Counting the Cost, or Provoking Persecution?

This morning’s sermon was from Luke 14, in which Jesus turns to the large crowds following him to Jerusalem and says “Whoever doesn’t hate…family…their own life…and give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple” (paraphrased).  His use of hyperbole here is just pointing out that these are things that are important enough to us that they might compete with the truth and life that Jesus preached.  Jesus knew that he was on his way to his own execution, and he was pretty sure that these eager followers weren’t quite aware of that fact.  So he told them two stories about people who were committing to large undertakings (building a tower, or fighting a battle) who had to “count the cost” of their endeavour.  Basically, Jesus was saying “are you sure you know what you’re getting into by following me?”

I think this is a great story, but I usually feel a little strange reading it in my own context.  There is no persecution of Christians in Canada, and  I won’t have my belongings seized if I’m seen going to church (which is something that happened to early Christians).  But then, in Jesus’ own day there was relative religious freedom as well: as a Jew, Jesus had the freedom to worship in ways not permitted to other peoples conquered by Rome.  And Jesus kept the feasts, attended synagogue, and upheld every other mainstream religious observance of the Jews.  So did his disciples and apostles.  The only things they did not do were the pious observances of the Pharisees, and lots of people didn’t do those things; surely that was not why Jesus was killed.

I come from a Christian family, so there’s no need to `hate` my family; I haven’t lost relationships due to my allegiance to Christ, and in fact I seem to have gained the respect of even my atheist friends because of the little bit that Christ shines through me.  And while I’m  willing to give up my worldly possessions, I don’t have many of those – and we all know that we should probably give more, but don’t anyway.  So there don’t seem to be real connections in most of this section to my actual life.

This troubles me.

This troubles me because I know that the system that nailed Jesus to a cross still exists in many different ways.

I’ve heard a lot of preachers talk about how the gospel is supposed to be “offensive” and that if we aren’t being persecuted it’s because we aren’t actually preaching the gospel.  Now, most of the time the people preaching this imply that the gospel will make us offensive to our neighbours because they will not appreciate our moral lifestyles.  This strikes me as disingenuous: Ned Flanders is annoying, but people don’t persecute him and his family because they’re honest and kind, even when it’s seemingly to a fault.  But this is the only sense we can make of the New Testament if our religious framework is entirely moral.  It says that people will persecute Christians, so if Christianity is all about being moral, then people must hate us for our morality, right?  But what if, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, Christianity is profoundly ethical but distinctly amoral?  Or, barring that, what if morality simply wasn’t what Jesus died for?

While I feel strange reading this text in my own context because there’s nothing in my world that will persecute me just for being a Christian, it makes me look at Jesus’ context too.  As I said earlier, he was actually free to worship the way he wanted, just because he was Jewish.  He irritated people by his morality, but more often than not it was his seeming lack of morality that infuriated his enemies – because he ate with sinners and the unwashed poor.  No, what got him killed was not his religious identity or his religious morality, it was his religiousethics.  This passage about counting the cost doesn’t make sense outside of the ethical question.

So I’m  left with the question: why am I not persecuted?  I was told today that it’s quite possible for God to place me in a context in which I don’t need to be, and I’m thankful if that’s simply the case; but as I said earlier, the system that nailed Jesus to the cross still exists.  Governments haven’t become perfectly just; economies are still extremely unbalanced, moreso now than they have been in quite a long while; and there are still theologies floating around that ensnare people in a web of legalism, or materialism, or other things that blot out the freedom of Christ.  If Jesus were here and now instead of in ancient Palestine, I’m  not sure his story would end all that much differently (though he probably would have been on terror watch lists and eventually imprisoned and held without charges, rather than arrested and immediately executed).  But Jesus isn’t here in the same way he was there; I’m  here in his place, but I’m not doing what he did.  Jesus was teaching the people how to get out from under their oppressors, and when questioned, he openly denounced the systems that oppressed them.  He didn’t join any particular movement or party, but he spoke out for what was right, no matter the cost.

