Mary, a goddess instead of a human, like the rest of us (similar example). I also love her because Anne is a much needed encouragement in our time to pay attention to people who are wise, who can offer some direction in an overwhelming time. I wish all our ancient political leaders qualified as wise people, but they mainly serve the invisible hand. So it makes sense for us to search out the forgotten wise women in Christ hanging on the walls of our lives.

In the Catholic devotional universe, people pray for St. Anne’s favor and ask to be adopted as her grandchild. That may be effective sometimes and is undoubtedly well-intended. But diminishing Anne to an intercession tool might undermine the teaching of all those paintings. Grandmothers in the Spirit are grounded in the earth at the center of our extended birth and rebirth families. They are meaningful and they know it, and they make meaning. They are deeply rooted in the present age and the age to come. Their appreciation for eternity rubs off on us. They are finally content with the love they have and so enfold us in love. Their lively but enigmatic faces (a DaVinci speciality) lead us to look beyond what we normally see toward broader wisdom and beyond the present moment toward deeper lives and good deaths.

I hope your own grandmother was or is an Anne-like presence of faith, hope, love and communion. During the course of writing this I thought of grandmother Gwen and the dear friend in California who gave her the painting a long time ago. I hope people are seeking them out right now. Grandmother Margaret Guenther died in 2016, but she is still someone I listen to through her books. I have so much need for spiritual grandmother energy I may pull my kneeling bench into the bathroom and pray with St. Anne for a while!  She may not be a fact, but she embodies what we really need, and what people needed when they invented her. Who is waiting comfortably for you in the background of your life?

I believe in you: I’m rarely talking about me

It is still hard to fathom how I could have attended my 50th high school reunion last week! Some of my classmates had to take a good look at the yearbook picture on my name tag to figure out who I was. I hardly remember who I was myself. If you did not know me then, you probably can’t spot me above in the El Chasqui (yearbook)!

Just like in high school, Jo Glidewell (cheerleader, choreographer, enthusiast) and Kim Tomlinson (childhood buddy, artist, hambone) got me to do a song at the reunion. I reluctantly complied, just like I always did, and pulled out my big hit of 1971: “I Believe in You” from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Here is Robert Morse, who originated the role of J. Pierpont Finch, singing it and acting kind of cringy. (You can also hear Ferris Bueller and Harry Potter give it a go on YouTube).

My reunion performance was not a triumph. My wife tried to save me some embarrassment by complaining that it was just a bad song. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience.

I liked some of the interjections with which I decided to annotate the song. So I thought I would replay them for you. They speak of love and acceptance. It might encourage you to know that believing and community still exist. I found them in many places among the Chino High School Class of 1972.

A surprisingly meaningful song

When I played the part of Finch in our very own high school musical, I sang “I Believe in You” while staring straight into a spotlight which was supposed to represent a mirror. When my father saw that spotlight flash on my face, I imagine him thinking, “You still have time to get off that stage. Run before this song begins!” Meanwhile, I imagine my mother thinking, “ Finally, my years of living vicariously through this child are coming to fruit!” I found out later that sophomore girls were enjoying my star turn, as well, which was an unexpected bonus. BTW – The character I was playing was conceited, too.

FINCH:
Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.

I still remember how terrified I was to sing that line. But it was exhilarating too – like an acrophobe skydiving.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.

All my acting skill was applied to looking smooth, since, for sure, I had absolutely no trust in that young man crooning to himself in the pretend mirror.

Now there you are.
Yes, there’s that face.
That face that somehow I trust.
It may embarrass you too hear me say it.

Even though I was performing an embarrassing and badly organized reunion skit in poor circumstances (like Whoopi in Vegas), I was not really embarrassed, which says something about singing to a community which pretty much unconditionally accepts everyone at this point. The old people at the 50th loved their small town and were no longer divided up by clique and race so much. They would have applauded any and all in the clan and not felt hypocritical at all (and clap they did).

It may embarrass you too hear me say it.
But say it I must,
Say it I must

Kim was sitting up front as I did my thing holding her guitar (“I Believe in You” is not a guitar song) and chiming in on her kazoo a bit. In sixth grade we also sang a song at our commencement. It feels very warm to be doing something silly with an old friend for the umpteenth time. I think we all felt we could use more of that kind of thing. You probably do, too.

