Tony Campolo, a sociologist who made a big name for himself in the 80’s and 90’s as a dynamic youth speaker and general ecclesiastical gadfly, said something once that I never forgot. In his classic eastern accent he shouted, “youth is not a time for entertainment, it is a time for heroism!” An inveterate iconoclast, Tony was fond of attacking religious idols. The one he was hammering on at the moment was insipid youth programming that foolishly strove to compete with MTV and Disneyland, as if providing good, clean fun defined the youth pastor’s highest aspiration.
Tony was saying what we all know, young people, especially those who have not yet reached 30 are wired for challenge, for risk, for adventure. They gravitate toward it like hawks circling road kill. Youth carries with it a thirst for significance. And, if the challenge is strong enough, if the vision is compelling enough, the Grand Adventure large enough, they will give it their very lives. It is no wonder that it is from the pool of recent High School graduates that marine recruiters meet their yearly quota of aggressive, death-defying warriors.
That is one of the really distressing evidences of encroaching age: a distinctively diminished stomach for the demands of making a difference. That, and the magnetic attraction of the bed and the sofa. When the National Draft is imposed it is not the over-fifty crowd that gets the blood-stirring letters inviting them to enlist and take up arms. The only weapon they have the energy for is the can opener and the bagel slicer. Sometimes, those even prove to be too much.
As Peter Kreeft reminded his audience of (mostly) younger students ten years ago, the culture war demands that you know several things: that you are at war, and who your enemy is. But, it also requires–regardless of your age—that you know what your weapons are. The spiritual battle Christians find themselves in is not only for the young. Conscription into this war is not age-based. The battle is joined when you lay down your rebellious weaponry and surrender to Jesus as Lord. At that point you are assigned new weapons which you are required to familiarize yourselves with and become proficient in. You will need them for the rest of your time on this earth.
At the end of the Great Epic some of our main weapons are described. We are told that the victorious throng at the end of time has been successful in its warfare, managing to cast down “the accuser of the brethren” through the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and a fearless unconcern for the potentially deadly consequences of their resistance: “not loving their lives so as to be afraid of death” (Rev. 12:11). By the judicious use of these weapons our terrible enemy Satan is bested and finally overcome.
Biology teaches us that life comes from death. It is when the peach pit falls into the ground and dies that it yields luscious, globules of juicy sweetness. Plants die and decompose and out of that decomposition energy is provided for life to begin. Death is a tool, a weapon, you might even say, that brings life. In the battle against Satan, God’s most powerful weapon was death (the death of His Son). As the Fathers of the church never tired of saying, Jesus defeated death by death.
All who claim to be Christians agree that Jesus is powerful and that what He did was, somehow, also powerful. In the words of St. John, the bloody death He died defeated all the works of the enemy. As the blood on the doorposts kept the angel of death away from the people of Israel, so His blood applied by faith keeps away the demons who would drag us to Hell. That is why we are told that Satan is overcome by the blood of the Lamb. Jesus’ death unleashed the most powerful force in the whole world. His death defeated death and brought immortality to life (II Tim. 2:10). It overcomes Satan, expels demons, heals sicknesses, transforms lives, and will break the curse off the entire creation.
But, what most have forgotten is that His disciples are to imitate their Master in His sacrificial love expressed not only in His life but also in His death. This is why Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” He was simply taking note that, paradoxically, though death is an evil, it is also a means to a great good. As the death of the Son meant the life of the world, so the death of His sons brings His life to the world. This is why John in the book of Revelation writes that the weapons against which Satan has no recourse are the blood of the Lamb, and the courageous, suicidal-even, declarations of allegiance by those unafraid to seal their confession with their own blood.
Though this sacrifice is most dramatically demonstrated in martyrdom, there is such a thing as a living martyrdom. This is the most common form of “death” and, in many ways, the most difficult. Paul testifies that because of his deep love for the believers, he dies daily (I Cor. 15:31). That is, he chooses to say no to his own “needs”, “rights”, and “time”.
He declines the invitation to retire, move to the condo by the beach to collect sea shells and eat out a lot. He chooses the daily martyrdom of self-denial that he might devote his best energy to the needs of others. He uses the analogy of a mother hen. He goes without in order that his vulnerable chicks might have no lack. He deprives himself of comfort, of sleep, even, that he might pray longer and more intensely for the needs of the ones he loves.
