religion

In the Room Where It Happens: Public Moments of Worship

By Rev. Mindi

It’s probably been twenty years since I last joined in a public singing of Handel’s Messiah. I was part of a community choir, and we invited the audience to join us on the Hallelujah Chorus. In this particular instance, our choir stepped down from the risers and interspersed ourselves among the people, singing our harmonies among those singing the melody, helping our neighbors find their places in the sheet music so they could sing along. It was a moving moment of joining voices, professional and amateur, to sing this magnificent opus. And it was a public act of worship, of joining our voices to sing these notes and text that portrayed such a moment of praise.

I know that many churches still offer public singings of Messiah around the holidays, but the opportunity to find such moments outside of the church are rare. A few years ago, when flash mobs were the rage, I remember watching the video over and over again of the people singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the middle of a mall, from where they were sitting and standing.

I call these moments of worship because the focus is not on the individual. In these moments, the focus has turned outward. It has turned into a moment of joining together with other voices to make something greater than ourselves.

I have felt these moments of public worship in other spaces. During the 2000’s, attending U2 concerts often felt like acts of worship. I remember during the Vertigo tour, singing Yahweh at the end of the concert, where one by one the instruments stopped until all that was left was our voices on the chorus and the sound of Larry’s hands on the bongo’s. At other times, singing 40 at the end of the concerts was our public moment of joining together. In both cases, those words led us to singing a song of praise to God.

However, it was on the 360 tour, in singing Walk On, that I began crying, when Burmese refugees came forth wearing masks depicting the face of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political prisoner who was finally released soon after that tour after fifteen years of house arrest under the military regime. It was a moment of solidarity, a moment of understanding the plight of the Burmese people. Of course, we paid $45 plus Ticketmaster fees to join in that moment, so I understand the skepticism of others, and I have heard the criticism of using Aung San Suu Kyi to sell concert tickets. But I also know that U2 have worked hard to share the message of the Burmese people during Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, and made their struggle known to the world.

I wasn’t expecting to find this moment of public worship at Emerald City ComiCon this year in Seattle. Of course, being a fan of Hamilton and singing those songs at the top of my lungs in my car sometimes feels like a moment of worship. I am sure for those who have attended the musical there is an understanding of a greater story being told. But at ComiCon, there was a Hamilton Sing Along, and In the Room Where It Happens, it happened.

Sure, we started off with, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence…” and you know the rest. We sang songs with colorful language that we would never sing in church.

But we also sang Wait For It: 

Death doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep living anyway

We rise and we fall and we break

And we make our mistakes

And if there’s a reason I’m still alive

When everyone who loves me has died

I’m willing to wait for it

I’m willing to wait for it…

 In that moment of singing those familiar lyrics, there was a sense of knowing our own mortality, that we all have one shot at this life, and that the best we can do is to come together and try to find enjoyment when we can.

When I looked around the room, there was a moment that surprised me. There were children in the room who knew every singing word without having to look at the power point. There were people dressed up as Spider Man and others as zombies who sang the harmony on Satisfied. It was ComiCon, after all. But it felt like worship. It felt like church.

We didn’t get to sing It’s Quiet Uptown, with the lyrics, “There’s a grace too powerful to name,” but I felt that message in all of our joyous singing, in the raised fists during The World Turned Upside Down, in our insistence that we were not throwing away our shot. And when we sang Rise Up, one by one, people began to rise up together. We began to join not only our voices but our bodies in this movement. I felt a connection to the turmoil that is happening right now in the United States people, one by one, stood up and sang.

To me, it transported me back to that moment twenty years ago, singing the Hallelujah Chorus. We were naming a powerful moment, singing our praise as a people, and while we want a revolution, in that moment, we had a revelation. Hallelujah. Rise Up.

Reclaiming Religion

By Rev. Mindi

In the aftermath of the events of the past week, now that a suspect in the Boston bombings is in custody, now that the media has buzzed once again with the purpose behind the bombings being Religion—how are we to respond?

