According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why I Prefer a Gospel of "Solidarity" over that of "Penal Substitution"

Give Tony Jones his due. If for nothing else he does speak his mind and usually hits the mark right on its head.... He is passionate and passionately speaks his mind.... Today's discussion focuses on the deficiencies of the Christian doctrine of "penal substitution". Not a discussion that we haven't spoken of here before, but because of its continued popularity among evangelical churches needs to be reflected upon from time-to-time.
 
Mine own prejudices against PRIMARILY conceiving the atoning work of Christ around this ancient idea provided to us through the Scriptures (and then turned around by the doctrine of Calvinism) is that it has created an attribute out of God's wrath rather than from God's loving mercy. But this cannot be.... Wrath is simply the result of loving mercy's judgment upon the wickedness sin causes and perpetuates. It is not an attribute of God but an action of God. To judge sin is reflective upon God's character of divine holiness and righteousness. Hence, God is a wrathful God when sin's injustice - and sin's crimes of hate - are repeatedly committed and perpetuated. God judges sin because His judgment derives from His intense love for mankind: as beheld in His love for mercy and forgiveness. A repeated theme found in the messages of the OT prophets and again through Jesus and the messages of the early church in NT.
 
Another problem with PRIMARILY conceiving the atoning work of Christ around the idea of penal substitution is that it creates a Gospel message that is intensely individualistic and not collective (me-and-God as versus us-and-God... my pain as versus our collective pain) which is yet another sociological marker of Western civilization's exhibit of Modernity over the countering, global, posture of Post-Modernal, communal responsibility. We become over-focused upon ourselves -  and not on that of others - and thereby speak of Jesus' atonement in personal terms of ourselves to the exclusion of its communal applicability to all men. But when we see Jesus' atonement in terms of all men, then we are better able to see the harm we have done to one another because of our sin. Surely we are forgiven by God's grace, but just as surely we have committed great wrong and undoing in society which must also be undone by our own hands.
 
Tony Jones goes on to observe, that this idea of Christ's sacrifice makes the Son more attractive to us than it does the Father because of Jesus' willingness to takes His Father's wrath upon Himself in place of our condemnation. The "Bully on the Block" seems to be an unappeased, and very angry, God - not the circumspect God of broken heart as willing Lamb who seeks man's salvation by His own personal sacrifice. Too often we confuse Jesus' lifework-and-divine-being apart from His Father's nature and divine attributes. However, we would do better to understand Jesus and His Father as one - and even more so, to see the Father through Jesus, and not through our ideas of what we think we know of God through Scripture ("Ye have seen the Father through me," says Jesus - John 14.7). Hence, we ultimately know God through Jesus, who perfectly pictures the Creator God through His atoning redemption for man's sin. If we do not understand God than turn to Jesus to understand God better.
 
Lastly, Tony importantly notes that God is too-often seen to be held captive to His own divine laws of righteousness, honor, wrath, and expiation (a legal term for sin's absolvement). And yet, God cannot be held captive to any part of His being - nor can His laws be so understood as to be misapplied about His own being. God judges sin not because of His laws but because of its wickedness. The Law simply points out to us its wrongness. To expect harm and folly, grief and strife, pain and pride and prejudice, if sin is given in to. These God would help lead us away from... and not towards. To use our willful freedom responsibly in loving actions toward one another... and not towards self-seeking greed and evil. Sin, in its ultimate definition, is the unloving use of free will. It is not a metaphysical entity but a description of us doing unloving things. Its the misuse and abuse of the freedom that God has placed within mankind's soul. A freedom which learns to love from the God of love as seen by His life of love on this earth in Jesus.
 
R.E. Slater
June 4, 2013
 
 
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Penal Substitution Dies on the Reservation

Photo by Sydney Foster
 
Over the Memorial Day Weekend a few of us from my congregation joined between 1,000-1,500 pilgrims from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
 
Taize is an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to participate in the rhythms of their communal life, and once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.
 
This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota nation to welcome pilgrims to Red Shirt.
 
Just as pilgrims do at Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge in worship (sung chants, sung prayers and a whole lot of silence) 3 times a day.
 
We shared simple meals of buffalo meat straight off the rez, and we shared our faith stories in small groups.
 
We listened to each other; in fact, listening was the primary reason we’d gathered. We camped in tents in a horse pasture and went, uncomplaining, without running water. For those few days at least, we did our best to approximate the simplicity and joy of what the New Testament refers to as the oikos: the ‘economy’ or household of God.
 
Our ‘sanctuary’ was a hollow carved out by the wind in the middle of the badlands. We sat in the prairie grass under the sun and stars.
 
Sunday night’s worship concluded with Taize’s traditional Prayer around the Cross. The cross is an icon of the Crucified Christ with water rushing out from his pierced side. For the prayer around the cross, the icon is taken out of its stand and laid on top of 4 cinder blocks so that it’s about a foot off of the floor and perpendicular to it. As the gathered sing, one by one, pilgrims approach the cross on their knees. Once they make their way to the cross, they place their forehead on the cross and pray.
 
The Prayer around the Cross is powerful to experience.
 
