The Text

The Parable of the Ten Servants

The Parable of the Ten Servants

A new take on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, by Bryan Berghoef

And he told them this parable:

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten servants who went out to meet their master. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took no weapons nor did they take any means of defense with them. The wise ones, however, took care to bring swords along with their concealed knives. The master was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: “An intruder! Defend yourselves!” Continue Reading..

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

Reclaiming Holy Week through Revolutionary Resurrection

Reclaiming Holy Week through Revolutionary Resurrection

Holy Week reflections by Jorge Juan Rodriguez V
(this post was originally published at HolyWeekofResistance.net)

For many Christian communities in this Empire called the United States, Holy Week has been largely commercialized, commodified and sanitized. Profound themes present in Holy Week of state violence, murder without recourse of marginalized individuals and communities, and the subverting of oppression through revolutionary acts have been diluted for the comfort of the masses and the maintenance of power. Continue Reading..

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

Holy Week reflections by Chris Lubbers

Have you ever repeatedly uttered a word until it just became a meaningless sound? Try it for one minute. Love, love, love, love, love, love, … At most, you’re left with a familiar, comforting noise. We often fail to notice what is familiar. The fish don’t see the water or understand its significance–if that expression isn’t itself too familiar to make the point.

Continue Reading..

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Guest post by David Schell.

NO_LEFT_TURN_signPeople think I moved left because I wanted to compromise with the world, because I wanted to fit in better.

People think I moved left because I was deceived by the devil.

People think I moved left because I’ve been reading the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

People think I moved left because I just stopped reading the Bible.

Continue Reading..

A Palm Sunday Prayer for Peace

Palm-Sunday-2013

Holy Week begins this Sunday. It is a familiar week, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But maybe so familiar that we still aren’t quite hearing the full story.

Marcus Borg reminds us that there was not one, but two processions entering Jerusalem that year. Two very different processions. “They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation. On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.

Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.”

In the spirit of the One who came in peace, and in the wake of this week’s continued violence in our world, a prayer for peace. May it bless you this week.


G
reat God, who has told us
“Vengeance is mine,”
save us from ourselves,
save us from the vengeance in our hearts
and the acid in our souls.
Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt,
to punish as we have been punished,
to terrorize as we have been terrorized.
Give us the strength it takes
to listen rather than to judge,
to trust rather than to fear,
to try again and again
to make peace even when peace eludes us.
We ask, O God, for the grace
to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision
to be builders of the human community
rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people
to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the love it takes
to bequeath to the children of the world to come
more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes
to care for all the peoples
of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel
as well as for ourselves.
Give us the depth of soul, O God,
to constrain our might,
to resist the temptations of power
to refuse to attack the attackable,
to understand
that vengeance begets violence,
and to bring peace–not war–wherever we go.
For You, O God, have been merciful to us.
For You, O God, have been patient with us.
For You, O God, have been gracious to us.
And so may we be merciful
and patient
and gracious
and trusting
with these others whom you also love.
This we ask through Jesus,
the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. Amen
A Prayer for World Peace,
by Sister Joan Chittister, of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie
(source)

Noah and the Violence of God [Trailer included]

Noah and the Violence of God [Trailer included]

A new movie about the story of the Genesis flood is heading to theatres entitled simply: NOAH. Starring Russell Crowe as Noah, of course.

The movie trailer begins with these controversial words:

“At a time when wickedness was great in the world… so too was the response.”

A story so familiar: water, animals, a big boat. Perhaps too familiar. Rev. Alan Storey preached a sermon recently that helps us push through the simple children’s version to the dark depths of this story. The darkness of humanity, and of a dark response from the heavens. It appears the movie will similarly pull no punches on the terror of the flood.  [Warning: this may well be the longest post ever at pubtheologian.com, but it also might be the most important.]

The opening to the biblical story in Genesis 6:5-8:

And YHWH saw that great was humankind’s evildoing on earth and every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day. Then YHWH was sorry that he had made mankind on earth, and it pained his heart. YHWH said: “I will blot out humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the soil, from man to beast, to crawling thing and to the fowl of the heavens, for I am sorry that I made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of YHWH. [Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses]

Rev Storey’s sermon entitled:

“Not even God can use violence successfully.”

I wonder what you have just heard during the reading of those Hebrew scriptures. I wonder what you heard. What did you hear?

