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Christianity and Cages

2010 October 12

Earlier this week I received an email mocking the quote at the top of this blog. Eowyn’s words from The Two Towers about her greatest fear being to live life as if it were a cage that not just prevents but crushes the very desire to do great deeds of service in the world capture my feelings on living missionally and purposefully as well. The email’s author though charged that by believing in Christianity and God I am living in a cage and that I am an insane, pathetic, uneducated fool because of it. Most of me simply pities the person with such unresolved anger issues that they lash out in emails to strangers, but the email prompted me to think on cages and Christianity – or more specifically our involvement in our own faith.

When I think of a cage, I imagine someone (or something) living in a world that is controlled by another. A fish in a bowl or a bird in a cage has its existence defined and determined by an outside force. It exists, but not in any way that determines the path of its own existence. A caged creature does not have a voice in its own life, and, more significantly, nor can it affect the world outside it. Like Neo trapped in the Matrix, the caged creature might assume it is living a full life; but even if it is unaware of the bars of its cage, they still exist to confine it. To be caged is to live a life without change. Static lives cannot participate in the act of becoming – be that becoming better selves or serving towards building a better world. Behind the bars, be they perceived or not, all chance of valor has truly gone beyond recall or desire.

In truth, I do see cages in Christianity. They might not be the cages that the email author implied, but we have erected structures that preclude our intimate involvement in our own faith journey. For instance, I’ve been immersed in studying theories of the atonement in seminary recently and I’ve seen how in allowing the atoning work of the cross to be perceived simply as a transaction that occurs on our behalf and not something we participate in with fear and trembling, we turn what should be a dynamic and transformative relationship with Christ into a static event. When salvation is fully outside of us, it becomes something done to us like unto kept creatures in a cage. But true grace does not involve God keeping us in a cage feeding us the scraps of salvation for his amusement. We are not caged creatures with no voice or role in the unfolding cosmic drama. Far from being an imposed act, atonement is an invitation to conversion and transformation, a chance to respond to Christ’s act of sacrifice through participation in the missional act of worship.

The tragedy of a broken world where all is not as it is meant to be finds salvation in Christ as it is transformed into wholeness. This isn’t done through human will as some seem so ready to accuse social justice Christians of, but nor is it an act of a mad scientist God experimenting on caged creatures. I love how Rowan Williams explains it, “The story of Jesus is not one of miraculous suspension and interruption of the human world, nor is it a story of human moral and spiritual heroism; it involves us in a self-declaration and a self-discovery.” Salvation is conversion, which is transformation. Transformation isn’t done to us, but it is a process that we are invited into in hopes of healing this broken world.

So I see how often Christianity becomes a cage. To believe that we are objects of some divine transaction who need not do the hard work of participating in the transforming restoration of all creation is to erect that cage around ourselves. We are songbirds who see no purpose but to stay behind bars singing pleasant tunes while all chance of valor, service, worship, and true relationship with God pass beyond recall or desire. Instead of becoming who we were meant to be (and seeing the world put right as well), we embrace the easy faith of a gilt cage unaware that we are living behind bars. Caged Christians don’t join in with Christ in the work of bringing freedom to the oppressed or healing the wounds of this world. If there is nothing to become, if everything just plays out outside of our cage, then there is no reason to ever desire to do great acts of valor in service of the redemption of all things.

But God is not a puppet master or mad scientist or even caring pet owner. When God desires relationship with us, it is not as one tending to a mindless bird in a cage. No, it is a relentless pursuit intent on redeeming our humanity through the continual transformation of that very humanity. Following God engages not just our mind and wills, but every aspect of who we are.

I, for one, am not content in a cage. I am not content with a faith that disengages from the discipline of becoming the person I was meant to be or from working to make the world as it was meant to be. I cannot believe God wishes for us a static life where our ultimate callings and purposes are domesticated by the assumption that we can be blessed without ever being a blessing. Relationship requires participation – not the numbing apathy of a cage. I do truly fear that cage – I fear living a life where I stop being transformed and stop participating in the work of Christ to bring justice and healing to our world. I fear a faith where I let the cage of my own theology confine me from participating in relationship with Jesus. I fear becoming so content in my cage that I stop becoming who I am meant to be.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Don permalink
    October 13, 2010

    Sympathy

    I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
    I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats its wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting–
    I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,–
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
    I know why the caged bird sings!

    –Paul Laurence Dunbar

  2. Natasha permalink
    October 15, 2010

    Just thought I would let you know that, contrary to your unpleasant emailer, I always thought that your choice of quote was marvelous. (pretty much for the exact same reasons you described) Keep on celebrating your relationship with a cage-busting matchless God (It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, etc). :)

    A friendly lurker

  3. October 17, 2010

    You are free to fly, my beloved. The door to the cage is wide open. You are free to remain on your perch. You are also free to fly to the ends of the earth and never return … or to explore the skies for a time and return through the open windows of my house resting lightly on my finger, ears cocked, awaiting my next command.

    So says the Lord.

    My prayer is that what pressed upon your heart as you journeyed into the brokenness of the world is what caused you to return to my outstretched hand. For I delight in lifting you to the sky to do my will and rejoice each day in your return.

    As I promised Abraham, I shall bless you to be a blessing to all nations. I shall love you so that you may love.

    Selah.

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