Jesus wept

On Monday evening, at Donald Trump’s final campaign rally before the election, Donald Trump, Jr declared, ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ Of course, this is a play on the worn-out ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, but with an added twist!

The narrative peddled by Donald Trump and company is that the United States is an inherently conservative nation and the so-called ‘liberals’ are pedantic outliers and sore losers, and that these people actually hate America. In reality, it can be argued that the United States is a ‘liberal’ nation. Do you find that difficult to believe? Here are some figures:

Perhaps one might believe that these polls cannot be trusted. Granted, polls like these always have margins of error, but it cannot be denied that a large swathe of the American population supports policies that are associated with liberal ideals. This 2020 election is a very tangible demonstration of the fact that the United States is not wholly one position or the other with regard to the narrow spectrum represented by ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels in the country. This matters because, in expressing a desire for liberals to ‘cry again’, Donald Trump, Jr is making clear that the Trump campaign is not in the business of uniting the United States. This isn’t news — Donald Trump’s disparaging views regarding anyone who disagrees with him are well-established.

Donald Trump paints himself as the voice of ‘true America’. He speaks of how good he has been for women and people of colour, but the poll numbers seem quite clear and these demographics have expressed their verdict. By and large, women and people of colour do not believe that another Donald Trump presidential term would benefit their interests. A side note – if you feel the need to retweet when the odd woman or person of colour expresses their admiration for you, you might be a sexist and a racist.

With regard to the desire to ‘make liberals cry again’—beyond it being but one example of serial juvenile bullying from the Trump camp—I feel the need to express that this is not a Christian view. (I relate this to faith since Donald Trump, Jr has expressed that liberals hate Church.) From a more neutral perspective, perhaps it is possible to say that there is no virtue in wishing for (or taking pleasure in) the sorrow or misfortune of others.

This morning, I spent some time reflecting on the story of someone crying, namely (as this blog post’s title suggests), Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking around Palestine, upsetting the powerful and empowering the poor — you know, as he does. At the beginning of the 11th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are out in the wilderness, east of the River Jordan, where his cousin John had been baptising people. While he is there, he receives a notification from some of his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha. They inform him that their brother, Lazarus, is very unwell. They do this in a very intimate way, writing, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Mary and Martha assume that Jesus, who had demonstrated this specific power at other times (especially in 9.1-12), is able to make Lazarus well again, but for them, time is of the essence.

Perhaps unusually, Jesus does not rush to their aid. He states, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (11.4). The Gospel continues: ‘Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ (11.5-6).

To provide a little geographical context, Jesus is probably in a place called Bethany (‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’, 1.21; modern-day Al-Maghtas, Jordan). Mary, Martha and Lazarus are in another Bethany (modern-day Al-Eizariya, Palestine) just outside of Jerusalem. As the crow flies, the two are about 60 kilometres (approximately 38 miles), or a day’s journey from each other. Therefore, when Jesus and his disciples finally reach Mary and Martha, it is likely that four days had elapsed since the sisters’ message was sent.

When he reaches Bethany, he is first approached by Martha who expresses, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ (11.21-22). Here, Martha is demonstrating an immense amount of faith, believing that this man somehow possesses the ability to heal people.

Some might discredit this sort of belief in ancient times because it is assumed that people back then were somehow more superstitious or gullible. But just as this sort of healing is not something that happens in our present experience (speaking generally – I have my beliefs, but I cannot discredit others’ experiences), in the same way, it was not something that happened in their ancient experience.

Martha entertains the possibility of some other demonstration of Jesus’ power, but doesn’t seem to be able to put the specific words together: ‘Jesus, I know you can raise him from the dead.’ Maybe she wanted to say that. She was in a desperate situation and in desperation people can be open to a whole range of possibilities that would have otherwise been impossibilities. In her grief, maybe she just can’t accept that this ‘avoidable’ death is here to stay.

Up to this point in the narrative, Jesus is demonstrating a degree of nonchalance that makes others uncomfortable. He speaks of God’s glory and God’s power to do the extraordinary, but those around him seem more concerned with immediate action. When Mary finally catches up with him, she falls at his feet and says, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (11.32). Whatever modicum of faith that Martha had expressed in the open-ended suggestion that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, Mary’s devastation stops her faith at the former statement: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Mary shows a large degree of faith, but that faith is somehow incomplete.

Mary breaks down in tears and is surrounded by a company of mourners, all weeping. The Gospel states, ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’ (11.33) He is then shown Lazarus’ tomb and begins to weep (11.35). This verse (translated historically as the supposed shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept’), has been interpreted by many as a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion, empathy and grief. Indeed, the mourners with Mary seem to share this understanding when they look at Jesus and say, ‘See how he loved [Lazarus]!’ (11.36).

I am not suggesting that Jesus is lacking in compassion, empathy or grief, but I believe that the cause of his particular grief in this episode is not over the death of Lazarus. Jesus does love Lazarus, but all throughout the chapter he has demonstrated no urgency. He is not concerned about reaching Lazarus before his death. When he is approached by Martha, he explains calmly that this is not the end for Lazarus.

Why would Jesus then cry for the man he knew he was going to raise from the dead in a matter of moments? My argument is that he would not. Instead, it is his observation of Mary’s response that causes him to break down. The oddity of interpreting Jesus’ weeping as grief for Lazarus is highlighted in the very text. Among the mourners, some are inconsolable, while others see Jesus weeping and question, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (11.37). These individuals are perplexed at the incongruity between Jesus’ power and his perceived powerlessness.