Did you hear Sunday school children singing, singing about animals going in two by two? Or did you hear children screaming panic-stricken, terrified, gasping for breath; people fleeing to higher ground, pleading, praying to be let into that ark—and if not me, then take my child. Knocking, banging, banging on the ark, let me in! Yet the doors of the ark remained sadistically closed.

What did you feel when [you read] those words? Did you feel the desperation, the despair, the drowning, the death?

And then after the 40 days, what did you see? The sunshine? Green lush, beautiful blossoming? Birds and bees? Or decomposing bodies, swelling, smelling—disease, decay gathered in every single nook and cranny?

The cruel results, the inevitable cruel results of dividing up a world with the simplistic notion that there are some who are wicked and others who are righteous, that there are two types of people in the world: good and bad. And if we can just get rid of the bad people, then we will have peace. There is an axis of evil int he world and if we can just destroy the axis of evil, then all will be safe and secure.

The persons who act on this notion of dividing the world into wicked people and righteous people should be brought before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity and all of creation – even if that person is God.

This deathly division between good people and bad people continues today especially in my faith tradition—especially in my faith tradition. The Christian faith, more than any other faith, has participated in this deathly division—dividing the world into good and bad, saved and unsaved, those who will be ushered into heaven and those who will be cast into hell. That thought process is nothing less than hate speech.

We go back to the text. These Hebrew narrators were incredibly courageous, risky in the extreme. You see, what these Hebrew narrators are trying to do is not endorse this primitive, partisan God or world view, but rather to cleverly, and with great risk, subvert it. They knew that the common world understanding of God was that God was some almighty superhero that would punish the wicked and bless the righteous. They knew that was the dominant religious world view and understanding of their time. So they risked casting God in that light in their narrative. They don’t believe it, they know that’s not so. But they cleverly start where the audience is.

There were righteous ones, just a few. God saved them and the wicked were punished and the audience applaud. Because that was their world view. Justice has been done, the wicked got what they deserved, and the righteous what was promised. And then the narrator moves to Act II. And we read that once the flood had subsided, wickedness remained. Wickedness remained. In other words, God failed. God failed to eradicate evil through this weapon of mass destruction called the flood.

The narrator is bold to pen those words, “God failed.” God fails when God uses violence. Not even God can use violence successfully. Not even God. God’s war on terror  became a war of terror. And God repents. Listen to these words: “I will never again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

And then God is converted and God takes God’s bow, not a rainbow, but a weapon, God’s bow, and hangs it up in the sky, just as a boxer hangs up his gloves – and says,“Never again will I fight.” It’s the great narrative of the disarmament of God.

God can do all things. God can do all things – except use violence successfully.

And you and I will not be converted to nonviolence until we first realize that God has long since been converted. It is impossible to be a peacemaker if we serve a violent God, an angry God, a God who needs blood to be satisfied. If the God we serve, if the God we worship, has blood on his hands (I use that male pronoun deliberately), then the likelihood will be that we will too.

Using violence, God fails. So how much more will we fail if we use it? And you and I witness the failure of violence all around us all the time.

Violence fails to deliver on what it promises – peace and security. Since 9/11, billions and billions and billions of your dollars have been invested in violence, military might. And this country is less safe than it ever was. It doesn’t matter how long you have to stand in line to wait to get onto an airplane – it is less safe, less secure. And if it is not more afraid, it is definitely more feared.

Ask the people of Pakistan who scan the skies for drones – where the people who fly them can have break-fast in the morning with their family, go to the office and sit in a comfortable chair and go to war in Afghanistan; and then can come home and have lunch with their family, and then in the afternoon they can go to war in Pakistan.

There is no victory in vengeance. Satan cannot cast out Satan; violence cannot cast out violence. War is a poor chisel to carve out a peaceable future says Martin Luther King, and yet it remains our biggest investment.

If you know history, you will know that empires do not explode. Empires implode. And the reason why empires implode is because they spend more than they have on trying to defend (read attack) who they are.

And if you just question safety and security, you will be labeled unpatriotic. You can commit the most grave of sins in the name of safety and security. Listening to the presidential debates, if you could call them that, president Obama was asked, “What is the greatest threat to America?” Notice, please, the very narrow nationalistic question that is. His answer: “Terrorism, and China.”

I want to say to Barack Obama the greatest threat to America is not terrorism, it’s not China. The greatest threat to America is – America. You are your worst enemy. No one will explode you – you will implode. If God fails using violence, so will the USA.

God is a nonviolent God.

