Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why Do You Bother?

Father Leone: I mean, people look to you to save them -- probably most of the time -- from their own mistakes.
They do things -- knowingly -- wrong. And they look to you afterward to make them right.
Why do you bother?
Superman: Because I can.
Father Leone: That doesn't mean you have to.
Superman: Yes, it does.
Father Leone: Why...
...if it's not out of love?
- Superman #206
by Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee

Superman gets compared to Jesus a lot. And vice versa. But Superman is admittedly not a straight Jesus-analogue. He's more Moses than Jesus.  But then, Jesus was actually a rather Moses-like figure, wasn't he?  Anyway, I do see Superman as a messianic, Christ-like figure who selflessly saves others. And sometimes the questions asked of Superman can easily be asked of Jesus.

Why do you bother?

Normally I would approach this topic in the second person plural, trying to dissipate my own iniquities by talking about everyone collectively. I have mentioned before that I try to refrain from that, and I'll attempt to follow suit in this post. You can't separate the writer from what he writes, so let's make this personal. It won't be, "Jesus, why do you even bother with us," but, "Why do you bother with me?"

Face it, I am a sinner. A pretty wretched one at that. I grew up in the church, have claimed to be a Christian all my life, and yet still commit sinful acts and engage in unquestionably non-Christian behavior with a non-Christian attitude.

My countless sins damn me. If a perfect God requires perfection, than I am doomed and forever lost. Even if my slate of previous offenses was wiped completely clean, I would still likely sin tomorrow. I doubt I would make it to tomorrow. It's inevitable. I am irredeemable.

So why, Jesus? Why do you bother with me? On top of all that, I am angry and arrogant. I claim to love you and follow you yet constantly lash out in hate, rage, and defiance. I shout to Heaven with a raised fist demanding you be held accountable. At best, I call you absent. At worst, I call you a bastard.

Why do you bother?

And that's the thing. That's the rub. Of course Jesus would bother with me, because he loves me. And because of that love he can forgive me. And that makes perfect sense.

And we all file out of our pews with smiling faces and exit the church happily discussing where we should go for Sunday lunch. We are content and don't think another thing about it. Because Jesus loves us. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves me. Of course he does. It makes sense.

Except it doesn't. Not at all. And too often we...I mean I...fail to recognize it. And this is important because, like Augustine said, if you can understand it, it is not of God. So if the love of God makes sense to us then it is not God's love. For God loves the unlovable. God's love redeems the irredeemable. That is illogical. Incomprehensible. Nonsensical.

And yet I sit in my pew Sunday after Sunday and nod to myself and think, "Yes, of course Jesus loves me."

That is not the reaction I or anyone else should have when being told about Christ's love. It would be like nodding in content agreement if the pastor told you 2 + 2 = 337.

John D. Caputo, that eminent philosopher and theologian, a man I have once peed next to, concurs that when we agree with Christ's love for us, we agree with utter madness.  "Now the theological traditions," he writes, "both Christian and Jewish, have tended to behave like bankers when it comes to forgiveness. That is, they spell out the conditions under which forgiveness is possible, typically four in number. Forgiveness requires an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offense, and a willingness to do penance. If someone meets all four conditions they have earned forgiveness. We owe it to them the way the bank owes us the deed once the mortgage is paid off. A deal is a deal. Then what would it mean to forgive someone? It would have to mean something uneconomic - like a gift - something unconditional, something unaccountable, something mad."1

Returning to the comic excerpt, I have often contended that Superman is not Superman because of all the powers he possesses, but because of what he does with those powers.  And for some reason Superman feels compelled to use his powers to help people, perhaps naively so, for most of the people he saves have caused their own misfortune.  Likewise, God naively and madly loves and forgives me, though I do not deserve it, and though I have not fulfilled any of the required payments within the economy of the gift.

Grace is not grace if it is earned or purchased.  Instead, grace is foolishly given, free of conditions, without payment, and daresay without reason.  "For the gift is made from love, and love, as Meister Eckhart said, is "without why." Love is its own why; love is for its own sake."2

So when the preacher points into the congregation and says "Jesus loves you!" the response ought not be a content, casual utterance of "Amen."  Instead, why aren't we shocked at the audacity of such a statement?  "WTF?" should be the cries of the congregants.  That colloquial abbreviation of the internet age expressing an immediate reaction of disbelief at the absurdity of what just happened sounds much more appropriate.  We should stand and shout in an uproar, flipping pews over at the blasphemous assertion that God would be such a fool as to love me.

We have domesticated grace with our qualification that our repentance and good Christian, church going behavior has paid the minimum balance required for God to forgive us.  No, God's love is as reckless, foolish, and naive as Superman repeatedly saving someone who puts himself in danger out of his own stupidity and selfishness.  Why would Superman keep saving such an undeserved person?  Why if not out of love?  Stupid, ridiculous love without why.

Does this absurd love sound impossible?  Good, because it is impossible, it is the impossible.  As Caputo says, "the only thing that can be truly forgiven is the unforgivable; the only condition under which true forgiveness is possible is when forgiveness is impossible."3

Maybe that is why I downplay the shocking impossibility of Christ's love, for I am called to be Christ-like, to be a "Christian."  And that, scarily, would require me to also impossibly love the unlovable, and to forgive those it is impossible for me to forgive.  That would require me to love like Superman, to love like Christ, to love without why.

1.John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernity for the Church (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2007), kindle location 856.
2. Ibid., 842.
3. Ibid., 848.

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