Church as Counter-Image to Brutality


[1] Stunning images and stories of police brutality have rocked the United States in recent months.  These images and stories—of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others—have moved the American people profoundly, but in different directions.  For Black Americans, such images of murder represent an existential threat that has incited just and desperate protests; and these protests have found broad support, especially among the young who support a more inclusive vision of America’s future. Many white Americans have been awakened from a slumber of unconcern or outright willful denial of institutional racism.  Still, others have hardened in their denial, blaming the victim and scarcely concealing the assumption that Black people and other people of color make up a violent, unruly, immoral, and un-American element in society.  These Americans have been rallied by a racist President who summoned white supremacist followers to “stand back and stand by” for the event of an election defeat.  Amid it all, many would no doubt prefer to un-see and un-hear the sight and sound of Black deaths: to shut out the picture of brutality from their eyes and to close their ears to the din of unrest.

[2]  What can the church do or say that might be meaningful in this moment?  Black churches have a long association with the struggle for justice and equality, so the question finds them in a different place than predominately white denominations.  But what of the latter; what of denominations who in word and deed have often failed to affirm that Black lives matter?  And how might these churches be agents to overcome the racial divide in American Christianity—a divide not only between Black and white—to come together as a body of Christ that truly represents the diversity of God’s creative and redemptive work?  If manifest brutality is going to continue to hold the day in American social and political life—and a mere change in presidents will not turn the tide—how can the church in these times be what it is called to be, and witness to God who creates, saves, and sanctifies life?

[3] This essay argues that the church must realize its call to be a counter-image to human brutality; in so doing, I draw especially upon Martin Luther, but with the intention of connecting Luther to a broader ecumenical tradition.  But first I want to describe briefly how I came to focus on this theme.

[4] The questions I’ve just posed were foremost in my mind this summer as I taught a seminary course that might seem remote from the subject matter at hand—a course on Christian attitudes toward marriage and celibacy throughout history.  As I revisited each reading, however, and discussed the subject with students, I was reminded constantly of the enduring power of a particular New Testament image—the image of the church as an alternative family:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:46-50; NRSV.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  John 1:12-13; NRSV.

[5] This ancient image of the church involved a thorough repudiation of the brutal, patriarchal, hierarchical, slave-holding household of the Greco-Roman elite[1]—and a repudiation of the underlying Greco-Roman ideal of masculinity, which celebrated domination, control, and the penetration of women and subordinates.[2]  The church as alternative family likewise repudiated the division between God’s peoples on the basis of nation, class, or gender: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29; NRSV)

[6] As I prepared for and taught class, I was reminded that the revelation of Christ Jesus, especially of Christ crucified and triumphant, has at times stirred even stubborn humans to come together as a body of Christ that is truly  the counter-image to brutality and to the idolatry that worships limited gods—gods whose love does not extend to all creation.

[7] In this essay, I want to explore the idea of the church as counter-image to brutality, for this is what the church is and must be in its inner life if it is to be a vehicle that carries God’s salvation, love, and life to the world.  I have learned the concept of “counter-image” from Martin Luther, who adapted the concept—itself deeply rooted in devotional literature and art—amid his work to reform passion piety and the art of dying.

[8] The sixteenth century inherited a manner of devotion to Christ’s cross that involved affective contemplation of the suffering, dying, and dead human: such contemplation aimed variously at stirring sorrow for one’s own sin, love of Christ for his willingness to suffer humiliation and pain on one’s behalf, participation in penance and satisfaction, and active imitation of Christ’s suffering and self-giving love.  For Luther, conversely, the image of Christ suffering served first to convict sinners of their sin, then to console the convicted in the promise that Christ had taken care of sin, death, and damnation:[3] Christ on the cross presents the image of sin, death, and hell doing their worst only to be conquered by grace, life and heaven.  Christ crucified was the counter-image that sinners could take up and use against these death-dealing images, which (Luther taught) the devil and the troubled conscience hurled at sinners especially as death loomed.[4]

[9] Luther wanted Christ to be a source of consolation in the face of all that brutalized the faithful—Lutheran theology and art depicted Christ as the victor over death and the devil, recovering motifs that had been deemphasized[5]—and this was part and parcel of his larger Reformation.  Luther rejected teachings about spiritual hierarchy and the need to earn salvation through works because these teachings instilled fear and anxiety, leaving people unable to experience joyous unity with Christ through faith and genuine love and mutual support of one another.

