Jesus and Islam: The Perfect Scapegoats

jesus-islam

 “Christ is not divinized as a scapegoat.  Those who take him to be God – Christians – are the ones who do not make him their scapegoat,” writes Renee Girard in his text Quand Ces Choses Commenceront.

Girard’s work attempts to reveal the role that violence and victimization play in the organization of human society and his research, particularly in his Violence and the Sacred, contends that humanity needs violence and uses violence to create peace and harmony within communities.  Without violence as an organizing principle,, and therefore without a subject upon whom violence may be directed…a victim, people groups cannot maintain peace or establish tranquility.

Not only does violence organize secular communities, it also unites and organizes religious communities.  Arguably, violence is never absent religious overtones.

Violence acts as the glue of communities because it allows the majority in the group to direct their animosity and hatred toward a “sacred” object upon which they can uniformly direct their aggression.  This object or person is what we call the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is also a person that is believed to have violated the taboos of community, so aggression toward this person is justified.

Yet, the scapegoat is not sacred in and of itself; it is “sacred” precisely because it brings reconciliation.

When the community identifies a scapegoat to fill its need for harmony she becomes the target of a unifying animosity.  The only way to keep peace in the community is to destroy the “presumed” problem, the scapegoat, as a response to the conflict.  The community unites around this cause and directs its aggression upon the violator, sacrificing it for the good of the community. The people who were once threatened by disharmony are now united in cause and purpose through violence.

As Mark Heim notes in atonemental work, Saved from Sacrifice, “In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all.”

This process of uniting around violence, finding peace in the death and annihilation of another, is not limited in its scope.  It also lies at the center of the Christian story: the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I do not presume to be able to descandalize the Cross or Passion event of Jesus the Christ with such brevity.  Such, in my opinion, has already been handily accomplished by Mark Heim, Renee Girard and others in their seminal works.  But it is not too far a stretch to say that however Jesus is understood, mimetic violence is a part of his narrative…and it’s a narrative that does not cease upon the nails entering the hands of Christ.  We continue to employ its mechanizations into the present.

Jesus is not to be the scapegoat of Christians; this, however, is precisely what we often make of Jesus.

The crucifixion is the event in which Jesus is killed by the people for the benefit of the people.  The story of the Gospels shows us characters that kill Jesus in order to establish peace.  Christians, rather than confronting Pilate’s medium of peace as sinful, condone this violence against Jesus and write songs and hymns reveling in the gory details of a victim known as Jesus.   Mark Heim reminisces, “I attended worship services all my life…and sang about the blood shed for me…If I was comfortable with the abstract idea, why did I shrink from the reality?”

Christians deplore the technology of sacrifice, except in the case of Jesus, wherein his sacrifice was necessary to forgive our sins.  Our sin problem becomes the problem of Jesus and we gladly accept him on the cross in order to give us the peace and harmony we need in the Church community.  His death unites us and hides us from our own selves in the process.

Jesus becomes the scapegoat whereby we can not only pacify our ethical guilt, but in so doing alleviate ourselves from the threat of an angry God.  It’s a “win win”: peace with ourselves and peace with the Holy Other.

And if it works with Jesus, why not continue to unconsciously pursue this mimetic verbal and physical violence into the present to make us feel more American, more Christian?  After all, if God destroys Jesus to bring peace, surely we can destroy lesser humans to accomplish the same.

Along with Jesus, we American Christians are now doing the same thing with a major world religion: Islam.

Our present, and decade old phobia of Islam, is the continuation of an unfolding drama that for most Americans began on 9/11/01 in lower Manhattan.  The country had experienced a rupture to their worldview that morning.  The instantaneous refrain that was heard throughout the nation was revenge: to paraphrase President Bush, “I hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people responsible for this event will hear us all.”

At that point in history, polls demonstrated the nation was united in purpose and violent pursuit of the criminals.  This was scapegoating in action: directing hate and violence toward an agreed upon enemy in order to restore order, unity and peace.  We sought salvation in violence.

We sought to kill those who were not guilty to rebuild the worldview that was taken away from us from the actual guilty parties.  Only through violence could we seek peace.  It was the dialectical impossibility of American politics to somehow be the bearers of peace with one hand, while holding an anvil in the other.

The scapegoating that began almost a decade ago has now spread to the religion in general.  Most Americans have very poor ideas about Islam and many have no problem condemning it as religion of hate and death.  The hatred that is brewing against Muslims in our nation is astounding, even while many Americans spewing Islamophobic rhetoric have never read the Koran or spoken with a peace loving Muslim.

Islam has become an easy scapegoat.  Americans have figured out a way to make Islam their sacrificial victim and kill it for the good of the many.

It works, it unifies and it gives us a common enemy to hate.  Rather than engender Deuteronmistic hospitality as Moses and Jesus taught, American Christians are ready to put Islam on a cross.  Can we not see what we are doing?  Do we not see that we are using the same sinful violence that killed Jesus to give us excuse to kill an entire religion and culture (physically and verbally)?  Did Jesus not suggest that if we hate someone in our heart, we have already committed murder against them?

