Thinking Through the Creed, Part 4

[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.

There’’s nothing like a little redemptive violence to bring us all together. So is this the way God works? Is this God’’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’’t have to kill us instead? Is it God’’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’’s the wrong side of the razor’s edge. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or reconciling with God. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’’t volunteer to get into God'’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.   (“‘The Passion of the Christ’ — Reflections by S. Mark Heim”(quoted at the Girardian Lectionary)). 

To lay the blame on the Pharisees or the Jews is to undermine the universal meaning of the crucifixion in favor of the familiar finger-pointing theory of human wickedness.The fact, however, that religious zeal played such a decisive role in Jesus’ death is both historically true and structurally essential to the revelation for which the Cross stands. The fact that it was Jewish religious zeal is not entirely without significance, but it has precisely the same significance that historical Christianity’s anti-Jewish pogroms have, namely, that the people who should have known better didn’t.  (Gil Baille, Violence Unveiled).

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.  And I don't mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!  And so I'm happy, tonight.  I'm not worried about anything.  I'm not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!  (Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at the Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968 [the night before he was assassinated]).

I usually go to the 6 p.m. Mass at St. Christopher's Catholic Church.  They call that the "Last Call" Mass, because it is the last Mass offered in the Diocese on a Sunday, and it features a full band (electric guitar, drums, keyboard, etc.) and Praise and Worship music.  I didn't grow up with this kind of music in church, but I have grown to like it over the course of the last few years.  But there is one thing that really, really bugs me--at least once a week, there will be a line in one of the songs that speaks of full-on substitutionary atonement.  And that's a bummer, because among the bad ideas that Christian thinkers have come up with in trying to understand the faith, perhaps only "evacuation theology" (which will be addressed in the next post) is worse than the substitutionary understanding of the cross.  It's not surprising, because almost all of this music comes out of the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds, where substitutionary atonement is pervasive.  But it is a bummer nonetheless.

For those who are not familiar with this terminology, the most common understanding of the cross in the Protestant world is Penal Substitutionary Atonement ("PSA"), developed by John Calvin.  PSA begins with Genesis 3, and says that the sin of Adam and Eve is not just their sin, but a sin that is inherited by all of humanity (i.e. "Original Sin").  We also commit sins, and those sins are usually used as the basis of the PSA story as it is told, but ultimately these individual sins are kind of beside the point--we start out with a black mark against us.  And, because God is infinitely just, this black mark is an infinite strike against us, thus we deserve an infinite punishment, and we can never do anything in compensation that would make up for our sin.  And we will get an infinite punishment (i.e. hell).  Except, here comes Jesus.  Jesus voluntarily takes the punishment from God for us on the cross, and since He is God, the punishment He is taking is an infinite punishment.  This "closes the loop," and God is satisfied.  As such, Jesus acts as a "substitute" for the punishment that we rightfully deserve.  Hence Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

There are innumerable problems with this story.  First, I find the notion that our sins become infinitely bad because God is infinitely just to be nonsensical.  Second, the idea of someone else taking a bullet for the criminal is not justice according to any normal definition of that word.  Third, the construction of Original Sin used here makes the game rigged against us from the start.  Finally, God never forgives us for anything--God only displaces God's anger on to someone else.

But all of those problems pale in comparison to the real problem, which is that it makes God the Father into a terror-inducing, blood-thirsty monster.  The God of PSA is truly out to get you, to punish you for both everything you've done and this other thing that you didn't do.  The fact that there is a loop-hole that let's you duck his anger and wrath doesn't change this basic equation.  Relatedly, a God who seeks to physically punish us with eternal torment in hell is a God that, at least tacitly, legitimates violence against people that are believed (for whatever reason) to be evil-doers.  After all, God plans to do it in the end, so why can't we give God a helping hand?  Not to mention that God physically tortures God's own Son as an outlet for God's anger against humanity, which would seem to legitimate domestic violence and child-abuse.  Finally, it pits God the Father and Jesus against each other, since they appear to have two completely conflicting agendas under the PSA scheme, in a way that makes it hard not to see them as two different entities (which is problematic for a monotheistic faith).