[10] This essay interprets Luther’s conception of Christ as counter-image to sin, death, and hell—and his larger effort to remove the tyrannies of salvation anxiety and spiritual hierarchy—as continuous with a radical tradition that saw the church at its best as a counter-image to brutality.  The word “image” may evoke a sense of the superficial or may seem to attend unduly to the visual, but a proper understanding of “image” in this context excludes such shallowness or limitation—for several reasons.  First and most obviously, for the church to genuinely image Christ requires a deep, enduring, serious commitment of members.  Second, while I focus on the concept of “image” here—in part because of the way Luther’s devotional image of Christ connects to our present crisis—I intend to affirm with the Lutheran tradition that God meets us as embodied beings through our sense organs: we encounter God when we hear the Word, feel the waters of baptism, taste the bread and wine, see these elements as the broken body, and enjoy the voice and the touch of caring fellow Christians who are joined together with us in the new loaf that is Christ’s continuing body on earth.  Third, all these forms of sensory encounter convey a story, and we inseparably form an image of this story in our hearts, minds, and imaginations: an image of what God has done for us through Christ.  Receiving God through Christ and the Spirit is not a matter of receiving abstract doctrine, but of being moved by and caught up in the narrative of God’s creation and redemption.  Fourth, images are powerful: hence the waves started by the pictures of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Emmet Till.  Christians should see Christ in these images and vice versa; we worship an unjustly brutalized and triumphant lord.

[11] I am a scholar of Luther, hence my significant focus on Luther here.  That said, I am attempting to situate Luther within a longer tradition of church as counter-image to brutality, and I offer this conception of the church as a proposal to all readers, drawing from shared wells.[6]  I do not see Lutheranism as the sole place where the tradition of church as counter-image survived into the modern world; in fact, for reasons historical and theological—above all, because of the way Lutheranism developed in conjunction with temporal authority—Lutheranism became no simple realization of ideal Christianity but one more place where the life of the Gospel and the power of Christ’s counter image to human brutality bubbled beneath the lid of human resistance: we fear to go where God wants us to go, choosing instead to be enslaved to our more limited gods.

[12] This essay, moreover, intends to be critical of the church today and especially of “mainstream” Protestantism: it simply does not suffice to be the image of respectability and venerable tradition in the community; it’s necessary to transgress boundaries, to show up in unexpected places.  We’ve forgotten in practice that the theology of the cross, the teaching that God meets us “under contraries,” is not just about how God meets us through Christ but also about how the body of Christ thus formed, and freed by faith to love, must fashion itself in and for the world.[7] The boundaries that must be transgressed include boundaries between white people and people of color, between rich and poor, between housed and homeless, and so much more.  The church in the storefront or in the street may be a more effective image of Christ than the gathering in a steepled building on pews, although the steepled building as sanctuary may indeed send the right message.

[13] I define the brutality that the church counters here as cruelty to other living beings, which is often concealed under the guise of nature, norm, or law—a false claim about the way things are.  I use the term “living beings” to reflect the fact that human cruelty extends to our comprehensive interaction with the planet, and indeed, our expropriation of natural resources always occurs on the backs of the poor and the disadvantaged.  People of color, people in poverty, and the global south suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation, and the brutality done to future generations is unspeakable.

[14] My thinking about brutality has been inspired by the murder of Black Americans, yet I write with consciousness that brutality is pervasive and indeed celebrated by many in American life: the dream of wealth and power is brutal in its implications for those who have no fair chance; the “unsuccessful” are expected to serve with a smile, but otherwise to be neither seen nor heard; many—mostly young men of color—are kept out of sight and mind by incarceration, because their lives don’t matter to the right people; poor white folk are given enemies to hate (antifa, BLM, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, feminists, LGBTQ+ people) rather than opportunities to thrive; the preservation of a monolithic, nostalgic, and patently false image of the “way we once were” justifies hostility to immigrants, locking children in cages, subjecting women to forced sterilization, sending refugees home to die; the planet itself is on fire. And for those who buy the narrative of virtuous Americans versus dangerous others (many of whom enjoy American citizenship), the brutality of it all masquerades as just regard for law, order, self-defense, love of country, due reward for the hard-working, and so forth.  Brutalization of humans is de-humanization, disregard of persons who have been part of God’s plan from eternity and who will be part of God’s kingdom into eternity.  At the root of brutalization, there is social-cultural conditioning and fear—we are trained to be brutalizers, and fearful of any other way.  Jesus is another way.

