This is an essay by David Gibbs, submitted for our Essay Competition.
The book of Hebrews starts with the following assertion, “but in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by a Son.”Hebrews 1:1 NRSV (NRSV used throughout unless stated otherwise) In light of some recent events I have some questions. Where was Jesus and what was he saying on 14 June 2017 when Grenfell Tower was going up in flames with the tragic preventable loss of life? Again on 25 May 2020 as George Floyd was pleading for the breath of life denied him by a nonchalant police officer? These incidents are places of deep pain and difficult theological reflections for me and I suspect many others.
Various verses from the book of Hebrews will provide the framework for this paper as we attempt to imagine a credible Christ in our time and a possible response to questions. As a Black British Christian man who has lived in America these incidents have particular significance. They raise further thoughts about survival, equity and hope or hopelessness.
As I watch, reflect and talk about these and numerous other historic events that effect ‘the least of these’ my enquiry is does the promissory words of God hold strong and fast; “I will never leave you or forsake you.”Hebrews 13:5, 6 and 8 The author of Hebrews continues “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” In addition, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The writer of Hebrews is showing the readers and listeners the supremacy of Jesus and a better covenant despite the reality of their backdrop of colonialism, persecution and pressure to return to mainstream religion. My existential reality includes racism, christian nationalism and globalisation.
The Church, the body of Christ, for the most part currently would appear does not hold any meaning or relevance for much of the population even though 59% described themselves as Christian in the 2011 Census.https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/ fullstorywhatdoesthecensustellusaboutreligionin2011/2013-05-16 viewed 14 June 2021 4 Weir, M. (2020) I Can’t … Continue reading Today, as we look to hear Christ’s voice it competes with or maybe is drowned out by a Pandemic, White Supremacy and Neo-liberalism. Yet Jesus has a word for our cultures, about history and into the theological spaces.
Christology – Who is Christ?
There are various views of Jesus Christ in scripture, history and culture. They are based in revolutionary theologies from above and experiential theologies from below. The perfect holiness of heaven is in an intimate dance with human frailty and need. We too, like Jesus, “trek the Via Dolorsa – a long winding road of sorrows. But herein lies our resurrection; the willingness to act for the greater good, to sacrifice for the next generation.”Matthew 6:10 We must leave our places of safe theology. Part of our struggle is as Jesus demonstrated in his incarnation and taught us to pray is that “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Niebuhr, R. (2001) Christ and Culture. Harper & Row:San Francisco p12 and 25
Christian ethicist Niebuhr wrote originally in 1951 as we move “toward a Definition of Christ” that Jesus is lawgiver, “that He demands mercy and not sacrifice; that He requires not only obedience to Himself but love and faith in Him and love of the neighbour whom He creates and loves.” His main thought was about relationships with God, to each other, to our communities, and to the world at large. He sees Christ as the centre and point of reference as we live life, review history and exegete culture.
The Nicene Creedhttps://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/109020/Nicene-Creed.pdf viewed 14 June 2021 reminds us:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
Black Theology, according to Cone, sees Christ as “the Liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel.”Cone, J. (1997) God of the oppressed. Maryknoll:Orbis Books p81 He is addressing the role culture and context play in bringing our questions, woes and desires to God and the answers that lead to collaborative action. Through divine intervention, like the Exodus, God in Christ is leading people out of Egypt.
Hebrews gives us a high image of the divinity of Christ who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”Hebrews 1:3 However, the human experience is not ignored in the ‘faith chapter’ with people who were “destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy…they were commended for their faith.”Hebrews 11:37-39 This reminds us that evil and suffering are always present and there are consequences for choices and actions. Hence, the need for a Saviour which is ongoing.
Jesus speaks in these last days perhaps asking the same range of questions that was asked after the murder of innocent righteous Abel.Hebrews 11:4
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it… Where is your brother Abel?… What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!Genesis 4:6 -10
These are the sorts of questions we ask in the wake of tragedy a search for understanding. We analyse attitudes and desires while exploring options and outcomes. The contemporary goal then as now includes understanding, redemption and salvation which Christ offers. What are some things that can help us as we see Christ making him real in the world bringing this sort of intervention so people can hear?
Some Areas for Attention.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the importance of paying attention to avoid drift.Hebrews 2:1 Three areas I will briefly discuss are ethics, pastoral care and psychology in the ongoing conversation about how Christ may be speaking into our intimate places of distress, hurt and confusion. Then connecting these areas with the concept of Ubuntu, our shared humanity.
