Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Scripture, Spiritual

theologically imagining a new atonement theory

Easter arrives in a few weeks. The Church will celebrate the crucifixion, death, burial and eventual rising of Jesus the Christ. So much meaning is packed into one weekend. Altars are torn down, darkness floods the tenebrae service, and on Easter Sunday some church members have the opportunity to wake as the sun rises to worship the God of resurrection. A weekend full of beautiful symbolism, yet it is the sermons that fall short of creative theological imagination.

One reason there has been less and less theological imagination from Easter sermons is because many ministers only know one way to think about the atonement. For those who don’t know, the act of the atonement happened when Jesus was on the cross. In American meta-theology penal substitution sweeps our theological landscape. In other words, Jesus took the place of the individual for the sins that she or he has committed. In terms of salvation, if the individual believes the Jesus did that for him or her, then a pleasant afterlife will be attained. Since it is the most common theory, all those who recommend other theories are often sent to the margins of the church.

Let’s look at a couple of the theories:

In general, all atonement theories focus on one component in the narrative or interpretation  For the penal substitutionist, they look to Paul’s interpretation found in the letter to the Romans and his other letters. We need Jesus to die for us so that we may be redeemed from our sins. Black liberation theologians start subjectively, and especially with James Cone, who looked to African Americans who were lynched by the hands of the white Southerners. Jesus, according to Cone, was black since he sided with the oppressed in history who were wrongfully killed. Other theologians, such as feminists observe the violent behavior of the cross and dismiss it, never to welcome any kind of theory in their theology, but focus on Jesus’ life as a whole. Those who adore Renee Girard believe that Jesus showed the way out of redemptive violence by dying on a cross, simliar thought to many of my Catholic Worker friends. Therefore, there are many ways to look at the atonement: Paul’s interpretation, subjective eisegesis (which I believe is just as credible as exegesis), dismiss it totally, nonviolently, historical, Christus Victor, Moral Influence Theory, etc.

Jesus Christ

Whichever theory we attribute to ourselves means that we ignore the other elements found in the narrative or letter. Since I grew up in an area  of many penal substitutionists, I know that they mostly read St. Paul, and less of the acts and words of Jesus. Moral Influence proponents do the opposite and read the Gospels primarily. I want to propose a theory that tries to combine some of the elements that I believe to be essential to make a broader and more encompassing theory.

First, some qualifications:

  • We must read both Testaments, knowing that all of the writers had different perspectives on God and life.
  • Since we have four canonical Gospels, there are at least four Christologies. If we consider St. Paul’s views as well and the other letters there are far more. Thus it depends on what Gospel or letter we read will tells us how they approach Jesus.
  • Anytime we read we bring our views, traditions, and experiences with us.
  • Theology and interpretation of Scripture do not have to be exclusive, Historical texts must always be interpreted and theological measures can and should always be taken.

Jesus, historically, was a Jewish artisan living in a poor area of Galilee, Nazareth. He was known for his radical table etiquete, healing those in society who were outcasts, teaching new ways to practice the Hebrew Bible, and was considered a prophet. The political and religious authorities noticed the large following and wanted to have Jesus killed, so that the followers may scatter and the Jesus movement die. When Jesus flipped over the money tables in the Temple at Jerusalem, it was the last straw for those in charge and had him tried and crucified on a cross as a criminal. Jesus would die as thousands of people did each year for rebelling against the Roman Empire. Jesus did not just die because of rebellion, but for teaching a new kin-dom that was so upside-down that it did not fit with the normalcy of civilization.

According to the ancient Roman context, Jesus’ death was part of the Imperial scenery and normal.  Yet the followers of Christ saw something new happening. They understood that God raised Jesus from being another executed rebel of the State to have the honor of sitting at God’s right hand. Jesus’ followers found Jesus’ presence in their agape meals, and through praying, healing, and loving others. Jesus’ death made it possible that Jesus could be with the followers forever.

Early followers, in addition, understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeated the powers of evil, or known as Christus Victor. The power of evil had no hold on the world anymore. St. Augustine’s definition of evil summarizes it perfectly, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name evil.” When one is present in the community of believers she or he have access to God and God’s goodness. In the Christian/Hebrew Scriptures, healing begins with the transformation of the individual and ends with the community’s embrace. For example, the demonic man in the graveyard who was healed and sent into the community or Peter and John healing the man in Acts 3 who was unable to walk and he entered into the community of believers upon being healed.

