I sometimes joke that I taught my husband everything he knows about home repair. When we met in the summer of 1998, I served as a Center Director for the Appalachia Service Project, and Seth was one of my three staff members. Together, we facilitated eight weeks of home repair in one of the most impoverished counties in Central Appalachia, in some cases bringing running water to homes for the very first time. We led volunteers in building everything from carport roofs to room additions to porch ramps. After a long day’s work, we led evening gatherings for volunteers to process their experiences. Each night, one staff member would offer their personal testimony of how we heard God’s call to serve that summer.
In my own testimony, I quoted Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer. Nouwen said, “In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain. Their ability to torture is in me too, their capacity to forgive I find also in myself. In my heart, I know their yearning for love, and down to my entrails I can feel their cruelty. In another’s eyes I see my plea for forgiveness, and in a kind-hearted frown I see my refusal. When someone murders, I know that I too could have done that, and when someone gives birth, I know that I am capable of that as well.”
I spoke these words every week to a roomful of youth and adult volunteers, because I was compelled to confess my complicity. You see, it was my third summer serving in Appalachia, and by then I had done my homework. I knew the history of coal companies descending on Appalachia to mine natural resources and take advantage of dirt poor labor all in the name of the almighty dollar. And if the tops of mountains were blown off in the process, if hundreds of miles of streams were poisoned by coal ash, if the laborers developed black lung from their daily descent into the deep mines, well, it was simply the cost of doing business. So when I flipped the light switch in my family’s home, hundreds of miles away, I understood the real price paid by Appalachia for my cheap electricity. I had learned over those summers that the same companies that took over entire towns, even creating their own currency, could pull out with no warning, leaving miners unemployed. As the war on poverty made it possible for these communities to have a safety net, the poor were blamed for taking hand-outs. And so some of them didn’t. They subsisted off of their own gardens and weathered winter in shacks that couldn’t keep out the cold.
As I got to know the families we served, as I witnessed their living conditions and received their hospitality, I recognized my face in their faces. We were not so different. And, in the desolate void left by the coal companies, I recognized my own hand in their oppression. Even in my ignorance, I benefited from the cheap labor and denigration of the environment that brought energy to my fingertips. I was complicit, and so were all those volunteers, and I wanted to name it. You see, so often we pat ourselves on the backs when we perform an act of charity, while our lives perpetuate the injustice of the status quo. We are complicit, but we get to feel like saviors.
The sham of it all broke open for me those summers in Appalachia, when I was utterly changed by the families and communities we served who entered into authentic relationship with me and so many others. The God of personal virtue, the God who cared more about whether I used salty language than how I was snagged in the net of systemic sin, that God was of no use to me. That God was dead. I needed a God of justice, a suffering God, a God who descended into the depths alongside those coal miners.
While Christian theology upholds both the divinity and humanity of Christ, most of us, if we are honest, resonate with one side of that equation more than the other. I begin with the divinity. Now don’t get me wrong, I affirm the full humanity of Christ. But I need a God willing to endure the frailty of human flesh, a God willing to move into the neighborhood; a God who not only hears our cries, but also cries out from the cross.
As a child I was attuned to the suffering in the world. I loved to read about Harriet Tubman and Anne Frank. Eventually, I saw for myself the face of suffering—a woman’s face bruised and crestfallen as she stood in the wreckage of her valuables, smashed against the wall by her husband; a man atop a building in Tegucigalpa as it crumbled into the raging torrent of Hurricane Mitch; parishioners traumatized by abuse and discrimination. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said before he was executed in a concentration camp for treason, “Only the suffering God can help.”
That’s what Christ on the cross means to me. That God comes to us in our suffering and bears our burdens; that God stands on the side of the captive; that God flips the script and pulls power from vulnerability, grabs glory from grief, steals salvation from the ruins of suffering. I was taught, perhaps like many of you, that the crucifixion was about something else completely. God, in his wrath, could not stand the stench of our sin, and so there was an irreconcilable chasm between us. So God’s son stood in as the atonement, like a lamb on the altar, a burnt sacrifice whose aroma was pleasing to some distant God. But I’ve come to understand that what Jesus did on the cross was far more radical.