Jesus through the Spirit calls us into and sustains us through an ethic of love which bell hooks describes this as “care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge” —in our everyday lives.bell hooks (2000) All About Love. William Morrow Paperbacks. Kindle Edition. p126 It requires “showing care, respect, knowledge, integrity, and the will to cooperate”ibid p133 which will take courage. Is Jesus real to us and are we making him real to the world around us that we inhabit? Yet in encountering tragedy I feel in real and tangible ways helplessness coupled with a sense of complicity with evil and compromise with unjust structures.
Hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas asked due to generalised anxiety after 9/11, the war on terror and internal US racial conflict “Where is the love?”https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/blackeyedpeas/whereisthelove.html viewed 14 June 2021 17 John 1:14 Theologically, we might ask while wrestling with theodicy (why is there evil in the world?); “How is God in Christ who is love operating in culture, history and theology?” The love ethic personified in Christ speaks truth into human tragedy and sits with us in an act of amazing grace and solidarity. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”17 We are held in the outstretched arms of Jesus even when we and things are falling apart.
Trauma calls for a compassionate response addressing the needs of the suffering and oppressed. Jesus in telling his disciple to feed the sheep was not only thinking of their spiritual needs but included and was not limited to the emotional, physical, intellectual and social. “Tenderness is an amazing capacity. Tenderness means listening with compassion to peoples stories and this offering; it means meeting and welcoming another person with tenderness and care, offering understanding without the desire to dominate or to teach.”Vanier , J. and Swinton, J. (2014) Mental Health: The Inclusive Church Resource. Darrin, Longman and Todd:London p86 Like the human body God has created within the church body certain healing processes for health and wellbeing.
Grief, loss, shame, regret, and much more are a part of the human experience requiring both divine help, community support and personal resilience. Jesus as head of the Church is as Sinach sings the “Way maker, miracle worker, Promise keeper, light in the darkness”https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sinach/waymaker.html viewed 14 June 2021 empowering the pastoral team – a real emergency service. In hindsight that is exactly what was and is needed in the aftermath of such devastating tragedies. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”John 14:12 The beloved community is walking in the footsteps of Jesus moved by compassion bringing their worshipful payers, songs and actions to a hurting world and individuals.
The mind is a powerful part of our being influenced by so many things hence the significance of recent studies in Neuroplasticity – the rewiring of the brain. The awesome and complex relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions is tested, transformed and/or traumatised by Grenfell and George Floyd for example. The scriptures invites us into conversation with God to “let us argue it out” or ” Come now, and let us reason together.”Isaiah 1:18 NRSV and NKJV
In what can be regarded as his memoirs James Cone states, “Theology is paradoxical, symbolic, and poetic language, full of mystery. Its truth is found in imagination, and it speaks more to the heart than to the mind. Imagination is the only way to talk truthfully about ultimate reality.“Cone, J. (2018) Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Orbis Books:Maryknoll. p122 This creates the opportunity not only for healing and understanding calling on imagination with creative responses and actions. The mind, our imagination is a place to commune with Jesus.
Here again I can hear a song that positions me in the corner to borrow from R.E.M.https://genius.com/Rem-losing-my-religion-lyrics viewed 14 June 2021, ‘losing my religion.’ A battle of the mind now ensues. Am I part of the “beloved community”, been called out of a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) world, labelled “mad” by others or myself? Or may be it could be something else yet to be revealed. Once again we are met where we are like the Gerasene demoniac amongst death, marginalisation and suffering. However, after the encounter with the Divine are “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”Luke 8:35 Jesus is the balm in Gilead making the wounded whole assisting us when discouraged, isolated or traumatised.https://hymnary.org/text/sometimes_i_feel_discouraged_spiritual viewed 14 June 2021
As we engage rationally with tragedy we observe that our response must be holistic and multi-disciplinary. The African philosophy of Ubuntu which looks to bind humanity together and validates the other spanning past, present and future is helpful. The ultimate other being is Christ. Ubuntu looks to act locally while thinking globally which aids one as we navigate far-reaching tragedies. It is individual but also collective and generational influencing people of faith or with none.