The Catholic Church never accepted PSA.  But Catholicism does have substitutionary ideas.  Thomas Aquinas articulated what might be called the "civil" version of substitutionary atonement (as opposed to the "criminal" PSA).  In Aquinas's vision (to be fair, Aquinas saw this as one way of understanding atonement, among many), our sins, both Original and otherwise, put us in debt to God, a debt we can never pay.  Jesus's death on the cross earns Him a "treasury of merits," a treasury that He uses to release us from our crippling debts.  In other words, we run up an enormous bill at the restaurant that we can never pay, and Jesus swoops in with the infinite divine credit card to pick up the tab.

That's better than PSA, but not by much.  God the Father is less blood-thirsty here, but God is still out to get us as a kind of divine loan shark.  After all, the game is rigged against us, since we are born in debt we can never pay.  Moreover, Jesus's offer to pay our debts almost makes Him into Vito Corleone and us into Bonasera the Funeral Home director--He will do what we ask, but "[s]omeday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me."

So, all of this substitutionary stuff is bad, to the point that I think it falls within the scope of Tutu's Wager--if God is a monster who is out to get us, then maybe we are better off not following God.  If that is true, then what does this cross mean?  Why did Jesus have to die?  Does that mean anything for us?  I think there are multiple dimensions that are worth considering.

First, we should begin with the axiom that human beings, not God, put Jesus on the cross.  The violence of the cross is our violence, not God's violence.  The cross shows us of the brutality for which we are all capable.  There is a way in which the cross is unique, of course, but there is also a way in which it is tragically common.  Countless people have been sacrificed to preserve the social order throughout the bloody history of humanity, and through to today.  In going to the cross, Jesus is shining a spotlight on the way in which we solve problems by finding and sacrificing scapegoats.

And by "we," we must always mean "everyone, including us."  If the cross is recast as something that "they" did to Jesus, if we convince ourselves that "we" would never do something like that, we empty the cross of its proper meaning and set ourselves on the same path that the religious leaders at the time of Jesus walked.  The whole terrible, shameful lineage of Christian anti-Semitism surrounding the crucifixition is the epitome of missing the point--by engaging in anti-Semitic persecutions, we take on the precise role of the Sanhedrin with regard to Jesus.  As Gil Baille says, "we should know better."  I have always found the readings of the Passion at Palm Sunday and Good Friday powerful when they require us to take on the role of the crowd that calls for Jesus's death--not only would we in all likelihood have done that if we were there, but we do the same with regard to many scapegoats in the same place as Jesus.  

We should also see Jesus as modeling for us how to deal, on a personal level, with the continued existence of the reality of violence in the world.  Lurking in the background of all of our interactions with other people, if often unnoticed and un-remarked upon, is the possibility of violence and of our death.  The great lesson of the playground is "don't be the one to become the scapegoat," which often involves getting the jump on someone and scapegoating them before you can be scapegoated.  If we are scapegoated, our first instinct is to plot revenge, to turn the tables on those who have persecuted us.  Either way, we are, as James Alison describes it, "run" by death.  Jesus shows us another way--how to exist in this place of death without resorting to further scapegoating or revenge, to not be run by death anymore.  Jesus does not shirk away from being the target of the violence of the world.  He does not seek revenge against those who have persecuted Him.  Jesus shows us how to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and to make death "non toxic."

Countless people throughout history have taken Jesus as their model in making death non toxic, but I can't think of a better modern-ish example than Martin Luther King and his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.  I am convinced that on that night in Memphis he knew he was going to die.  Maybe not the next day, as it happened, but he knew it was coming.  But in that speech, he doubled-down on his commitment to non-violent action.  He focused people on the practical needs of the community.  He focused the people in the room on what needed to be done, and he gave them hope for the future.  And then, the next morning, he took up his cross and walked up to Calvary.  Just like his model, Jesus.



All of that is good and true.  But, there is a catch.  If the story had ended on the Friday afternoon, all of what I have said above would be a delusion.  It would be a nice way to make ourselves feel better that there is a solution to this violence and bloodshed in our midst, but it would ultimately be a comforting fable.  Because, if the story ends on Friday, then Jesus's message was overcome by the power of the system that manages our rivalry through the shedding of the blood of scapegoats.  If the story ends on Friday, Jesus lost, and people like Martin Luther King who followed Jesus's lead are fools and chumps.  For the cross to be meaningful, we need some indication that Jesus was right.  That the way to live without scapegoating is real, and it is healing, and it can overcome the power of death.  If the story ends on Friday, then we have no reason to believe that's true, and Jesus is just yet another well-intentioned man ground down by the powers of the world.

Fortunately for us, the story does not end on Friday.  Sunday is coming.

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