Now, a couple of years ago in my country, there was a murder that took place and it was discovered that it was a family murder. An 18-year-old girl killed her 13-year-old sister, stabbed her repeatedly. The mother, as you can imagine, grieved, like only a mother can grieve. And yet at the same time as she was grieving the loss of her daughter, she stood in solidarity with her other daughter, as only, you can imagine, a mother can do. She was reported to have said, “I want to hate her, but I can’t.”

She went to court every day when her daughter was on trial. She stood behind her and embraced her when she was convicted. She visited her daughter every available opportunity in prison and when her daughter was finally released, she welcomed her home. Mrs. Du Toit, the mother, found herself in the painful, yet privileged position of God, being parent to both murdered and murderer. At one and the same time. “I want to hate her but I can’t. I’m her mother.”

God is not only a nonviolent God, but God is the heavenly parent of both murdered and murderer. And to take vengeance on the murderer is simply to multiply the grief of God. If someone had come up to that mother and said, “Let us kill this daughter,” she would say, “No – don’t double my grief.”

Not only is this a nonviolent God, not only does this God grieve on all sides of the border, but when we remember Saul traveling on the road to Damascus because he had written permission to extend his war on terror, he is stopped in his tracks with these words from the Divine:“Why, why, why are you persecuting me?”

Please notice what the Divine did not say. The Divine did not say, “Why are you persecuting them?” but, “Why are you persecuting me?”

The Divine takes persecution personally. It is not, “Why are you persecuting the Afghans, and the Iraqis, and the Pakistanis, and whoever else? it’s, “Why are you persecuting me?” We need to hear that question here today.

So not only is God a nonviolent God. Not only does God grieve on both sides. God takes persecution personally. Our violence violates God. All violence – we see from that illustration – is family violence. Cain and Abel were brothers. Did you know that death enters the Hebrew scriptures through murder? – reminding us that all violence is family violence? That there are seven billion chosen, chosen people in the world? That the apartheid between nations must come to an end?

There is something that distresses me more than anything else every time I listen to the president of this country speak – when he ends his speeches with the words,“God Bless America.”

Someone please remind him that there is a world larger than America. And not until he begins to have a vision for the world and not just a nation – (long pause) The only flag I am prepared to salute, the only flag, the only flag that I am prepared to stand up for is the flag with a picture of the globe on it. Can you give your flag away? And claim a new flag? And certainly remove it from your sanctuaries.

Jesus said if you want to save your life, give it away. If you want to save your nation – give it away. If you want to save your flag – give it away. If you want to save your religion – give it away. We know that it is easier to identify with the victim than the perpetrator. It is easier to see the splinter in our neighbor’s eye than it is to see the log in our own eye. It is easier to watch a documentary called Pray the Devil Back to Hell than to face the devil in us and the hell that we create. I watched that documentary for the first time here. I was deeply moved by it – the courage of woman.

I was inspired when one of them said, “With this tee shirt, I am powerful.” I was horrified at the children, the children carrying guns that were too big for them to carry. I wept at the senseless suffering.

But that was a distant devil to observe. Much more difficult to watch a documentary of the devil that we are, and the hell that we create. Some people here have asked me, “Gosh, listening to Bernard Lafayette the other night, – how is it possible to be able to draw that love from the wells that live within to be able to even love the person beating us?”

Now it is a fine question to ask, but I think there is an earlier question. You see, that question assumes that we are going to be the victim. That question assumes we are going to be the one who is going to be beaten and kicked. The balance of probability that any of us in this room are going to go through that is pretty slim.

You see, we identify with the victim. The question we should be asking is, “How do we stop beating and killing others who are praying for the love to be able to forgive us?” What our dollars do in this world –

You know the date. But do you know what happened during 9/11? 9/11. When country and the hopes of that country were shattered. The thousands of people dying, thousands of people dying, not just on 9/11, but the days after. 9/11. You know the day, you know what I am talking about. Yes, I am talking about 1973. 9/11. When Pinochet came into power in Chile with the help of our dollars, a reign of terror for 16 years until 1990 – we know the date.

The 20th of August 1998 – in Sudan, the Clinton administration bombs Al-Shifa pharmaceutical company that provided 50% of all medication in the Sudan. I went to the Sudan a number of years after that. I watched mothers carrying children, hopelessly dying of malaria, not able to get medication. Do you know the date: 20th of August 1998?

