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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Scandalous Grace

I'm reading a pretty challenging book right now by Shane Claiborne, entitled Irrestible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Shane is a Christian, but probably not any kind of Christian you've ever encountered. Shane realised that Christ's message wasn't something to be assented to in a distant, complacent way, but a challenge to everyday thinking. His Christ is the one who surrounded himself with socety's losers and misfits, who told the rich man "Give up all you have, and follow me". Shane's Christianity is political, certainly, but it's not the politics of any political party. He works with homeless people, he went to Iraq in the middle of the war to spread the message of Christ's love to Muslims and Christians alike. If that sounds crazy, well, so did Christianity when it was new. and that's rather the point: it's become old and tired, and people no longer take it seriously. Now I'm normally pretty resistant to folk telling me their take on Christianity, but I have been reading his book with a lot of admiration (mixed with awe). I keep finding things I would like to quote, but I'll restrict myself to one big quote.

There's another person who felt the world killed the good in him, a young man who was a decorated army veteran in the 1991 Gulf war. I remember reading the letters he wrote home from the war, in which he told his family how hard it was to kill. He told them he felt like he was turning into an animal because day after day it became a little easier to kill. His name was Timothy McVeigh. He came home from serving in the Army Special Forces, horrified, crazed, dehumanized, and became the worst domestic terrorist we have ever seen. His essays cry out against the bloodshed he saw and created in Iraq: "Do people think that government workers in Iraq are less human than those in Oklahoma City? Do they think that Iraqis don't have families who will grieve and mourn the loss of their loved ones? Do people believe that the killing of foreigners is somehow different than the killing of Americans?" No doubt his mind had been tragically deranged by the myth of redemptive violence. He bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in hopes complacent Americans could see what "collateral damage" looks like and cry out against bloodshed everywhere, even in Iraq. Instead, the government that had trained him to kill, killed him, to teach the rest of us that it is wrong to kill. dear God, liberate us frm the logic of redemptive violence.

One of the people I have grown to love is a man named Bud Welch. He lost his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, in that Oklahoma City bombing at the hands of Timothy McVeigh. He says he went through a period of rage when he wanted Timothy dead. "I wanted him to fry", he says, "I'd have killed him myself if I'd had the chance." But there was a moment when he remembered the words of his daughter, who had been a courageous advocate for reconciliation. She used to say, "Execution teaches hatred." It wasn't long before Bud decioded to interrupt that cycle of hatred and violence and arranged a visit with McVeigh's dad and family. As they met, Bud says he grew to love them dearly and to this day says he has "never felt closer to God" than amid that union. He decided to travel around the country speaking about reconciliation and against the death penalty, which teaches that some people are beyond redemption, and pleading for the life of Timothy McVeigh. And he says he felt "a tremendous weight had lifted" from his shoulders.

As he worked through his anger and pain and confusion, he began to see that this evil spiral of redemptive violence must stop with him. And he began to look into the eyes of Timothy McVeigh, the murderer, and see the image of God. He longed for him to experience love, grace, and forgiveness. Bud is one who still believes in the scandal of grace.

Ironically, when I was giving that talk titled "The Scandal of Grace", I told the story of Bud Welch as I talked about how God's love extends to all losers, whether Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Saul of Tarsus, Timothy McVeigh, or me. The program team showed a PowerPoint presentation ising the "visual edition" of Philip Yancey's work What's So Amazing About Grace? In the Powerpoint, different images pop up behind the words "amazing grace that saved a wretch like me", and different people's faces are branded with the words "like me" - Mother Teresa, sports stars, celebrities - and one of them was Timothy Mcveigh. It created such discomfort that the program team was told to remove the image of Timothy from the presentation before the second service. There is something scandalous about grace. It's almost embarrassing that God loves losers so much. It flies in the face of the world's myth of redemptive violence. No wonder the early Christians had such bad reputations and questionable credibility. No wonder they were called "the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world", as one of the leaders, a former murderer himself, wrote (1 Cor 4:13).

An astonishing book by an astonishing young man.

Update: here's another guy who takes a similar theological approach, while not going so far as Claiborne in giving everything up.

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