June 2, 2020

George Floyd, Protest, and the Red Pill of the Cross


Where do you find yourself in this moment? Grieving the death of an innocent black man named George Floyd? Bewildered and frightened at protests that seem to explode into rioting and looting? Sympathetic with police who bear the shame of the racist and violent actions of a few officers? Angry and ready to scream and raise hell until leadership brings forth radical change in policing in America? A little bit of all of it?

Certainly, where you or I find ourselves is rooted in our identity and experience. If you are white you likely have a very different reaction to the events of this past week than if you are black, though I won’t claim to speak for how an African-American person might or should react. On this subject I highly recommend the recent article by Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, which you can find here.

I want to focus more specifically on the reaction of white Christians to the struggles of racism, police brutality, and suffering in our times. If you are a white Christian like I am you were likely raised with images of white Jesus, with a respect and appreciation for police and authority figures, and with a belief that God favors law and order in the civic realm. You probably assume that these institutions of power exist to keep us safe, and to keep society running smoothly. For most of us, most of the time, this is our experience. We feel safe and protected because of the power and authority we give to government.

We have in the Lutheran tradition teachings that speak about doing things for “good order.” Why not do something different or against tradition or without proper authority? Good order! We also have a long-held theological assumption that government is God-ordained and good people submit to its authority. These beliefs have caused us numerous problems over centuries that I won’t delineate here except for this: Few Lutherans were willing to rise up against fascism in German in the 1930’s out of good order and a belief in God-ordained government. And no, you can’t jump to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as our hero and justification—he himself made this point very clearly in his own day, and he was nearly a lone voice.

So how are we white folks who go to church and love Jesus and drink a little supposed to understand what is happening right before our eyes? Let me go to the 1999 movie The Matrix. In this influential film, the hero character named Neo slowly discovers that everything he assumed was true was a lie. He had heard rumors that there is some alternative truth known as the Matrix, but he had a hard time believing or understanding it. The rebels who try to convince him of the truth tell him he can take a red pill and know the painful truth of reality from which there is no going back, or the blue pill that will allow him to return to his life of not-knowing and being enslaved to a lie. In what has become a meme-worthy image ever since, Neo takes the red pill and discovers his own terrible reality. (Spoiler alert in the following… but seriously, does anyone need a spoiler alert about The Matrix anymore?)

In the crucial scene where he takes the red pill, he is suddenly awakened to the truth that he exists in vat in a massive warehouse of other bodies in vats, hooked up to an enormous machine using their bodies as an energy source. Physics and biology questions aside, it’s a shocking scene and horrible to think of human beings’ bodies being used as chemical power plants.

Then, because Neo is awakened to the truth, the giant machine rejects him and flushes him out. Neo dies to his old life and lives a new life of the truth, which compels him to find ways for others to be liberated by the truth. When Neo is flushed out it is very much like a baptism. He dies to his old life. He is plunged into water. He comes up a new person living a new life. He is very uncertain about this new life and what it means, so he begins a period of learning and formation.

Why am I going into The Matrix mythology and symbolism while our cities are aflame and cries for racial justice echo down every street? The central symbol of Christianity is the cross, and I believe that those who see in the cross the truth of God and the world have taken the red pill. Now, I don’t believe this happens automatically, and much of Christianity, especially white Christianity, has substituted the truth of the cross with a blue-pill alternative truth, one that says the false reality is the good news and we should go along with it at all cost.

The false reality is white supremacy and the white power structures that support it. The blue-pill life is one in which we continue to support institutions and religions that sustain white supremacy and systems of power that promise us so much if we just go along. But they can deliver nothing but death. The red-pill life is one in which we are baptized into Christ, die to the old ways of living for whiteness and the empire that pseudo-benefits us alone, and rise to the new life of living for love and justice for everyone. The cross makes it clear that this reality of God is worth living for even if it is painful and costs us a great deal to move closer to that truth. This new reality is what Jesus called the governance of God among us.

I believe with all that is my theological and spiritual understanding that the cross is God’s way of bringing us into the new reality. It is the red pill, the revelation of truth, and that is why it saves us. The New Testament is filled with this understanding of the cross. The New Testament presents us with good news that only comes through the transformation of seeing God and the world through Jesus’ cross of truth. It is not what Christianity has come to teach us about some individualistic faith and blessedness apart from the reality of our neighbors and institutions and governments. The New Testament vision of the cross as salvation is about upending the truth of the empire, which is often so appealing or at least comfortably familiar for those it benefits. The New Testament vision of the cross is the enactment of the governance of God, which is often so surprising and upside-down to our eyes that calling it good news almost seems a joke.