A question in the spirit of Girard would be apt to ask, “Does Jesus die in order to affirm the peaceable kingdom that is brought through violence, or does Jesus die as a testimony against violence in order to establish the peaceable Kingdom?”

Is Jesus’ death an affirmation of violence as a unitary principle or is his death the swallowing and ending of violence as a currency whereby we should attempt to establish harmony?>

Some of my fellow brothers and sisters will, and have objected, saying, “Do you see Muslims showing your type of tolerance?  Do you see Muslims wanting to understand your faith and love you?”

My reply is, “Yes”. I have experienced hospitality and love from Muslim strangers.  I have been with them in Syria and walked the streets of Damascus, sipped Turkish coffee with them in Jordan and put my arms around Bedouin wanderers.  I have felt the hospitality of peace loving Muslims that have saved money for years in order to take their family on Hajj to Mecca.  I have seen their smiles and heard their children laugh.  I have been at home in their presence and have eaten dinner at a common table, even talking about things like Jesus and Mohammed in a place called Sinai.

So “yes,” I have been with Muslims who have “tolerated” my Christianity and attempted to “understand” my faith.

But even if I hadn’t, I still serve a Christ that teaches, “You have heard it said You Shall Love Your Neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you in order that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.”

We’ve already made Jesus a scapegoat…must we make an entire religion and ethnic group one also?

Who needs the death of Jesus? We have Facebook

social-media-jesus

The widespread use of twitter, tumblr, Facebook, etc, and the past success of the movie “Social Media” and the accolades it received across various Hollywood awards shows should have gained the attention of the church and thoughtful followers of Jesus. Yet, this is not the case. Normally, us self-professed Christian folk can dismiss the latest entertainment and internet phenomenon as a fad, but not this time. Indeed, this time, we are co-opting it for our “biblical” purposes and our sense of “evangelism”…too bad we are not thinking critically about co-opting these mediums and the theological statements being made in doing so. Moving right along, if the success of social media in the movies hasn’t gotten our attention, the explosion of social media as a way of relating and communicating most certainly should, yet when was the last sermon you heard on the relationship between the Gospel and Social media or the Gospel Facebook style? In a connected world, it seems that thoughtful Christian thinking is disconnected from the purposes and the impact social media is making on millions of people around the globe. What is occurring before our eyes is a new way of creating community and belonging. Hollywood and internet media has successfully tapped into the desire that people have to be a part of something greater than themselves…and if atonement is about anything, it is about connecting people something greater than themselves.

The church, however, is not failing to take advantage of social media or even having a Facebook or Twitter presence. In fact, more and more churches are connected to the abyss of social media. Yet, the reality is that few churches are asking the hard theological questions that Facebook and social media creates. For millions of people that use Facebook, and other social media, these mediums are their community. These mediums are the ways in which a generation of people are learning the skills of communication, and ironically losing their ability to communicate in truly human ways at the same time. The connections people are finding are taking the place of the real communal connections. In our attempt to be a part of an online community we are sacrificing real community; we seeking at-one-ment, yet the very means by which we are seeking is creating the very opposite desire that drives us to embrace artificial connectivity.

So are Christians really thinking about what makes Facebook work? What is it about Facebook that keeps users returning daily, coming back for more, again and again, only to find the same website exactly where they left it? In other words, what essential human need does Facebook fill that makes it “work” for thousands of people across cultural and international boundaries? What need is the church neglecting? What does a social media community have, promise and do that draws people unto itself? Might I suggest that Facebook works not because of what it is, but what it does. Let me repeat, Facebook works not because of what it is, BUT WHAT IT DOES. If any of my past posts on atonement have said anything thus far, I trust that the function of the idea of atonement, and our subsequent theology thereof, is pivotal to its importance, development and continual hermeneutical applications in the present context of human need.

What Facebook does is connect people. Facebook works for so many people because it taps into the primordial need all humans have to be in community with others. It fills a vacuum of emptiness and loneliness, making people feel part of something larger than their daily mundane existence. Facebook, and other forms of social media, has the power to orient lives and wrap them into a larger narrative with an agreed upon location, agreed upon communicational norms and agreed upon taboos that can get one kicked off a friends “friend list.”

For thousands of years human community has been created around sacred objects and the creation of boundaries to identify participation in a particular community. These agreed upon and understood objects and boundaries gave the participants a sense of belonging and a connection, in many cases, to a God from which the community had been gifted. In the past, meaning was often found as people learn to commune around the center known as God, the ultimate object of our attention, our “ultimate concern.” God was the supreme sacred object around which community was created…whether a specific commitment to the Christian idea of God was sustained is immaterial to this observation.

In our contemporary situation, we no longer need to connect to one another through sacred norms in the name of God or scripture. God and text, due to a multitude of factors, have been usurped as the most reliable means that teaches folks how to relate to themselves and that which transcends themselves. Blame it on liberalism, the scientific revolution, the failure of Christians to actually act like Jesus, or whatever, our generation no longer perceives at-one-ment as something solely experienced within a religious context…we now have social media to connect to others in mysterious ways, this satisfying our human need for belonging and hope amidst a community of others.