You have the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet, there’s that up turned chin
And the grin of impetuous youth.

At this point in the performance, I was already realizing that although there was plenty of song left, I was not going to sing it. But I told them how these lines ended up being surprisingly accurate. Maybe I was type cast: Seeker, yes. Impetuous, yes.

The following summer I would be an exchange student in Indonesia. Once there. my seeking fueled a major turn in my life’s direction. In my senior year, I became fully depressed and a full-on adult Christian. By the time I “came out” as a Jesus follower in college, I was well on my way to becoming a pastor and church planter. That seems impetuous even now.

Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you.

I did not believe in me. But I certainly came to know who I could believe in, and still do.

I grabbed Kim’s hand as a symbol of what these final lines meant to me.

And when my faith in my fellow man
Oh but falls apart,
I’ve but to feel your hand grasping mine
And I take heart,
I take heart.

I have mostly lived in cities my whole life. But scrappy, relatively poor, small-town Chino, before it was gobbled up by the mega L.A., did me a lot of long-lasting good. They are my fellow people. And my people were at this reunion. Some had gone on to become very successful and wealthy. Most of us were glad we kept a job. Many of my people had deepened their faith, like me, which made the community even sweeter. I told them folks all over the country had heard stories about them and envied my sweet upbringing. I think our time together was the classic, “We don’t have much, but we have each other” kind of experience we did not know we were having when we first lived it.

In the fractious, perilous world my generation has given humanity, it is good to know that people can still love each other and focus on the community which binds them together rather than the powermongering that tears them apart. It might be a good idea to look around in your past too, and see all the good that might be hidden under the debris of all your worry and troubles. It was good for me. The goodness I found is a nice place to come from.

Lone Goose

The lone goose I sometimes see
draws me into the air with him
away from all the noise of the flock,
for a while away from flutter and clamor.

They call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you draw lovers into your sky,
your huge, blue, true atmosphere.
And I feel your wind ruffle my feathers;
your sun gently warms my back.

The lone goose will not stay gone long,
but long enough to see with a bird’s eye
a view so hard to find down among the trees,
missing the forest, stuck on winding roads.

I call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
since you raise me up with him into wonder —
that wounded, unwound next,
where I meet my instinct for home
and call the place it leads me new.

I know the goose will soon be back with the rest —
“It is not good for goose to be alone” —
back with freedom under his wings
and the nourishment of silence in his soul.

We call your Spirit the Wild Goose,
brooding over us with release, wooing us into the breeze,
gliding in from unknowing to land on my lake
and splash me with your strange flight pattern,
raising me out of my impending entombment.

My wings brush the clouds as they roll back
and I plunge into unexpected new light.
We’ll be back to flustered flight and noisy mooring,
but always in the memory of soaring.

 

Want to hear me read it?

Avoidant attachment style: Why you might be developing one

Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since  they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.

There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook.  Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.

What is attachment style?

I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles  and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title:  An attachment perspective on psychopathology).

Paula Pietromonaco, Nancy Collins, Phil Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, Sue Johnson, Roger Kobak at an adult attachment conference in 2002

You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.

Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.

When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.

I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed.  People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.

Click for Anxiety Canada

Avoidance

I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.

According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.

Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is  something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.

Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.

Becoming less avoidant

Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,

According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.

Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.

View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.

Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.

Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.

The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes.  Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.

Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style  (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.

Evil: N.T. Wright helps you think it through, again

Friends, clients, and loved ones were wrestling with their experiences of evil this week. One was attacked at work and felt guilty, but then realized the accusations were so irrational, they might be evil.

Another watched The Comey Rule series on Netflix and was reintroduced to the evil ways of Donald Trump. Another was overwhelmed by the sheer extent of evil that has gone into the production of climate change. Another was disheartened because the church is not better than the world and seems as subject to the aforementioned evils as anyone else.

Have I already used the word “evil” too much for you? Or is it still OK to name it where you come from? Last week, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, both claiming to be practicing Catholics, used immigrating Venezuelans to own the libs in Barack Obama’s playground. Did you call that evil? Name it a political stunt? Call it illegal human trafficking? Consider it an appropriate response to an onslaught of border crossers? Did you sink into confusion? Stay uncommitted? Remain avoidant? Evil is harder to identify than one might think and even harder to deal with, especially in an environment in which it is often a word you’d be embarrassed to say. Maybe you haven’t said “Jesus” in polite company in a while, either.

