Action and Chaos – America’s Great Loves

Peace Be Still He Qi 2001 Nanjing VanderbiltJesus Calms Storms, on Land and Sea

But Big Money Is in Conflict and Disorder

It’s some years now, more than a decade, maybe even two, since Hollywood decided there was more gold in action movies than anything else.

So now the big money invests in blockbuster films. Many are about cartoon heroes: Batman, Superman, Wolverine, the X-Men, and all their super-power brothers, plus of course, Wonder Woman.

And they are an endless source of gold, for they not only rake in more US dollars than any other films, but they are marketable all over the world. After all, there is hardly any dialogue, violent action is the theme in these films. So they are easily dubbed in any language.

And the rest of our stories: the stories about relationships, about small towns, about romances, about growing old or dying, about adolescence and coming of age, the stories where the characters learn something by the end and so do we: all these are now indie films, made on low budgets and shown in art house theaters. The crowds don’t come to these. Thoughtful people do.

So is it any wonder, really, that we now have a President who loves chaos and action? Who, like an action hero, is swift to punch back? Who loves winning more than anything? Who clearly loves winning more than he loves relationships?

I mean, how many buddies does Superman have? How many nights in the pub tipping back a few with the guys does Batman enjoy? How many girls’ nights out is Wonder Woman part of?

Donald Trump has a startling lack of friends, for a politician. He has a load of acquaintances, but he easily jettisons them in favor of a feud, or forgives and forgets in favor of a dollar. Chuck Schumer, who was his friend, is now his arch enemy. And Goldman Sachs, whom he railed against on the campaign trail, now has a branch office in the White House.

His modus operandi is not unlike the action hero’s: he’s out to get bad guys. And he knows how much we love this story, the action story, the getting of bad guys.

Matthew’s gospel give us an action story – only, the action guys are Herod and Pilate, and Jesus is the guy who won’t get into the fight, who leaves before there is a fight, who calms the crowd with healing and with food, and then calms the storm at sea.

Herod is out for action. He declares John the Baptist a bad guy. He has him beheaded and his head brought out on a platter to show the guests at his feast. No one is going to forget that dinner, or how Herod won and John lost. And then he sends a note to Jesus, via a messenger, saying, ‘You are his reincarnation. Let me tell you how your story ends.’

Jesus immediately hightails it out of town. As any sensible man would.  He and his disciples get to the beach, where they have a boat waiting.

But, there’s a crowd. A huge crowd. They heard Jesus was there. Who told them? Matthew doesn’t say, but it must have been Herod, sending the word around that the healer is leaving. The throng is anxious and in pain. They’ve brought their sick, and they are begging.

And Jesus has compassion – he heals and heals and heals. Night falls. Everyone is hungry, and the disciples are anxious – and hungry. Jesus exhorts them to calm down and feed the crowd. Just do it, he says, in answer to their protestations that they can’t. And they do it.

Now the crowd is fed and at peace, so aware of Jesus’ presence and his power. Jesus tells the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead, saying he is going to pray for a while and will meet them on the other shore.

And a storm comes up. The terrified disciples are blown off course and their boat is badly battered. Their fear erupts in wailing.

And Jesus comes to them, walking across the sea. He has a little riposte with Peter – if it is really you, bid me come to you, walk on the water to you – and Jesus does, and Peter gets out of the boat and then, overwhelmed again with fear, sinks, and cries Save Me! and Jesus does. And all is calm again. All is well. All is well. All is well.

God, Mathew keeps telling us, is not an action hero. Yes there are healings, but the largest healing is the calming of the crowd, the calming of everything, the calming of conflict through avoidance, through diplomacy, through compassion, through healing, through prayer – Jesus calmly fills all their hungers with good things. Yet we keep trying to make Jesus our action hero – never mind being calm, or praying for peace, or working to help others, I’ll just wail and pray about what I want, Jesus, and you swoop in and rescue me!

The action lovers and would-be heroes are Herod and Pilate. They are the ones who want to make Israel great and Rome great again, and they are the ones who love the mighty fist and the sword. Pilate is an honest-to-God action figure, and Herod is a dishonest and ungodly one, crowned in piety but not in truth.

Jesus is making his way through an ugly and violent world, run by these action figures. He does not turn to weapons to defeat them. His power is his focussed sight, which is always on suffering and always lifting up hope. His power is his prayerful center, by which he manages to turn aside from the allure of might and money. His power is his compassionate heart, in which he loves the unlovable, people who no longer love themselves.

On both sides of the sea, people Jesus has never seen before show him their pain. And he calls out to his friends to stay calm, to be present as he is, and to do more than they can imagine, one blessing at a time.

His story ends with Herod and Pilate crowing that victory is theirs, that Jesus, the bad guy, has been defeated, that they have won – and then there is another ending, almost a footnote, with Jesus rising, first to the women, then to the men who have loved him.

He doesn’t do anything without his beloved ones. Not even his rising happens alone, for who would know about it, if they had not carried the tale?

He doesn’t want to be what Herod and Pilate do want to be – Supermen.

He wants to be what he is and what he does. In the midst of our peril, he calms our storms. In the paths of our fears,  he holds our hand. In our fleeing, he takes time to meet our needs.

His story is an indie movie, shown to an art house crowd of nerds and geeks, people who don’t fit in well, deep thinkers and people with broken hearts.

He translates well, but you do need the translation because his story is not without dialogue, and there are a lot of nuances which make it worth reading again and again.

My grandmother’s favorite hymn was:

Jesus, Savior, pilot me, over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass ever be: Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

As a mother stills her child, Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will when Thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea, Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

When at last I near the shore, and the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest, then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me, “Fear not, I will pilot thee.”
__________________________________________________________________________________________________
Image: Peace Be Still,
by He Qi. 2001. Nanjing Seminary, China. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.

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