It’s just as powerful to watch so many approach the cross with devotion and seriousness. But it’s even more powerful to notice the patience and hospitality everyone affords one another during the prayer, for it can take a good long while for that many people to crawl to the cross and then pray on it.
 
Before the Prayer around the Cross on Sunday night, Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, invited us to place our burdens upon the cross, the burdens we suffer both personally and collectively ‘because,’ Brother Alois said in his simple yet incisive way, ‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’
 
His words hit me with converting clarity.
 
The prairie wind I felt blow across me could very well have been the Holy Spirit.
 
Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.
 
When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.
 
Sitting all around us were Lakota Christians, young and old, whose families had been herded like cattle onto a patch of land aptly named the badlands. Promise after promise made to them and treaty after treaty made with them had been broken- because why do you need to keep your word to cattle? There on the reservation unemployment is over 80% (just think what the average suburban street would be like with unemployment that high). As a result, alcoholism and hopelessness are nearly as high, and I can’t remember the last time I read a news story or heard a politician mention an Indian issue other than the name of a f&^*%$# football team.
 
We prayed that night just a stone’s throw from Wounded Knee, the site of massacre where a mass grave of over 300 innocents slaughtered by the U.S. Army little more than a hundred years ago. Afterwards the soldiers took gleeful pictures next to heaps of bodies of children and their mothers. Wounded Knee remains a festering wound of memory for the Lakota.
 
When Brother Alois mentioned the cross and collective suffering, we all knew what he meant.
 
And in one sense, nothing he said was revelatory or profound.
 
Yet here’s what hit me about what he said and from where he said it: the ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Lakota, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.
 
Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.
 
On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’
 
For your sin.
 
Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin.
 
Jesus is your substitute.
 
He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.
 
On the purely theological level, I’ve always had a problem with penal substitution. Quickly: penal substitution seems to make God’s wrath more determinative an attribute than God’s loving mercy. It easily devolves into a hyper individualistic account of the faith (me and God). God the Father comes out, at best, seeming like a petulant prick who bears little to no resemblance to the Son, and, at worse, the Father seems captive to his own ‘laws’ of righteousness, honor, wrath and expiation.
 
Forgiveness, it’s always seemed to me, shouldn’t be so hard.
 
And shouldn’t require someone to die.
 
I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when I heard Brother Alois introduce the Prayer around the Cross the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.
 
Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.
 
But what about the sinned against?
 
What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.
 
Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.
 
Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about the millions of others whom those wretches, who’ve been found by this amazing grace, treated like chattel?
 
At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.  We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’
 
Because it suits us.
 
Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.
 
Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brother Alois’ words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.
 
Sure, every single, last Lakota gathered with us was, on an individual level, a ‘sinner.’ Just as surely to focus so singularly misses the larger issues, for the Indians praying with us at Red Shirt have been sinned against by us actively for centuries and they are now sinned against by our cynical indifference.
 
To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.
 
If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Pine Ridge. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?
 
On my knees in the hollow that was our sanctuary and hearing Brother Alois’ words as they struck the ears of Indians along with mine, I realized that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies as one of us. With us.
 
In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.
 
Location, location, location. Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears — that’s what I realized at Pine Ridge.
 
The cross, I realized at Pine Ridge, is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.
 
The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.
 
No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.
 
Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, Pine Ridge has left me believing that the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.
 
 
 

2 comments:

  1. Two points. First, what Jones does not understand is how God's judgment is an inseparable part of His Salvation. From the Old Testament through to the New Testament, judgment consists of the removal of sin and that removal is the first part of salvation for God's people.

    Second, the Church is guilty of overemphasizing the individual. That does not negate, however, Jesus's work of dying on the cross and being raised again. But this overemphasis is more the result of mixing American individualism with the Gospel. However, the Church does need to get out and do the work of the OT prophets as they spoke out in defense of victims and those in need.

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    1. I am unsure what Tony Jones position is about God's judgment, but I suspect it may be nuanced similarly to the reply I will give here....

      Classic theism's treatment of salvation would centralize salvation around the theme of 'sin and judgment'. Relational theism simply turns this around to emphasize God as the one who loves, and because of this love doth then renew and rebirth creation.

      For a postmodern emergent who emphasizes relational theism over classic theism, one must proceed first in acknowledging all divine action as preceding from God's divine love. Though He is holy it is because God loves that He judges sin. If He did not love, than He would not care, nor precede to sacrifice Himself in order to restore His creation back to Himself.

      This does not neglect God's judgment but purposefully resets salvation-theology towards its antecedent of divine love as the first and foremost response by God to His creation. If He only responded to us by His holiness we would've been judged and banished long ago. Love mitigates God's holiness towards divine action. It also gives to God's holiness the 'warmth and devotion' we as humans would seek from an Almighty Power.

      Hence, God's love has withheld His judgment from annihilation and provided His intricate and complex involvement in restoring creation to His original purposes. It also turns the Christian from one that leads out in judgment upon others to one who leads out as a servant of Christ. The Gospel is that of serving, not judging. The response of the redeemed is to love by both thought, word and deed. Thus the church's involvement with people and projects that show God's loving heart.

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