My moralist theology doesn’t require that of me, and so I am not persecuted.  The implication of this is that, if I’m  not doing what Jesus did, then I may not even be a disciple – because when I count the cost, I get zeroes in every column.  Being a Christian has cost me nothing, mostly because I don’t actually do anything.  It’s not that I want to be persecuted – I sure don’t! – but that by Jesus’ standard I haven’t actually followed him through the parts of discipleship that are costly.  I’m one of the people in the crowd who’s excited to go to Jerusalem, not knowing that it’s a death march because I haven’t actually been paying attention to what Jesus has been doing, and I haven’t actually committed to doing likewise.

I recognize, of course, that I don’t have the public profile that Jesus had – that because I don’t have his level of influence I should not expect the same level of backlash.  Of course I recognize that.  My circles are almost entirely Christian, so there isn’t much of a culture clash to deal with.  I live in the middle of Mennonite territory, so when it comes to being counter-cultural in regard to worldly systems of economy and materialism I’m  a rank amateur.  I may live my entire life in relative obscurity, and the suggestion that I count the cost may always end with a low tally; if that’s what God has for me, so be it!  But what troubles me perhaps more than my recognition that Jesus’ ethics are the costly part of discipleship and that I haven’t been living them is that the only backlash I get as a Christian is for suggesting this very thing, that we be willing to live with such radical ethics that they draw the attention and backlash of the system.  I don’t feel persecuted by Christians, but sometimes people roll their eyes when I tell them I bought a book by Noam Chomsky or Elizabeth May, or kindly warn me against any sort of radical ethic and remind me of the goodness of God in that I’m  not persecuted.  We’ve become used to a theology that demands much of us personally and almost nothing publicly, and by suggesting otherwise I suppose I’m  rocking the boat.  I’m  very far from persecuted, but my answer to Jesus’ ethic is too radical to be comfortable, so it provokes some opposition.  I imagine that if I were to continue to insist upon a more radical ethic, the opposition would get stronger.  I pray that this is not the case.

Jesus’ first opposition was from his own people too.  I don’t find that particularly comforting.


Gods and Gaming: A New Kind of Hero

Another comment on an old post about gaming made me decide to post this here.  Let me know what you think!


In the beginning, Tiamat the elder goddess of chaos found the younger gods to be noisy and annoying, and planned to kill them.

Terrified, they looked to the strongest among them, Marduk, to save them.  But Marduk was also crafty, and added a condition: if he saved them, he would be king of the gods.  They agreed, and he went to face Tiamat in battle.

The battle was suitably epic.  Faced with a much larger, older, and more powerful foe, Marduk managed to overcome the odds.  He let his guard down for a moment, and when Tiamat (often portrayed as a sea monster, Leviathan) opened her massive jaws to finish him, he used his godly power to force the wind down her throat, blowing up her belly like a balloon; then he shot her in the belly with an arrow, popping that balloon.

You know, like how Richard Dreyfuss killed the shark in Jaws.

From the messy corpse of Tiamat, Marduk crafted the world and its inhabitants.  And so you see, order comes from the forceful suppression of chaos, and life is born out of violence.

This is the Babylonian creation myth, and it’s inescapably woven into our culture.  From it, we get our concept of what it means to be a hero: be stronger and craftier than your enemies, meet violence with greater violence, and rely on your ideals and virtues to justify your actions.  Violent suppression of violence, in the name of peace.  Theologian Walter Wink refers to this narrative as “the myth of redemptive violence”.

Of course, it sounds negative when you say it like that.  But really, that’s the story we’re told over and over again, in novels and comics and movies, but perhaps more in video games than anywhere else.  Video games involve us like no other medium: while a movie or novel lets us act out the part of the hero vicariously, video games put us in that role almost completely.  We get all of the hero action, with none of the mortal danger!

But our desire to be part of this hero narrative isn’t just in our cultural media.  We do it in church, too.  I’m writing this on a Sunday night, and I have a song from this morning’s service stuck in my head: “You are a mighty warrior, dressed in armour of light!  Crushing the deeds of darkness, lead us on in the fight!  Through the blood of Jesus, victorious we stand!”  We hold evangelistic “crusades”, we practice “spiritual warfare”, and we sing “Onward Christian Soldiers!”  We seem to incorporate the Babylonian myth of redemptive violence even into our religion.