An Historical Overview

[15] Some of the most shocking (and brutal) images and stories from the history of Christianity in fact present the church as counterimage to brutality. The graphic depictions of suffering in early accounts of Christian martyrdom—including the suffering of women, servants, and the enslaved—rebuked and inverted Roman conceptions of honor that celebrated male control and domination over women and social subordinates.  Christian authors depicted their martyrs as manly heroes and champions in gladiatorial struggle—they exemplified power in being pierced by the sword, they won the crown by losing, they were born by dying.  In one of the visions that preceded her martyrdom, and that she herself recorded, Perpetua becomes a man and defeats an Egyptian in a graphic gladiatorial contest; from this she learns that “it was not with wild animals that I would fight, but the devil.”  Christians’ stories of their martyrs intended to unmask the merely apparent victory of those who slayed the Christians; the persecutors possessed none of their supposed masculine rationality and power, but were actually enslaved to demons and the devils.[8]

[16] Before the martyrs there was Jesus himself who caught audiences off-guard and offended religious authorities with unexpected repudiations of family ties and responsibilities— repudiations that still shock in contexts where Jesus’ message has been misrepresented as in alignment with Victorian family values.  Jesus callously refuses to allow a would-be follower to fulfill a sacred familial obligation—the burial of his father.  “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead,” he says (Matt. 8:22; Luke 9:59-62).  Jesus declines to receive his family when they come to him, telling the crowd that his true family is not the one in which he was born but the body of “those who do the will of my heavenly father” (cited above).  This seeming hostility to family, however, was part and parcel of the constitution of Jesus’ disciples as a family in contradiction to the world’s (hierarchical, patriarchal) family—the family of Jesus’ disciples was subject to God the Father but unusually egalitarian in intra-human relationships.  Hence the female followers, whose role was downplayed by the male authors of the New Testament, although not suppressed entirely.  Here, the family of Jesus was a powerful counter image to a brutal world—to Greco-Roman norms that permitted the male head of household (the paterfamilias) and his sons to father children by enslaved women.  The Jesus movement attracted followers especially from the lower ranks of Jewish and Greco-Roman society; Christianity was maligned by opponents as a religion of girls and slaves—and scholars believe that the slander indeed reflected reality. Christianity also crossed lines of ethnicity and gender—joining in one family those (Romans and Jews) whose traditional laws insisted on separation.[9]

[17] The church was a new kind of family, the family of God’s eschatological time, and although the church over time underwent a patriarchalization and hierarchicalization,  refashioning itself as a mirror of the Greco-Roman household with bishops in the role of the paterfamilias, the radical vision of Christ and of the martyrs continued to echo.  It was channeled famously into the monastic tradition: Macrina the Younger, with the cooperation of her mother Emelia, turned her wealthy Hellenized household in central Turkey into a monastery, in which the formerly enslaved were treated as equals.  She also taught her brothers a thing or two.[10]  Augustine himself, although he blessed the patriarchal household when he concluded that Eve was created to be subordinate, continued to champion a life of celibacy in which consecrated virgins claimed heightened familial relation to Christ and to other Christians.  All Christians, he argued, are mothers, children, siblings and virgin spouses of Christ spiritually, but consecrated virgins claim the additional virtue of being virgin spouses physically—manifesting in their bodies the singular bond to Christ that will mark the coming kingdom.  Celibacy claimed eschatological familial existence.[11]  In the Rule of St. Benedict, the monastery is not only a “school for the Lord’s service,” but a family under a father (“abbot” means father) who was understood to hold the place of Christ. Interrelationships were to be egalitarian, with rank determined by virtue and date of entry into the monastery, not by the social ranking of the respective members.[12]  None of this was ever perfectly realized, of course, and medieval European cloisters frequently gathered the highborn and excluded the lower—but the radical vision would have none of this.

