Blood: Easter and That Damn Liberal Quote
It is almost Easter – my most conflicted time of year as a pastor.
I am smitten with the empty grave. In fact, I am almost as excited about the Easter imagery as I am horrified by North American protestant’s fascination with the cross.
I have written and talked about this disturbing trend in the past so I won’t take the time to elaborate on it here.
This whole subject has been intensified for me this year. I have been leading a discussion at my church through Lent about historic atonement theories. The hope in doing so has been twofold.
We wanted to look at how the churches’ understand of the cross has changed over time.
I wanted to suggest a way to move past those previous and limited views.
We have been working through this in conversation with several resources: Saved From Sacrifice, The Non-Violent Atonement and the work of Michael Hardin.
It has been a powerful excersise and I have learned a great deal in the process. It is the week before Palm Sunday and I have two things in the back of my mind:
1 - It bothers me that our most well attended services with the most visitors are our bloodiest (in imagery).
2 - That damn H. Richard Niehbuhr quote.
His famous jab at ‘liberal’ christianity:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without
judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
This quote gets under my skin so much. Here are 3 reasons why:
1) It is so true. I suspected it when I migrated out West and it is has only been confirmed as I have emerged from an charismatic/evangelical context to a more mainline one. I can not tell you how many people would be covered by Niehbuhr’s concern.
2) We live in a sanitized and sterilized culture (to paraphrase Cornell West) where most people have no connection to the meat on their table. They pick it up at the grocery store in plastic wrapped styrofoam containers. I say this as an avid hunter descended from farmers.
We live in a horrifically violent culture (both domestic and military) but so few of us are familiar with blood. We outsource our violence.
This is why a penal substitutionary view of the cross is so attractive /acceptable for so many. The vicarious nature of god pouring out ‘his’ wrath on Jesus results in a pornographic delight that can be seen in depictions like that famous scene in [Mel Gibson's] The Passion and in many of our contemporary worship songs.
3) That Niehbuhr quote is thrown around too easily whenever someone wants to reexamine or revisit underlying assumptions about what happened (or how we understand) Easter.
Let me be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying:
- I am not saying that there was no cross and that there was no blood. I get both, I accept both and I proclaim both.
- I am saying that something perverse has seeped into our understanding and our imagery.
- What happened on that cross was real.
- What happened on that cross mattered.
- What happened on that cross was unjust.
- What happened on that cross changed humanity’s relationship to God.
My concern is that we have misunderstood both how it changed and why it changed.
Let me end the critique there and wrap up with a constructive proposal.
When Jesus takes the bread and cup and forever changes their meaning he is saying “what they will do to me – don’t you, as my followers, do to anyone else”.
When Jesus says “forgive them, they know not what they do”, he is saying that they think they know what (and why) they are doing, but they are wrong.
When Jesus says “it is finished”, he is proclaiming the end of this type of scapegoating and violence by those who think they are doing it on God’s behalf.
2 Corinthians 5:18, "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 [The one] who had no sin [was made] to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."*
We are to be about peace. We are to be a people of reconciliation. In Christ, God absorbed the hatred and violence of the world. The one who knew no sin – an innocent man – was proclaimed guilty and God responds by proclaiming that we who are guilty of doing that are now innocent and our sins are forgiven.
This is the good news of gospel! This is the hope for human-kind. No one needs to be sacrificed any more. No one needs to die because God is angry – Christ’s unjust death is to be the last. In the empty grave we see the vindication of the victim. God took humanity’s wrong judgement of Jesus and now judges us right with God. We who are guilty are proclaimed innocent because the innocent one was found guilty.
Easter is the great reversal and the vindication of the victimized. It is finished. We can’t afford to keep missing this and repeating the mistake. We who follow Jesus must be about peace and reconciliation. Too many have been scapegoated, placed on crosses and victimized by violence … in Jesus’ name.
God forgive us – we know not what we are doing.
Let it be finished.
In Jesus’ name.
* If that final verse reads a little different than you are used to hearing it, you should listen to the podcast with Michael Hardin.
Reported here @ Relevancy22 -
Peter Enns - "How Jesus Read His Bible," by Michael Hardin (Parts 1-4)
+ Videos: A Non-Violent Atonement
* * * * * * * * * * *
I want to thank all of you who shared, commented and emailed about this past weekend’s post on Blood: Easter, the Cross and that quote about Liberals. I have received lots of feedback via email, FaceBook and text.
