The Scandal of Christianity

Normally, I would not put Søren Kierkegaard [melancholic 19th century Danish philosopher/theologian] and James Cone [feisty 20th century black theologian] together on the same side of a theological line in the sand, but this week, they collided in a very interesting and helpful way.  Kierkegaard came first:  I have been reading Practice in Christianity with a group of student, a book that is a harsh critique of 19th century Danish “Christendom,” where being Christian is nothing more than being born into society, and living as an upright, bourgeois, good citizen.  In other words, in Kierkegaard’s context, being Christian looked to him uncomfortably similar to being an upstanding, middle-class, law-abiding, comfortable, contented Dane.  No one was offended by Christ, because the State Church had sanitized and domesticated him—how nice and easy it was to be a Christian!  Kierkegaard’s view of Christianity was something much different—and he argued that Christians should try to conform their lives as much as possible to the kind of life Christ lived, accepting that this would mean that they, too, would be an offense to others.  Kierkegaard’s Christianity was hard, and it meant strenuous swimming against the tide much of the time.

Then Cone:  I was reading again the article that was taken from a presentation he made at Harvard in 2007 [it’s now a book]—“Strange Fruit:  The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”  In that book, Cone uses the lynching tree as a lens through which to view the cross—and vice versa.  That uncomfortable comparison reminds us that Jesus died a horrible, violent, ugly death, surrounded by a mob shouting for his crucifixion, in the same way that blacks died on the lynching tree.  We don’t want to think about the cross that way, Cone says, because we want it sanitized, glorified, prettied-up—without all the blood, and without our own culpable rejection of Christ.   To us middle class, upstanding, comfortable 21st century Christians, the cross has become all forgiveness and no repentance, all mercy and no justice, all glory and no suffering.  Cone even uses Bonhoeffer’s language of cheap grace to describe how we want an easy life of discipleship that doesn’t require anything of us:  for example, cheap grace gives us a watered-down, sentimental view of God’s love, which allows us to avoid confronting the long legacy of racism in this country and our culpability in it.  Cone emphasizes that the cross was an infinitely costly means of our salvation, and we cheapen it when we strip it of its radically liberating, transformative meaning for both the oppressed and the oppressors.

So, as I was thinking about them together, I realized that the commonality between them can best be described as “scandal.” Both Kierkegaard and Cone, it seems to me, are saying that Christianity is scandalous:  we worship a God who did not come in glory but in humility, who died a violent shameful death; and we are called to be disciples of that God.   I’m not sure what that means concretely all the time—discipleship looks different in different times and places, I think—but at the very least, I think it means that Christians are called to be more than just “good people.”  Christianity is not meant to baptize the norms and standards of secular society; and Christians are not meant to just “go along” with everything society thinks is a good idea.  Instead, sometimes, maybe even often, we are called to hold ourselves to a different standard, not because we are better, but because we are called to witness to the one who came with a very different view of what society can and should be like—a view that challenges many cherished ideas of our society, and puts us at odds with “the norm.”   Loving the enemy, not just the friend; serving the outcast, not just the insider; standing with the alien, not just the citizen.  If I haven’t offended anybody lately, maybe I’m doing something wrong.

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