[18] A particularly arresting text from the monastic tradition is the Life of the 12th century Anglo-Saxon woman Christina Markyate (c. 1096/98 – c. 1155). According to the text, Christina vowed as a child to be the bride of Christ alone; but her vow was tested when she rebuffed the sexual advances of a powerful bishop, whose revenge took the form of trying to trap Christina in marriage to a young nobleman, Beorhtred.  Christina’s parents, seeking the advancement of the family and ties with the recently established Norman elite, backed the proposed marriage and sought to compel Christina’s consent, including by encouraging Beorhtred to rape their daughter. Written by a (male) monk, the text presents competing visions of masculinity: for instance, Christina’s father worries that he will be shamed if his daughter is permitted to rule over him, and her parents berate Beorhtred for being “unmanned” by Christina when he proves unwilling to force himself upon her.  As she escapes her father, in turn, Christina dons male clothes and rides off in a manly way, later to join herself in passionate spiritual love (described in highly sexual terms) to two male abbots, first Roger the Hermit, then Geoffrey of St. Albans.  For the author of her vita, which was commissioned by Geoffrey, it was her mastery of carnal passions that made her “manly”—more masculine than those who asserted their masculinity against her.  Meanwhile, she is depicted as the spiritual superior in her relationship to Geoffrey, advising and astonishing him through her visions.  She is specially protected throughout by the virgin Mary.  But her mastery of passions is not, finally, passion-lessness but rather immersion in a love of God that loves others in God—an Augustinian perspective discussed below.[13]

[19] Far more could be said of this rich text—and I do not intend to endorse its views around masculinity or a proper religious life.  The point here is only that, again, the brutality of a hierarchical world is repudiated through a radical intimacy of the believer to Christ, and a body of believers is constituted that sees itself as counter to a society that values domination and control.  All that said, monastery and world were intertwined: Christina’s parents were religious in a traditional sense, insofar as they visited monasteries regularly to seek spiritual services and offer their financial support in turn.  Moreover, the monastic tradition did not claim to represent the church in toto—but a radical tradition within it that contributed to the salvation of those who remained entwined in the brutality of the world.  Lutheranism would present a radically new argument that withdrawal from the world itself constituted brutality—disregard for the needs of one’s neighbor—and that Christians could be un-brutal people in a brutal realm.  This was not an easy position to maintain, nor is it (frankly) an easy position to teach!

Luther and the Radical Tradition

[20] Martin Luther is not often interpreted as someone who furthered the radical traditions that I have described here.  With respect to monastic traditions, his criticisms were fierce and led to the dissolution—sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced—of monastic life in most Lutheran territories: he charged that monks and nuns fled from their God-given responsibilities in the world of church, politics, economy, and family in order to pursue salvation according to self-invented rules; they fell first into pride—presuming to earn salvation through works rather than by the gift of faith in Christ—then inevitably into anxiety or despair, for death inevitably unmasked works-righteousness.  When only a few breaths stood between the human sinner and the justice of God, Luther believed, no one could presume to stand except through faith in Christ alone.

[21] Luther’s critique of monasticism was part and parcel of his larger critique of a church that taught Christians to seek salvation through works of penance and love; the monks were simply those who pursued these demands to the utmost of human possibility.  That said, Luther’s protest in many ways sprung from a universalization of monastic radicalism—Luther wanted to see the lives of all Christians rooted in and directed toward singular devotion to Christ.[14]  Still more, Luther wanted the church to be a body of believers freed from anxiety about salvation through faith in their head, Christ, and living in mutual love and support of one another—indeed, giving themselves even for their enemies.[15]  Luther wanted the church to be a counter-image to brutality.

[22] Luther believed that the church in his own day fostered fear and anxiety—church teachings tormented consciences with the demand to earn salvation through pious works (fasts, pilgrimages, alms-giving) and ultimately through perfect contrition and love of God.  Theology embraced and defended the rationality of this view—after all, there must be some difference between the saved and the damned that is rooted in themselves and not in an arbitrary divine decision.  But Luther focused on the ontological chasm between human holiness and God’s justice—no step can carry a person one inch closer to infinity.  The devil exploited this gap, in Luther’s view: the devil was happy to tempt the base to murder, theft and adultery, but he encouraged the would-be pious to do their best, only to incite their wavering consciences and barrage them with the image of their sins at death.

