Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love or the Ax?

Anyone who knows me or who reads my blog with any regularity can tell you that one of my favorite movies is Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Actually, it's kind of a joke among my friends that I quote the film more than I quote the Bible.

One particular reason for my fondness of the film is that it captures a single but important tension that I have struggled with now for years. Not long after Jesus is baptized in the film, he is sitting with John the Baptizer discussing the tension between the love of Yahweh and the wrathful judgment of Yahweh:

Later, when Jesus is driven into the desert and is tempted, he comes to the realization that the "tree is rotten to the core," and receives a vision of John, who shows him an ax and an apple tree, which Jesus proceeds to chop down.

Upon returning to the disciples from this period of solitude, Jesus proclaims, "God is inside of us. The devil is outside of us, in the world all around us. We'll pick up an ax, and we'll cut the devil's throat. We'll fight him wherever he is: in the sick, in the rich. Even in the temple. I'll lead you. If you have sheep, give them away. If you have family, leave them. I believed in love. Now I believe in this..." He punctuates his point by brandishing an ax.

To me, almost all Christian belief boils down to the question of what medium we choose to deliver the message. Love? or the Ax?

Jesus? or John the Baptizer?

Oh yeah? Well to Hell with you! Literally!
One of the reasons I appreciate Scorsese's depiction of John the Baptist is that I have a huge fondness for the Hebraic tradition of prophecy. When I was in college I began to study the Minor Prophets, because since we didn't talk about the prophets much in church, my only understanding of them was that they were judgmental and wrathful. They probably wanted to send you to Hell for premarital sex, or cussing too much, or something.

But what I found in the Prophets was the continual painful admission that we live in a despicable world. Consider Amos, who is sent to Israel from Judah to call the rich out for trampling on the poor. Or Hosea, who is told to marry a prostitute, and to give his children names like "Not-My-People," and "Not-To-Be-Pitied," to symbolize Yahweh's estranged relationship with the Jews. Or think of Jeremiah, caught between an angry God and an angry people, sent as a young boy to bring a message of repentance to the Hebrew people—a message which ultimately costs him his life.

Living is painful, and that pain is usually brought on by our own rotten actions, or the rotten actions of those in power—in today's terms, think of banks that foreclose on the homes of the poor, or bankers and CEOs who still receive millions in yearly bonuses while people are starving on the streets of our country's cities. Or, in a more immediate sense, think of the hate or greed in our own hearts, and how that hurts the people around us.

I. am. PISSED. And I feel like God is too, and that God has something to say about it.

However, this can lead to closed-mindedness, fear, and more hatred. People are usually far too anxious to take on the role of prophet, which is why we have Chick tracts and bullhorns.

Jesus: "Trust me, this hurts me way more than it hurts you."
What about love? Is there a way of avoiding calling out the sins of the world, and instead simply trying to live out Christ's teaching to love our enemies? My heart sees the injustice of the world, and is disgusted by it. Do I attack with all my might and risk falling away from the love and humility of Jesus? Or do I practice love and humility instead of getting angry?

The problem is, I want to believe in both. I want to scream at all the injustice of the world. I want to chop the rotten tree down. I want to burn the infested forest until there is nothing but a pile of ash from which we can start over. I want to be a prophet.

But I also want to be like Jesus. I want to love my enemies. I want to practice self-control and discipline. I want to speak intimately with God as a friend. I don't want to worry about what tomorrow will bring. I want to forgive others.

The problem is, Jesus seems pretty conflicted on this whole struggle, himself. It doesn't take an in-depth reading of the gospels to see the things that enrage the Son of Man. Look no further than the so-called "cleansing of the Temple."

So which is it for you? Love? or the Ax?

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