If Jesus was not weeping for Lazarus, why then was he weeping? At the very least, I believe the text demonstrates that he was weeping because these people believed that while he was able to heal a blind man (9.1-12) and while he might have been able to keep Lazarus from dying, Lazarus’ death was, for all intents and purposes, game over. Jesus was aware of what was about to transpire. While he was still at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, he said to his disciples, ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’ (11.15). Even his disciples did not yet believe he was able to do anything about Lazarus’ death. This is evidenced by Thomas’ follow-up, demonstrating an understanding that a return to Judea would bring about their own deaths at the hands of the authorities (11.16).

When looking at the whole of the Fourth Gospel, one can find a wide range of things that would disturb Jesus more than this incident in Bethany. For example, he would have known that Thomas was right, to some extent: a move toward Jerusalem would be a move closer to his death at the hands of the authorities. In the section immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some observers see this impossible act and report to the religious leaders, who continue in their plot to have Jesus killed. Therefore, it is possible to see that Jesus was also grieving for the challenges ahead. If his followers did not entertain the possibility that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, what hope would they have when it came to Jesus’ own death? I believe that this is why Jesus wept.

Throughout my reflection on John 11, I have thought about the words of Donald Trump, Jr. ‘Let’s make liberals cry again!’ While the Trump campaign might assume that liberals will cry because of the overwhelming victory for conservative America, ‘true America’, I posit two alternative reasons.

I wouldn’t like to call myself a ‘liberal’, though I can see how a lazy assessment and pigeon-holing of my beliefs might lead some to the conclusion that I am a liberal. (Others might feel the need to place me in the ‘conservative’ camp due to my beliefs in a divine being and in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.) But whoever wins this election, I may weep.

In case you weren’t sure, I shall now put my ‘cards on the table’.

If this presidential election goes to Joe Biden, I may weep with joy because of the end of a sustained assault on the basic humanity of the country of my birth perpetrated by an individual and the poisonous social climate he has helped to propagate. I may weep with joy because I will be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about the onslaught of misinformation and abuse tweeted by the Commander-in-Chief and analysed by seemingly every news source in the world. Don’t get me wrong — a President Biden would have every opportunity to disappoint and deceive. The difference is that I believe that Joe Biden represents a very different, far more dignified, diplomatic and fair ideology, one in which the cry of the oppressed will have more opportunities to be heard in the halls of power. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with joy.

If this election goes to Donald Trump, I may weep for very different reasons.

Last night, while I was languishing in election results at 04.00 GMT, I was following alongside one of my brothers who lives in California. I had told myself that I wouldn’t stay up: ‘There’s no point. We won’t know the results for a week.’ But with so much riding on this presidential election, I gave in.

Earlier in the evening, I told my brother that I would ‘eat my hat if Trump wins Texas’. I thought it unlikely, but I began to entertain the idea of making a hat out of bread and consuming it. The light-heartedness persisted, but by 04.00, it had come mask my growing anxiety. My wee brother—though we probably occupy somewhat different political positions—offered consolation, because he is a sweetheart. He told me that he was sorry for the direction of the results. In response, I told him something along the lines of:

Don’t be sorry for me. Be sorry for the hundreds of thousands who will die because of Donald Trump’s pandemic policies. Be sorry for the hundreds of children who are separated from their parents and are forced to live in camps. Be sorry for people with pre-existing conditions who will have their healthcare stripped. Be sorry for the blacks who will keep suffering oppression under a government that doesn’t believe in institutional racism. Be sorry for the people who will keep losing their homes and their lives due to climate change. Be sorry for the poor who are only getting poorer. Be sorry for a lot of other people, but not for me.

I admit that I am somewhat embarrassed by the dramatic tone, but this election is not about mere personal preferences. I believe that people’s lives are in the balance. I am heartbroken by the growing chasm between political factions. I will not weep because am a ‘snowflake’, nor will I weep because I am ‘liberal’. I may weep with anguish because I believe a better world is possible and I am of the conviction that a second presidential term for Donald Trump would be another step in the wrong direction. For these reasons and many more, I may weep with anguish.

As for now, we are all in that place of waiting. Are we waiting for Lazarus to die or are we waiting for Lazarus to be raised again? We shall see.

Lord have mercy.

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com
Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic. Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written. It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus. Please forgive me when I fail at this. All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’ Normally, I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click. Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’ I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me. But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational. Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends. I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them. With that expressed, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same. For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies while Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…). I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey. So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive? Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation? Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that. Many of my atheist friends might say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’. The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning. ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism. But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment. And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people. That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon. So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists. If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear. Now, despite his unpleasant demeanour, I’m starting to side with the dentist. Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’). I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post. It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq). But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist’s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you. If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better. But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense. In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure. This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence). The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world. And while there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society, or at least within the Christian religion. ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil. So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here. In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us. It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical. I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us. This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 16:13-17)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9). If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God. As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  (Luke 18:35-43)

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  (James 2:5)

I didn’t choose to become a Christian. Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly. It’s the same way with God. It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him. Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that the Western Church has just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus. This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human. As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14)

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19). It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen. God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up. God is here, in our midst. And yet, while I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens. I do believe that God cares. But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, while some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God. The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted. For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt. This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy. It’s never easy. The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it. One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’