First, we need to take this question out of the “Islamic Extremists” reasoning.  While both suspects may have identified themselves with Islam, it’s clear that for the deceased suspect, he didn’t understand the Qu’ran at all (claiming that “the Bible is a cheap copy of the Qu’ran” he obviously doesn’t understand how to read history, either), and the younger suspect had only been to the local mosque once in the last three years, smoked marijuana and drank, all activities that would not be condoned by a typical “religious” Muslim.  In short, though these two brothers may have claimed to identify with Islam, they didn’t really understand the very religious tradition they claimed as what had driven them to bomb innocent civilians in their anger against the United States. 

While fundamentalism can be dangerous in any religious tradition and certainly we have seen the results of fundamentalist Islam, I see a tide shifting in the media portrayal and coverage. It is no longer about Islamic fundamentalism, but religious fundamentalism, and not even fundamentalism but religion in general.  When “religion” is labeled as a reason for why people would kill innocent civilians with homemade bombs, we all are getting thrown under the bus.

This adds fuel to the fire of why people reject religion altogether. They hear the shouts of the Westboro Baptist Church (which neither is Baptist nor a church, in my opinion, though they may be located in Westboro) and see Christians as hate-filled people. Even if, as most people know, the Westboro church is rejected by most Christians, there are enough other churches that reject lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks that people don’t want to be associated with a church, let alone Christianity. 

My concern about this recent hype in the media and the use of the word “religion” is that the discourse is going beyond the extremists, beyond the fundamentalists, beyond the right-wing branches of religious traditions. The journalists are reporting that the older brother was becoming more devout, “praying five times a day.” As one of the basic principles of Islam, that’s like saying “they began taking communion every Sunday” about a Disciple. The basic practices of a faith tradition become extreme to the rest of the world.

Religion is getting a bad reputation, and those of us in church leadership ought to be concerned about it. Because the real problem is not religion, it’s the use of violence that uses religion as a cover. It’s the use of religion as a blanket excuse to kill in the name of God, when we kill in the name of humanity, in the name of violence.

There are plenty of verses about peace in the Qu’ran, in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, in many other religious texts around the world. Most religions, since ancient times, have had passages and practices about peaceful living with one’s other religious neighbors, alongside the passages that justified war and violence.

What happens when we allow the media to characterize any one religion in a negative light? Eventually, it catches up to all of us. 

In the “Spiritual but not Religious” conversation, the pull to reject religion is greater with these kind of definitions. When religion is labeled as the reason for one’s negative, violent actions, it is hard to reclaim the word religion as anything good. But we must do so. If our argument for religion is that being part of an organized community is better than being solo or being part of a detached community (lest we run the risk of assuming that people who identify as Spiritual but not Religious aren’t part of a community, so be careful here) we need to speak out against those who would characterize Muslims and Islam, against voices within Christianity that are violent, hurtful or abusive, and we must not be silent.

Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

This article originally appeared on Christian Piatt's blog on Patheos.com.

One of the most pivotal concepts in contemporary Christianity has to do with whether Jesus died for the sins of humanity. For many, this is a central tenet of their Christian faith; for others, the very idea that a God would require the spilling of blood — let alone that of his son — to forgive us seems appalling.

In my “Banned Questions” book series, I’ve tried to pull together some of the most challenging questions about the Christian faith I could find. Then, instead of offering cut-and-dried answers, I pose the questions to a group of theological thinkers and activists to see what they think, with the intent of allowing readers to decide what they believe.

Given the centrality of this particular question, I decided it would make a good opening topic for the newest book in the series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.” I posed this to the respondents as follows:

Why would God send Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, instead of just destroying sin, or perhaps offering grace and forgiveness to the very ones created by God? Why does an all-powerful being need a mediator anyway?