[23] Against what he deemed the devil’s religion, Luther worked to revise the “art of dying.”  Late medieval Christians facing death were told that they needed to confess their sins and be absolved in order to be assured that they would leave this world in a state of grace.  There were, accordingly, provisions for confessing to a layperson or to God alone if one was dying alone; at the same time, sudden death was a frightening prospect precisely because it cut off the opportunity to get right with God.  Thus, one could live life between hope and fear but one could never live with complete assurance of salvation: Who knew if the grim reaper would strike one dead in the midst of pride, envy, greed, or one of the other deadly sins?  Even on their deathbed post-confession and absolution, Christians were taught to expect assaults and temptations from the demons; they needed to rely on the sacraments (the Eucharist and Extreme Unction in addition to Penance) and the saints.[16]

[24] Some scholars have argued that Lutherans and Protestants, by removing the saints from the process, removed a source of consolation that was powerful for many laity.  This seems probable to me.  But Luther’s work to recast the art of dying nonetheless reflected an effort to reject brutality—for him, nothing was crueler than a group of human beings who claimed to be gatekeepers to salvation instilling rather than soothing fear of eternal torment.  Luther sought to recast the church as a body of people transformed by radical trust in Christ and mutual support of one another.  Luther’s advice on dying, moreover, reflected his continued appreciation of the senses as a means by which God taught and consoled believers.  Their conscience at death would impress images of sin, death, and hell; these images needed to be seen and defeated in the counter-image of grace, life, and heaven that is Christ—particularly Christ on the cross.  Christ on the cross is the paradoxical image of death swallowed up by life.  Delores Williams has argued persuasively that, from a womanist perspective, the cross should be seen only as a human effort to negate Christ’s life-giving, prophetic ministry; the resurrection is the image of victory, along with the realization of right relationships here and now.[17]  Luther himself relishes the paradox of the image of life in the very image of death—connecting to classical motifs and artistic depictions.

[25] For Luther, it was terror of death and judgment that made life unbearable; in discussing the fall and the loss of the image of God in his later Genesis lectures (1536-1545), Luther describes the image of God in us primarily as a state of fearlessness.[18]  Without fear, we have freedom to be the creatures that God created us to be.  In the world since the fall, it is only faith in Christ that frees human beings to genuinely love God and one another.  This is why faith unleashes and must be prior to love in Luther’s and Lutheran understanding: so long as we fear God as an angry judge, so long as we fear that caring for our neighbor (“lend, expecting nothing in return”) might imperil our own well-being, so long as we do not truly trust God to hold us in God’s care as creator, sustainer, redeemer, and sanctifier, then we cannot actually love God or any human for that matter.[19]  We are fully incurvatus in se.

[26] Luther’s vision was not merely about the individual, the inward self, and the afterlife; rather, he imagined that the person called by Christ would be called through other human beings—through the spoken Word, through the sacraments—within a body of believers.  These believers, moreover, were united to Christ their head through faith and to one another by love—united even across the paper-thin boundary between life and death.[20]  Believers were also freed to live their embodied, social existence with the fullest regard for others’ needs.  Here, participation in church, government, economy, and family (according to one’s personal calling) became a joy and an obligation of the love that flowed from faith. The church depicted in the Freedom of a Christian (1520) is a counter-image to brutality, a society governed by love and mutual support, not domination and fear.

[27] It is no mystery why Luther and Lutheranism have seldom been seen by interpreters as inheritor to radical traditions of opposition to the world.  Luther insisted that Christians not flee from their responsibilities to others in order to preserve their own supposed Christian purity; this meant that Christians could participate in government and its coercive functions—for the good of others.  But much that is nefarious can cloak itself under the veil of doing what is necessary for the good of others. Luther recognized the power of government to be life supporting—this is why God gives authority, beginning with the authority of parents and teachers over children—but he allowed no effective resistance to life-negating authority, fearing that the whole created order would unravel.  That said, sixteenth century Anabaptism, although it more clearly presented and realized the counter-cultural image of church as egalitarian family, took a stance toward government that has proven no less historically ambiguous; Anabaptist communities have often accepted the protection of and even supported unjust regimes.  But is it justifiable to benefit from a cruel political order so long as one’s own community remains pure?[21]  This is not to attack the Anabaptist tradition—whose witness is desperately needed today—but rather to say that the realization of Gospel radicalism is no easy matter, and our forms of witness need to shift in shifting contexts.  The question is, How can the church be counter-image to brutality today?