We will not have peace in this world, we will not become peacemakers, until we know the dates of terror that we have inflicted on others as well as we know the dates of terror that others have inflicted on us.

By the way, the 20th of August 1998 was covered in the Boston Globe, the Washington PostThe Guardian, the New York Times.

Last night we listened to Leymah Gbowee. She spoke powerfully about an analogy of violence and anger: pouring it into a violent cup or a nonviolent cup. I wonder if our problem is that we are not angry enough.

What makes you angry? When the price of gas goes up? Or when more of our children go and learn how to kill and we tell them that they are heroes when all they are are victims to the lie, the lie that says you can be a killer with honor. The lie that says you can actually be alive while you kill another.

We are addicted to violence. This nation knows that more than any other. It is never going to be easy to kick an addiction. We are always going to think, “One more drink.” And the one more drink becomes the first of many more. The alcoholic needs to admit that she is, that he is, powerless. And then join together with other people who feel powerless too. And admit their addiction, confess it.

“Hi, my name is Alan and I belong to the most violent nation in the world – that spends more money on the military than all other nations put together.”

Can we say those words? And only when we are able to admit that in the presence of others and then rely on a power – however you understand that power – that is higher than us, to begin to transform us. To make a stringent list of the things that we have done wrong. To admit them, and then to make amends. To go through, as a nation, a 12-step program. As the most violent nation in the world. Sign up. And then, in our powerlessness, we will discover what Michael Nagler invited us to see: nonviolence as that power that is unleashed when all desire to harm is overcome; and only then will we be feeling powerful again.

People have been asking me, “Alan, what do we do,what do we do, where do I stand, what do I do?” Well, it is very difficult to transform a system that we are dependent on – for our livelihood. Very difficult. So what we need to do is in those little AA communities, confessing that we are a violent people, we need to somehow wean ourselves off the system that we are dependent on.

I mean, don’t you get it? Let me use Christian language for a moment. I am dependent – this is the contradiction I live with in my life – I am dependent on my sin for my survival. Sin, meaning “wages of death, way of death.” I am dependent on a way of life that is in actual fact a way of death, for my survival. And when I turn against my sin, it feels like I am dying, even though I am coming alive.

We have to admit that we are dependent on our sin for our survival. But it, like all addiction, is killing us and those after us and those around us—not to mention God’s creation.

Now let me close.

If you had interviewed political analysts in the Middle Eastern region in December, 2010, and if you had asked them the question, “What is the likelihood of there being a regime change in this part of the world – places like Tunisia and Egypt – places supported by these dollars, our dollars, superpower dollars?” the political analysts would have said that it would be impossible. That would beDecember, 2010. Interview those same analysts in February, 2011, and they would say that it was inevitable. As intifada and the Arab Spring began to spread and take root – because a vegetable seller set himself alight which kindled the fire of freedom and justice in the hearts and minds of families in that region.

You see, political analysts are not to be counted upon in regard to what is possible in this world. Liberation, peace, will come like a thief in the night, and it is not for you and I to know dates or times.

The most amazing thing about the people who were involved in the struggle against Apartheid, for me, were that they joined the struggle with no expectation to see liberation themselves. And yet, they joined it, not for certain results, but because it was right.

We have to liberate ourselves from our addiction to certain results. Thomas Merton said that years ago, set yourself free from limiting results. Just do what you need to do. The results will come.

We heard that over these few days. Who knew that when a 14-year-old boy, when he is treated with dignity and respect and given a social security number and given a driver’s license, who knew that what that would do would refine a conscience that could lead a people that could set people free? Who knew?

It was an unmeasurable act of human relationship and we need to awaken ourselves to the unmeasurableness of our actions. That we cannot actually see the impact thereof  – and so, do what you do not knowing what impact God will do with it through the world – Do you really think that Leymah Gbowee, last night, expected to be standing here, 15 years ago?

So what do we do? I want to ask you to do something specific. But the truth is that I am 44 years old. Right? If I have a good innings, I’m at half time. I’m at half time. And I am sorry to say that looking out at some of you, you are past half time. And looking at some of you more closely, it looks like some of you are in injury time. I’m serious. You don’t have too many years left. Okay? So why don’t you make them count? You have nothing to lose.

I want to speak specifically to the people of my faith – Christians, Methodists. When is the Methodist Church of this nation going to refuse to allow members of its church to enter the military? When? When will children’s church teachers teach the children that that’s the gravest sin, that there is nothing heroic in it, to kill family.

