Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gerhard Forde, Walter White and Aggressive vs. Passive Death (and Resurrection!)

I’m in the middle of both reading Gerhard Forde’s Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life and watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. It’s quite a combo. And it has me thinking about how addicted we are to our notions of free will and how deeply that addiction affects our relationships with each other. I was expressing some thoughts along these lines to a friend the other day – how our wills maybe aren’t as free as we’d like to think and how good works may not be something we’re ultimately capable of, in and of ourselves – and she reacted as if I was telling her that I’m an alien from another planet. “I make choices everyday, I’m not a robot,” she insisted, inadvertently confusing what I was saying with the idea of free agency. (Free agency has to do with the obvious choices we make everyday, like getting out of bed and going to work – good things that keep our society functioning and safe, but which are fundamentally distinct from the question “are we able to choose to DO good of our own free will?”).
Breaking Bad, as you may know, is the story of an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to cook methamphetamine in order to provide for his family after he’s gone. The moral ambiguity is there from the start: he breaks the law, but there are some undeniably good intentions at work. I won’t spoil it with any more details (disclaimer: it has inappropriate material for all kids and some adults). My wife calls the show a car accident in slow motion. We keep watching this downward spiral of man trying to DO some good for the people he loves most, that have been entrusted to his care, and yet the harder he tries, the deeper and deeper he plunges into an enormous mess.
 Forde’s book offers a very different understanding of Christianity than what most of us perceive it to be. The message we commonly hear, not just in church pulpits but on Oprah to Dr. Phil, is essentially a boiled-down Golden Rule: a code to follow that will change our behavior, improve the world, and get us closer to God. “Do onto others as you’d have them do onto you.” Of course, we also find this message in the Bible, and from the mouth of Christ specifically – in his articulation of the Law. In Matthew (22:36-40), when a man asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Since the Law is written on the heart of every man, the rules resonate with us and even seem like good news. If we think we’re capable of fulfilling them on our own, that is. What I’d like to explore in this post is what we often hear about on Mockingbird: What if we aren’t capable of fulfilling the Golden Rule or Greatest Commandment perfectly? What do we DO then?
To get at the root of the issue we need to understand passive death, passive resurrection (which sounds a bit silly, as who can resurrect themselves?), and future hope. The Christian “Life,” or should we start calling it the Christian “Death,” is a period in history when we have the opportunity to follow what early Christians called The Way, to live as Christ lived, holy and righteous and perfect. If we are free and capable of loving as we should, then the advice “Be like Jesus” is good news. But if our will is compromised, these words have a different effect. They crush us like a giant hammer over the head, “BE LIKE GOD!” It’s the Law turned up to its highest degree. Forde puts it like this:
“For the point is that the unconditional declaration of justification, the imputation, the flat-out declaration, that which offends and shocks us so, that which shatters all our ambitions for “something to do” –that declaration is our death and our life, the new beginning. It is the act which recreates, redeems God’s creation. Death, you see, is put in the position of not being able to do anything according to the ways of this world—the law, religion, the upward climb—with all its plans and schemes. They suddenly stop, come to an end: “I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.” Both our vices and our virtues come to a full stop. The justification declaration is precisely that: a full stop “You have died,” says Paul. It is all over!”

 “We receive his Holiness”, “We are made perfect in Christ,” “He clothes us in His righteousness,” “We have died.” These passive words actually describe the Christian Life…. I mean Death...: how to die well and hope in the Gospel. Die well, what a silly notion. Talk about a marketing message that won’t put bodies in the seats at church! “Come by Sunday morning at 10 o’clock for coffee at the Sunshine CafĂ©, jam out with our praise band, and, oh yes, learn how to die well.” It just doesn’t fit.
By “die well” we are not talking about “aggressive death,” which is actually the active, conscious, and desperate refusal to die, the death of the narcissistic, me-focused, selfish, desperate person that doesn’t want to die. (I can’t help but think of the final scene of Scarface). Aggressive death shows no mercy and always demands a pound of flesh. It forgives only those who can change their behavior. It can’t risk love due to self-preservation. We’ve all engaged in this, flailing around, refusing to give up and hurting those closest to us. This is Walter White. Aggressive death contains no hope of life or resurrection!
Again, the question we need to answer is, “Are we free to love as we should? Or is our situation a bit more complicated/compromised?” If our will is bound and we can’t live a perfect righteous life (as Christ did), maybe we can die as Christ died, a “passive death.” Of course, sometimes it’s easier to SEE NO EVIL.
So what does the life – I keep doing that (it takes a miracle to change the way we think) – I mean the passive death of a Christian look like? A passive death might look like acquiescence and sacrifice. It might even look like the MOTH Story where a person in need of help from someone who seems to be their enemy

So how do you forgive people that continue to take advantage of you over and over? How do you show mercy to someone you know will turn around to another and force them to “PAY UP!”? How do you trust someone that has no track record of being trustworthy, or worse, a record of compulsive lying? How do you love the unlovable unconditionally? This I find to be the hardest because when those you love the most can’t change a behavior, to love them anyway requires a great sacrifice and huge risk in rejection. Talk to any family member of someone bound to an addiction. To love someone unconditionally risks everything. So why would anyone spend time dying (didn’t say living this time!) like this?
The only answer I’ve found lies in understanding my own addictions/bound will and the Hope in believing that Christ was crucified for my transgressions and raised for my justification. And that, by faith, I’m now free, free to die and therefore free to live.

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