Maybe you don’t believe me, or get what I mean when I say the cross is the red pill that wakes us up from the coma of the false reality of the empire, into the new reality, and only reality, of God’s governance in this world. Here are some importance texts that speak to this truth-telling of the cross:

·         Mark 8:31-35  1 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

This is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus, after demonstrating for 8 chapters that he is a man of great power, unexpectedly teaches his followers that he will give up power, be killed, and trust God to raise him up. Even more shocking, he calls his followers to give up greatness, deny their own self-interest, give up power, stop trying to preserve their privilege, and take up the way of the cross of Jesus as their own way. This, he says, and not the worldly way of dominating others, is what saves, what gives true life.

·         Luke 1:50-53  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

In this text we hear Mary proclaim the good news that God is on the side of the lowly, hungry, and poor. God is acting to bring down the proud, powerful, and rich. This is her song of praise to the God who has chosen her to bear Jesus, the new Messiah, the one through whom God’s governance will be enacted.

·         Luke 4:18-21  18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Here Jesus gives his first speech and says what he is about. He quotes from Isaiah and speaks about the long-awaited Jubilee, the Old Testament hope and decree that when society gets imbalanced and the powerful rule over the poor, society must get a reboot, and the economic and judicial balance must be restored. And he says: Today, it is happening, because Jesus is speaking this truth into reality.

·         John 3:14-15  4 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John uses the Old Testament story of Moses lifting up a serpent on a pole for the people to see their sin and be healed by looking at it honestly. For John, looking at Jesus crucified by the empire and seeing God’s full revelation there is the source of eternal life. Eternal life in John is not simply life forever in heaven. Eternal life is living the fullness of life now, fully awake and seeing for the first time who God truly is through Jesus. And who is God revealed to be in Jesus? The power of love and life in opposition to the power of death and the empire.

·         Romans 8:35-39  35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."  37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul is so convinced of the power of God made visible in the powerlessness of Jesus on the cross that he knows nothing can win against God, no power or government or persecution. Those who follow Jesus in the way of the cross follow in the way of God’s power, not the power of human institutions. Paul marches forward into life with a fearlessness rooted in knowing God through the crucified and risen Christ.

·         1 Corinthians 1:18-31  18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."  20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,  23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.  26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  31 in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

Paul writes about the foolishness of the cross, knowing that God’s way of redeeming the world looks like powerlessness, and in fact is powerlessness. But Paul sees as only one whose eyes have been opened by the cross that God’s foolish ways expose the so-called wise ways of human power. All those who see themselves as wise and trust in human power and use it to support systems of domination are exposed as utter fools. If God can become utterly powerless in the cross of Jesus and resist the use of power against the empire, and still win at this game as God did in the resurrection of Jesus, then there is no allegiance worth giving to nations and armies and tribes. Even more, Paul speaks about the followers of Jesus as precisely those who look foolish, unwise, powerless, born into low esteem. The good news of the cross says: God’s power works through you precisely because you do not embody the power that the world values, but the power of self-giving love made perfect in the cross.

There are many more texts I could share. These are the ones I find particularly inspiring. I could walk you through the whole book of Revelation and show how it empowers martyrs to live for the good news because the empire is falling apart. I could show you in James where the poor and the weak are most honored by God. I could walk through more of John with you and show you where being able to see the new reality through Christ is a kind of vision only those who know they didn’t see the truth before can have.

The cross is the red pill that God gives us to see the truth. God transforms this world through powerlessness to expose the figurative and literal dead ends of human power. Right now, in our moment, death is all around us. White power has dominated black bodies for centuries, and even though we got past slavery and Jim Crow and enacted civil rights (and most of those changes were achieved with great resistance from those who keep holding onto white power) the power is still with whiteness.

The truth of the matter is, those who see God in the cross of Christ see Jesus in George Floyd dying under the knees of police officers. We see him cry out to his mother like Jesus did on the cross. We see him breathe his last and commend his spirit to God. We see God in black bodies beaten and bruised and lynched. We see the evil of the empire exposed, an empire many of us once thought could bring us life and salvation if we just went along with its power games. Now we can’t stand the thought of it, because we see all the death and we want only the life that God brings through the love of Jesus.

We also see the cross that disciples must bear in the hard work of protest, witnessing, working for change, and never settling for quick and easy feel-good responses. We see there is a price to be paid for the transformation from death to life, but there always is. We see that we are in good company because Jesus bears the cross with us and all bodies that are crushed under the knees, the machinery, and the economy of our current empire.

We white Christians don’t like any of this. We want it to go away. We want the easy faith of me and Jesus and grace that sets us free from accountability and obligation. In my learnings from the black church, I see that they don’t want it either, but they have no choice but to take up the cross and march toward the coming goodness of God’s justice.

So the question is, my fellow people of faith who have seen the cross of Jesus, seen the death of George Floyd, seen the unending series of oppressions done in the name of our security and protection… the question is: Do you want to take the red pill and live for God’s new, wonderful beloved community, or do you want to slip back into the blue-pill narcotic world of whiteness?