[28] For its part, Lutheran teaching rejects the notion that government can be Christianized: Christ’s rule does not coerce—Christ is a Lord who calls us friends—but we can imagine and realize no political order without some form of coercion.  Still, the church is called to witness to God’s will for human life and relationship, and to be people of Christ in service to the world.[22]  How can we be the body of Christ, which must look like Christ the counterimage of sin, death, and hell, in this moment? Death-dealing brutality always puts on the cloaks of normalcy; if brutality now reveals a glimpse of its face in the murder of Black Americans or the caging of refugees from our south, how can the church continue to expose and oppose that face?

Being a visible counter-image; rebuking idolatry

[29] Luther’s theology of the cross may provide guidance: in Luther’s view, human beings can know by nature that God exists and that God is just, but that God loves and wills the salvation of human beings can only be known through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit to bind us to Christ in faith.  Human beings want to ascend to knowledge of God by the exercise of their mind, and they want to please God through the exercise of their will, but God wills to save only those who trust in Christ rather than themselves.  Thus, God’s self-revelation happens through the scandalous cross, which, if truly beheld and understood, crushes human rational and volitional presumption.[23]  In the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the Law convinces human beings of their inability to earn salvation—first and foremost because they cannot trust in God as creator, sustainer, and personal redeemer through Christ and the Holy Spirit—and thus drives the faithful to the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone.  The message of the cross can function as law or gospel—it can reveal God’s condemnation of sin and our own responsibility for Christ’s suffering and death; or it can reveal God’s gracious rescues in unexpected places for those who feel least deserving.

[30] The theology of the cross must be used with care in context;[24] Luther may have emphasized God’s work through suffering and through the proclamation of the law to break down rational and moral presumption, but this was because Luther saw in his age primarily the problem of works-righteous teaching and belief that bound Christians to anxiety and despair.  In our age, many struggle to believe in God’s existence or care at all.  Moreover, while Luther’s message resonates with those whose spiritual anxieties sprout from the possession of too many resources for the exercise of power—their temptation is self-trust before God that ultimately brutalizes others on the horizontal plane—others have been marginalized and abused by just this class of the powerful.  It was clergy with the power to define doctrine who taught that the freedom of the Christian pertained only to the inner, spiritual, and eternal well-being of the soul, not to the wholistic well-being of the person.

[31] Luther himself made an argument of this sort in order to counsel the peasantry to accept their lot; and yet Luther’s view was more communal than later individualistic interpretations have realized.  In Luther’s view, salvation requires and binds to community.  Salvation requires community because we need others to speak the Law and the Gospel to us: God can meet us through other means, but God graciously meets us as the embodied social beings that we are.  Salvation binds us to community because as we are united to Christ by faith, we are simultaneously bound by love to all our fellow Christians and indeed to all God’s creation.  If the church is chosen by grace alone, the body of believers is chosen to witness to faith and to God’s love for the world.

[32] Luther took very seriously the notion that the church was the body of Christ—but that leaves us with the question, How is the image (including the oral proclamation) of Christ presented by the church able to successfully penetrate hearts to bring Christ into people’s hearts?[25]  Here again, the theology of the cross teaches us—the image presented by the church must truly be counter to expectations.  The church must present both views of the cross: the law and the gospel. The church cannot see the law-cross as God’s instrument to execute Christ, but rather as the place where God condemned the world’s effort to negate Christ’s life.  But God not only condemned, God overcame, and the image of victory is the Gospel-cross: even as he suffers and dies, Christ defeats brutality on the cross, swallowing up sin, death, and hell, winning a cosmic victory in which we can participate by faith.  This image of cross as victory becomes the form of the people of Christ, who live and witness amid but against the brutality of the world.  This people of Christ yearns to see God’s victory realized in the end of the persecution and murder of people of color.  This people of Christ sees its savior now in the face of those who have been murdered, and it does not accept depictions of Christ crucified as a white man.  Its image of Christ is also not that of a dead man: whereas Christ hanging dead was an image that spoke to medieval Christians devoted to the suffering humanity—amazed by God’s willingness to undergo death in Christ—we need to be surprised by God’s power to live and create life—a life that is free of brutality.