Now, its Facebook that makes these rules of community and takes the initiative of establishing how we connect with others, the world and ultimately fills a sense of void that generally only happened within the context of religious communities. When we need to connect, need to talk, or need to cry, we do so on cyberspace with our Facebook “friends,” all the while keeping real physical community at the distance of the keyboard. We no longer sink into contemplation, prayer or questions about the nature of what it means to be human. These questions are obsolete because of we have new communities that give us a sense of purpose (even if purpose is now defined as staying connected ALL THE TIME to everything that doesn’t matter…it’s the connection and perception of belonging through that information that now makes us –at-one with our disperate selves.) We are so serious about our Facebook connections that those on our “Friends List” that may not connect with us as often as we like could be excommunicated from our circle of friends.

If millions of people are now looking for community via Facebook, what is driving this phenomenon? Why do so many people find real connection here and not in real authentic community, such as the Church (please suspend all criticisms that the church is often not the church…just work with me that the church IS the beachhead of the Kingdom of God)? Why do so many people neglect family, and the coherence of Church family, for the facsimile relationship of Facebook? Could it be that the church and our families have ostracized many individuals through judgment or prejudice? Have we kept people away by our rules, laws and doctrines, building a hedge around our sacred communities rather than opening doors for those looking to belong somewhere? What happens when the primary means of connection is no longer God in Christ, but a Facebook icon on our smartphones?

Ultimately, is the success of Facebook partially due to the inability of the church, and many Christians, to be an open community who embraces the outcast rather than subdue them through doctrinal obligation, dry moral commitments or even extreme religious laws?

Just as Jesus accepted the marginal, the poor and the wayward of society, so too is there a place for these people at the table of Facebook. Facebook is the new community wherein anyone can belong, be loved and find friends. Mark Zuckerberg has offered a new narrative wherein our faces and books can be read by others. In the at-one-ment of Facebook, there is no judgment, there is no demonization and there is no prejudice. All are welcome to participate and be at-one…atoned of their separation and lostness through social media. Can we eerily hear Facebook echo John 8.10 to the outcasts, “where are your accusers?”

The connection that Facebook provides, however, is artificial. We do not interact with people on Facebook, we interact with images, pictures and statements. We learn how to relate to symbolic stimulus as a means of identifying with others, rather than learning the simple need we have to speak and hear one another. The result is a world that is “plugged in” and addicted to a form of hyper-connectivity, yet very disconnected.

How might Christianity speak to this reality? What central Christian event is the connecting event of history and the event that acts as the glue of Christians everywhere around the world? In what way does religion, specifically Christianity, connect us to one another? An answer may be found in the story of the Gospel and a renewed understanding of the atonement of Jesus and it offers a far deeper connection than facebook can imagine or re-narrate. Fortunately, the problem of connecting people is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus has always been about. The Gospel is about connecting others to Christ, to God, to one another and to the world.

A primary means of connection in Christianity is through the atonement action of the Christ. The atonement is generally wrapped into the gory details of the death of Jesus and how his death bestowed forgiveness into creation.

There is, however, another often neglected aspect.

While the atonement may be the vehicle of how God redeems humanity, it is primarily, at its basest function, a means of connecting people to God, each other, themselves and the world. The atonement, or at-one-ment of Jesus, does not happen in a vacuum. Disciples are gathered around the cross, the world beholds it, and community is created after this event. In other words, the atonement of Jesus is as much a vehicle of connection and the genesis of community as it is an event wherein we debate the love theory of Abelard or the substitutionary theory of Anselm.

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

Jesus Tweets Gospel of John Style

The Gospel of John beautifully demonstrates, through the words of Jesus, the events of the atonement through the “lifted up” sayings that occur in 3.14-16, 8:28 and 12.32. In 12.32 Jesus says, “And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto myself.” As the Christ is lifted up before us, he draws all people to himself and connects that which was never together. He creates a community out of chaos and a sense of belonging out of despair. In the act of at-one-ment, Jesus makes us one, connecting us with himself, his God, one another, ourselves and the world. The result is a connected community we call the Church.

The second function of the atonement is forgiveness, but even this acts as a connecting, community making reality.

The first “lifted up” saying in John 3.14-16 indicates that forgiveness is primarily accomplished in the lifting up of Christ in the passion narrative. Jesus says, “even so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes may in him have eternal life.” The atonement of Jesus is the act wherein we are made at-one with one another and God, but this is chiefly accomplished because we share the identity of forgiven people. Our forgiveness and acceptance by God in Christ connects us. Forgiveness is important due to the sense of belonging it fosters in the forgiven, creating a new family and new relationships.

