The God that had to die

Back in 2012 I moved to Finland. I dropped everything to be with the person I love (and it was in love that I came to fall in love, all over again, with Jesus). I had finished by BA in Theology, having written a thesis on the role of the arts in constructing a contextual Caribbean theology. This was a decisive moment in my life. I was losing sight of the transcendent God whom I had spent so much time reading about during my first two years at Codrington College. I was beginning to re-think the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I was beginning to read Kierkegaard, Marx, Freud, Tillich, Derrida, Žižek, and Caribbean theologians. I became less and less concerned with trying to sort out what I believe. In reading Caribbean theology, I encountered a Jesus whose message was first and foremost one of liberation, not in the sense of “dying and going to heaven in a Jesus name,” as is criticized in one of Bob Marley’s songs, but in the sense of espousing the cause of the marginalized, standing alongside them in the face of oppression. For the Caribbean theologian, it’s clear where Jesus stands: on the side of the majority black population, whose history tells of the worst kind of oppression. And thus it was here, that I began to take seriously my own position, as someone who, unlike the rest of my colleagues at Codrington, got to enjoy a site of privilege— the site which Jesus stood in opposition to. I’m a white male. The sermon on the mount wasn’t directed at me, it was directed to those who, like the majority black population of Barbados, or the gully queens of Jamaica, suffer under oppressive power structures.

Only now did I begin to understand what dying to the world meant. In a way, it seemed to me that the Rastafari, in chanting down Babylon, were doing a better job at this than a lot of Christians. We tend to get so caught up in trying to bind God to language, arguing over who has the right doctrines, that we overlook the fact that, as Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite sings, “What do their deeds be? That is what concern we primary.” It seems that we tend to forget the parable told in Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

When I first met with the pastor of the small Baptist church in which I would later come to be baptized, the first thing he asked me was: “do you know, with absolute certainty, whether, if you were to die today, you would go to heaven?” Looking back on this, I see how wrong headed his approach to baptism and membership in the body of Christ really was. For him, Paul’s baptismal analogy of death and resurrection seemed to have more to do with a securing of one’s own personal salvation, rather than a dying to the world and its power structures, and the subsequent participation within a community set apart. When I read, in book of acts, the story of the early Church, I encounter a community of persons born again, not as a people concerned first and foremost with their own fate, but as a community doing things differently, a community that is political, set apart from the oppressive structures of the world, pooling together their resources, and devoting themselves to the welfare of others.

The God that I had worshipped in that small little Baptist Church, the only God I knew, having yet to encounter the more radical Jesus preached by the Caribbean theologians, was a God that had to die. By all means, it was a God that the Rastafari had already declared dead. It was the Rastafari, bearing the name of His Majesty, Haile Selassie, that Christ was declared in the Caribbean as the stumbling block and foolishness Paul knew him to be in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:23). The Rastafari are radical in their own way. They refused to conform to the logic of this world. “Our God is black, and our God is an African!” they said. In chanting “death to all white and black downpressors,” the Nyabinghi were commanding the white god’s death sentence. As for those white persons who are drawn to the movement because of reggae and ganja, yet who have trouble understanding how Emperor Selassie and Empress Menen could be proclaimed as God, this itself is a sign that they’re in the wrong place. This also goes for those who can accept the divinity of the Emperor but can’t do so for the Empress, or Emannuel Charles Edwards, or who fail to see how Selassie’s divinity can be acknowledged apart from the bible. The God praised in an up stay is a God who has entered into history, a God who stands on the side of his people, whose kingdom is enacted by his people. This isn’t the European sky god, the god who offers a “die and go to heaven in Jesus name” promise, who tells us to look to the sky and ignore the horrors of the present. Haile Selassie, the Rastafari community tells us, offered a material message: education, development, equality, justice.

As Christopher Rodkey reports the Rev. Dow Kirkpatrick declaring amidst the controversy of the so called “death of God” theological movement: “I say, the God which is worshiped so broadly these days, especially during Christmas, needs killing. The greatest affirmation faith can make is to declare in our time that He is dead … (Rodkey 2014: 16).” For this was, as the Rev. Kirkpatrick noted, a God preached in churches where black people weren’t allowed through the doors. And although most of that Baptist congregation I was a part of were black, the God was by all means white and male. This was the sort of God that allowed me to feel secure in the knowledge that I’ll go to heaven, not a God that shook things up, that inspired insurrection. That was a God yet to come for me, a God yet to die in Christ and enter the scene in the form of the Spirit, in the form of a community set apart from the world.

In the Gay Science, Nietzsche’s madman enters the marketplace and proclaims: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” But what does it mean, to say that God is dead? For some of us, God’s death can be a feeling of absence, of longing even. The death of God can be a life shattering event. It’s an experience of great loss, of that which we once held dear. As a result, we may long for its return. “If only I could still believe in you, oh God!” One may pray. “Show me a sign, anything at all, just take this doubt away from me, Lord!” It’s like the song Contact, by As Cities Burn:

Remember we used to speak?

Now I’m starting to think

That your voice was really my own,

Bouncing off the ceiling back to me.

God, this can’t be.

God, this can’t be.

God, could it be that all we see is it?

Is this it?

Is this it?

Won’t you come down, heaven?

Won’t you come down?

Won’t you cut through the clouds?

Won’t you come down?

It’s hard to pray when what one feels is God’s absence rather than her presence— an absence that pierces one’s heart, weighing it down with a sense of longing. What if the voice you were hearing was just your own, bouncing off the ceiling back to you, as Cody sings?  Yet— and we have to bear this in mind— loss is exactly what Jesus’ disciples felt, as they stood gathered around the foot of the cross, looking up at the lifeless body of their Lord. We’re not alone in our experience of God’s death. Jesus’ disciples felt this first hand— for they watched, in horror, as the flesh through which God had entered into history was ruthlessly nailed to a tree. And it’s not just the disciples. Jesus, in his last moments, both experienced and enacted the death of God. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out as he hung from the cross, knowing that he would soon breathe his last. And we think our experience is life shattering? Try being nailed to a tree.

The experience of God’s death isn’t contrary to what Christianity is all about, despite what some Christians would have you believe. If you’ve ever doubted God, or have come to no longer believe in him, don’t worry. You didn’t do anything wrong. Rather, it could be argued that it is in such moments of doubt— those often traumatic experiences of nothingness— that we come closest to an authentic experience of the cross. Doubt lies at the very heart of Christianity. So much so that G. K. Chesterton could proclaim that, on the cross, even God became an atheist. Or, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, only an atheist can be a true Christian, and vice versa.

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