It seems that most people get the main thrust of the article but have one doubt/hesitation they can’t shake/make sense of. I was asked to write a response at a non-grad school level (which I love to do).
I have two requests:
1- If you are looking for something more academic please read Heim’s Saved From Sacrifice. It is wonderful.
2 - If you are a big fan of a penal substitution theory of atonement, understand that I am not. I’m willing to talk about it – just understand that it would be unhelpful for you to simply repeat that view as a defense of that view.
So let’s get started!
You said that we focus too much on the cross, but I love the cross and think we don’t focus on it enough! Jesus said to take up our crosses – we are a resurrection people and resurrection only happens after crucifixion.
There are several problems here.
First, there was more than one cross. There were three just in our Easter story (but not in most of our pictures – like the one above). So you can’t say ‘the’ cross. You can say ‘that’ cross. It is vital to get just how many crosses there were. Roman use of crosses was systemic. Jesus’ cross was not an exception in that way.
Second, you are using ‘the cross’ as a shorthand for the whole story. The incarnation, crucifixion, empty grave and pentecost provide a much better snapshot. To try and sum them up in ‘the cross’ is too limited.
Third, we are people of the resurrection. That does not mean that ‘the cross’ is a good thing. What happened there was unjust. That God redeemed it and brought something good out of it … does not change that it was tragic.
How do we engage the cross still as people who follow Jesus?
It seems like most of the things that we say about the cross are the first half of what should be a longer sentence.
“We preach the cross and Christ crucified” … yes but what do we preach about the cross? That is was unjust? That ‘it is finished’ (the sacrificial system)?
“Jesus died our sins” … yes but also because of our sin? And to what end? To move us away from the scapegoating impulse? To expose and unmask our unjust propensity toward violence?
Here is the problem: if we are not careful, we miss the radical reversal that Jesus’ cross is supposed to provide and we end up simply absorbing it into the system that it was meant to expose.
This is a tragedy that ends up normalizing the violence Jesus unmasks and continues the cycle of victimization Jesus was trying to break.
Because of the way we talk about the cross in half-sentences and short-hand phrases, we end up siding with the Romans’ use of power and violence and miss the fact that on Good Friday, God was not on the side of the Romans but that God was with Jesus on that cross.
What do we do with the sacrificial lamb imagery?
I will withhold my real answer (that it was contextual and historically located) and will instead present what I think is a more helpful response!
We see a trajectory in our canon. God moves Abraham from human sacrifice to animal & grain … later God moves on from that system ( you see this in passages like Psalm 40:6 “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” and Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice”)
People will often quote Hebrews 9:22 “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”. The half they leave out is that it actually says “under the law …”
You see what has happened? By not saying the first half (under the law) and only saying the second half, we actually miss the entire point of Jesus’ sacrifice and end up reinforcing the system Jesus came to move us on from! We live and think as if we are still under the law!
The way talk and think about the cross of Christ actually undoes the very thing that Jesus came to do.
The rest of Hebrews 9 says that Jesus died once of all. So we don’t need to kill ‘them’ – they are ‘us’. We are all them – the all. Jesus died once for all so that we could stop this us-them thinking and stop victimizing and scapegoating. We miss this and then absorb ‘the cross of Christ‘ into the very system of power and violence that Jesus came to destroy.
I thought that the blood shed on the cross provides the forgiveness of sin?
Jesus forgave sins before the crucifixion. Part of the problem with saying ‘the cross’ as a form of shorthand for the whole story is that we skip both the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus got in trouble for forgiving sins. How could he do that if what you are saying is true?
See? God forgives sin. How can God do that? Well if the debt that is owed is to God … then God can forgive them. The problem with they way we have been taught to think and talk about ‘the cross’ is that God is not free to forgive. God has to play by some external rules and ‘with out the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness’. But remember that the law is that way. God is not. Jesus, and this true whether you think Jesus was a messenger of God or God incarnate, forgave sins before the shedding of blood. How did he do that if they way were taught is true?
God forgives sins. Thank God! And we need to repent. We have made God into something Jesus was meant to destroy. We have placed God on the side of the powers and violence that God was trying to combat. We have returned to the very thing God was attempting to redeem us from and release us from. We have absorbed Jesus’ cross into the very system Jesus was attempting to unmask and expose. We have missed the very lesson that Easter is supposed to teach us.
I will contend that God was with Jesus on that cross and that the empty grave is the vindication of the victim so that we might be freed from the cycle of violence and victimization … once for all.