Obama’s Easter Remarks Resurrect Criticism

And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

—Mark 15:34

At the Easter Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday, President Obama said this:

in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning.   And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”

It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace.  And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being.

For like us, Jesus knew doubt.  Like us, Jesus knew fear.  In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection.  It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!”

Now, one would think that these and other remarks Obama made at the event would be enough to quiet the anti-Obama chatter—at least for the Easter weekend—coming from right-wing Christians in America. Nope.

The far-right website Townhall.com picked up a story from the Baptist Press, “Obama’s claim that Jesus knew doubt critiqued“:

WASHINGTON (BP) — President Obama told religious leaders at a White House prayer breakfast that Easter is a time to “remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day and all that Christ endured,” but he also said Jesus experienced doubt and fear.

The president’s assertion that Jesus “knew doubt” and “knew fear” like other human beings is not biblical and “diminishes Christ’s achievement,” a Southern Baptist academic said.

You see? Obama can’t even get Christ’s achievement right, so spiritually messed up is he.  The Southern Baptist academic, Denny Burk, went on:

To say that Jesus had doubts and fears is to make Him into a transgressor. But that is not at all the biblical depiction of Jesus. Yes, Jesus can sympathize with all of our weaknesses and, yes, was tempted in all things as we are. But He did it without sin!

Jesus saw right through the cross to the resurrection on the other side. You and I may fear death, but Jesus never did. You and I may doubt God’s purposes in suffering, but Jesus never did. Ever! What was definitive for Jesus was the joy set before Him, not death…

The model that Jesus gives us is not that had doubts and fears like we do. The model that He gives us is perfection.

Burk’s critique of Obama illustrates a problem that conservative Christians have in explaining Jesus to us. On the one hand they want us to believe that he is like us; that he understands us. On the other hand, they want us to believe that he is God. In the book of Hebrews we find this description of Jesus that sums it up:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (4:15)

A rational person would ask this simple question: If Jesus never sinned, then how can he sympathize with the fact that we do?

According to conservative Christians, the fundamental thing wrong with us is that we are sinners, separated from God.  But if Jesus did not or could not sin, then he cannot relate to the most fundamental thing about us. It’s not enough to say that he was “tempted in every way” and that makes him able to understand our frailty.  The mere experience of temptation is not what is wrong with us, these conservative folks say. It is giving in to that temptation that sets us apart. Thus, in order to fully understand us—if we are really by nature sinful creatures—would require Jesus to experience in some way our weakness, our yielding to temptation.

In his speech, President Obama didn’t say that Jesus was like us in the sense that he pigged out at the buffet table like Newt Gingrich; he wasn’t saying that Jesus had a bunch of wives and an OxyContin addiction like Rush Limbaugh. What he was said was that Jesus experienced fear and doubt. And what I say is that if Jesus did not experience fear and doubt, then he didn’t/doesn’t have the slightest idea of what it means to be human.

But more important for Obama, and I say more important for anyone who wants to take the Easter claims of Christians seriously, is that Jesus conquered his fear and doubt. That is what made Easter possible.

The Southern Baptist academic says that the model Jesus gives us “is perfection.” Huh? What kind of model is that for sinners like us? That kind of Jesus is the all-God-no-man kind.

And that Jesus would seem to not need a Resurrection Sunday, would he?

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23 Comments

  1. The religious right wraps itself in Jesus, but they really are Old Testament adherents. Jesus wasn’t in to fire and brimston or tabus or all that horrific Taliban-type physicall punishment; the books of the Old Testament are full of it.

    They just don’t get Jesus.

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    • Moe,

      I know what you mean. But I have to tell you that there are all kinds of Jesuses.  There’s the meek and mild Jesus (suitable for children); there’s the feisty Jesus (the one who tossed the moneychangers out of the temple court); there’s the specifically compassionate Jesus (“go and sin no more” he would say to some folks he met); there’s the generally forgiving Jesus (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do” he said hanging on the cross); there’s the savior Jesus (the point of his hanging on the cross); and there’s the triumphant Jesus (the Easter Jesus). Those are all Good Jesus images.

      But then there’s the Bad Jesus image not often discussed in church or in Bible tracts:

      “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

      “Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[a] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.’” (Matthew 11:20-24)

      “These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

      “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (Revelation 2:18-23)

      I [John] saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:11-16)

      So, it’s not just the Old Testament that presents a problem for those who present Jesus to us.