Paul is always alert for danger and will not hold back painful words of warning and correction–even if it means risking the loss of the affection of those he loves. Paul chooses to die to the right to be popular, beloved, well-spoken of and applauded. That is a very painful kind of death. And it has almost gone extinct in our day. But, it is the same death His Master died.
What is so compelling about Jesus is that He did not say what people wanted to hear–not even His friends. He was not controlled by the audience and their opinion of Him. Jesus was fearless. He spoke the truth in love and it lost Him the adulation of the crowd predisposed to idolize Him and make Him king. And it got Him killed at the hands of those who would have set Him on a golden throne.
From the beginning Jesus knew that is how it would end. But it did not stop Him. For the sake of our sanity and the good of those to whom we are called to serve, we need to get this very clear at the beginning: if we are going to be faithful it will cost us our lives—one way or another. Jim Morrison was right about one thing, “no one here gets out alive.”
In these easy, soft, comforting days, this is not anything we hear much about. Our current teachers are telling us to focus on life not death. According to them, Jesus came to give us abundant life here not in the hereafter. It is the compassion of Jesus not His sacrificial death that speaks to us and challenges us. Our attention should be on the beautiful and creative not on something as unappealing and unaesthetic as a bloody cross. In the narratives we tell we are encouraged in a thousand ways to flee from violent story arcs—though fortunately we have not yet been advised to flee from stories of violent orcs.
It is intriguing that we are told that Satan is not overcome by the Lamb’s blood alone but also by “the word of their testimony”—of those unafraid to die. The death of Jesus released enough redemptive energy to light up the whole universe. Apparently, the words of His followers have power as well, at least enough, according to St. John, to concentrate that light into a beam that conquers our ultimate enemy. But, it is not just any word. It is a bold declaration from tongues set free from the self-protective paralysis of fear.
Therefore, what is needed in the church and in the world are prophets—men and women who are not timid echoes, but courageous voices. Not cautious clerics, dutiful chaplains, shyly holding their fingers in the air to test the direction of the cultural breezes. Leaders attuned to what will sell, what will get the audience to stand and applaud, what will get them face time with the rich and the famous.
What will overcome the enemy, St. John tell us, are the voices of prophets not professionals -propagandists, modifiers diplomats,culture current, clever pied pipers, playing the hypnotic, anesthetizing, accommodating tunes of peace, security and comfort. What is so rarely heard are those arresting voices that shut out the siren’s songs luring us to love this world as though it were our home.
These prophets know that while we may be called to surrender our earthly bodies, we are commanded to lay down our rights, our reputation, our comforts, our dreams of popularity and visions of glory. This is why the writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus suffered outside the gates of the city—He was rejected, expelled, cast out, relegated to the fringes. So, all who are truly His disciples must likewise “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace (‘stigma’) He bore, for here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb. 13:13-14). The camp is the inner circle, reserved for cultural insider. It is where one can lay low, be applauded, approved and quoted. Jesus’ followers must be willing to accept the scarlet stigma of pariahs and head with Him outside the no-fire zone to the free-fire zone.
And put their lives at risk.
If our eyes are on the prize of popularity we will be controlled by fear. Fear of man makes us think about our self, our reputation, our audience, our approval ratings–not our Father’s. Fear of man causes us to worry about whether we will get hate mail or fan mail. It tempts us to play for the applause of the audience we can see and deafens us to the only audience that ultimately matters.
Fear of man robs our voice and makes us just one more empty echo. It steals from us and the world that one human weapon that has the potency to vanquish the infernal being who loathes what is good, and who mockingly twists human beings into neurotic bundles of nameless fears. It muffles our mouths (and stills our pens) from uttering words with power to break chains, bring light, set hope aflame, expel demonic darkness, causing life to crash into dismal dungeons awash in terror and despair. It is that one weapon that can look at a crippled body or mind and audaciously declare: “in the name of Jesus, rise up and walk!”
And even when that little faith-filled word flops and fizzles, or fails to barely strike a spark, when it is just barely a whisper, the worst it can do is hint that that there is a larger reality behind what our eyes can see–that there is a King who will yet have His say and who will one day have His way. And it will remind, us, at least, that our secret, inconsolable longing will find its consolation yet. Darkness will be permaenently rolled back and we will dwell in and with the glorious light forever.