Desmond Tutu a keen evangelist of Ubuntu thinks; “Consequently injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a religious, a spiritual imperative.”Battle, M. (2009) Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me. Seabury Books. Kindle Edition Locations-308 After all Jesus came to bring liberation with a preferential option for the poor. Ubuntu makes new knowledge available, better relationships and a fuller appreciation of our identity in Christ and relationship with him. Therefore, we can engage with tragedy in a new way knowing we are not alone, unimportant or independent.
“Ubuntu makes real the revelation that life is a gift.”ibid Location 1032 God has given us life and each one is precious, Death is a loss and premature death is like theft by “The last enemy to be destroyed.”1 Corinthians 15:26 Our hope is in Christ – the root of our pastoral approach.
“Ubuntu makes real the axiom that all manner of things will be made well.”Battle, M. Location 1033 We both give and receive pastoral care following the example of the good shepherd which ultimately brings abundant life and healing. Our helper is Christ – a physiological healing.
“Ubuntu reveals how God seeks mutuality with us a revolutionary concept that we could actually become God’s friend.”Battle, M. Location 1037 This brings us into new dynamic friendships built on trust and empathy especially in suffering. Our confidence through Christ – creates an enlivened and embodied ethical relationships.
On 14 June I wear green as a tribute to those who died at Grenfell. On 25 May I take a knee to memorialise George Floyd’s death and oppression.. These rituals serve as reminders of the ongoing dialogue with Jesus and how he speaks into our reality which includes trauma and tragedy. These rituals are an ongoing engagement with culture/s, history and theology.
A section from Ben Okri’s poem describes some of the observations and deep emotions experienced by many:
There’s cladding everywhere. Political cladding, Economic cladding, intellectual cladding — things that look good But have no centre, have no heart, only moral padding. They say the words but the words are hollow. They make the gestures and the gestures are shallow. Their bodies come to the burnt tower but their souls don’t follow. Those who were living are now dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower See the tower, and let a world-changing deed flower.https://benokri.co.uk/news/grenfell-tower-2017-poem-ben-okri/ viewed 14 June 2021
Many questions still remain (some unanswered), pain is still acute, lessons learnt, some not, emotions raw but only time will tell if a healthy flower grows or a “root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.”Hebrews 12:15 My prayer is that the description given the black church will be true for the whole community of faith as “teacher and protector, the comforter and the enlightener…”Bascio, P. (1994) The Failure of White Theology. Peter Lang:New York p92 George Floyd and Grenfell Tower have changed the world but how will the ‘good deed flower’ develop?
Chris Like us.
Like our early Christian forebears in Hebrews, my, and perhaps your faith, relationship with the Church, politics and existential being is been challenged. I need “help in time of need”Hebrews 4:16; “hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul”Hebrews 6:19 in stressful times and confidence that “brings a great reward.”Hebrews 10:35 Hebrews paints a clear picture of a Jesus who is forever empathising as an interceding great high priest.Hebrews 4:14 -15, 10:25 He lived the love ethic, demonstrated compassionate care (for others and self) and opened minds.
Henri Nouwen gives a composite picture of Jesus who is mystic, revolutionary and compassionate. The mystical way is about a healthy inner life and connection with God and neighbour.Nouwen, H. (1994) The Wounded Healer. Darton, Longton and Todd:London p16 The revolutionary way is calling for “a total radical upheaval of the existing order, together with a drastic change of direction…”ibid p18 It is a critique of self and society done with compassion which flows from the love of God “which is visible in Jesus Christ – credible in his [her] own world.”ibid p41 These are qualities that must be evident in us making Jesus seen, appreciated and understood as the wounded healer. Then he can be heard.
With echoes of Isaiah’s suffering servant we like Jesus live “also to make his wounds into a major source of healing power.”ibid p83 Jesus then as now invites us into community that offers insight, support and challenge. Christ continues to bring life and healing in and through us why we can hope, love and forgive despite the horrors around us.
To go back to the introduction what was Jesus saying on 14 June 2017, 25 May 2020 and numerous other dates? He was and is empathetic because he shares our humanity; “the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things.”Hebrews 2:14 Jesus is saying “#MeToo” speaking into the silence that often surrounds violence, the long wait for justice and our loneliness.
Kanye West sang:
God show me the way because the Devil's tryna break me down (Jesus, walk with me) The only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now (Jesus, walk)… I wanna talk to God but I'm afraid 'cause we ain't spoke in so long So long, so long (Jesus, walk with me)https://genius.com/Kanye-west-jesus-walks-lyrics viewed 27 June 2021
We can respond that Jesus is speaking, he is listening and remains credible. He returned to heaven with our humanity and remains in active service on our behalf. “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.”Hebrews 2:17 As an advocate, friend and Priest he speaks into our lives and situation saying ‘I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain. I am right here with you.’