We’re not the first.  The Bible occasionally refers to God in this sort of way – we call it “the divine warrior motif”.  But there’s a very important distinction to be made: when the Bible portrays God as a divine warrior, it’s usually being ironic.  It’s giving a nod to the myth of redemptive violence, acknowledges that it’s there, and then sweeps its legs out from underneath it.  Here’s how.

First, the myth of redemptive violence is based on a sense of struggle that goes all the way back to creation: the world was created from the bloody corpse of an elder goddess, and from a violent matricide all mortal life is born.  All creation myths of the Ancient Near East have some form of this, except for Israel’s: our God creates the universe with a word.  Our God is not an underdog who must overthrow the oppression of chaos by violent means; God is the perfection of power, and there are no forces who can stand against God except by the grace of God’s mercy.  Peace and order do not come from violent struggle, but from the character of the God who creates them and continues to will them.  Violent struggle is not something that we inherit from God, but something that we create for ourselves.

Second, it uses violent symbols and images, but subverts the violence of those symbols with non-violent content.  Revelation portrays Jesus as riding on a white horse (classic symbol of [violent] good: the white knight) and leading armies to victory with a sword.  But the armies he leads are made up of the saints, who are wearing the white robes they were given for being willing to be martyrs – that is, they walked to their own execution for the sake of pledging allegiance to Christ rather than to the oppressive empire.  These are not warriors!  And Christ, the “rider on the white horse”, has a sword that comes from his mouth.  Our God doesn’t use violence to create the world, but words; our Lord doesn’t use violence to destroy his enemies, but words.  Revelation says that we have overcome Satan “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their [our] testimony” (12:11).  We don’t use violence to overcome evil, we use words.  So the form of the literature is violent, and in that way it fits right in with the myth of redemptive violence; but the meaning of the text undercuts that violent mythology.

So what does this mean for us?  We’re surrounded by the myth of redemptive violence: American culture in particular is deeply rooted in it, and it finds its way into the church and even the Bible itself.  Obviously we can’t avoid it, but should we embrace it?  The Bible uses the form of the myth to undermine the myth, and as long as we do too, it’s not particularly bad or harmful.  The trouble is, we have a long history of seeing the form and missing the meaning; we use the tongue-in-cheek violence of the Bible as justification for real-life violence against others, forgetting that we serve a God who’d rather die for what’s right than fight for it.  We let the myth get under our skin, and buy the lie that says that violence is the only way we can really protect the light, the good, even peace itself – as if those things are anything but the gift of God, freely given.  All good things come from God; do we need to protect God?

As for video games: they allow us to act out the role of the violent hero, and that can be good or bad.  We seem to have a built-in desire to be this kind of hero, even when Christ (our true hero) is the opposite.  But when I say built-in, I don’t mean we’re born with it, but rather that we’re taught it from our first G.I. Joe action figures.  Maybe gaming is a positive outlet for this urge, and playing Battlefield is keeping us off of real battlefields.  Maybe gaming reinforces the myth of redemptive violence, and keeps us looking for heroes like Marduk rather than like Christ.  Or maybe it’s all in good fun, just a rush, and has no real effect on us.  In order for that to be the case, we need to remember what kind of a hero we serve; we need to remember that we are not literally “Christian soldiers” armed with a “sword” and buffed for battle by the blood of the lamb; we need to remember that a true hero walks to his or her own death for the sake of truth and justice, not just to battlefields to fight about it.

Maybe when we can get this idea of heroism into our heads, our games will change because the violence won’t feel so justified and satisfying anymore.  In the meantime, play critically: what’s the meaning behind the violence in your games?  There are plenty out there that are full of meaning, but there are also many that are seemingly meaningless.  Are we just taking on the role of Marduk, again and again?  Or are our games, like the Bible, using the form of violence to undermine the myth of redemptive violence?