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Sermons I never heard

3.28. 2018 Written By: Ben Goossen 2,673 Times read

Mennonite theology has not prepared us to deal with mass shootings. The faith I grew up with is a religion of victimhood, in which evil resides outside of us—in “the world.” There is no space for thinking about ourselves as part of the problem. I now know I am part of systems that undergird capitalist exploitation, white supremacy, global arms circulation and deep injustice within my own local contexts. Addressing mass shootings such as the tragedy at Parkland, Florida, is my responsibility, too. But I did not learn that in church.

Earlier this month, Mennonite Church USA co-sponsored a conference in Kansas on “Mennonites and the Holocaust.” There, I and other participants heard about mass shootings of a different kind. These were massacres in which Mennonite men in Nazi-occupied Europe executed Jews, Roma, political dissidents and the physically and mentally disabled. We heard about Mennonite women who acted as interpreters, helping identify Jews and seizing their property for personal gain.

How could Mennonites—members of a historic peace church—have been so misled before and during the Second World War? As a historian, I thought I had relatively clear answers. Numerous books have been written about why fascism happened: economic devastation wrought by the First World War, punitive international treaties, populist nationalism, transnational anti-Bolshevism, the shock of the Great Depression and so forth. Only in talking with fellow conference attendees, did I begin to realize how unequipped Mennonite theology is for dealing with Nazism, and how deeply anti-Semitic our tradition remains.

In a post-conference reflection, my friend Lisa Schirch recalled she “never heard any Mennonite discuss broader church responsibility for the anti-semitism or the Holocaust.” The same is true for me. Why have I never heard a sermon on Christian anti-Semitism? This is not an oversight. It is a fundamental theological failing. How can Mennonites possibly perform effective witness when our theology allowed far too many among us to contribute directly to the Holocaust and then enabled the rest to stay silent?

Mennonites are fallen, and we have no meaningful theology of sin. I’ve heard plenty of sermons on redemption—but I never came away feeling that we needed it all that much. Likewise, I’ve listened to innumerable sermons on discipleship. In these, our model is usually the Jesus of Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and of verse 39: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In these accounts, we are never the evil one. And our Jesus is mild, persecuted, submissive.

But what good is a quiescent, politically neutral Jesus? That Jesus is the Jesus of the authorities. He is the Jesus of “In God we Trust,” stamped firmly around the image of Caesar. He’s the white Jesus, the Jesus who died for the slaveholders and the segregationists. He’s the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem under palm branches and did nothing for the next week besides eating and drinking with his friends and hanging glumly around Gethsemane.

On my reading, that’s not the Jesus of the Bible. Our liturgical calendar jumps cleanly from Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday. But to ignore the social context binding these events is to denature the scripture. What actually took Jesus to Jerusalem? And what did he do in the week before the Last Supper? A surprising number of days pass before he is killed. Something clearly transpired that turned Jesus from exalted donkey-rider into crucified rebel.

If we fast-forward through the hosannas and the cloak-laying, Jesus’ first act is astonishing. According to Matthew, he wastes no time upon entering Jerusalem. The very next words read: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (21: 12-13).

Traditional Mennonite interpretations—at least as I heard them growing up—strangely divorce these events. Jesus is no meek peacemaker arriving in humility to bring reconciliation to a troubled land. He is angry. He is there to make change. For Jesus, the Holy Land is ripe for revelation. It is shot through with economic injustice and religious corruption. Those who hold power do so in the name of the people but use it only to enrich themselves.

Does this sound familiar? Morally bankrupt leaders offer their thoughts and prayers but do nothing of consequence to aid those they purport to serve—meanwhile, accepting gifts from monied interests. Anyone who attended the March for Our Lives this weekend, held in hundreds of locations across the United States and the world, could surely identify with Jesus’ disgust. Signs carried by schoolchildren—afraid that gun violence might claim them next—could have been paraphrased from his Jerusalem diatribes.

As in Jesus’ day, popular backlash prompted crowds to sweep in from the hinterlands to the seat of Law to speak truth to power. Standing on the National Mall before the Capitol Building of the United States—our very own modern-day temple—how many of the speakers, enraged at lax gun laws, said some version of the following:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces…. You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?… For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones…. you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:13-33).

This is a Jesus my pastors kept studiously out of the limelight, the Jesus of Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” To be honest, this is a Jesus that resonates with me.

The Christ we need, I think, is a March for Our Lives Jesus. A March for Our Lives Jesus is a Jesus that matters. He’s a Black Lives Matter Jesus. He’s a brown, Palestinian Jew Jesus. He’s a refugee-who’s-had-enough Jesus. He’s a fabulously gay, watch-me-glitter Jesus. She’s a queer, trans, stop-killing-my-people Jesus. She’s a teenage Parkland survivor Jesus. She is very much a nasty woman Jesus.

This Jesus shows up in Jerusalem or Washington, D.C., with 100,000 of her closest friends, making the politicians say, “We are afraid of the crowd” (Matthew 21:26).

And yet, here I am, once again, displacing evil onto others and aligning myself with a redemptive Christ. Who have I sold out in order to imagine the March for Our Lives Jesus? How can Mennonites like myself march against gun violence without addressing our church’s complicity in the Holocaust? Too often, the atrocities of the past go unacknowledged and unaddressed, pushed aside to make way for our next ministry. Absent is any real, deep, soul-searching recognition of our own culpability or of the entanglement of injustices.

We as a church have not wrestled satisfactorily with the deep history of Christian anti-Semitism. I have never heard a sermon asking if I can or should love a Jesus whose only act between entering Jerusalem and cleansing the temple might have been to stop and curse a fig tree. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” Mark has Jesus saying (11:14), words that Christians for centuries have interpreted as a metaphor for the nation of Israel, which, in this logic, has gone astray, become barren and lost its usefulness for God’s plans.

I am dismayed at my inability to construct a radical Jesus without resorting to what I now recognize as anti-Semitic tropes. Do you see it? Look how easily we Christians and Mennonites slot “the Jews” in for the villains and boogeymen of our own age: politicians, capitalists, the gun lobby. Who populates the back of our minds when we search for epithets to hurl at powerful hypocrites? Scribes, Pharisees and Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Jesus taught us to speak in parables, and we have been unbelievably effective at seeding our thoughts with metaphorical anti-Semitism.

March for Our Lives is a movement we need. But we must come repentant to our neighbors and our God, awake to the myriad effects of our actions, past and present. Fighting gun violence means fighting patriarchy means fighting inequality means fighting transphobia means fighting empire means fighting racism means fighting homophobia means fighting anti-Semitism. Without each of these orientations, our best-laid plans shatter. We must reconstruct our theology step by painful step so the next generation cannot say that’s a sermon I never heard.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press. This article is excerpted from a sermon he gave at the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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