“The World We Stand to Gain”

It was a Tuesday. I was 26 years old; I had recently finished Divinity School in Chicago and moved here to the Twin Cities with my spouse Jen. We were renting the lower half of a house on Park Avenue in South Minneapolis. We had gone out that morning on a walk and then stopped in to vote in a primary election. We think it was while we were in line at the polling place that we first heard the terrible, astonishing, and world-altering news.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark describes a similarly pivotal moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. To this point in the Gospel, Jesus had been at the margins, geographically and politically. Now, Jesus began to move into the center of power. He turned toward Jerusalem and prepared for conflict. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gave an answer which sounded correct: “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus taught the disciples about the “great suffering” that would happen to him when he went to Jerusalem to challenge the authorities. Peter “rebuked” Jesus for accepting this rejection and death. Clearly, he had expected a Messiah who would triumph. Jesus rebuked Peter in turn, uttering that well-known line, “Get behind me, Satan!” I wonder if Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” echoes the words of God in the Hebrew Bible, who said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am who I am.” This living God, characterized by the freedom to be beyond all names and labels, called Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery. Now Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that, as their leader, he would not use the playbooks of armies and emperors. He would not seek to win by setting “us” against “them.” Instead he would embody the mysterious, counter-intuitive ways of the one who gives life and freedom to the whole creation.

In the days following 9/11, I remember seeing the video of planes striking the World Trade Center over and over again, in a traumatizing loop. I remember the dense clouds of ash hovering over New York City. I remember the voices of those who perished, preserved in final phone calls and radio transmissions. I remember the American flags flying everywhere. I remember the immediate declaration of war. And I remember our upstairs neighbor, Salim, who was originally from Jordan. He wore the traditional head covering of Jordanian men, the red and white kaffiyeh. Salim and his brother owned a convenience store, Jordan Stop. I remember Salim telling us in the weeks and months following 9/11 how people threatened him, and how scared he was.

This fall, we will be reading Valerie Kaur’s book, See No Stranger, and exploring the practices of “revolutionary love” that she has developed. Kaur’s activism began after 9/11 when a family friend (whom she called Uncle) was gunned down at the gas station he owned, because he looked Middle Eastern and wore the traditional turban of Sikh men. In the book, Kaur expresses a key truth about our nation’s response to 9/11. She writes:

On the very night of the attacks, President Bush declared a “war against terrorism.” . . . Grieving is a process that takes time and stillness and presence. It is impossible to grieve and prepare to kill at the same time. So, despite all the performances of national mourning, we as a nation had little time and space to be present to our pain and all that it had to teach us. Unresolved grief inside a person is tragic; unresolved grief inside a nation is catastrophic: it releases enormous aggression. In the name of the dead . . . the U.S. war on terror that began in Afghanistan would come to span at least two decades, three presidencies, and seventy-six countries; cost more than $5.6 trillion; and kill more than one million people. . . . Meanwhile, the same aggression that powers a perpetual war abroad has created new norms for the hate and criminalization of Muslims and immigrants at home. It fueled the resurgence of a white nationalist movement that would, in time, overtake the highest offices of the nation.

Fifteen years after 9/11, Kaur came to know Kerri Kelly. Kelly’s father-in-law Joe was a firefighter who died at Ground Zero. Kelly invited Kaur to participate in a memorial event. Kaur writes:

Standing there together arm in arm, in our stillness and our sadness, Kerri and I mourned what might have been. We decided that if the nation could not model shared grieving, then we would. We had learned that grieving is an act of revolutionary love: Grieving together, we ease each other’s suffering and come to know each other. Only when we know each other can we understand how to stand up and fight for each other—and the world we want. And so, four days after I joined Kerri at Ground Zero to mourn Joe, she joined me in Arizona to mourn Balbir Uncle with me on the anniversary of his murder. One act of revolutionary love inspires another.

Jesus calls those of us who follow him to something like the revolutionary love Kaur describes here. Jesus’ identity as an embodiment of “I am,” the God of life and freedom, determines the kind of leadership he provides as well as the path he lays out for us to travel together. Jesus teaches that we cannot overcome empire with empire’s own tools—hate and fear, economic oppression, the silencing of dissent, the humiliation and murderer of opponents. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Biblical scholar Ched Myers illuminates these words, raising up the importance of their specific context; this statement is not a general endorsement of suffering. In Jesus’ day, the cross was not a metaphor. It was not a necklace or a pendant. It was not a symbol of Christianity. “The cross,” writes Myers,

had only one connotation in the Roman empire: upon it dissidents were executed. . . . The turn of phrase [take up your cross] could have no other meaning except as an invitation to share in the consequences facing those who dared challenge the ultimate hegemony of imperial Rome. (pp. 245–46)[1]

Myers explains, also, that the context of the command to “deny yourself” is the courtroom. The scene is that of interrogation by state authorities. The choice is: denying Jesus and sparing ourselves or denying ourselves and standing with Jesus. Claiming the agenda of Jesus instead of that of empire is always a risk. If we resist the rush to war; if we grieve with those who are thought to be our enemies; if we insist on telling the whole truth about our nation’s sin of white supremacy; if we value the health of people and the earth more than profit; if we stand with the vulnerable and suffer with the rejected, there will be consequences.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” In other words, it’s worth taking the risk to live, to really live. Think of what we stand to gain: the world for which we hope, a world grounded in the liberating life that comes from God. This world is worth grieving for, work for, being rejected for, suffering for, and when absolutely necessary, dying for. Because a life of integrity, a life we spend standing for what we most value, is the most precious gift we can receive. Amen.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, pp. 245–46