Forgiveness creates identity in the community of Jesus. We share the bond of having encountered God incarnate in Jesus, demonstrating to us what forgiveness looks like and how to extend love and grace to others. The incarnation of God in Christ, and the atoning work of this Christ for humanity, is a physical means of connection that could not have been accomplished by an aloof God. Real connection happens when God is incarnated in Jesus for us and we are then the incarnate atoning Christ to one another and the world.

There is no grander connection than the one created wherein a true friend has laid down his life. After this event, we gather together as a group not sure of what happened, only to find the Christ come into our presence and breathe upon us the spirit that binds us. We are a community that was created by the Christ and, subsequently, are called to bring this community into the brokenness from which we came.

For generations, people have shared real life and found real meaning because this one was lifted up for us, creating a community that can never be torn asunder. Surely, the community wherein the Holy Spirit resides should be a community committed to sharing what real connection looks and feels like in the presence of a social media that narrates a very different form of community and connection. The Gospel event of atonement is the place wherein we can really see one another’s faces and wrap ourselves into a book full of stories that teaches us how to live in community and create a better creation as God takes it to the place that is Christ shaped…a place that begins as we stare one another in the eyes, kneeling at no other place, than the foot of the cross.

The Perverse Core of Atonement: Sacrifice or Relationship?

Redeemed Jesus Passover Lamb

For me, all doctrines and dogma are “fair game” and worth critical examinination.  A faith that is not able to withstand questions is an antique to be admired, not a faith that dares to walk and encounter the world with us.  The atonement, by virtue of its function in faith and theology, cannot be an antique!  It must be an idea that we carry with us…even when we are not sure what we are carrying or how it “works.”  So I wish to continue thinking atonement under a different rubric than my last post: the rubrics of sacrifice or relationship.

The old line on atonement theory/theology is that Jesus had to die to “atone” for our sins…and because of this act God is now able to be in relationship with the world, his anger being subdued by Jesus’ blood.   If you’ll revisit my previous post, I outline this in greater detail.

Most Christians would gladly agree with this simple statement of faith and the Catholic Church re-acts this very idea each time it performs mass and sanctifies the host.  But can relationship and sacrifice both be equal ends leading to the same goal of salvation or do they occupy different ends and different goals?  Is God primarily interested in being appeased or being in relationship?  Can both sacrifice and relationship be the goal of God killing Jesus  (this last phrase will make more sense a bit further down)  or does a blind embrace of a satisfaction theory of the atonement (and also its penal substitution relative) possibly contradict the at-one-ment that Christians testify in the very act of affirming Christ and him crucified?  Can God be both firstly loving yet also firstly burning in anger and does the vision of God cast by the life of Jesus lead us to believe that Jesus would have believed human sacrifice to be God’s answer for saving the world?

If we contend that God had to kill Jesus in order to save the world, then we are saying that relationship with the world is an accident of the substance of Jesus’ death.  In other words, Relationship was not God’s primary goal; It is the byproduct of this horrible event of propitiation. First and foremost, God’s honor had to saved and the only way to do this was to make someone else pay the price.  We are brought into relationship with God not because God first desires relationality with the world, but because God was first so offended that he had to kill Jesus to pacify his blood lust…and only consequently, as a result of this action, we are then brought into relationship with God…back into that edenic state into which we were first created.  So of primary importance is not that God desires to be in relationship with the world.  The primary object of importance is that God cannot be offended, and that such offense can only be pacified by blood.  If this is not the case, then please explain to me why animal sacrifice (and even human) was so central, not only in Judeo-Christian traditions, but in a myriad of other faiths.

Timothy Gorringe in his book, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, violence and the rhetoric of salvation, talks about how blood propitiation emerged in Israel, and then by extension, would also be a useful paradigm through which the early Christians interpreted the violence done to Jesus.  He writes,

Propitiatory sacrifices sought to turn away God’s anger.  In seeking to understand the bulk of the texts which deal with this form of sacrifice we need to bear in mind that the emphasis on the rites of atonement characteristic of the Pentateuch derives from the period after Exile, which was the most traumatic event in Israel’s history.  God had made a covenant with the House of David, and was understood to have made an eternal commitment to Zion.  Now Jersualem was destroyed and the Davidic Kingship at an end.  What had gone wrong?  The answer was that Israel had sinned and was being punished for its sin.  In order to avoid another such catastrophe sin had to be avoided, but if it could not be avoided…, then the Priestly writers believed, sacrifice was available as a means of atonement” (p37)

(This is a dense paragraph and requires more attention than I can give it for this topic.  Paramount to my thoughts here is the origin of sacrifice and the “why” and “how” of its development.  I would strongly encourage you to peruse this book if you don’t have time to read its entirety)

This is the goal of killing Jesus.  The world has obviously not avoided sin, so Jesus, who is interpreted as God God’s self in later Christian councils and in the Gospel of John, kills God’s self.  This is important because the reason we don’t think about Jesus as a sacrifice of human proportions is because to many of us Jesus is not a human, he was God.  And it’s no big deal to us humans when God kills God’s self; its just what we’ve come to expect God to do.  It’s as if we give God a pass on human sacrifice because we have lost to history the reality that Jesus was a human.  YET, there is no evidence that Jesus was God, this is a category of faith, something that we believe in without any historical veracity… yet there is ample evidence that Jesus existed and he did so as a human being in ancient Palestine, yet the fact that he was human is lost in this debate because to bring up the humanity of Jesus is to raise some heinous questions of God, questions we’d rather not go near.