      Duane

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      • (. . . gulp . . .)

        Guess I’ll just go with the compassionate Jesus – the one who was in to social justice.

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  2. Willy

     /  April 7, 2012

    Years and years ago, attending a very conservative Christian chuch with my grandmother, I heard ministers making the same claim that Obama did – Jesus was tempted and new fear, doubt and pain. It seemed to be a commonplace very Easter in popular writings during the 50s when I was a child.

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    • Willy,

      All the sermons that I can remember wanted to have it both ways: Jesus could sympathize with our plight, but didn’t go so far as to actually sin. Now, I have had a hard time understanding that, as I said, but C.S. Lewis made the point that only those who have managed to resist temptation can really understand the nature of temptation and sin. Thus, Jesus was the only one who could understand what sin meant because he was the only one who could resist it! Isn’t that clever? It’s the kind of ad hoc explanation that doesn’t really explain anything. By my reckoning, the only way one can truly understand a sinner (if there is such a thing) is to become one and it won’t do to claim that one can understand what it is like to be a Fallen Man without falling. If the root of our spiritual troubles is experiential sin, how can one know us without experiencing the root of our troubles?

      Christians say that God became man in Jesus in order to redeem us (that was the only way it could be done, they claim) but they also say that Jesus was God and was incapable of truly living like a fallen man. This seems to be the basis for their judicial understanding of salvation: sinful mankind deserves death; an innocent man (without sin) was killed and this triggered a redemption of sinful mankind. See Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which the terms Deep Magic (treachery deserves death) and Deeper Magic (killing an innocent reverses the curse) are used to illustrate this point.

      Duane

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  3. Jane Reaction

     /  April 7, 2012

    Well stated.

    While the model for Jesus may have been ‘perfection’, for us mortals and especially those of us who have inhabited AA rooms, we are to strive not for perfection, but for progress.

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    • Jane,

      It seems to me that “perfection” as a model is the last thing we need, at least in terms of how to live our lives. This would, it seems to me, lead us to a life of perpetual frustration, sort of like trying to become one of those folks with six-pack abs on TV. I agree that progress, both individually and collectively, is the key.

      Duane

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  4. Quit the anti-conservative hate speech draped in the clothing of legitimate Christian criticism. Some of us aren’t as stupid as you think, and know critical theory nonsense when we see it.

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    • Rogue,

      You never addressed the point of the piece.

      And I’m not in the habit of assuming readers are “stupid,” as you suggest. In fact, I assume they can discern the difference between “critical theory” and what I did in this post. Perhaps I underestimated at least one reader.

      But seriously, I read a couple of your posts and I have concluded the following based on such admittedly flimsy evidence:

      1) You are a good writer. I like your style.

      2) Sadly, you waste your talents on the usual Obama-hate that is the stock-in-trade of right-wingers these days.

       Example:

      Although his predilection for indefinite government expansion and remedial redistribution may play well within the cloistered left-wing talking shops of our universities and non-profit agencies, it is certainly foreign for a president to openly and brazenly tout them, as he did in his Osawatamie [sic] speech.

      I won’t dwell on the important fact that government today is much smaller than it was under President Reagan in terms of the percentage of government employees to population (0.9% today compared to 1.26% under Reagan).

      Let’s go to “indefinite government expansion” and “remedial distribution” claim you made, in terms of it being “foreign for a president to openly and brazenly tout them.” (You had to slip that word “foreign” in there, didn’t ya?) Let me see. Have you ever heard of Franklin Roosevelt (I won’t even get into Teddy’s original Osawatomie speech)? Huh? You talk about Obama’s Osawatomie speech (bleeping awesome speech, by the way) like a president never said such things. Except that FDR did. I will only summarize his (“foreign”) sentiments with one line from his Second Inaugural Address in 1937:

      The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

      More important, FDR acted. Among other things: He closed the banks two days after he assumed office; he took Americans’ gold; he imposed wage and price controls; he tried to pack the Supreme Court; he tried to resettle poor folks; he created the socialistic program we know as Social Security. And much more.

      But you, in your anti-Big O zealotry, claimed that it was “foreign for a president to openly and brazenly tout” such things as he openly and brazenly touted in Osawatomie. Back to the history books, my man.

      Duane

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    • That’s hilarious that you don’t think I know about TR’s speech “New Nationalism,” but don’t let your presumptions get in the way of your condescension.

