Thursday, July 7, 2011

Saving Paradise -- Part 2: Paradise Needs to Be Saved

This is the second part of my review of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. The first part of my review focused on the book's description of the church as paradise in this world and as resistance against the violence of empire. I interpreted this part of the book to be about the salvific power of paradise, thus rendering the book's title to mean a paradise that saves.

Part 2 of the book deals with the decline of paradise on earth in the theology of the Western church and the concomitant ascent of a theology of crucifixion that pushes paradise out of this world and into the afterlife. Such a theology functions to support rather that resist empire in this world. I interpret this part of the book to be about a paradise that needs to be saved.

The crux of the book (pun only partially intended) is the chapter about the oldest existing crucifix, the Gero Cross, found in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, pictured on the left. Charlemagne, having been crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, was constantly expanding his territory, forcing the peoples he conquered to convert to Latin Christianity. One of the groups thus forcibly converted were Saxons who were already Christians, but not Latin Christians. They included a deep reverence for nature as part of their practice of Christianity. Christian rituals and those devoted to the Norse gods took place side by side. Carolingian (Charlemagne's) forces subdued the populace and enforced Latin Christianity in part by cutting sacred trees such as the sacred oak of Thor. The Saxons were told that they were responsible for Christ's crucifixion and that, if they did not convert to Latin Christianity and give up all aspects of paganism, they would die without being forgiven for crucifying Christ and would therefore go to hell. Ironically, the Gero Cross was fashioned out of oak by the great-grandchildren of those subdued by point of sword and by threat of hell.

Accompanying this new emphasis on guilt for killing Christ and the pushing of paradise into the afterlife was the acceptance of killing. Earlier Christians had refused to kill other people under any circumstance, and, when Christianity had been co-opted by the Roman Empire, Christians who had been conscripted into the military were treated as penitents for a year upon their return home. This prohibition against killing was turned on its head by the time of the Carolingian Empire. Killing those outside the empire was acceptable because they were considered to be the enemies of Christ.

Monasteries became the place where paradise was preserved in this world. It became the norm that everyday people couldn't be expected to live lives of paradise, experienced both in nature and in communal relationships, so paradise was cloistered. This led to the idea that the empire was the cloister of Christianity and that everyone outside the "walls" of the empire were outside paradise.

Eucharistic theology and practice began to change, as well. No longer a celebration of the risen Christ and the risen faithful, it became an experience of sacrifice, in which the death of Christ was both commemorated and recapitulated during each Mass. The violence of empire, rather than being resisted, became an integral part of Christianity. The authors draw a straight line from this to the Crusades and to the so-called "redemptive suffering" that made torture acceptable.

Paradise was discovered in this world once again by the "discovery" of the New World. The annihilation of its inhabitants was considered to be completely acceptable because of the violent theology of the church, which sanctioned slavery to subdue the New World and make it into a paradise in which Christians can live.

The authors do see hope in the twentieth century in the theology and practice of Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr. For both, this world, rather than the next, is the place of God's saving activity.

I was refreshed by Part 1 of this book. Part 2, on the other hand, recounts the imperialization of Christianity as a violent religion, one that punishes, kills, and enslaves. The greatest challenge put forth by the book was the idea that pushing paradise out of this world and into the afterlife creates the sense that we are always "lost' in this world (not the evangelical sense of "lost," but in the sense that, even as Christians we don't belong in the world but only in the afterlife). This, the authors convincingly contend, creates the twin feelings of nostalgia and hope, that justify all kinds of atrocities in the hope to restore the world to that imaginary state that only exists in our nostalgia.

I therefore will resist the temptation to yearn for how the church used to be. Instead, as the authors suggest, I will endeavor to love the world as it exists in the here and now. I will find beauty in the world and enjoy it. I will create relationships of mutual love. I will recognize that paradise is in this world and that it includes those who have died in Christ. I will attempt to live non-violently in my actions and in my theology. I will seek justice for all. I will live the resurrected life in communion with the risen Lord and the risen faithful. I can't do this alone. We need each other to grow into the image of the divine meant for us by God. As you can see, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.


Rita Brock said...

Thanks, David, for a great summary of the book's key points and a thoughtful review. You clearly "got" what we tried to do for the reader, which is what our own struggle with our research did for us. Color images of art discussed in the book can be found at the Beacon website for the book.

David Miller said...

Rita, thanks for the link. I look forward to viewing the images.

David Miller said...

I loved the images, and the liturgies on the site are beautiful.

kenalto9 said...

Appreciated the description of your father's funeral liturgy i the first part of the review. Being unfamiliar with Methodism, the Resurrection part was new to me.

Could you flesh out the concept of the 'risen faithful' you mention in this post? Are you referring to those who, like your father, have already died in the faith?

David Miller said...

Thanks for the question. It's been almost two years since I read the book, so I'm a bit fuzzy as to whether the book uses the phrase "risen faithful" or whether that was my interpretation. At first blush, I think I can say "yes" to your understanding of it. It was a reference to those who died in the faith. I recall that in the book the Eucharistic feast ritually brings the presence of Christ and those who have been part of that local Christian community and who have died.

You may have noticed from the first part of this that I included a parenthetical caveat about the afterlife: "if there be such a thing." From an earlier book of Brock's, I gather that she is speaking phenomenologically rather than literally. Those in the here and now experience the presence through memory and ritual. This book is not referring, in my opinion, to something supernatural taking place.

In addition, Brock is deeply involved in interfaith activities, so, while I don't recall the both touching on any interfaith concerns, I don't think it intends to imply that only Christians have a place in this ritual paradise on earth. So "risen faithful" may have been my words. Again, I'm not certain of that.

kenalto9 said...

thanks - one of the things I find meaningful in the eucharist is knowing this is a ritual so many of my forebears have shared and found great meaning in. I also think one of things Jesus is trying to teach us in ever-widening circles of learning who our neighbours are is the inter-connectedness of all things - so I try to image the eucharist as a connection not only to Christ but through Christ to everyone else who has shared a eucharist.