Chris Haw, co-author of “Jesus for President,” says:

I have found it important for my mind to get “sacrificial lamb” idea back into working shape by, for example, considering how Jesus also died from the sins of the world. … A multitude of our sins, not God, killed Jesus. And for what it is worth, the “sending his son” verse should not be understood as God killing someone (Did God’s denunciation of human sacrifice not begin with the binding of Isaac?) No: we killed God’s Son, and it was sinful and unjust.

Haw’s response resonates with John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of what was the cause of Jesus’ death (humanity, not God), while also pushing up against the myth of redemptive violence, as put forward by such theologians as Walter Wink.

“There is a long and complex tradition of varying interpretations of the meaning of the death of Jesus,” says Lee Camp, author of “Who is My Enemy?” He continues:

The early church primarily thought of the death of Jesus as a victory over the powers of sin and death. … In the medieval era, another trajectory became predominant in the west: Anselm argued that a God-Man was necessitated because of the great gravity of sin: sin dishonored God, and humankind had to make some reparation, some satisfaction for sin. Humankind was unable to make such a repayment, and thus Jesus became the substitute, restoring the honor due to God through his obedience unto death.

It is worth noting that, in Camp’s historical context, the notion of Jesus dying for our sins did not gain traction in the Christian imagination until at least a dozen centuries after Christ’s death. This is critical in our understanding of the crucifixion, namely because so many assume today that their present belief in substitutionary atonement has forever been the cornerstone of Christian theology. Not so, suggests Camp.

“By the sixteenth century, Calvin focused upon punishment,” he says. “Because of the immensity of humankind’s sin, God’s wrath demanded punishment; Jesus became the substitute punishment.”

Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna takes a different approach, affirming the need for sacrificial atonement, but suggesting we distort its purpose:

The Gospel is not that some deity takes out its rage on an innocent victim so he doesn’t have to take it out on all of us eternally. God doesn’t need blood. God doesn’t need a mediator. We do!

The Lamb of God is not offered to God by humanity, but is God offered to us to enable a new humanity. God is reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ by knowingly becoming our victim, exposing this idolatrous system that promise order, safety, peace and protection in exchange for victims.

The idea that the sacrifice of a living creature was required to appease God for one’s sins has been around a lot longer than Christianity has. Mentions of animal sacrifice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and Abraham’s faith is even tested when he’s asked to sacrifice his own son.

This value of sacrifice as part of one’s faith also was common in the Roman culture, where the types of sacrifices usually were specific to the characteristics of the Gods being worshiped. So a God of the harvest would require an offering of produce, and so on. Some pre-Christian cultures, such as those from Carthage, even practiced human sacrifice, though the Romans generally condemned it.

Interestingly, a millennium prior to Anselm’s understanding of blood atonement, there were very different understandings of Jesus’ death germinating in the Christian collective consciousness.

In the fourth century A.D., Gregory of Nyssa proposed that Jesus’ death was an act of liberation, freeing humanity from enslavement to Satan. Seven hundred years later, around the same time that Anselm presented to concept of substitutionary atonement, a theologian named Abelard proposed that it actually was that Jesus’ response of pure — some might emphasize nonviolent — love in the face of violence, hatred and death was transformational in the human psyche, reorienting us toward a theology of sacrificial love over justice or atonement.

Contemporary theologian Walter Wink goes a step further than Abelard, claiming that atonement theology is a corruption of the Gospel, focusing on an act of violence rather than the values of peaceful humility and compassion lived and taught by Christ.

Resolving the debate about the causes of, and purpose behind, Jesus’ death is an impossible task. More important, though is to make clear that such a debate is going on. For too long, Christians and non-Christians have assumed that all who yearn to follow the way of Christ universally believe Christ died for our sins. For millions, this not only defines their faith, but their understanding of the very nature of Good as well. For others, it is the basis for rejecting Christianity, understanding it as an inherently violent religion, centered on a bloodthirsty God that requires death in exchange for mercy.

This is not the God in which I put my faith, and I am not alone.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visitwww.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.