What must be done

The news is rarely pleasant as we live in a fallen world and media coverage is greatly influenced by our inability to look away from train wrecks, but it feels like the last few days have been especially rough on our collective empathy. A backlog of thousands of rape kits has prompted Texas lawmakers to look at asking driver’s license renewers for donations to offset the cost of analyzing this critical evidence. Even when governments attempt to pursue justice, new moral issues arise. Arkansas has rushed to schedule the execution of eight men in eleven days, two per day on four days, this blistering pace caused solely by the impending expiration of one of the drugs involved. This is occurring while there are more questions than answers about lethal injection and states attempt to block our ability to ask those questions. For added darkness, the executions are set to begin in a heavily Christian state the day after Easter, a holiday commemorating Jesus’ resurrection after execution by the state. But of course, headlines have been rightly dominated by the Assad regime’s use of banned sarin gas on Syrian civilians, with the resulting images of gasping, dying children burned into our souls forever. It is all utterly overwhelming, the constricting weight of sorrow isolating and paralyzing us. What can we do?

3B42B699-26B3-49E4-A1C2-B120F7A05D06I’ve written and preached before on my firm belief that Batman is a wonderful metaphor for how the church, especially the Western church with its affluence, should operate. Vigilantes like Batman capture our imagination over and over again in literature and pop culture, and I think it’s largely because we desperately want the assurance they provide. We want to know not if but when evil occurs and the system fails to save us (or even aids the villains) that someone will still fight for us. That, after everything falls apart, someone still believes some things are simply the right thing to do, even if that stance runs afoul of human law or endangers their very lives. The good news, the very best news, is that One has come who that perfectly describes. The Kingdom message of Christ Jesus concerns itself only with what is right, not what is convenient, self-interested, legal, or even safe. Jesus, practicing what he literally preached, lived out this message and died a rebel’s death as a direct result. I use Batman to talk about Christianity because I see the Son of God who emptied himself for our world reflected in the mission and sacrifice of Gotham’s Dark Knight. And I see it in the defiant works of the church in Acts and throughout the church’s greatest historical moments. This path is for us, too. The nail-torn hands of Jesus are on the move when His church acts like Him, taking action because of what is right in sheer defiance of the broken status quo.

I hope you’ve started trying to connect that idea to my opening comments about recent evils; if you have, you’ve probably started thinking that these are ridiculously hard problems to solve. And you know what, you’re right. Evil is complex, entrenched, and ever hungry. There’s a lot of suffering I have no clue how to fix. But I am sure that God has blessed us with incredible gifts. Teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, accountants, doctors, nurses, scientists, social science experts, artists, lawyers, mechanics, and countless other skills and professions have found a home at the foot of the cross. Consider also the enormous educational and financial advantages many of us have compared to the rest of the world. What could happen if we more fully leveraged all of that for the Kingdom? What could happen if we devoted ourselves to building stronger Christian alliances rather than stronger political alliances, each of us learning from each other and across the divides of geography, affluence, and culture? Why stick to offering up “thoughts and prayers” while waiting on insulated, unfeeling governments to act despite already holding in our own hands amazing abilities from God?

It is a great tragedy that the American church has so greatly atrophied her capacity to dream and dream big. I’m furious that thousands of rape kits go untested solely due to funding, but I’m positive that’s something that’s within our reach. More complex evils can be conquered as well through coordination and use of our myriad talents. I can’t fathom the quagmire America’s death penalty has become on my own, but there are doctors, lawyers, and ethicists in our midst who can help us start by asking the tough questions they’re trained to ask, even on behalf of those who don’t deserve mercy just like we don’t deserve God’s mercy. Natural and manmade disasters can push us to our absolute limits and beyond, so we must count the cost now and prepare now as not to be caught flatfooted later. We can’t cure every evil, but we every inch claimed for God when we leverage the entirety of ourselves and our community proclaims in a way no sermon every could Christ’s resurrection and anticipated return to finish what He started. You may say it’s naive to think the church can take on complex sociopolitical tragedies, but I say it’s naive to think the status quo can ever be motivated to act against itself.

There are a few other things of which I am sure. I am sure that such devotion to God’s mercy and justice will inevitably cost us dearly. It may mean suffering. It may mean losing possessions. It may mean breaking the law. It may mean dying. Christ said we are to take up our cross daily and follow, and that’s what crosses mean. For the Christian it is not only what can we do but also what must we do. That same Jesus who calls for so much, though, has gone before us on the path, all authority has been given to Him, and He has promised to be with us always. It’s time to act like it. Some trust in chariots and some in horses and some in tanks and some in elephants and some in donkeys, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

What must be done

How to Be the Church in America? Be Batman

batman 75The shadow of a bat, encircled in light, rends a dark sky over an even darker city. Criminals,
stopped mid-sentence in the false bravado of a murderous threat, lose their dignity, stumbling over each other to get away. The scared, the oppressed, the victimized, and the used see the first glimmer of hope reflected from the liht in the sky. Countless fans, kids and adults alike, watching Gotham from afar know the exciting part will soon burst forth from the shadows. Dread, hope, and thrill. The Bat Signal is remarkable in its ability to simultaneously elicit such varied reactions.