[33] Brutality is nourished by unbelief and covered by idolatry.  It must be rebuked in word and deed.  In Luther’s understanding, our god is whatever we trust to provide for our deepest needs—the power from which we seek refuge, consolation, security, and ultimate purpose and meaning.[26]  The medieval church was idolatrous because it taught people to trust in the clerical hierarchy or in their own intellectual and moral resources.  This was the way to salvation and eternal life with God.  Now I wonder how many of our idolatries even promise a meaningful salvation—we are in the grips of idolatries that are puny in their promises but powerful in their manipulation of human fears.  My doctoral advisor, Susan Schreiner, always spoke of the sixteenth century conception of idolatry found in Luther and John Calvin as follows: idolatry is religious, rational, and meets every human need.  No human problem was left unsolved by the medieval system—no need left unsatisfied, except (Luther and Calvin agreed) the need for assurance.  But our modern idolatries cannot seriously promise eternity: death is only denied and hidden from view—the deaths of those who bear the heavy weight of the system, and the deaths of those who take hollow consolation in the system.  Our modern idolatries seldom promise even earthly harmony, just the best life for me and mine.  Our idolatries may invoke the God of Israel and of Jesus, but they feed on the skepticism about God that undergirds modern life.

[34] The view of America as a chosen nation—a view embraced by white people who stood and stand at the top of America’s racial hierarchy—ostensibly puts America in the service of God; but when push comes to shove it is always God who must bend.   In Augustine’s terms, it is the nation that is the highest end and the object of enjoyment, whereas God is only to be used.[27]  So too with the worship of money and power, which in its most obviously idolatrous form claims that pleasing God is the way to money and power.  Racism is a system of idolatry wherein some find their salvation in belonging to the “master race”; homophobia is a system of idolatry wherein some people find their salvation by having the right sexual orientation. These idolatries are fueled by anxiety, chief of which may be the fear that life is ultimately meaningless, that there is nothing more than what we can see.  The battle against meaninglessness cannot be won by a puny god-let.  Idolatry does not defeat meaninglessness but conceals its image from view by involving us in engrossing fights here and now—struggles of  nation against nation, rich against poor, powerful against weak, white person against Black person, heterosexual person against LGBTQ+ person, and so forth.

[35] Does the church rebuke these idolatries?  In words, sometimes.  But does the church present an effective counter message and an effective counter image?  The church is prevented from realizing and manifesting the counter-image to brutality often because of its historical social and cultural status and authority.  The church as a respectable social institution, a teacher of good values, a preserver of traditions, a pretty building that reminds of simpler times … this church cannot be a counter-image to brutality.  It does not show up in unexpected places, speak in unexpected ways, call to unexpected paths.  Advocacy for just policies is part of this work, public repudiation of racism is part of this work, but these are only “clanging cymbals” unless the church can really present the picture of Christ as counter-image of death.  Realization of Christ-likeness will mean consistent and concrete transgression of boundaries that divide peoples.  The church must seriously confront the way that its ordered weekly gatherings—under the steeple, in the pews—simply does not convey the right message.  Should we trade steeples for storefronts?  Such a step may be necessary, unless we can make our present spaces into images of joyful, victorious scandal.  We must find a way for the gathered community to scandalize by exposing and then repudiating, in its words, worship, and daily life, the brutality of the world.

[36] Would the church then grow?  Probably, in the long run.  But numbers have become a works-righteous obsession and an idol for too many denominations; the first question to be asked is: to what are we being called as people freed from fear of sin, death, and hell—and fear of one another? To what are we being called as people united to Christ in radical trust, united to one another by love, and sent into the world to bear the image of our savior?  Racist police brutality is the quintessential image of the brutality that now pervades American life.  History indeed can seem like a ceaseless march of brutality, from the Roman Empire through Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; the images of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Emmet Till and so many others force us to see our society as a continuation of the story of human brutality.  It isn’t hating America to realize that the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow is still pervasively present and hostile to the flourishing of Black Americans; it isn’t hating America to prefer welcome to the afflicted over cages and forced sterilization; it isn’t hating America, but loving future generations, to take a stand against the pillaging of the planet.  There is no need to answer the question of whether America is more or less brutal than other societies past or present; there is brutality, and God has always gathered people to be a counter-image to it.  Can we be an effective counter-image in these times?



[1] For this analysis, see Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 25-35, 225, who cites other relevant New Testament passages.

[2] See Elizabeth A. Clark, “Foucault, the Fathers, and Sex,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56, no. 4 (1988): 619-41.