Jesus’ death accomplies two main things*: we are welcomed into the Triune Community of Love, and demonstrates that divine always stands with the marginalized. The cross is not the end, but the beginning of a new community, one of hope of a better world which we help to create with pursuing justice.

Cameroon's Jesus

* There are many more things that are accomplished as well. It shows the love of the divine for the Earth and her people. It grants us hope for a new future. It shows us what love looks like in community. I focus on these two because they are often ignored in churches and it focuses on the present community as well as the ancient community and not only the individual.

Standard
Beliefs, Christainity, Liberation Theology, Scripture

god as stranger/kin

During my teen years, it was drilled into me that we need to believe that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. One is not a true believer if they only accept Jesus as one of those titles. I later found out that my pastor learned this doctrinal idea from the popular Reformed fundamentalist pastor John MacArthur. The sovereignty that MacArthur and my pastor were attributing to God was huge! God is a perfect Being, erring never, and everything that happens in the world is according to God’s perfect will. God’s purpose is present everywhere working in all created beings. God’s world is an orchestra playing together for God’s own purposes. Although we may feel that the violin in our own lives is out of tune on earth, God can only hear beautiful music.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty frightens and haunts me. It has the capability to mean that humans do not have agency, but are puppets. Yet, we are oblivious to being a puppet. Thank God, the Christian tradition has several strains of resistance. Although, most of the early Christians who had a weaker version of sovereignty were deemed heretical that seems to be beside the point. Since even Tertullian and Origen were considered heretical, yet we read and praise their works today.

The alternative approach to a hierarchical sovereignty is to view God as Stranger/kin. These terms are opposite in meaning, but lead to the same engagement of God. First, God/She as stranger presents us with the divine as event*. God moves in the world, shaking it up, and on an individual level transforming us. Bringing together Moltmann and Derrida, God/She is the event that can only demonstrate love. In relation to human strangers, they are always the Other, not having any known relationship to the self. The stranger’s only commonality is their humanness. They have unlimited options in how they can approach us: ignore, high-five, scream, steal, etc. This can cause anxiety when we exit our comforting homes to unknown experiences. God as stranger acts in similar ways. We are shaken when we surrender our self ambitions to the ways of God/Her, which are justice and peace. Flannery O’Connor had it right, when she wrote “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

The stranger represents God/Her well in the Christian Scriptures. God always walks among the people. For example, in Luke’s narrative on the walk to Emmaus, Jesus the stranger walks with the two disciples and is revealed in a transformative moment at the breaking of the bread. This event changed the way these early disciples saw the world, that it was through the breaking of bread among other followers of the Way can we find Jesus among us. God/She also gave visions and dreams to people that effected them deeply. One does not expect such things, but they come mysteriously without warning. God/She penetrates the world and everything therein, transforming it through unexpected measures. The most prominent example with dreams happend to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, when God changed Peter’s view of the ontological position of Gentiles. The only sovereignty that God/She as stranger has comes not with how we as people are transformed, but how God surprises as event.

While God as stranger seems disconnected to anything personal, God/She as kin presents divinity as personal. As I like different theologies, I have read several positions on God as personal. Of course, I am not speaking of Jesus or God as our personal Savior, but the way that liberation and feminist thealogions speak of the divine, as God as sufferer, lover, and kin. Or as one of my favorite feminist metaphorical thealogions Sallie McFague wrote “God as mother, lover, and friend.” God/She as personal practically does not look like God/She speaking with us or demonstrating miracles (though it is hard for me to deny either of those). Personal should sound more like personality. God has particular movements, and moments that She is present. During times of tragedy  God/She comforts and suffers with those who are involved. God is present with those who are fighting for a better world. We may not feel God, but God/She is present. Kin denies the hierarchical/above position for an equal/with one.

Elizabeth Johnson Cross Quote

In conclusion, as the death of God theologians taught us that God is no longer in heaven, but on the Earth, I agree, but take it one step further. God is present and personal, suffering, and loving us as we move toward liberation, justice and peace. It is with our God that justice to come becomes the justice that is. In the name of God/She that stands in solidarity with the oppressed, guides the rejected to love, and the feeds the poor by the works of Her children. Amen!

*a moment that transforms the way we see the world. For Derrida, “Deconstruction takes place, it is an event.” Speaking theologically, God as the event shows that those weak moments in our lives pulsate the divine. If you want to read about this further read The Weakness of God by John Caputo.

Standard