The message of a credible Christ encourages us to hold on even in the battle, ‘the valley of the shadow of death’, doubt, oppression, pain, struggle, etc etc etc. He is with us in valleys and on mountain tops, in the cave or the field walking and talking with us.
For yet “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.” But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.Hebrews 10:38-39
The words of the Father about his beloved Son tells us that justice and righteousness will prevail and that we shall have joy. “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”Hebrews 1:8-9
Jesus speaks reminding us today that we too are anointed with a holy purpose and united in him. Not only is he credible but tells us that so are we, a living witness of faithfulness in our culture, history and theologically based actions.
The Bible – NRSV and NJKV
Bascio, P. (1994) The Failure of White Theology. Peter Lang:New York
Battle, M. (2009) Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me. Seabury Books. Kindle Edition bell hooks (2000) All About Love. William Morrow Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.
Cone, J. (1997) God of the oppressed. Orbis Books:Maryknoll
Cone, J. (2018) Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Orbis Books:Maryknoll.
Niebuhr, R. (2001) Christ and Culture. Harper & Row:San Francisco
Nouwen, H. (1994) The Wounded Healer. Darton, Longton and Todd:London
Vanier , J. and Swinton, J. (2014) Mental Health: The Inclusive Church Resource. Darton, Longman and Todd:London
Weir, M. (2020) I Can’t Breathe. Krik Krak:London
2021 https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sinach/waymaker.html viewed 14 June 2021 https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/blackeyedpeas/whereisthelove.html viewed 14 June 2021 https://benokri.co.uk/news/grenfell-tower-2017-poem-ben-okri/ viewed 14 June 2021 https://genius.com/Kanye-west-jesus-walks-lyrics viewed 27 June 2021 https://genius.com/Rem-losing-my-religion-lyrics viewed 14 June 2021 https://hymnary.org/text/sometimes_i_feel_discouraged_spiritual viewed 14 June 2021
|↑1||Hebrews 1:1 NRSV (NRSV used throughout unless stated otherwise|
|↑2||Hebrews 13:5, 6 and 8|
|↑3||https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/ fullstorywhatdoesthecensustellusaboutreligionin2011/2013-05-16 viewed 14 June 2021 4 Weir, M. (2020) I Can’t Breathe. Krik Krak:London p65|
|↑5||Niebuhr, R. (2001) Christ and Culture. Harper & Row:San Francisco p12 and 25|
|↑6||https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/109020/Nicene-Creed.pdf viewed 14 June 2021|
|↑7||Cone, J. (1997) God of the oppressed. Maryknoll:Orbis Books p81|
|↑11||Genesis 4:6 -10|
|↑13||bell hooks (2000) All About Love. William Morrow Paperbacks. Kindle Edition. p126|
|↑15||https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/blackeyedpeas/whereisthelove.html viewed 14 June 2021 17 John 1:14|
|↑16||Vanier , J. and Swinton, J. (2014) Mental Health: The Inclusive Church Resource. Darrin, Longman and Todd:London p86|
|↑17||https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sinach/waymaker.html viewed 14 June 2021|
|↑19||Isaiah 1:18 NRSV and NKJV|
|↑20||Cone, J. (2018) Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Orbis Books:Maryknoll. p122|
|↑21||https://genius.com/Rem-losing-my-religion-lyrics viewed 14 June 2021|
|↑23||https://hymnary.org/text/sometimes_i_feel_discouraged_spiritual viewed 14 June 2021|
|↑24||Battle, M. (2009) Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me. Seabury Books. Kindle Edition Locations|
|↑26||ibid Location 1032|
|↑27||1 Corinthians 15:26|
|↑28||Battle, M. Location 1033|
|↑29||Battle, M. Location 1037|
|↑30||https://benokri.co.uk/news/grenfell-tower-2017-poem-ben-okri/ viewed 14 June 2021|
|↑32||Bascio, P. (1994) The Failure of White Theology. Peter Lang:New York p92|
|↑36||Hebrews 4:14 -15, 10:25|
|↑37||Nouwen, H. (1994) The Wounded Healer. Darton, Longton and Todd:London p16|
|↑42||https://genius.com/Kanye-west-jesus-walks-lyrics viewed 27 June 2021|