[3] See esp. “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” in LW 42: 7-14, esp. the turn at p. 12. This interpretive essay is grounded in material that I regularly teach, particularly in the aforementioned course on “marriage and celibacy”; I thus cite readily accessible English-language editions, and I am attempting to keep citation to a minimum.

[4] See “A Sermon on Preparing to Die,” in LW 14: 99-115.  The dynamic of clashing images (sin, death, and hell versus grace, life, and heaven) structures the entire text, including Luther’s account of Christ’s own passion.  The sacraments are described as concrete, visible manifestations of Christ the conquering crucified.

[5] See Richard Viladesau’s survey works, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008) and The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008)

[6] From a specifically Lutheran perspective, I am encouraging attention to themes that are integrally or intimately connected to Lutheran soteriology: 1, that the church, with its sacramental ministry, does not only speak the Word but presents it to all senses; sacraments are visible words; and 2, that the church is genuinely the body of Christ, with members united to Christ by faith and to one another by love, incorporated into Christ’s body by baptism and by continued feeding on Christ’s true presence.  I am intentionally avoiding a reductive substitutionary reading of Christ’s atoning work to emphasize the theme of Christ’s triumph over sin, death, and hell, and I rely on Luther’s understanding that through the sacraments and our faith union with Christ, we receive possession of Christ’s righteousness and eternal life while Christ receives (and defeats) our sin and mortality.  See The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 459.25; 438.52, 475.82 (“The Large Catechism”) and The Annotated Luther Vol. 1: The Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015): 499-502 (“The Freedom of a Christian”).

[7] See of course the “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31: 39-90, esp. the final theological thesis, pp. 57-58.

[8] A good collection of texts illustrating these themes can be found in Bart Ehrman, ed., After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity  (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 25-50; for the quote from Perpetua’s account, 46; see also the figure of Blandina introduced on p. 37.

[9] Again, this analysis depends on Reuther, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, 25-35, 225.

[10] Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, The Life of Saint Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001).

[11] Saint Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, trans. Ray Kearney, ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1999): 68-71 (from the treatise, “Holy Virginity”).

[12] See Timothy Fry, ed., RB 1980: the rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with notes (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981).

[13] C.H. Talbot, trans., The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008); for competing visions of masculinity, see esp. 11-12, 16-20, 34, 46-48.

[14] I agree here with the analysis of Dorothea Wendebourg, “Luther on Monasticism,” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009): 327-354; here, 340-47.

[15] Annotated Luther Vol. 1, 519-31 (“Freedom of a Christian”).

[16] For a helpful summary of medieval teachings and the Lutheran reformation of them, see Donald F. Duclow, “‘Dying Well’ from Fifteenth Century to Hospice,” Lutheran Quarterly 28 no. 2 (Summer 2014): 125-148.

[17]  See Delores S. Williams, “Black Women’s Surrogacy Experience and the Christian Notion of Redemption,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today, ed. Marit Trelstad (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006): 19-32.

[18] LW 1: 62-65.

[19] Throughout Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon underlines that love of God is impossible without faith: Book of Concord, esp. 125.33-126.38, 138.109-139.110, 140.126-141.129.

[20] LW 14: 112.

[21] I have learned this critique from reading Anabaptist scholarship; see esp. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1998).

[22] For a helpful discussion with reference to the church under Apartheid in South Africa, see Simon S. Maimela, “The Two Kingdoms—An African Perspective,” in Theology and the Black Experience: The Lutheran Heritage as Interpreted by African and African American Theologians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988): 97-109.

[23] I am summarizing the argument of the Heidelberg Disputation, cited above.

[24] For this point, see e.g. Deanna A. Thompson, “Becoming a Feminist Theologian of the Cross,” in Cross Examinations, 76-90; and Rudolph R. Featherstone, “The Theology of the Cross: The Perspective of an African in America,” in Theology and the Black Experience, 42-55.

[25] LW 36: 340

[26] It is not idolatry to trust in oneself, others, or created things in order to secure one’s daily needs and to participate in common life; idolatry happens when the idol becomes a source of salvation, the guarantor of one’s security and purpose for one’s existence.

[27] For this concept, see Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 9-10.

Vincent Evener

Vincent Evener is associate professor of Reformation and Luther Studies at United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania.