I start the Baptismal Tai Chi facing the world. Christ is at my back. I may not even be aware that Christ is looking at the world with me. I am focused on how the world is impacting me and others. With strength in my arms, I plant my feet, step one leg forward, and fiercely push away. I renounce the wrath.
What am I renouncing? What do I push back against with all my might? I call it the wrath. The wrath is the culture that surrounds us, and shapes us by using violent force to make people do things. The ways of wrath benefit the few, the powerful, the privileged yet do great harm to everyone in society. The wrath makes judgements to justify its violence – they are evil, or I am bad – condemnation and enemy images are marks of the wrath. In the Roman and religious culture of Jesus the wrath condemned him the cross; emotional violence as well as physical. The wrath also employs rules and bureaucracy to control the masses. It even uses the promise of rewards if you just work hard enough, just make yourself fit in, you will be on top, like an emperor.
The results of living in the wrath include fear and anxiety, which can lead to telling lies, isolation and hiding; all to protect us from likely violence. When we inflict the wrath on ourselves we can become depressed; we find temporary ways to treat the pain of the wrath and become addicted. We also naturally inflict the wrath on others, our children, or coworkers, our spouses; abusing them physically and emotionally. In a culture of wrath, we have a lot of enemies. It is a culture of war.
The Church is no stranger to the wrath – it is embedded in us. Even in many baptismal covenants enemy images are imbedded when people are asked to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness.” Terms such as wicked, heathen, pagan, infidels, were used to signify the other; an enemy worthy of violence. In more modern times Christians have called other peoples “primitive” to justify colonization, taking resources. The Church, in its wrath, turned Christ into a Judge with heaven as the reward for compliance and eternal hell as the ultimate punishment. And the Church has supported hell on earth through the crusades, slavery and lynching of the “others,” of burning people at the stake, or hanging them for being witches. The Church has promoted clericalism – the idea that clergy are closer to God than others, and theologies such as predestination lead us to live as if this wrath is just the way God ordained it.
The truth of the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s life, death and resurrection – is that God means for us to be set free from the Wrath. This is the true image of salvation and atonement. Christ smashes through the gates of hell, destroys the lock and throws away the keys, reaching for our hands – every human’s hand – to pull us out of the wrath and into the circle of Shalom.
So today we renounce the wrath. We say “no” - one of the first words young children learn, and use with determination. Every human being pushes against the wrath in one way or another because the wrath brings only death – and God means for us to live.
When the King of Egypt instructed Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, to kill all baby boys, they renounced him, and let the boys live. When Pharaoh then commanded that the Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile, three more women renounced him. Moses’ mother crafted a snug little boat, his sister Miriam watched over him and the Pharaoh’s own daughter adopted Moses, employing his mother as a nurse. These women all renounced the evil powers of the empire.
When Daniel, a Jew in Babylonian captivity, was elevated to a government position by King Darius, other officials were jealous. They used the reward of flattery to convince Darius to enact a law that the people were to worship no other god but him for 30 days. Daniel quietly continued to worship Adonai, was arrested and thrown into a lion’s den. He renounced the evil powers of the empire that were tempting him to be unfaithful.
When Mary said “yes” to being a God bearer, carrying Christ in her womb, she sang to Elizabeth her hope that through Christ the proud would be scattered and the mighty would come off their thrones while the lowly would be lifted up.
Jesus Renounced the wrath through his work of healing, connecting with those on the margins of society and in his teachings – such as the sermon on the Mount. He offered a way of salvation open to all people.
When Jesus Christ recognized that the Good News he was preaching threatened both the religious and government officials he nevertheless set his face to the capital city of Jerusalem. Renouncing the threat to his own life, Jesus persisted in his mission. During his arrest, when one of Jesus’ disciple attacked with a sword, Jesus renounced the evil power of violent force seeping into his friends. He asked this enraged disciple to put his sword back, and Jesus healed the wounded ear of the enemy’s slave.
From the cross Jesus renounced the enemy images, offering forgiveness to those who were unawake to the realities of the wrath and the circle of shalom.
Renouncing the wrath is a beginning step in the journey from wrath to shalom.
O holy God, in whom we live and move and have our being. We thank you for revealing to us the wrath all around us and your alternative of life in shalom. Today we renounce the wrath, that is not from you.
We renounce power when it is used to make us anyone do anything against their free will. We renounce fear created by threats of physical abuse even to the point of death. We renounce fist fights, hazing, reckless dares, muggings, and domestic violence. We renounce pedophilia and human trafficking. We renounce slavery and imprisonment. We renounce waterboarding and capital punishment. We renounce arms races and war. We renounce the demonization of any culture or people for the purpose of justifying violent oppression, invasion, environmental damage to and theft of natural resources. The powers we renounce are systemic, used by governments and corporations, adopted by schools and families.
Thank you for showing us that the force we push against is not only physical, but mental, emotional and spiritual. We renounce peer pressure and bullying that employ shame for wearing the wrong clothing, loving the wrong person or having the wrong hair or skin color, or the wrong ancestry. We renounce clericalism and elite societies that envision themselves on higher rungs – closer to god. We renounce advertisements that induce fear through the emphasis of lack, “hurry, while supplies last!” We renounce humiliation for trumped up charges such as dandruff, yellow teeth and halitosis. We renounce spending my time and money on altering my body so that we will fit in with society. We renounce prejudice against those who speak other languages, speak English with an accent or a dialect, and those who prefer to speak in sign language. We renounce forces that would make people ashamed of their bodies, each fearfully and wonderfully made. We renounce the forces which usher people to the place of depression, isolation and addiction where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We renounce rewards for “good behavior,” another a strategy of violent force. These rewards come in the form of good grades in school, promotions at work, popularity, winners. These rewards and ladders are brutal, for they promise that with enough hard work anyone can move on up. Yet the vast majority encounter bell curves, glass ceilings, redlining, poverty, and staggering debt. These and other such forces beyond our control keep us down. The system is rigged. But when we keep believing that each individual can pull themselves up by their boot straps, and our failings are our fault, we struggle and fall exhausted into depression.
The reward and punishment of being allowed to "fit in" with a group, or be shunned can keep us captive. The church’s favorite way of using this system of rewards and punishments is by promising heaven and threatening hell. We renounce this way of judging the world and the images of a god of wrath whose aim is to condemn many to eternal fire.
Thank you, Jesus, for the power and freedom to say “No!” to the wrath. You have shown us that the strongest, most inspiring resistance takes place in spite of the threat of death, while rejecting the temptation to engage in violence ourselves. When we learn this truth, and practice renouncing, rejecting and resisting violent force, we find freedom to do only those things that bring life and joy to our lives.
Sarah Mount Elewononi is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. A member of the New England Annual Conference for over 20 years, Sarah now resides with her family in greater Pittsburgh. Sarah completed the requirements for her doctorate from Boston University on Christmas Eve 2014. She worked with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker and Dr. Nancy Ammerman to better understand worship and change - both how repeated acts of worship change us, and how and why worship changes whether we want it too or not, and why we can be resistant to that change. Her dissertation was focused on Methodist worship at New England camp meetings in the 19th Century. Sarah is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the Order of St. Luke and the Girl Scouts. Currently she leads her daughters' Girl Scout troop and serves as a substitute teacher. She also teaches a variety of United Methodist Course of Study offerings in worship, theology and Biblical studies.