I went to go see the movie Selma with my wife yesterday and, as I predicted, I was wrecked. I do not cry often, nor especially in films, but along with the stories of the martyrs, the history of the struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation move on my heart. I wept as I have not wept in years. The kind of tears that wrench your gut and stick in your throat for hours. As I went home that evening, just thinking of the various injustices and degradations depicted threaten to bring on another torrent. I was exhausted with the grief and, yes, the heaviness of hope.
I am no film critic, but suffice it to say, the film was powerful. I really do suggest you go watch it. It is not just Black history, or American history, but our history, as Christians and humans made in the Image of God. The depth of human depravity, the height of human courage, and the slow, but inevitable coming of justice–however partial, however incomplete–is a story that will not sit easy, but builds you and blesses you nonetheless.
While there are any number of spiritual and theological themes I could profitably take up in this post, I want to talk about Jesus and Selma. Or rather, I want to ask a specific question about what our Christology, our view of Jesus, has to do with our view of what happened in Selma and what happens in the suffering of God’s people around the world. Admittedly, this is not the only question, and maybe not even the most important Christological question raised by the film, and yet I want to briefly address it nonetheless, because I think there is comfort and challenge involved here.
Does God Cry?
In the middle of the film, when Martin Luther King Jr. is out of town, a small band of Selma protesters engage in a night march. The police get wind of it and decide to teach them a lesson by ambushing them with a wave of brutality and violence. In the middle of it all, one young protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot and killed trying to protect his mother and grandfather. It is wrenching and heartbreaking. When he hears the news, King comes to visit Jackson’s grandfather and speak some words of comfort. King addresses him and assures him that Jimmie will not have died in vain, but the very first words he says, are something to the effect of:
“I want you to know that when Jimmie died, God was the first to cry. He was the first to shed a tear.”
It is a powerful moment, especially as you watch Jimmie’s grandfather look at King with an expression of humility, comfort, and deep pain and say, “Oh yes, I believe that. I know that.” The words are so appropriately-timed and attuned to speak a message that provides balm for the soul. God knows your pain. He is not distant from your cares and woes. They are his cares and woes. Your tears do not fall to the ground alone but join with those shed from heaven above, by the God of all creation.
Of course, the question that struck me in the theater was, “Is that true? Does God shed a tear for Jimmie?”
A God Who Cannot Suffer Becomes A Redeemer Who Can
I asked the question because, as Wesley Hill recently reminded us, for most of her history the church has taught the doctrine of impassibility. The nearly unified confession of church history until about the 20th Century was that, strictly speaking, God does not and cannot in “suffer” passions–be overwhelmed by irrational or uncontrollable feelings, etc–or be acted upon in his divine nature. The Triune God is the author of life whose own glory is that of perfect, unchanging glory. He is incapable of being overwhelmed or overcome in his divine life. So does God cry? Well, in a sense, no. God is spiritual, not physical. In himself he cannot be overwhelmed as we are, have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or an unbidden moistening of the tear-ducts. God does not cry.
At the same time, though, as Ben Myers reminded the attendees of last week’s LA Theology conference, for the Church Fathers the presupposition of impassibility is precisely the logic behind the cross. As I’ve explained before, God’s impassibility should not be taken to mean that God does not care, or that he has no emotional life–he does. It’s just that we should not think of it precisely as we do our own. In fact, this is the glory of the God of the gospel: we find a God who cares so much that the one who cannot suffer and die in his own nature, takes on human nature in order to suffer and die with us and for us. The Impassible God is the one who loves so implacably that he overcomes the obstacle of his own perfect life in order to participate in our life, so marred with pain and sin, to redeem us from it. In other words, the God who could not suffer, became a Redeemer who could.
Jesus is the God who became human so he could shed tears with us at the tomb of Lazarus.
What now, though? The Scriptures teach that this Godman is the one who, after his Resurrection, was exalted to the right hand of the Father in order to intercede for us even now. According to Hebrews, like Melchizedek, Christ “continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:3). The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is currently a human seated on the throne of the universe. If it is not too speculative, I would hazard the courage to say that Jesus is the God who can still shed human tears for his people in this world racked with sin and injustice.
I say this on the basis of Acts 9, when the Resurrected Christ comes to Saul, the marauder of the church and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Risen Christ so identifies with his people that any assault on them is an assault on him. Their suffering is his. Their tears are his. As Calvin writes about this passage:
…the godly may gather great comfort by this, in that they hear that the Son of God is partner with them of the cross, when as they suffer and labor for the testimony of the gospel, and that he doth, as it were, put under his shoulders, that he may bear some part of the burden. For it is not for nothing that he saith that he suffereth in our person; but he will have us to be assuredly persuaded of this, that he suffereth together with us, as if the enemies of the gospel should wound us through his side. Wherefore Paul saith, that that is wanting in the sufferings of Christ what persecutions soever the faithful suffer at this day for the defense of the gospel, (Colossians 1:24.) –Comment on Acts 9:4
Though impassible in his own nature, in Christ, God suffers in and with his people. Jesus is the God who cries for Jimmie Lee Jackson.
This is an unspeakable comfort for those suffering under grave oppression around the world. Whether it be the marchers in Selma, laboring for the justice of God’s kingdom, or the persecuted church around the world, God’s joy and impassible life does not mean he is separated from our pain and struggle. He is there in the heart of it, working to redeem it.
Yet the Gospel moves us beyond the tears of Christ to remind us that by his once and for all suffering on the Cross and victorious Resurrection, Christ has secured the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
May we look forward to that day as we look about our world filled with injustice and pain. May that hope gird us up as we shed the tears that will inevitably come as we follow Christ in looking the brokenness of the world, in order to meet it with the gospel of our justice-loving God.
Soli Deo Gloria