Jesus has been interpreted as HAVING to die to be a propitiation for the wrong humanity has collectively done against God via the first sin of Adam and Eve.  The relationship that creation has with God, as a consequence, is unambiguously perverse.  For surely if God were all loving to the degree that he desires relationship above violence, one would think that a God who is inscribed with all the “omni’s” (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) could somehow in his mightiness be able to forgive by tapping into one of his omni-powers and bypass condoning  human sacrifice.  If God desired relationship with the world, one would think God could accomplish this however God would like, yet if the primary point is not right relationship, but restoring God’s honor, then Divine narcissism precedes Divine love…and the primary point is not a relationship, but punishment and incarnate hubris prior to any relationship.  But what if this is exactly what God was condemning on the cross??  What if they very thing we think the cross affirms is the very thing God is condemning in this event??  What if the cross means the exact opposite of what it is popularized to mean and THIS was the Gospel intention?? (I will write an entire blog making this argument in the future).

Oddly, this whole mechanical way of viewing salvation seems in stark contradiction to some of the very parables spoken by the very Jesus this very God verily needed to kill: the Beatitudes (see esp Matthew 5. 38-48, wherein Jesus teaches an inverted from of the Mosaic Lex taliones…yet God cannot follow the very teachings of God’ self when it comes to sin??  I’m just asking), the parables of vineyard workers (Matthew 20.1-16), and the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32) to name a few.

This is precisely Slavoj Zizek’s critiques Christian belief and describes it as having a “perverse core”.  In his book, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek describes the current façade of Christianity to be one of a perverse God that circumvents around a perverse core.  The perverse core is this: God’s plan of salvation is pointless because God has no one with which to contend but Gods-self.  In other words, all the mechanizations of Christian salvation that begin with Adam and Eve (following the usual Christian profession of God’s powers…God presumably “knew” what would happen with the garden debacle) are strange because God has no one to impress but God’s Self.  Why would God “have” to do this, or “have” to do that as a part of creation or salvation of a creation he created but then somehow lost?  What is it that forces God to “set up” the world in the fashion that God did in order to get himself to forgive the world that he knew would falter?  Why even start this game of cat and mouse in which millions of people will make the wrong “choice” or be born into the wrong culture…and thereby be damned?

Some might say that God would do this to be in relationship to some of us, yet, is it really worth creating because of a hedonistic need to have objects to worship yourself when you are quite capable of existing apart from the worship of those said objects, aka, creation?  And if it is about having “some”people respond in freedom, if one had never created for the sake of not having millions/billions of people damn themselves by not rightfully worshipping yourself, then those who do respond would have never had a conscious mind to know what they were missing out on precisely because they would have never had bodies within which their minds could function.  As a consequence, no harm would be done…And as Jacobus Arminius rightly notes, if God creates with the intention of damning creation, then the very act of creation is a great evil perpetrated by God…and since God is good, God cannot do such evil acts.

For Zizek, If God is God (as countless Christians profess, “God is God and I’m not”), then God can forgive without a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice, because God is the maker of the rules, not one who must submit to the rules created elsewhere.   God can set the parameters… so why parameters of such infinite violence and suffering?   So what is the “end game” of atonement?  Relationship or blood sacrifice?

I can hear a quick rebuttal, “but God had to perform discipline on humanity for our offenses.  It would not be justice if God let ALL of creation off the hook.”  Ok, but why?  Because the Bible says so?  Could it be that our own inherent need for justice, and the relationship of justice and violence, shades the biblical text to such a degree that we have clouded the text with what justice means in anthropomorphic terms rather than in strictly transcendent terms, so that God looks an awful lot like our desires rather than desires that are totally other than ours?  * Ludwig Fuerbach has now left the building.*  What does God gain by having justice performed on a much inferior, lesser grouping of beings known as human?  How is it justice when the plaintiff is infinitely more resourceful than the defendant and indeed the outcome of the trial is immaterial to the plaintiff?  And this is Just??  Never mind conspiracy against creation that would surely arise if God has all the “omni’s” yet remains inculpable.  Does God possess justice ontologically or does God need justice performed for him, by himself, upon himself, in order to have a part of himself he would not otherwise have if not for the performance of the much needed justice?  So now we’re saying the perfect God lacks??

Let’s go further, maybe this is our response, “God had to punish Jesus because to just forgive creation out of mercy apart from violence would show God to be weak and not just.”  To whom would God look weak?  Who does God have to impress?  The Devil?  If embarrassment is a category of being, a necessary category that sits along side of dishonor and honor (key concepts in classical atonement theology), then amongst whom is God worried of being embarrassed by not having his honor restored through the punishment of a victim that symbolizes the offense that dishonored him?  If God’s primary goal is salvation (healing) and relationship with creation, why would God choose to do so through an endless amount of violence when God can have just as easily chosen to simply forgive the offense without the need for a sacrifice…you know, the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus teaches in the NT?

What I really want us to consider, at a much deeper level than normal, is what our theology of atonement says about our doctrine of God.  If we continue to reinforce a substitutionary or satisfaction type theory of atonement, what type of doctrine of God does this reinforce and why are we comfortable with conceiving of God so?  Is our doctrine of God, that flows through and from our theology of the atonement, consistent with the Word we see in Christ or do we see something different here…and, like my previous post argued, should we begin to re-articulate a theology of the atonement that seeks to bring people into relationship with God via their theological worldviews rather than cast a vision of the God of Jesus that makes this God a highly suspicious character with a severe personality disorder?

I am sure there are ample hesitations and rebuttals to my thoughts here.  This essay is not meant to be a thesis defending my argument at every turn from possible detractors…yet these are initial remarks as I continue to think the atonement during this Lenten season.  I am sure that someone out there is wanting to chime in and tell me about “free will” (to name just one objection).  I have anticipated some of these remarks and will post a response in my next blog.  But I also encourage you, the reader, to respond to where you think I may have gone astray or where you think I may have been frustratingly correct in offering some food for thought on atonement.  I will respond and might even write a post specific to your reaction or request…but if I have succeeded in at least making us think about God’s intention: relationship or sacrifice…I would have been pleased.  At the end, however, I have no greater desire than to think about God and Christ and to do so honestly as a fellow quester of truth…wherever it may be found.

Other-Wise Atonement: Thinking about the Human Sacrifice of Jesus

What-is-the-Atonement lamb pic

 In the past week I have had three conversations with fellow Brothers in Christ in regard to our ideas of atonement and its relationship to ministry and life.  Chief among these concerns has been the reality that more and more folks, especially folks under 30 (I am 31 FTR) are abandoning organized religion and churches.  It is my belief that such is not happening because the present generation is irreligious or lack faith.  To the contrary, they are very motivated by faith and mystery, it’s just that they seem to be embracing newer philosophies of faith found elsewhere because the way Christianity has been taught, preached, etc, has seemed to them quite bankrupt.  If I reflect on my own teenage years and youth group experience, many of the folks in my youth group are not interested in the faith and if they are, they are not very active.  Most have left the fold of the church.  Why?  Well, I think a large factor is because the church is not speaking to them anymore, and what it has said in the past has been shallow, totalitarian and just an extended version of Aristotle’s Ethics.  Their impression of the faith is kiddie pool theology, where everyone stays in the 3 Ft section because Christianity occupies no other section…and in this 3 ft section we swim continually, never venturing beyond the buoys that separate us from the scary “deep end.”  This, coupled with our horrible ways of reading the Bible as a flat story that simply contains maxims for life and ethical advice…wedded with our biblical literalism at every turn of scripture, has given the impression that our faith is shallow, overly experiential, and has little to offer after we say a prayer of forgiveness.  This is tragic and it saddens me.

As per my recent conversations, I have decided to post a practice in theology of thinking out loud (with you the reader as my company) on the subject of atonement.  I have recently argued amongst friends that the atonement should speak to the existential lack that is inherent in our context…that the atonement is still powerful but not in a uni-dimensional kind of way.  For us to speak to the generations of Christians that have left the church, and to those who will never come to our churches because of their impression of Christianity, we need to do as the church has historically practiced and ask how the atonement functions, what it does, and why that matters for people who don’t feel the weight of Luther’s guilt nor do they really desire God to wring the blood from Jesus beaten body over their head so they can be camouflaged when God peers their way.

So, I want to mention the most popular theories of atonement, or theories of how we understand what Jesus did by dying on Calvary, and how we might shift gears a bit to think the atonement differently.  This essay is not meant to be extensive, and much finer minds have done a better job of descandalizing the cross as some of you might interpret this blog to be doing, but it is my attempt to do theology in an honest way and wrestle with the Cartesian mind that we all possess, if we would only be so honest and not hide behind the fear of where our inquiry might take us.  To my brothers that have occassioned these words, I give thanks for your friendship and treasure your dialogue…and I pray others might find these musings more than useful.

 Let’s get started.  First, the substitutionary theory of the atonement has not been the king of the Christian block since the time of Christ.  There are several theories of atonement, or ideas about the “why” of the passion, that have had prominence in our faith: Ransom, Moral/Love, Satisfaction, and Penal.  Scripture testifies to ALL of these…and ALL of them are problematic, even scripturally, but most traditions accentuate one of these or combine them…but in the theology and faith of the church they were separate and did not emerge at once.