      Thanks for catching my typo though. I knew I should have pasted that word from the speech.

      Anyway, I enjoy having spirited debates with people. Glad you bring some zest to the table without being too nasty.

      Cheers, Kyle

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      • Kyle,

        I also appreciate your not-too-nasty zest, which unfortunately is in service to a most regrettable cause.

        And of course I knew you were familiar with not only TR’s speech but also with FDR’s (relatively) mild radicalism. That was a rhetorical question I asked you.  As I said, I read a couple of your posts and could discern you weren’t a yahoo know-nothing.  But I wanted to make the point for other readers, some of whom might not be so familiar with this stuff.

        And I didn’t mean the typo thing as a gotcha. It’s just that when I used the accurate spelling (I’m originally from Kansas and when we were kids, we relegated our enemies “to Osawatomie” because that’s where the state mental hospital was) it became necessary to point it out.

        Finally, because I’m a tenacious liberal (just as I once was a tenacious conservative), I will note two things about your responses:

        1)  You never actually challenged Obama’s claim that Jesus experienced fear and doubt—which appears to be an important point that requires some blowback from religious conservatives.

        2) You never actually challenged my implicit claim that Obama has not acted as a wild-eyed lefty.

        Cheers back at ya,

        Duane

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  April 8, 2012

    There is mythology, theology and psychology, all created and studied by humans.

    Where I wonder are the boundaries drawn?

    Anson

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  6. Aww come on! Obama does as poor a job of impersonating a Christian as any other politician.

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    • Don’t you mean, “as good a job of impersonating a Christian“? I mean, he’s damn good at it, if he is in fact not a Christian. He has all the words down, the sentiments, the scripture references. He lives his life like a Christian ( so far, only one wife!). So, if he’s faking it, like, say, Gingrich or Limbaugh might be, he’s damn good at it.

      Duane

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    • [impersonating a Christian ]

      Rawhead . . . if he’s not a Christian, as you clearly say, could you explain to me how you conclude that?

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      • Sorry for the slow response. Haven’t had much time for this lately. He seems too intelligent to be a Christian :) I don’t think he’s a Muslim either, by the way.

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  7. Seems to me this discussion is about Jesus being man AND God. Thats as hard to digest as the Trinity. The scholars you cite are depriving Jesus of his humanity. How sad.

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  8. Very good discussion here, and so far as I can see nobody successfully challenged Duane’s central point, that president Obama’s bona fides as a Christian were questioned on grounds of faulty logic. That ought to be an embarrassment to Burke and other religious conservatives, but I submit that the priesthood (lower-case “p”) of the Southern Baptist Church, no less that that of the Roman Catholic Church, will remain, as they have historically, smugly confident that the laity are incapable of reasoning theology on their own.

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    • [the laity are incapable of reasoning theology on their own.]

      On that point Jim – I was raised Catholic and we were never taught the Bible. In fact, we never had Bibles. And it was, I”ve always assumed, as you said: the heirarchy didn’t want to relinquish control of any interpretations to the laity. Still don’t. But these days they just look sillier and sillier.

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      • Mollie, my wife, was also raised Catholic, Moe, and told me the same thing about the bibles. And, the same attitude would also seem to account for the Catholic rites of confession and “last rites”. Gotta have that priestly connection or you’re doomed for eternity. Talk about job security!

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      • Of course the priesthood doesn’t want the masses to read and understand the Bible! Do you know what’s in the darn thing? Just start with Numbers 31 and enjoy!

        And by the way, the priesthood has never wanted its believers to even have a copy of the Bible or have it translated into vernacular languages so people could read it. That way the priest could control the message—and the people.

        And the protestants have gone the other way, particularly evangelicals and fundamentalists. They encourage everyone to read and study the Bible because they control their folks by way of a simple theology: Everything God does is ultimately for our good—even killing innocents! (See, again, Numbers 31.)

        Pretty clever, huh?

        Duane

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  9. I grew up Baptist, and I would still consider myself such. My wife and love is Catholic.

    My understanding is the Catholic church maintains the Priesthood’s teaching trump the Bible, at least your own interpretation of it.

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    • Bruce,

      When I was an evangelical, this was the major criticism of the CC I heard all the time: The Bible is not their Final Authority. That’s a game changer for conservative protestants.

      Duane

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