Why Jesus had poor posture.
A few years ago, on Christmas day, the film Django Unchained was released into the theatres. Set in the deep South before the time of the American Civil War, it tells the story of a slave named Django who gains his freedom by partnering with a German dentist who is pursing a new vocation as a bounty hunter. This dentist, Dr. Schultz, promises to help Django find and rescue his wife from a monstrous plantation owner.
The film was both commercially and critically successful — grossing over $425 million in theatres alone, and the writer and director Quentin Tarantino was awarded both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Now, if you know anything about Tarantino films, you know that they are not for the faint of heart. Django Unchained is outrageously violent and gory. And though there’s so much guts ‘n blood that I found myself shielding my eyes with my hands throughout the film, audiences around the globe fell in love because — although this might sound strange — Django is a feel-good movie.
The tagline says it all “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Vengeance.” As one film critic put it: “It’s as unwholesome, deplorable and delicious as a forbidden cigarette.” Why? Because Django Unchained is all about revenge. And as a viewer, you get the satisfaction (the forbidden pleasure) of witnessing nasty men and women getting exactly what they deserve.
Shortly after the film was released, the celebrity host on Saturday Night Live was Christoph Waltz, the actor who plays the German dentist-bounty hunter Dr. Schultz. And one of the sketches Waltz stars in is a spoof of Django Unchained called Djesus Uncrossed.
In it, Jesus rolls away the stone, and then in Tarantino-style, he ruthlessly takes revenge on all of the Romans who wanted to crucify him. A voiceover says, “He’s risen from the dead and he’s preaching anything but forgiveness,” as Jesus slaughters Pilate and his men with ninja swords and machine guns. Some viewers were offended. Most thought that it was the funniest sketch of the night.
After the show aired, one of my old classmates from seminary Rev. Alan Combs, a Methodist minister in Virginia who found the sketch “blasphemously funny” also noticed that he felt a bit uneasy. So, he reflected on Djesus Uncrossed in his blog, where he wrote:
As I was trying to sort out how I felt about the sketch, something occurred to me: This is the Jesus that people wanted. When Jesus came, he came in the wake of violent revolutions by folks like the Maccabees. It was assumed that when the Messiah appeared, that he would come as a new warrior-king of sorts who would lead a violent defeat of the Romans who oppressed the Jews… This is who everyone expected Jesus to be. His followers kept waiting for the beginning of the revolution. His enemies wanted to take him down because they feared an insurgency.
DJesus Uncrossed is the Jesus they wanted.
DJesus Uncrossed is the Jesus that many still want.
But it isn’t the Jesus we get.
Matthew 26:47–56 describes how Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. Judas, one of his 12 disciples (one of his closest friends), arrives with a large crowd behind him wielding swords and clubs. When they lay hands on Jesus, one who is with him draws out his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. This person does what a lot of us would do in a similar situation — whatever it takes to protect the ones we love — even if that means harming another person.
But even though it’s for his own protection, Jesus denounces this impulse toward violence, saying, “Put your sword away, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
And in that moment — when the disciples finally realize that Jesus really means what he’s been saying, when they grasp that he is going to remain non-violent until the bitter end, that he truly will not fight back — All the disciples abandon him. All of them. They flee.
This was not the Jesus they wanted.
When push comes to shove and shoves turn to swords, Jesus remains committed to a path that refuses to respond to domination and violence with more domination and violence. And this is the posture he has been carrying throughout his ministry.
It’s the posture he embodies when he denies the temptation for power in the wilderness, when he teaches his followers about loving your enemies, when he gets down on his knees (to the shock of his friends) to wash the feet of his followers.
The Gospel of John tells about a time when a woman caught in adultery is dragged before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees who are trying to trap him — trying to get him to break either Roman or Mosaic law. So, they force the woman to stand before Jesus and they charge, “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say Jesus??”
But instead of confronting their arrogance with more arrogance, instead of puffing himself up, Jesus awkwardly crouches down and begins writing into the ground with his finger. And then he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast your stone.”
We’ve heard this saying so much that we kind of take it for granted, but it really is so beautiful. So perfectly unraveling.
Dr. Kevin Dutton, who specializes in the science of social influence, calls what Jesus does here the “antithesis” to aggression. And in every instance, the antithesis to aggression, the posture of peace that Jesus embodies, is all about one thing— it’s all about forgiveness.
Now, forgiveness is difficult to talk about because on the one hand, it’s a topic that we are overly comfortable with because we mention forgiveness so often and so casually, especially within religious/spiritual settings, that the word doesn’t really hold any weight anymore. It doesn’t catch our attention. It isn’t interesting.
And at the same time, it’s hard to talk about forgiveness because we are so very uncomfortable with the notion of it, because it is such a loaded word, because forgiveness (or lack of forgiveness) has likely played a huge part in most of our lives, maybe more than we’d like to admit. Talk of forgiveness makes us squirm because, honestly, most of us probably have someone in our lives right now we haven’t fully forgiven — and we don’t plan to either, so you can take your forgiveness speech and shove it, please and thank you.
To forgive makes us uncomfortable because there is this underlying fear that forgiveness somehow means endorsement.