Ransom: Introduced by Origen 3rd century.  This is the idea that Satan, the prince of the world (so Origen was a dualist, sue him and sue most Christians alive today who are equally dualistic), had to have a payment from God for control of creation.  God decided to Kill Jesus as a ransom payment to Satan.  BUT, the trick was resurrection.  God let Satan receive payment and then took his payment back on Easter.  God tricked the devil.  This idea coalesces nicely with Christians who hold that creation is in a Struggle between God and Satan and that Satan is indeed the controller of earth…yet through this act God has no usurped Satan and defeated him again.  So I’m not sure what Pentecostals are still getting excited about with this spiritual warfare stuff; the battle is over, so to speak.  God paid the ransom in this theory because we did not have the “money” to make the transaction…and the rest is history.

Moral/Love: Abelard introduced this 12th century.  Abelard contended that Jesus died to show how much he loved the world and died as a perfect sacrifice expressing what it means to fully love creation…offering a model for how we should love one another even to our own deaths if need be.  The implication is also that as a supreme act of love God let Jesus suffer and die as an example of God’s ability to let evil happen to us so that we might be able to live into the resurrected reality of Jesus and be better people, hence the “moral” part.  He argued that Christ’s Life and death were examples of God’s supreme love to us so that all humans will be able to respond in return by loving God and finding salvation through the intercession of Christ.  Violence is allowed in the world because we are refined by fire and made holy in its furnaces, turning our hearts to God because of his example and being made holy as we live through the violence we all encounter.  There is more to this idea in Abelard’s work, but he wrote this AFTER the next theory by Anselm.

Satisfaction: This is the idea that Jesus was killed to satisfy the honor of God.  It really emerged from the way society was structured during the period of feudal Lords, etc, and was patterned after such societal norms of dishonor, honor and glorification.  God’s honor had been violated in the fall of Adam and Eve (ent), and as such, his honor had to be restored.  However, nothing is great enough to restore God’s honor but the sacrifice God’s self…ENTER Jesus the God-Man;  So God’s wrath was satisfied through the human sacrifice of Jesus.  This is also consistent with the practice of Jewish Temple in killing animals to satisfy God’s anger.

Penal Substitutionary:  This emerged most thoroughly in the Reformation and was crystallized by Calvin.  It is the idea that humans are utterly depraved and cannot be saved except that God would take a substitution for our sin; the old addage is “Jesus took my place” and many of us sing songs to this effect each Sunday in worship.  We are deserving of death; the only way we can experience life is for Jesus to die for us and then IMPUTE his righteousness upon us…so that after the death of Jesus when God looks at the world….he no longer sees our horrid sinfulness, but he sees the blood of Jesus covering our transgressions.

 These are the major theories, but there are others.  I encourage you to read the theologians mentioned above for the finer workings of their atonement theology.

The testimony to multiple understandings of atonement mean thinking the death of Jesus is not nearly as clean and neat as most Christians think…but the other thing that makes atonement a sticky issue is that we are heavily influenced by the Western Church.  Origen was part of the Alexandrian school, so too was Augustine (where one finds substitutionary ideas fit right at home)…Anselm was West also, so too was Thomas Aquinas (transubstantiation)…Abelard was Western but he was bucking the system during his time.  He was often criticized by other theologians, but he attracted many students and was a “go to” theologian for philosophers during the Enlightenment period.  However, in the East, substitution and penal theory did not reign the day…many of the Fathers from the Antiochene school placed a much heavier emphasis on incarnation and theosis because of resurrection, not because of a hyper penal idea of atonement.  So as for Christianity, the witness is actually split and there are theological, and biblical, problems with espousing any one idea/theory.  This is why I am inclined to be more existential in regard to the atonement and be open to multiple meanings that speak to our world, not dictate one method over another.

But the Gospels did just this; they interpreted the atonement within paradigms that made sense, and then translated that to their contexts from out of the story of Jesus they told.  The Gospels are telling the story of Christ and making sense of the crucifixion of Jesus…narratively attempting to make an appeal to how one might understand atonement.

Allow me a brief Gospel of John Excurses.

NO Gospel works/refines an idea of atonement in great detail, yet John goes to greater lengths here than any Evangelist, but it makes sense for him to do so.   John argues that Jesus IS the sacrificial lamb.   The importation of a fairly developed atonement theology in the Gospel of John makes perfect historical sense considering the historical context of the Johannine community that had been expelled from Temple post-70AD and were trying to make sense of being a Jewish Christian without a Temple…what better Christological affirmation than that we don’t need a Temple, we have the lamb sacrificed at the same TIME ON PASSOVER as it would have been happening in the Temple in the 30’s whichever specific year you prefer…but the Synoptics have Christ crucified BEFORE Passover…not during…clearly John is making a theological point.  So John is constructing an atonement theology, but it is within his context not outside of it.