Seventy-five years ago today, the man behind this symbol made his debut appearance. The Batman has had quite the career since. Fighting criminals, freaks, mutants, aliens, and even Superman has made him one of the most successful comic characters of all time. And he still gets around quite well for his age. The Caped Crusader had barely finished Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, the embers of his renewed fame still glowing hotly, when it was announced we would see Superman appear opposite the Dark Knight for the first time in film. The image of the bat boldly shining over Gotham, for all the time that it has shined, still means a lot to us.

When I was a kid, Superman wasn’t strong enough to grab my attention. Star Trek seemed but a pointless wandering. Tales of Spiderman couldn’t ensnare me. But I always heeded the Bat Signal. After a few years of a mysterious disappearance, the Dark Knight returned to my attention with the release of Batman Begins. I fell in love with it and the subsequent films, but something was different this time. Being older, I saw more of the evil from which Batman was trying to save us. His role was no longer simply adventurous; it was necessary for the survival of his people and of his own soul. A brief perusing of the news showed our worlds were not that different. Evil triumphed and the oppressed tried to pick up the pieces. The change in my appreciation was no more apparent than, one night after watching The Dark Knight with some friends in Alabama, I made a surprising (even to me) offhand comment: “I wish the church in America looked more like Batman.”

At first I honestly wasn’t sure why I said it. but as the conversation continued (and continued in my head long after I’d gone home for the night), I realized my comment was born of the same hope that had grabbed my attention as a child. A week of illness gave me a week to contemplate the gospel according to Gotham. Before that week was out, I was able to say with full confidence that American churches burdened and blessed by privilege and material things, much like most of the churches I had encountered in my personal life, would look more like Christ’s plan if we borrowed some moves from Batman’s book.

Batman’s origins look like what ours should. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter-ego, is born into wealth. He doesn’t choose it; it just happens. Whether or not the various portrayals of Bruce respect or reject his parent’s concern for the plight of Gotham, Bruce has no life-altering desire for societal justice until the murder of his parents shows how bad the world really is. Whether or not we are individually wealthy, those who attend materially privileged churches reap the benefits of those who went before us, much like Bruce. And like Bruce, we won’t be motivated to grow the Kingdom of God until we get a grip on how bad things are for all of us, particularly those left behind by society (hopefully it won’t seeing our parents shot to create this epiphany).

Batman’s handling of his privilege looks like what ours should. Given the Wayne fortune, Batman could have easily given up on Gotham, retreating into his own wealth and power. Or he could have, awash in guilt, discarded it all. Instead, Bruce leverages his resources, education, and talents wholly on his calling. Many American churches face these same temptations, forgetting that God expects much from those who have been given much.

Batman’s handling of his pain looks like what ours should. Batman makes a unique superhero because he shares so much in common with many of his enemies, most notably their pain. The Rogues Gallery is full of twisted shells of human beings who have been legitimately wronged. What makes Batman different? The choice to focus on preventing that pain from afflicting anyone else, rather than choosing revenge. As human, we have each been hurt. But the church is asked to take the gospel everywhere, even where the people who hurt us live, and pray for those who persecute us.

Batman’s growth into the Batman looks like what our growth into ministry should look like. Unlike superheroes born that way (Superman) or superheroes who achieve powers abruptly, Batman takes years, nearly two decades in some portrayals, to go from the scared and angry young orphan to the protector of Gotham. What does he fill his time with? Exercise, study, planning, exercise, study, planning. It takes a lot of time and money to become the Batman. Why do we think emulating Christ and His perfect love and service should happen overnight?

Batman’s role in society looks like what ours should. Batman is a bit of an ornery guy at times. Unlike some heroes, he manages to anger everyone at some point or another. When he can work with society, he finds who he can trust and builds a relationship with them (Commissioner Gordon, for example). But when the authorities are corrupt, he holds to his moral code no matter the circumstances, bringing down justice on street thug and corrupt official alike. In Batman’s refusal to blindly join any one camp in society in order to follow his code, I see the Christ who reveres God and His Temple but chases out those who have gained control of it. What parts of society does the church today blindly follow when we should be making our own path based on God’s plan?

Most importantly, Batman’s complete devotion looks like what ours should be. There are skills, talents, and resources typically associated with law enforcement and crime fighting. They form but a small portion of what Batman leverages in his fight for Gotham. His wealth, his detective skills, his use of his Bruce persona, his creativity, even his body. All is offered up for justice. The church is built on the Christ who tells us to take up our cross, the symbol of complete sacrifice, daily and follow Him. There are things we typically consider ministry (like preaching, evangelism, and planning a canned good drive), but they form but a small portion of the talents God has given us and the things we are called to do on behalf of Christ to serve those around us.

When the Bat Signal ignites the sky over Gotham, evil trembles and the oppressed find hope. I pray the American church, in all of its power and resources, can reflect the cross of Christ in a way that makes evil tremble and the oppress find hope.

How to Be the Church in America? Be Batman