I don’t believe this is true. Forgiving a wrong doesn’t mean that you are endorsing it or that you’re sticking around to enable it, but even when we can get past this barrier, forgiveness is still really fucking hard. And I think it’s a mistake to pretend otherwise — to act as if forgiveness is such an easy thing to do.
In an effort to try to make forgiveness seem more bearable, I hear a lot of people touting this “don’t do it for them, do it for yourself” motto. I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying: Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison waiting for the other person to die.
This is a popular and powerful quote because it is true. Forgiveness is absolutely healing for the one who forgives, and this is important. But that’s only half the story, there is still this other side, this other real person involved. It’s easy to forgive a concept, but to forgive an actual person who treated you or someone you love like shit — well that can seem near impossible.
And unlike revenge, which denotes getting back at and overcoming the other (what the s/heroes of most of our films are so good at), forgiving someone can feel… not just humbling, but humiliating, because technically it is.
The words humble and humiliate come from the Latin root word humus, which means “earth,” thus suggesting the idea of physically lowering oneself down to the ground.
This, of course, is what Jesus does over and over again. Risks humiliating himself as he goes down to break bread with society’s outcasts, as he kneels down before the woman caught in adultery, as he backs down to his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, and as he ultimately lays down his life at the cross.
Recently, through a video clip from The Work of the People, I watched Brene Brown explain how she, as a researcher of human behavior, finally came to understand the gravity and true cost of forgiveness when she heard her minister Joe Reynolds say, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.”
It may be your need to be right, your fear of being hurt again, your expectation of what something or someone ought to have been, it could be your pride, the desire to hold on to anger, the right to punish another, or the fear of being humiliated.… but something has to die, something has to be buried and grieved, which is what makes forgiveness, says Brene, “the ultimate act of love.”
A few summers ago, at Greenbelt, I got to hear Ian Morgan Cron give a talk about his memoir Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, which revolves around the moment when Ian, as a 16-year-old, is told by his mother that his father works for the CIA in Europe — a father who is also a raging and abusive alcoholic. I was especially moved by Ian’s story about God and forgiveness, which I’ll summarize below, but you might prefer to read for yourself on pages 168–175.
As a teenager, Ian steers clear of churches and would rather get drunk at parties, but he attends Young Life events because he has a connection with two of the youth leaders. And one Sunday, one of them invites him to a service at St. Paul’s, a small Episcopal church in a hyper-affluent community in Connecticut that is experiencing this crazy religious revival. “Even God was surprised,” Ian writes.
During this time in his life, he has already asked people to stop trying to get him to “receive Jesus into his heart.” He doesn’t like Jesus. However, he decides to go to St. Paul’s that day, partly because a pretty girl takes him by the arm.
It is beyond what he could’ve imagined. Folks have driven in from miles away and the church is so packed that they have to shove and elbow their way through. Episcopalians, like United Church folks, are known for priding themselves on order and polite restraint, so Ian is shocked when he sees a sanctuary full of people jumping, singing, and waving their hands. He describes how he watches middle-aged women leap down the aisles with colored streamers, investment bankers speaking in tongues, and ladies “who resemble Barbara Bush being slain in the Spirit” (which is basically when someone is so overpowered by the presence of the God that they pass out).
After the priest speaks, Ian watches as one person after another stands up to give a testimony about what God has been doing in their lives. The testimonies make him want to throw up. Where was God when he needed help? Where was God when as a little boy he begged and prayed for his father to stop drinking? He’s more than relieved when this time of sharing is finally over.
When the Communion liturgy begins, however, Ian suddenly has to rest his forehead on the back of the pew in front of him because his heart starts beating so fast that his ribs begin to ache and he thinks he’s about to have a heart-attack.
He decides he’s had enough and that he is going to make a run for the door, but just then — he starts to see visions in his mind that blur into childhood memories, and out of nowhere, he hears a voice: “Forgive me, Ian,” it says. “I’m sorry, Ian. Please forgive me.”
The voice is so loud and clear that he looks up to see where it’s coming from, but no one’s there.
Ian wonders about this voice for many years. He contemplates whether it was an imagined conversation between him and his father, or perhaps an apology that he was subconsciously making to himself. But when he’s being honest, he timidly wonders if it could be what he suspects, but just can’t bring himself to accept because the thought is so ludicrous.
Over the years, he hears a lot of eloquent and reasonable opinions from intelligent professors, but nothing really resonates until the day he hears from Miss Annie.
Miss Annie is an elderly African American woman he meets through the church he attends while he’s in seminary. And one day, at a church barbeque, he tells Miss Annie about the voice, and in a moment of vulnerability, asks if she thinks it’s wrong for him to believe that it was somehow God who asked for his forgiveness that day.
Miss Annie frowns, shakes her head and says, “Lord, what do they teach you at that school?” Then, with waving spatula in hand, she proceeds to remind Ian of the God he speaks of — the God who desires mercy and grace, the God reflected in Jesus who chooses a posture of peace though it costs him his very life. Why wouldn’t a God like that apologize to a boy, she asks, if this would somehow heal his heart?
Ian begins to interject, struggling to wrap his mind around why/how a perfect God would/could ever apologize to an imperfect human being, but then…
“Miss Annie ambled the five or six feet that separated us and took my hand,” he writes. “Son,” she said, rubbing my knuckles with her thumb, “love always stoops.”