As the weekend brought us stories of terror from our brothers and sisters in Paris, I bring to you today a selection from The Crucified God. As it happens, the 40th anniversary edition was just released from Fortress Press, so if you have not yet read this book, this is the time to get it. To mark this occasion, as well as discuss his most recent book The Living God and the Fullness of Life, Moltmann is going to be at AAR/SBL (the Comic-con of the theology/religion world) this week in Atlanta. My friend Tripp Fuller and the folks at Homebrewed Christianity will be hosting a live conversation with Moltmann this Friday. You can stream it for free, which is great news for those of us who can’t be there. Find out more details here.
I have said it before and I will say it a million more times: this is the most important theological book I know. We have no faith and no center if we do not begin at the cross of the rejected and God-forsaken Jesus. I realize nobody wants to go there. But that is where deep faith is birthed, and so we must. We must.
Especially as we face a world of increasing violence, we must ask ourselves what our theology has to say in response, and where we see God. As holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “God is here, hanging in the gallows.” In the same way, God is in the streets of Paris, not triumphant but bleeding. And we do not know him if we cannot recognize him there.
So let us hear the wise and difficult words of our German teacher today.
More radical Christian faith can only mean committing oneself without reserve to the crucified God. This is dangerous. It does not promise the confirmation of one’s own conceptions, hopes and good intentions. It promises first of all the pain of repentance and fundamental change. It offers no recipe for success. But it brings a confrontation with the truth…
By this scandal, it brings liberation into a world which is not free. For ultimately, in a civilization which is constructed on the principle of achievement and enjoyment, and therefore makes pain and death a private matter, excluded from its public life, so that in the final issue the world must no longer be experienced as offering resistance, there is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith…
…The pain arouses a love which can no longer be indifferent, but seeks out its opposite, what is ugly and unworthy of love, in order to love it. This pain breaks down the apathy in which everything is a matter of indifference, because everything one meets is always the same and familiar…
The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned…
But the more the church of the crucified Christ became the prevailing religion of society, and set about satisfying the personal and public needs of this society, the more it left the cross behind it, and gilded the cross with the expectations and ideas of salvation. We have made the bitterness of the cross, the revelation of God in the cross of Jesus Christ, tolerable to ourselves by learning to understand it as a necessity for the process of salvation. As a result, the cross loses its arbitrary and incomprehensible character.
The cross of Jesus is dangerous. It requires us to sacrifice our religion and all that we want to believe about God. The center of our faith is the proclamation that Jesus died as an outcast. We spend the majority of our faith lives trying to make that less uncomfortable than it is. But we miss the point. The cross is not a solution to a sin problem, or something on which we ponder. It is a form of annihilation which God experienced in God’s own self in the person of Jesus. It is incomprehensible.
Why? Why did the cross happen? Because suffering is incomprehensible. Innocent people dying at soccer matches and restaurants is incomprehensible. If we have any need for a god, the only god that can help is one who understands this, which is what led Bonhoeffer to say “only the suffering God can help.”
There is no room for victory or triumph after acts of terror like those in Paris on Friday evening. There is only grief, and solidarity. What we are called to do as people of faith is what we least want to do: sit with the victims in their suffering without offering quick fixes or easy answers. Take responsibility for the broken systems of humanity that made these acts possible. And, God help us, hold even the terrorists up to God, praying even and perhaps most especially for them.
When we follow Jesus, we follow him all the way to the cross. But what we find is that love and deepest faith is awakened there. It can only be born there, and no other place. With that love, there is power. We shed indifference and apathy and we die to our naive assumptions of faith. When we arise from the cross, only then are we able to wield the power of love as a force for good and a light in tragic places.
And what we realize most of all, and in times like this what I find to be most comforting of all, is that God is present in the fathomless depths of human suffering. God has traveled all the way down there, so that none of us would ever be there alone.