Rethinking Sacrifice

Rethinking Sacrifice

What might the cross teach those who sacrifice too much, those who over-give of themselves? What can people learn who live with subtle and debilitating forms of deep resentment—even rage and shame—because they do not stand up enough for themselves? What about individuals who live under the impress of both structures and ideations adversely internalized? What about those of us (and it is almost all of us, in some way) who labor for others without tending to our own needs for rest, peace, and sincere affection? What about you?

Rev. Toby Sanders at Beloved Community in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo credit: Michael Mancuso/The Times of Trenton).

The cross is there for you too. It is an end to under-appreciating yourself and under-valuing yourself; a renunciation of the martyr complex, if you can see what Jesus does for you and endures for you. In one sense, here, at the cross, you are the point: there is a light at the cross. Jesus does something there for you—something you cannot do for yourself, something that you need done so that you can stop trying to get it from your work…a truly unconditional thing: a release.

One of the gravest mistakes of the tradition of faith that I walk and love
 is the valorization of the violence of the cross, mixed with a shallow celebration of the heroism of the spectacle. It makes many of us inordinately emphasize sacrifice as negation, asceticism as an idolatrous form of faith. This often leads us ironically to hunger to be recognized for our sacrifice. When we are not…it leads destructively to resentment, to vicious forms of passive-aggressiveness that masquerade as “help” but are really desperate measures to punish and control. Christians, I believe, are the worst when it comes to this.

The cross can be of great help here; but, it must be preached and taught properly. We need our greatest preachers and theologians to reflect on suffering and violence (overt and emotional forms) in ways that are life-giving and not “pornographic”—by this I mean ways that excite us deliciously but shallowly; stimulating us without building relationship; encouraging privatistic and consumerist spirituality: in a word, pornographic. Yes, pornographic violence because of what is hidden, the processes and instruments of the humiliation that serves us. We cover the most probable nakedness of Jesus on the cross—always! Why? It’s easier to celebrate a Disney-ized view of good and evil than to grapple with the self-critical reality that the cross actually represents.

At the core of this help is the real drama of the cross and crucifixion; the trial; the public humiliation; the comfort, courage and grace of several souls involved in the great story; but, centrally, the man who submits his own will to God’s in service of both his own fulfillment and the desire of his God—without rancor, bitterness, or shallow self-congratulatory or dishonest resignation.

Jesus is not a victim of history or theology. He is an agent of the reconciliation and the wholeness that deep change makes possible. Sacrifice is not an end. Rather, the giving of one’s self is a grace. If self-giving leads to emptiness and “crooked-twig” abusiveness it is not a grace: it is faith misguided, faith misused.

How does the cross teach us the limits of our own self-sacrificing? I am not entirely certain. I am still grappling with the centrality of violence in this spectacle…but I am certain that we do not need to be Jesus, but simply like him. I am sure that our crosses are specific to our fears and our callings; sure that our crosses are not an end in and of themselves. I am confident that healthy sacrifice does not require acknowledgement. Healthy sacrifice, instead, is intrinsically valuable for us as well as those we seek to serve. We each have a cross, a rightful one—not Golgotha’s, but our own. When we face our deepest fears we achieve a victory so deep that it inspires the grace we need to forgive, to endure, and to thrive without resentment or regret: wholeheartedly.

The light of the cross shines within us; the most truly heroic things we do are often small and insignificant to most people but work transformation in our lives and the lives of others. I am sure that pain is involved, but not destruction and that on the other side of real sacrifice is the negation of fear’s powers over us.

I am coming to the realization that some of us sacrifice too much. Some of us are asked to bear the costs for whole families, whole communities, and whole systems. This pressure misshapes us, often making us practitioners of abuse ourselves: self-abuse, unfairness, quiet, destructive, and often secret forms of resentment-driven despair—even rage—almost certainly rage in us or those we love the wrong way.

The cross of Jesus seeks to end the cycle of violence, the curse of fear and hatred. Sometimes our cross is facing and ending our victimhood. Our cross might be the pain and sadness we must face to end our own willingness to be used by others. Our cross could be facing own need to be thought of as good, right, helpful, noble, useful, or nice; to be thought of as the peacemaker, the good son, the good daughter, the good wife, the good friend. Our cross may entail putting an end to crosses themselves—in our life and in the lives of others we sentence to the isolation and pain of our pettiness. Jesus dies once and for all, for us the living, a living sacrifice.

It is hard to see this on “Good Friday,” but it is certainly there proleptically. In Jesus’s actions through the Passion we are somehow freed from the bondage of sacrifice systems that purport to free us but perniciously feed on us. The victory of the Cross is the victory of over fear; the victory over the sting of death; the victory that stalks every vengeance-driven tale or politics or religion; the victory over triumph shallowly understood. We are more than conquerors.

In this way the cross can free us from the need to win that often attends sacrifice for sacrifice sake and the ultimately corrosive resentment and passive aggression that attends such “victories.” Jesus frees us from this game with His cross: Once and for all.

Our faith is often in need of reformation, individually and collectively. The cross does this work forever. Every Easter we are asked to encounter these ironies and to encounter this challenge as a form of renewal. And we do not undertake this work alone, for the Holy Spirit—who comes at Pentecost—augments and undergirds our strength.

God’s Agitator

God’s Agitator

LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement.  Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.

Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”

An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:

Connor:  You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.

Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?

Connor:  I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!

Shuttlesworth:  I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.

Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.

Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.

Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.

Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’” 

Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”

What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”

Shuttlesworth “conducted his civil rights activities with his hands still tightly grasping the pastoral reins of his local churches,” as my friend Andrew Manis told us in his wonderful 2001 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He believed that God was the great deliverer, who showed the Israelites that “all was not Egypt” and set the captives free.

MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)

Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.

Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:

“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others….  Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.