I was companioning someone in their spiritual growth not long ago and they broke into tears because of the evil done to them. They were “triggered” by their church’s feckless response to the present evils that threatened them. They asked, “Why does God allow evil to flourish if he loves us?”

Exodus 1952-66 by Marc Chagall. Used for the cover of the Chinese version.

Why is there evil?

Brilliant people have been answering that question for centuries, ever since European Christians wanted their theology to compete with every philosopher that popped up. Why is there evil and why doesn’t God save me from it all if Jesus saves? That’s the perennial question. I still like N.T. Wright’s stab at dealing with it in his book Evil and the Justice of God. I rarely think his applications have as much genius as his theologizing, but I think he was mainly gifted to think well for us, so that’s OK. Here is a summary of the book, if you like.

Spoiler alert. People criticize Wright for answering the perennial question by not answering it. He says the Bible doesn’t answer it, which leads him to believe he doesn’t need to either — what is beyond us is beyond us. He is much more interested in talking about what God is doing about evil than what, exactly, and why it is. God’s action in response to evil is a topic the Bible exhaustively explores. Likewise, the Bible leads us to learn what we should do about it, since “the line between good and evil runs through each one of us” [video including Jesus, Solzhenitsyn, and many others].

I thought about Wright when my comrades were lamenting and I was confronted with the question again, which usually feels like a temptation to me – “Why is there evil and why didn’t Jesus fix it for me?” Wright does a better job at what I am about to try, when he tries to get behind what we feel about facing evil in us and around us. But here is a small bit of thinking to keep evil in your sights before it overwhelms you.

God judging Adam — Wiliam Blake. Used for the audible version

Back to Adam and Eve

Demanding an answer to the questions “Why is there evil if the creator is good?” and “Why am I experiencing evil if our loving Savior has already defeated it?” is a lot like the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden.

God: Why did you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Adam: The woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault.

Somehow the dialogue about good and evil usually ends with shame and blame.

The argument goes on, something like this. We would know; we’re often replicating it.:

God: Why did you choose evil?
Adam: I wouldn’t have had the choice if you had not offered it. You’re God, after all.  Why did you supply it? Besides, I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. It is happening everywhere.
God: But aren’t your questions more important to you than my love? Didn’t you choose the question?

The deepest expression of the image of God in us is love. God is love. God is not you or your knowledge or your control or your safety. The power of the knowledge of good and evil will not protect you from others, yourself, or God.

Roku has been playing a film of a live performance of the musical Heathers in which a high school couple sings “Our Love Is God.” The thought of it was creepy when I first heard it sung and keeps getting moreso as the play goes on. The power struggle in us destroys and destroys.

The Garden dialogue went on, and goes on in us, something like this:

God: As my friend who I gave this garden, as my loved one, you greeted my question with skepticism and reproach. You set yourself up as my judge, and your own. You ate the fruit.
You prefer the control you gain by staying ignorant and miserable instead of being receptive and humble before the unknown. You don’t trust me.

Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:

It will [always] be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but [in the end] they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk.

I have often said to myself, and to others, in the middle of these questions and answers, “If evil were not happening around you, you would invent it. You are just like Adam and Eve. If we dare to look, we can see how we perpetuate the loveless habits of our childhood self-protection schemes. We can’t part with the patterns because we think we’ll lose ourself without them. Every day we get mad at people we can’t control and keep protecting against the terrible feelings of need we have and rebel against the demand to trust, hope and care.

If you want more on the themes of political and corporate aspects of evil, Wright might suggest Engaging the Powers, by Walter Wink. For thoughts on forgiveness, see Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf. For answers to the problem of evil in modern thought, see Evil in Modern Thought, by Sue Neiman or The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann.

If you want to follow Wright into what God is ultimately going to do about evil, you could check out his most accessible book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  In it, he does a final takedown on Greek philosophy and offers a vision of eternal life that matches the Bible better than what most of us have been taught. If you are tired of thinking about how terrible the world is, how evil is at the door, this book might encourage you by opening up a good thinker’s vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It is better.