Why don’t you do it? Let us call the troops back home from Afghanistan. Tell them to hand in their guns and their uniforms. Do it! You have nothing to lose. The game is nearly over. It’s the right thing to do. There are people on that side praying, praying that you will do that.

Let’s lament, let’s lament. Let’s not build any more monuments.

I have stood here today for one person. His name is Bradley Manning. You asked me, “What gives me hope?” People have asked, “Alan, are you hopeful?”

I said, “I am hopeful because of one person, Bradley Manning.” Bradley Manning is 24 years old – 24 years old. He’s spent the last 902 days in a military prison, most of which has been in solitary confinement in chains. Bradley Manning. All because he revealed documents that exposed the truth of the killing of Iraqis from an American helicopter. And he sits in one of your prisons. Bradley Manning. You want to know what you can do? You can give your life for his freedom, because he has given his life for the freedom of this world. Pray for his sanity, pray for his healing. Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning.

If there is anything that I have said here that is true, may it set us free.


Alan Storey is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and is presently ministry in Cape Town. As a young man, Alan faced conscription into the apartheid regime’s military. After spending a year of discernment working as a laborer in Australia, he returned to South Africa, declaring he would never fight in the apartheid army, or any army. He was arrested and faced trial with a six-year prison sentence as the likely outcome. Alan’s trial was abandoned midway, and he became the last conscientious objector to be tried in apartheid South Africa.

This sermon is a transcription of the final presentation of a four-day peace conference held at Lake Junaluska, NC, Nov 8-11, 2012. The text only hints at the power of this presentation to those who heard it in person. Transcription courtesy of the War Crimes Times. The official release date of the Noah movie starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly has yet to be announced.

Christianity Divided by the Cross

Christianity Divided by the Cross

A guest post by theologian and scholar Marcus Borg – a fitting addition to our series on Atonement. (This piece originally appeared on patheos.com)

American Christians are deeply divided by the cross of Jesus – namely, by how they see the meanings of his death. At the risk of labels and broad generalizations, “conservative” Christians generally believe a “payment” understanding of the cross: Jesus died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven.

Most “progressive” Christians (at least a majority) have great difficulty with the “payment” understanding. Many reject it. Some insist that rather than focusing on Jesus’s death, we should instead focus on his life and teachings. They are right about what they affirm, even as they also risk impoverishing the meaning of Jesus by de-emphasizing the cross.

It is the central Christian symbol. And ubiquitous. Perhaps even the most widely-worn piece of jewelry. Its centrality goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. In one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul in the early 50s summarized “the gospel” he had taught to his community in Corinth as “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1-2). In the New Testament gospels beginning with Mark around 70, the story of Jesus’s final week and its climax in crucifixion and resurrection dominates their narratives. All four devote more than a fourth of their gospels to Jesus’s final week. And all anticipate the end of Jesus’s life earlier in their narratives. It is as if they are saying: you can’t tell the story of Jesus unless you tell the story of the cross.

Thus for Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: what does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?

The most common meaning in much of Christianity today is the “payment” understanding: Jesus died to pay for our sins. Insisted upon by “conservative” Christians, it is foundational and fundamental to their theology. Its influence extends beyond. Many, perhaps most, of today’s mainline Protestant and Catholics grew up with it even if perhaps in a softer version. The language of most Christian liturgies is shaped by the payment understanding and thus reinforces it through ritual repetition.

But the payment understanding has serious problems, both historical and theological. The historical problem: the payment understanding was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity. In the New Testament, it is at most a minor metaphor. Some scholars argue that it is not there at all. I am inclined to agree.

But regardless of the verdict on that question, the first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? Its Latin title means, “Why Did God Become Human?” Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.

He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake.

Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that.

To repeat: familiar as it is, the payment understanding is less than a thousand years old. On historical grounds, it is not ancient Christianity, not traditional Christianity, not orthodox Christianity, even though it has over the last several centuries become dominant in Western Christianity. It has become a lens through which a number of New Testament passages that seem to support it are seen. But without that lens, they can be understood quite differently.

The theological difficulties of the payment understanding are even more serious. It seriously distorts the story of Jesus and the meaning of the cross:

*Makes Jesus’s death part of God’s plan of salvation – indeed, God’s will. It had to happen so that we can be forgiven. Really?

*Emphasizes God’s wrath and that it must be satisfied. But is that what God is like?