Theologian Marcus Borg said that ultimately, the question is not whether we claim the divinity of Jesus, but whether we reject the divinity of Caesar. You see, when Jesus was called King of the Jews, it was a political title rife with all the overtures of power, royal status, and wealth. And in Jesus’ time, Caesar was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the most powerful man in the world, and he likened himself to a god. Jesus was executed by Roman authority, standing in for Caesar, who represents, in many ways, the domination systems that have littered human history.
Calling Jesus king went beyond revolutionary, however, into the realm of subversive. Jesus didn’t simply want a king’s power, we wanted to redefine power. When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, he moved among throngs of Jews who crowded the corridors of the city. One scholar notes that Jerusalem’s population would swell from 50,000 to over 200,000 during this holy festival. And because the liberating story of the Exodus reminded the occupied Jews of their hunger for self-determination, the Roman state made a show of force during Passover—an imperial entry into the city with full Roman guard as the governor made his presence known. This march reminded the gathering pilgrims of the power of the Empire. While the Roman guard entered Jerusalem mounted on powerful steeds, Jesus made his way into Jerusalem on the other side of town, riding a humble colt in the company of poor pilgrims. There were two marches into the city that Passover. One was flashy and powerful, the antics of an oppressive regime. The other was humble, an alternative pilgrimage in remembrance of God’s liberation and in defiance of Rome’s military might.
As Jesus passed by, the burgeoning crowds spread garments and palm branches on the ground, shouting, “Hosanna!” The word Hosanna translates as: save us, and the sojourning Jews did not use this word lightly. From Egyptian slavery to Roman occupation, God’s people were weary of political subjugation. And they imagined that Jesus—with his fearless critique of political and religious authorities, his tender care for those on the margins, his ability to draw crowds and inspire change—they imagined that this Jesus would be their new king. And so they made quite a spectacle as he rode into Jerusalem—such a spectacle that his adversaries began to plot his demise.
This story marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week on the Lenten journey. We are not there yet, but it's coming. It’s a week that begins with palms and praise, but ends in betrayal, death, and resurrection. It is the most important week in the Christian calendar. In his final week, Jesus cursed the religious establishment, overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple, preached in the synagogue, was anointed by a woman, and ate one last supper with his disciples. It is a week of mounting tension, a week of agony and despair, and it’s a week in which we are called to watch and walk with Jesus. Because we can’t get to resurrection by any other way than death.
It may feel burdensome, in the days ahead, to be ushered into the thick shadows of Holy week and asked to bear witness to suffering. It goes against the myth of American individualism to suggest that we stand in need of a God who fashioned power out of weakness. But here’s the good news. We don’t have to carry the full weight of this final week, because God carries it, just as God carries our daily burdens. Somewhere right now there is a political prisoner undergoing torture. God is there. There is a family of refugees in the wilderness crying out for water. God is there. There is a child being violated by the very one they trusted most. God is there. There is a teenager being arrested and falsely accused because of his skin color. God is there. There is a couple, somewhere in this world right now, loving each other in secret because their love is dangerously illegal. God is there.
The raw truth is that we are all complicit in the sufferings of this world. We are complicit in our action—the wars our nation fights on our behalf, the economic policies that allow the rich to plunder the natural resources of the poor. We wring our hands at gun violence, we bicker over cowardly policies while children die. And we are complicit in our inaction—we busy our lives then fail to show up for what really matters. We hoard what we could give. We deny our privileges. We fall short, we miss the mark, we manifest our brokenness. We sin. It is only through confession, through claiming our complicity, that we can fully grab hold of the good news of resurrection and be transformed.
In a prayer written by Henri Nouwen, he prays: "Dear Lord Jesus, Your heart is broken, the heart that did not know hatred, revenge, or envy but only love, love so deep and so wide that it embraces the Creator in heaven as well as all humanity in time and space. Your broken heart is the source of my salvation, the foundation of my hope, the cause of my love. It is the sacred place where all that was, is and ever shall be is held in unity. There all suffering has been suffered, all anguish lived, all loneliness endured, all abandonment felt and all agony cried out. There, human and divine love have kissed, and there God and all people of history are reconciled."
So let Lent be a season of confession. Let it be a time when we come to terms with our complicity and ready our spirits for the mystery of resurrection. Let it be a journey when we walk with Jesus through his final days, and walk with the suffering around the world who trudge through theirs. We are walking toward the dawn.