Bringing the Sword of Holy Transformation
I wonder if you’ve ever seen or prayed with Brother Robert Lentz’s icons? They’re a mix of old and new – portraits in stylized Byzantine positions with Latin inscriptions and golden nimbuses encircling the heads of figures like Martin Luther King of Georgia and Harvey Milk of San Francisco or Mary and the Christ child as members of Navajo Nation.
One of my favorite icons of his is called “The Christ of Maryknoll.” It portrays Christ with a dark olive complexion looking through a barbed-wire fence of what we can only assume is some kind of encampment – a prison, a labor or internment camp, or perhaps an immigration holding center. He’s leaning on the fence and peering through at the viewer – with his fingers carefully placed in between the barbs. Both of his palms bear the wounds of crucifixion. One hand silently covers our view of his mouth. The other hand reaches above his head. It’s difficult to look at. Christ’s gaze is haunting – almost like a Rorschach inkblot test. Is his stare coldly accusatory or one of comforting solidarity? Is he on the inside or the outside of the fence? Are we inside or outside? Whichever side he’s on, we’re on the other, and he’s silently calling to us. The barbed wire on which Jesus is leaning is attached to two wooden beams, framing two sides of our view and evoking the cross – a cross between us and Christ. It’s chilling and comforting and undeniably both modern and ancient. It somehow speaks to our long history of human suffering at our own hands.
I discovered this icon as a teenager when I was looking for prayer items that matched my newfound vocabulary that I was learning in a social justice class at my Catholic high school. This icon continues to resonate with me in a way that only finding it during that formative time as a teenager could.
I bought a print of the icon and brought it with me to college. Carefully, with those little 3-M strips, I hung it up next to my giant Bob Dylan poster, a small foot washing icon my church had given me at Confirmation, a colorful, animal-filled Heifer International poster, and the obligatory Van Gogh prints that I soon came to realize that every girl between the ages of 18 and 22 has on her wall. They took their place amid my roommate’s Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin posters and our suitemates’ Gandhi and The Muppets Take Manhattan prints and picture collages of high school friends.
A couple of weeks later, one of our suitemates hesitantly approached me: “We’ve all gotten together and decided that you need to take down your Jesus poster. It’s creepy and sad, and it weirds us out. It’s nothing but pain and suffering – that’s pretty messed up, and we don’t need to look at it.” Without protest, questioning if it was actually everybody that felt this way, or any conversation at all, I immediately apologized and said that it wasn’t my intention to creep people out. I took the icon down and put it in a drawer. I didn’t want to hurt people, and I especially didn’t want to get the reputation in my first two weeks of college that I was the creepy, weird person with morbid pictures of suffering on the walls. I gave it away a couple of years later.
I wish now that I had kept the icon up or that I had at least shared why I like it and explained: “That’s the point of this icon: to make us uncomfortable. To make us disturbed with oppression and to help us realize that Christ is in every moment of suffering. To help us fight, like Gandhi, for equality and equity – especially when that fight needs to take place in ourselves.”
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
My example is a small example but an important one (as many small examples are!). Maybe I would have taken the icon down in the end anyway; but, there was a deep and theological conversation – a holy conversation, just waiting there for my suitemates and me. We missed out on it because I wanted these new people to like me, and I was afraid to sit in the discomfort of conflict. When handled respectfully and openly, our holiest insights can come out of the sword of disagreement. I had been Catholic, and the other women I lived with were Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian. What a fruitful conversation we might have had about social justice, how we view Christ, what crucifixion means to us, and how our personal theologies were formed – a little summit of Christian unity between the four small walls of a cinderblock dorm room.
Opportunities like these – even more important ones, present themselves every day – especially in the areas in our lives around power. Will I live with the false peace and ignore a racist joke – or will I stand, as lovingly and assertively as I can, with the sword of disagreement? Will I let an acquaintance treat a stranger like an object instead of a person beloved by God because of their sex, country of origin, or political party, or will I hold up a mirror? Will I keep my status or will I risk being not as well-liked by making room for someone’s voice when another knowingly or unknowingly tries to silence them?
I think part of the reason that “The Christ of Maryknoll” icon stays with me is because it is so modern – Christ with crucifixion marks standing in one of our current methods of torture and death – of crucifixion. We have many more. Theologian James Cone wrote about the lynching tree as an American cross. Lynching terrorized Black Americans across this nation for decades. The sin of lynching terrorized people where I grew up in Tennessee and where I now live in Virginia – two young Black teenagers in Old Town Alexandria in 1899. Teenagers whose grandchildren would be alive today if they had been allowed to live long enough to have children – members of our community who could have been living next door, worshiping in the same pew, or attending seminary with my classmates and me. And there were many more such murders across Virginia and the whole US – people stopped from inhabiting the fullness of their calls and lives because they were Black. These murders wounded, traumatized, and cut life off from not only those people but also their families and friends. These sins also marred the lives of all those who witnessed and committed them – whether they supported lynching or just stood silently by as it happened. Jesus is on both sides of the fence – with those being oppressed and those oppressing. He is with us in our suffering and trauma, calling to us for the oppression to stop.
As we hear again today in the voices of activists and as we have heard too many times for this to keep happening, the nightmare of lynching across this country still lives with us. The hate that inspired it still courses through our blood, creating school-to-prison pipelines and continuing to murder unarmed Black people whose only crimes are walking home from school, selling loose cigarettes, jogging, or sitting in their home. Our crosses today? We see them on the news day and night, and I have no doubt that if Jesus had come today, we would have crucified him – because we’re crucifying him still: just as you did it to one of the these who are members of my family and who have the forces of earthly power stacked against them, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)
It’s deeply disturbing to hear Jesus talk about bringing a sword and conflict among our family and between us and the people we cherish and love most. Isn’t he the healer and teacher of love, the “Father-forgive-them” guy – the one going after the lost sheep? He is, and he brings the sword, too. Too many people, including me, live with the so-called ‘peace’ of this world. We need more truly holy conflict – not exclusion of groups or wars fought in the name of God but respectful, difficult conversations and hard reckonings about our individual identities in this world, how we treat one another, and how we see God. We need reconciliation and transformation. We need true change, and it begins with true listening. It begins with honest conversations that mutually acknowledge our shared humanity and witness the deep suffering of those inside the fence with Jesus – however those suffering choose to say it. We need conversations between Democrats and Republicans. Between Westboro Baptists and Queer Christians. Between those keeping strict quarantine and those entering capital buildings unmasked with assault weapons. Between billionaires and those who make $7.25 an hour. Between those who assert that Black lives matter and those who believe that even to say this somehow diminishes the lives of non-Black persons. Between me and the person who does or believes the thing that I can’t stand, and between you and the person with whom you have difficulty.
The sword does not just bring conflict among families. We can’t stop reading there. Jesus also tells us that the sword makes foes become members of the same household. It gathers us in to one big house – full of holy conflict, full of love, and undeniably linked forever. A sword brings urgency and clarity to where we stand along the fence with Jesus, and it ultimately destroys that fence. Foes become members of the same household. A sword won’t let us avoid the holy conversation, the holy conflict, and the holy transformation. A sword calls us to action, to relationship. The Lord knows our hurting world – our hurting neighbors and selves, need our immediate attention.