*Makes Jesus’s death more important than his life, and thus obscures his message and what he was passionate about (for example, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last 18 hours of his life).

*Makes believing in Jesus more important than following him

*Makes Easter irrelevant. Of course, Christians who believe that Jesus paid for our sins also emphasize Easter. But there is no intrinsic connection between his death and resurrection. What matters most is that he paid for our sins.

Given the theological implications of the payment understanding, it is not surprising that progressive as well as many moderate Christians have problems with it. They should be problems for all Christians.

The rejection of the payment understanding does not make Jesus’s death irrelevant for Christians. On the contrary, it has robust meanings in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. In my next blog, I will describe those. The purpose of this blog is to invite conversation about the payment understanding and its effects upon Christianity.


Marcus Borg_FMarcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.  Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar, he was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of many books including Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Part two in a series on Atonement. Read part one here: When Jesus Died.

This week: a primer on penal substitutionary atonement.

nothing1

I’ve recently been reading a book, Problems with Atonement. Some might say, “Problems? What problems? Is there a problem?” Or even: “There isn’t a problem.”

The traditional view is that humanity has a problem: sin, and God solves it: Jesus dies on the cross. It’s a concept many  of us learned in Sunday school, and perhaps haven’t thought much about since.  In other words, because we grew up with it – it is harder for us to see why there might be any sort of problem(s).

So let’s sketch out the usual, or at least traditionally evangelical, view:

1) Humanity is sinful (this is a state we  are born into,vis-à-vis Adam and Eve). It is not simply that we sin, but that our essence is sinful.

2) This sinfulness cuts us off from God.

3) God made provisional ways for people to  approach him in the ancient world of the Hebrews through the sacrificial  system, particularly  the ‘day  of atonement’.

4) But this didn’t change  the heart issue: only whether people could at some level approach God through mediators (the priestly system and  sacrifices).

5) Jesus arrives and God’s final plan for redemption is revealed: Jesus’  death is seen as the final and ultimate sacrifice, bridging  the gap between humanity  and God for all  time. Earlier  attempts are now seen as foreshadowings or  ‘types’ that were all along pointing to Jesus.  This includes both sacrificial language and language of  temple, priesthood, and even Passover.

The idea is simply  this: humanity is so sinful, and God so holy, that rectification or cleansing must occur for us to approach God.

A closely related point is that God requires sacrifice to appease his anger over sin.

All of these points seem to be in  play in the Old Testament cultic (read: *priestly*) system, and get transferred over to Jesus in the New Testament.  (I prefer to use Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels and Paul instead of ‘Old’ and ‘New’, but will occasionally use OT and NT to help us see how those terms even came to be used – and why ultimately it may be better to avoid them).

This is a comforting view for many: God love us so much that he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  In other words, because God knew we could never cross the gap, he crossed it for us. (No pun intended).

Bloody Good Music

There are plenty  of songs  that celebrate this view:

There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Refrain:

There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

and

Nothing But the Blood

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Refrain

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


And there are plenty of others (feel free to remind us of some others in the comments).

This view we have been describing here has a technical name: penal substitutionary atonementPenal in that there was a penalty to be paid for justice to be done. Substitutionary in that Christ took the place of humanity by paying the penalty. And the word atonement itself means that this has happened: someone ‘atoned for’ or ‘covered over’ our sins.

This is what a person will generally mean when he says, “Jesus died for me.”

A similar definition is given in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

I  wanted to give this view a basic representation before beginning to get to some of the potential problems inherent in such a framework as mentioned at the outset.

A few  more questions to leave you with:

  • Does this view resonate with you? Why? Why not?
  • What texts  support this view? Are there others that undermine it? What view(s) did the earliest Christians hold?
  • Do you think Jesus had this view of his own role in God’s larger plan? Did Jesus more or less come to earth just to die?
  • Is it moral to punish one person so that others escape such punishment?
  • Is God ‘purchasing’ salvation in this framework? If so, from whom?
  • If God had planned such a complete and total way to enact forgiveness, why wait so long?
  • Why does God need someone to be punished for sin? Why can’t he just forgive straight out?
  • If God created humanity capable of committing sin, then placed them in a situation in which such sin was likely, is it moral or just to expection perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence?


Next time we’ll get into some of the background of the Hebrew sacrificial system, how it is presented (and develops) in the text, how it compares to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern cultic approaches, and how this language is re-appropriated by some of the New Testament authors.

Read Part 3 here: A Soothing Aroma.

Close