Beginner's Mind... of Christ

Friday, April 3, 2015

How Progressives (Like Me) Get It Wrong on the Atonement

This being Good Friday, let’s talk about the Atonement.

It’s fashionable these days for progressive Christians to distance themselves from the Atonement - the idea that Jesus had to die on the cross in order to spare us from judgment.  I am one of those progressives: for years, I have followed Matthew Fox’s inspired lead by questioning this basic construct: that Jesus acted like an older brother, stepping between a violently abusive father and a helpless child, taking on a punishment meant for us.

One common way this theory gets expressed is in terms of the slave economy of Jesus’ time: Jesus “redeemed us” – he “bought us out of slavery” by paying the price in his blood.  Yet another gruesome image is the blood of the Passover lamb: on the night before Moses was to lead his people out of slavery, God sent the angel of death to kill the first-born children of the Egyptians.  The Jews were instructed to paint their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb – this was the signal for the angel of death to “pass over” that house as it went door to door killing the Egyptian children.  Just so, the blood of Jesus, symbolically poured over us in baptism, protects us from eternal death.

Whichever way you tell it, God comes across as a psychopathic killer, a murderous slave holder, a genocidal child-killing demon of the night.   Anyone in their right minds, we think, would rightly reel from these horrifying images.  

And of course, this theory of the atonement becomes an easy target for critics of Christianity: what kind of psychopathic God would kill his only Son in order to appease his wrath?   I am always taken aback by the smirky confidence of “new atheists” who trot out these arguments – they are like so many college sophomores, convinced that Christians must be either blinded by their faith or too stupid to see the horror of these metaphors.

Anyway, for the entire length of my 25-year career as an Episcopal priest, I’ve taught my congregants to look at these disturbing images with a critical eye, and I’ve offered the insights of Matthew Fox and the great Christian contemplatives as a healthy corrective to this line of thinking.  But much to my surprise, a new insight has caused me to wonder if I’ve been a bit too hasty, maybe throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Imagine the worldview of those who, in Jesus’ day, took all that we find horrifying about these images of God for granted, as simply true.  From their point of view, the world was a brutal and violent place; God’s justice was enforced by gruesome violence, and if God was to be just, violence was necessary.  God’s brutality was not only on display in the actions of the King and Temple police, it was on display in every storm and drought, leaving entire nations vulnerable to famine and disaster.  It was on display in the dozens of lepers and cripples covered in dirt at the village gate, clearly being punished for some kind of sin; it was on display, in a world without insurance, in every random accident that left prosperous families destitute, forcing mothers into prostitution and children into slavery.  

In those days, a slave economy was considered perfectly normal – there was no anti-slavery movement calling it into question.  Wars were fought with ferocious brutality; rape and pillage, slavery and grisly death happened all the time, and could only be explained – indeed, could only be endured – when seen as the inscrutable actions of an ultimately just and good God.  

 In other words, what we see as a psychopathic, murderous God, the people of Jesus’ day saw simply as reality.  That’s just the way God was.  Anyone who thinks that they would have thought differently if they had lived in those days is simply arrogant and foolish.

And then, in the space of a generation, an unbelievable revolution of paradigms occurred, and everything changed.

The amazing thing about the Atonement is not that it presumes a psychopathic God - that was considered normal; it’s that it proclaims, with incredible joy, that those days were over!  That as much as that brutal idea of God made sense before Jesus died and rose from the grave, that idea of God was now obsolete!  A new reality had broken through!  The curtain in the Temple, separating God from the world, was torn in two!  God could finally be seen as alive and active on the side of mercy and forgiveness and love!

Sometimes we progressives get so caught up in criticizing the conventional images of God that we overlook the message that the theory of the Atonement was proclaiming, which is, Hey, let it go!  Those days are over!  There’s a new reality now!   As much as it may seem like we’re in bondage to sin, slaves to corruption and death, that’s no longer the case!  We're free now!  As much as it might seem like God is out to hurt us, that’s no longer the case!  He's on our side!  As much as it might seem like our suffering is God’s will, that’s not true!  God is on the side of the victim!  As much as it might seem like death has the last word, we now know better!  Life has conquered death!  As much as it might seem like God is on the side of a murderous dictator, we now see that God is on the side of a righteous, persecuted minority!  God is on the side of the outcast!  God is on the side of everyone who suffers!  That old God we were carrying around - if "he" ever lived - is gone for good!  Now we see the truth: God is Love!  Mercy!  Forgiveness!  Abundant, joyful new life! 

In other words, grow up!  Get over yourself!  

By constantly getting stuck on how horrifying and obsolete those ancient ideas of God are, we act like grown children still blaming our parents for whatever mistakes they made in raising us.  We distract ourselves from the new life that is right in front of our faces.  We collude in distracting ourselves from the new life that is right here.  We much prefer to argue with that old paradigm; we'd rather fight with a God who no longer exists than awaken to the real message of the Atonement, which is that an entirely new experience of God is available to us. 

From this new perspective, brutality, violence, slavery, and murder can be seen for the horrifying things that they are.  Ironically, it’s the theory of the Atonement that proves its own obsolescence.  By helping us imaginatively identify with this new understanding of God, as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Atonement stories ultimately reveal how obsolete those old images of God are.  By taking seriously the Atonement, we’re able to identify a new face of God; a God of non-violent, unconditional love; a God that we now find alive and well and dwelling within each of us. 

And that, I think, is pretty cool.  However we got here, here we are, At One with God.  That's literally what Atonement means: At-One-ment.

But don't get me wrong: I’m not saying I’m going to start preaching the Atonement in an uncritical, Biblically orthodox way.  But as I meditate on the message of the cross, I can’t help but be filled with a new respect for just how radical this message must have seemed at the time, and how radical it continues to be.

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