Origen, Anselm, Abelard, the Reformers, they are all wrestling with how to understand how the work of Christ brings humanity into relationship with God; how does it restore brokenness to a sense of wholeness through the broken and bloody body of Jesus…and they did so in language and metaphor that was a.) biblical …but also b.) could speak to their listeners.  They did not speak past their listeners, but they proclaimed why the death of Jesus matters and why it should matter to their hearers and in their context.  The Spirit led them to do so.  From an existential perspective, I call for doing nothing but the same: speaking Christ to the world in such a way that they hear, listen and have an “aha” moment about how the at-one-ment of Jesus brings them to at-one-ment in God.  This doesn’t mean that classical understandings are mute.  They are still important and still carry currency for many, but to preach the lifting up of Christ to a world that feels separated from itself and others…is not to proclaim that you need to take a shower in the blood of Jesus, but to preach that through the act of his death he has put an end to sin and violence…he has swallowed death into his body and thereby all those things that seek to wreck our lives and create disharmony.  Yet the death, and massacre of Jesus, would not be complete without a resurrection to say that such violence and sin does not win; it is swallowed up in the grave thereby meaning so too has the sin (think hamartia here…missing the mark), death and utter lack that seeks to wreak havoc in our lives been laid to rest the with grave cloths of the paranormal Jesus who comes to all us Thomas’ who still think death is still an issue.

What I am arguing, albeit with an existential bent ( I am heavy on Kierkegaard and Heidegger here), is that while we may want to say that the work of Jesus is primarily this, or mostly that, and then tell people “no, this is your problem and here is your answer”…the better approach is to discover what it is that keeps folks up at night, what concerns them, where do they sense lack in their lives.  If Christ matters than it matters to them and the world in which they live; we do not need to tell them they live in a false world and then attempt to renarrate their lives with a story and concepts that are utterly foreign, and therefore, would be devoid of meaning.  We do this not to relativise the gospel but to be aware that people will seek for truth according to the questions that plague their being. And my argument is that the atonement of Jesus contains the answer, but the theological world that drives a person may be different from one individual to the next, and necessarily so too will be their questions, and so too must be the appropriation of the Christ event into their lives.

William P. Jones, in his book, Theological Worlds: Understanding the Rhythms of Alternative Christian Belief, talks about it as we all have different OBSESSIOS (problem, lack, brokenness in us) and therefore we all have different EPIPHANIA (an awakening to our angst and its solution) that show us our problem, what we need, and how to become whole through various answers that is offered by the Christ in his work.  The theological worlds in which most folks live, according to the work of Dr. Jones, are the following…and my experience also seems to validate this:

Separation…Reunion

Conflict…Vindication

Emptiness…Fulfillment

Condemnation…Forgiveness (this model gets a disproportinate amount of attention in our Churches)

Suffering…Endurance

By extending our understanding of atonement past a purely penal or substitutionary model (and thereby by extending our willingness to see why Jesus STILL matters to the world), we are actually able to see how Christ connects people to God through his death…and we do so beyond the realm of pagan blood ritual, though biblically we may still find meaning here.  It may be, in fact, that many folks are connected through the theological world of condemnation and forgiveness…but more and more people, in our context, are typified in the other 4 worlds.  The solution is not to tell those folks they’re wrong, and therein tell them their concerns and questions about faith are wrong, but to say, “well, the work of Christ can heal that part of your life and here is how.”  By appealing to the existential angst in an individual we are doing the same things as the Gospels, and the church Fathers: we are speaking into the lives of people and proclaiming why exactly the news of Jesus is good.  It’s good because whatever their malady, whatever their internal struggle, the atonement of Jesus is more than satisfying a primordial God who got his feelings hurt; the atonement of Jesus restores creation through violence as God’s statement that creation is no longer to use violence and sin as a means of negotiating the world.

This reality is affirmed, not because we are part of the Western Church and affirm all the theological baggage therewith, but precisely because we believe in the Resurrection.  The Resurrection makes these things true and it is what makes the Christ event relevant to folks in the now.

To conclude, I mention a brief Pauline excurses.  It is telling that even Paul, the one who paved the Roman Road, placed much greater emphasis on Resurrection than Passion.  He did address Passion elements, but did not hinge his entire theology thereon.  His famous chapter in First Corinthians 15 is not a perpetual statement on Passion and a Mel Gibson esqe love affair with violence in his movie titled “The Passion.”  (FTR, I really like the movie).  It does not read “If Christ be not slaughtered than our faith is in vain…If God be not appeased than our faith is nothing…”  (forgive me for too much liberty if you feel I have taken it there) but Paul over and over again says, “If Christ be not raised…”  The Resurrection is the difference maker…not a particular view of the atonement;  The atonement is utter meaninglessness if not for the peculiarly paranormal event of a Jesus not staying dead.  The resurrection is what places us in right relationship with God because in order to overtake death and sin…God does not need a human sacrifice, God just needs to overcome death through the only means possible: the loss of life in a physical body and the raising of that very body to end death’s residence in human history, in time.  Thus, if there is any doctrine or dogmatic stance one needs to take to be firmly Christian, it is the paranormality of resurrection, not a refined idea of atonement that has a diverse witness in text, tradition, reason and experience…a concept that while appearing to stand on the “solid rock of faith” is actually a bit more like nailing Jello to the wall.