Personal and Universal

February 15th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and Christ

Personal and Universal
Friday, February 15, 2019

A truly transformative God—for both the individual and all of history—needs to be experienced as personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) image of Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. He became cozy and we lost the cosmic. History has clearly shown that worship of Jesus without worship of Christ invariably becomes a time- and culture-bound religion, often oppressive, misogynist, and racist, excluding much of humanity from God’s embrace.

I believe, however, that there has never been a single soul who was not possessed by the Christ, even in the ages before Jesus existed. Why would we want our religion or our God to be any smaller than that?

If you have felt wounded or excluded by the message of Jesus or Christ as you have heard it, I hope you sense an opening here—an affirmation, a welcome that you may have despaired of ever hearing.

If you have hoped to believe in God or a divinized world, but have never been able to mentally assent to the church’s doctrines, does this vision of Jesus the Christ help? If it helps you to love and to hope, then it is the true religion of Christ. No circumscribed group can ever exclusively claim that title!

If you have loved Jesus—perhaps with great passion and protectiveness—do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender and sexuality, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? All of our human differences are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

You are a child of God, and always will be, even when you don’t believe it.

This is why I can see Christ in my dog, the sky, and all creatures, and it’s why you, whoever you are, can experience God’s unadulterated care for you in your garden or kitchen. You can find Christ’s presence in your beloved partner or friend, an ordinary beetle, a fish in the deepest sea that no human will ever observe, and even in those who do not like you and those who are not like you.

This is the illuminating light that enlightens all things, making it possible for us to see things in their fullness. Light is less something we see directly and more something by which we see all other things. When Jesus Christ calls himself the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), he is not telling us to look just at him, but to look out at life with his all-merciful and non-dualistic eyes. We see him so we can see like him—with the same infinite compassion.

When your isolated “I” turns into a connected “we,” you have moved from Jesus to Christ. We no longer have to carry the burden of being a perfect “I” because we are saved “in Christ” and as Christ. Or, as Christians say correctly, but too quickly, at the end of our official prayers: “Through Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”

Jesus and Christ; The Unnamable One

February 14th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and Christ

The Unnamable One
Thursday, February 14, 2019

The only people that Jesus seemed to exclude were precisely those who refused to know they were ordinary sinners like everyone else. The only thing he excluded was exclusion itself.

Think about what this means for everything we sense and know about God. After the Incarnation of Jesus, we could more easily imagine a give-and-take God, a relational God, a forgiving God. Revelations of Christ—the union of matter and spirit, human and divine—were already seen and honored in the deities of Native religions, the Atman of Hinduism, the teachings of Buddhism, and the Prophets of Judaism.

Christians had a very good model and messenger in Jesus, but many non-Christians actually came to the “banquet” more easily, as Jesus often says in his parables of the resented and resisted banquet (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:7-24), where “the wedding hall was filled with guests, both good and bad alike” (Matthew 22:10). What are we to do with such divine irresponsibility and largesse?

Why would a God worthy of the name God not care about all of the children? (Read Wisdom 11:23–12:2 for a humdinger of a Scripture in this regard.) Does God really have favorites among God’s children? What an unhappy family that would create—and indeed, it has created. The inclusion of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian canon ought to have served as a structural and definitive statement about Christianity’s movement toward radical inclusivity. How did we miss that?

Remember what God said to Moses: “I AM Who I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God is clearly not tied to a name, nor does God seem to want us to tie the Divinity to any one name. This is why, in Judaism, God’s statement to Moses became the unspeakable and unnamable God. We must practice profound humility in regard to God, who gives us not a name, but pure presence—no handle that could allow us to think we “know” who God is or have him or her as our private possession.

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire, or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to power and arrogance. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years. His reputation has been held captive by culture, nationalism, and much of Christianity’s white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview. Up to now, we have not been carrying history too well, because “there stood among us one we did not recognize . . . one who came after me, because he existed before me” (John 1:26, 30). He came with darker skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.

Seeing Christ Everywhere

February 13th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

w
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

We need to look at Jesus until we can see the world with his eyes. In Jesus Christ, God’s own broad, deep, and all-inclusive worldview is made available to us.

Too often, we have substituted the messenger for the message. As a result, we spent a great deal of time worshiping the messenger and trying to get other people to do the same. Too often this obsession became a pious substitute for actually following what Jesus taught—he did ask us numerous times to follow him (for example, Matthew 4:19; Mark 10:21; John 1:43), and never once to worship him.

If you pay attention to the text, you’ll see that the Apostle John offers a very evolutionary notion of the Christ message. Note the active verb that is used here: “The true light that enlightens every person was coming (erxomenon) into the world” (John 1:9). In other words, we’re talking not about a one-time Big Bang in nature or a one-time Incarnation in Jesus, but an ongoing, progressive movement continuing in the ever-unfolding creation. Incarnation did not just happen two thousand years ago. It has been working throughout the entire arc of time and will continue. This is expressed in the common phrase the “Second Coming of Christ.” Unfortunately, this was often heard as a threat (“Wait till your Dad gets home!”). It could more accurately be spoken of as the “Forever Coming of Christ,” the ongoing promise of eternal resurrection and the evolution of consciousness into the mind of Christ.

Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.

The point of the Christian life is not to distinguish oneself from the ungodly, but to stand in radical solidarity with everyone and everything else. This is the intended effect of the Incarnation—symbolized by the cross, God’s great act of solidarity instead of judgment. Without a doubt, Jesus perfectly exemplified this seeing and thus passed it on to the rest of history. This is how we are to imitate Jesus, the good Jewish man who saw and called forth the divine in Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman centurions; in Jewish tax collectors who collaborated with the Empire; in zealots who opposed it; in sinners of all stripes; in eunuchs, astrologers, and all those “outside the law.” Jesus had no trouble whatsoever with otherness. In fact, these “lost sheep” found out they were not lost to him at all and tended to become his best followers.

Jesus and Christ: Another Name for Every Thing

February 12th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and Christ

Another Name for Every Thing
Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What if Christ is a name for the transcendent within of every “thing” in the universe?

The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. The word translated from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed! Many people are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (1 John 1–2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18). We are still in the Flow.

All of us take part in the evolving, universe-spanning Christ Mystery. Jesus is a map for the time-bound and personal level of life; Christ is the blueprint for all time and space and life itself. Both reveal the universal pattern of self-emptying and infilling (Christ) and death and resurrection (Jesus), which is the process humans have called “holiness,” “salvation,” or “growth.” For Christians, this universal pattern perfectly mimics the inner life of the Trinity in Christian theology [1], which is our template for how reality unfolds, since all things are created “in the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

For me, a true comprehension of the full Christ Mystery is the key to the foundational reform of the Christian religion, which alone will move us beyond any attempts to corral or capture God into our exclusive group. As the New Testament dramatically and clearly puts it, “Before the world was made, we have been chosen in Christ . . . claimed as God’s own and chosen from the very beginning . . . so that God could bring everything together under the headship of Christ” (Ephesians 1:3, 10, 11). If all of this is true, we have a theological basis for a very natural religion that includes everybody. The problem was solved from the beginning!


Ephesians 1:3-10 New Living Translation (NLT)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son.[a] He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. 10 And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.

Ephesians 1:3-10 New Living Translation (NLT)

Spiritual Blessings

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son.[a] He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. 10 And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.

Jesus and Christ

February 11th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Christ Is Risen
Sunday, February 10, 2019

I am making the whole of creation new. . . . It will come true. . . . It is already done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. —Revelation 21:5-6

Who is speaking here at the very end of the Bible? Is this Jesus of Nazareth or Someone Else? Whoever is talking is offering an entire and optimistic arc to all of history. This is much more than a mere “religious” message; it is also a historical and cosmic one. It declares a definite trajectory where there is a coherence between the beginning and the ending of all things. It offers humanity hope and vision. History appears to have a direction and a purpose; it is not just a series of isolated events.

This is the Universal Christ speaking. Jesus of Nazareth, the humble carpenter, did not talk this way. It was Christ who “rose from the dead.” Resurrection is hardly a leap of faith once you realize that the Christ never died—or can die—because the Christ is the eternal mystery of matter and Spirit as one. Jesus willingly died—and Christ arose—yes, still Jesus, but now including and revealing everything else in its full purpose and glory. (Read Colossians 1:15-20 so you know this is not just my idea.)

When these verses in Revelation were written, sixty to seventy years had passed since Jesus’ human body “ascended into heaven.” The author is describing a fully available presence that defines, liberates, and sets a goal and direction for life. Largely following Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, Revelation calls this seemingly new and available presence a mystery, “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36) more than just “Jesus.”

The Risen Jesus is the divine presence beyond any confines of space and time. The Eternal Christ appeared in a personal form that humans came to know and love as “Jesus.” The Resurrection is not so much a miracle as it is an apparition of what has always been true and will always be true.

Such divine presence had always been there, as we know from the experiences of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Luke 20:37-38). But through Jesus, this eternal presence had a precise, concrete, and personal referent. In Jesus Christ, vague belief and spiritual intuition became specific—with a “face” that we could “see, hear, and touch” (1 John 1:1).

Primordial Template
Monday, February 11, 2019

Is Christ simply Jesus’ last name? Or is it a revealing title that deserves our full attention? How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’ role? What does Scripture mean when Peter says in his very first address to the crowds after Pentecost that “God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)? Weren’t they always one and the same, starting at Jesus’ birth?

To answer these questions, we must first go back and ask: What was God up to in those first moments of creation? Was God totally invisible before the universe began? Or is there even such a thing as “before”? Why did God create at all? What was God’s purpose in creating? Was there any divine intention or goal? Or do we even need a creator “God” to explain the universe?

Most religious traditions have offered explanations, and they usually go something like this: Everything that exists in material form is the offspring of some Primal Source, which originally existed only as Spirit. This Infinite Primal Source somehow poured itself into finite, visible forms, creating everything from rocks to water, plants, organisms, animals, and human beings. This self-disclosure of whomever we call God into physical creation was the first Incarnation (the general term for any enfleshment of spirit), long before the personal, second Incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus. Creation is the first Bible, and it existed for 13.8 billion years before the second Bible was written (see Romans 1:20).

Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) tried to express this primal and cosmic notion when he wrote that “God first wills Christ as God’s supreme work.”[1] In other words, God’s “first idea” and priority was to make the Godself both visible and shareable. The word used in the Bible for this idea was Logos, taken from Greek philosophy; I would translate Logos as the “Blueprint” or Primordial Pattern for reality. The whole of creation—not just Jesus—is the beloved community, the partner in the divine dance. Everything is the “child of God.” No exceptions. When you think of it, what else could anything be? All creatures must in some way carry the divine DNA of their Creator.

The Incarnation, then, is not only “God becoming Jesus.” It is a much broader event. “Christ” is a word for the Primordial Template (Logos) “through whom all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him” (John 1:3; my emphasis). Seeing in this way has reframed, reenergized, and broadened my own religious belief, and I believe it could be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world religions.

The Scapegoat Mechanism

February 8th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and the Cross

The Scapegoat Mechanism
Friday, February 8, 2019

The scapegoating ritual described in Leviticus 16 offers a helpful perspective on Jesus’ death. On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest, Aaron, was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.

The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) demonstrated that the scapegoat mechanism is foundational for the formation of most social groups and cultures.  We need another group to be against to form our group! For example, many in the United States scapegoat refugees who are seeking asylum, falsely accusing them of being criminals. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives—so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29).

We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

We hate our own imperfections in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit. Yet Jesus revealed the pattern two thousand years ago. “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God,” he said (John 16:2).

The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred and killing “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit it—by exposing the lie for all to see. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. Maybe power still does not want us to see this. Much of Christianity shames individuals for private sins while lauding public figures in spite of their pride, greed, gluttony, lying, killing, or narcissism.

As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (John 16:8). This is what Jesus exposes and defeats on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.

Jesus and the Cross; Coincidence of Opposites

February 7th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and the Cross

Coincidence of Opposites
Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Divine Mind transforms all human suffering by identifying completely with the human predicament and standing in full solidarity with it from beginning to end. This is the real meaning of the crucifixion. The cross is not just a singular event. It’s a statement from God that reality has a cruciform pattern. Jesus was killed in a collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths, caught between the demands of an empire and the religious establishment of his day. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a “mixed” world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. He hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured—holding together all the primary opposites (see Colossians 1:15-20).

In so doing, Jesus demonstrated that Reality is not meaningless and absurd just because it isn’t perfectly logical, fair, or consistent. Reality, we know, is always filled with contradictions, what St. Bonaventure and others (such as Alan of Lille [c. 1128–1202/03] and Nicholas of Cusa [1401–1464]) called the “coincidence of opposites.” This is what we all resist and oppose much of our life.

Jesus the Christ, in his crucifixion and resurrection, “recapitulated all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This one verse is the summary of Franciscan Christology. Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of universal suffering. He allowed it to change him (“Resurrection”) and us, too, so that we would be freed from the endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside of it.

This is the fully resurrected life, the only way to be happy, free, loving, and therefore “saved.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “If I can trust it, you can too.” We are indeed saved by the cross—more than we realize. The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.

Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth more than “those who are going to heaven.” They are the leaven who agree to share the fate of God for the life of the world now, and thus keep the whole batch of dough from falling back on itself. A Christian is invited, not required, to accept and live the cruciform shape of all reality. It is not a duty or even a requirement as much as a free vocation. Some people feel called and agree to not hide from the dark side of things or the rejected group, but in fact draw close to the pain of the world and allow it to radically change their perspective. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change them from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.

A Bigger God

February 6th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jesus and the Cross

Our predestination to glory is prior by nature to any notion of sin. —John Duns Scotus [1]

The Franciscan School, led by such teachers as Duns Scotus, refused to see the Incarnation and its finale on the cross as a mere reaction to human failure. God was much more than a problem solver. Instead, Franciscans claimed that the cross was a freely chosen revelation of Love on God’s part. In so doing, they reversed the engines of almost all world religion up to that point, which assumed humans had to spill blood to get to a distant and demanding God. On the cross, Franciscans believed, God was “spilling blood” to reach out to us! [2] This is a sea change in consciousness. Instead of being a theological transaction, the crucifixion was a dramatic demonstration of God’s outpouring love, meant to utterly shock the heart and mind and turn it back toward trust and love of the Creator.

In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some “necessary sacrifice”; if it could, it would not and could not work its transformative effects. Duns Scotus and his followers were committed to protecting the absolute freedom to love in GodIf forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all. Love and forgiveness must be freely given or they do not accomplish their deeply transformative healing. Self-serving love does not change the heart. It must be free and undeserved love or transformation does not happen. (Think about that and you will know it is true!)

I’m not sure many Christians recognize the dangers of penal substitutionary atonement theory. Perhaps the underlying assumptions were never made clear, even though thinking people throughout the ages were often repelled by such a crass notion of God. This theory has become a nail in the coffin of belief for many sincere, thoughtful individuals today. Some Christians just repress their misgiving because they think it implies a complete loss of faith. But I would wager that for every person who voices doubt, many more quietly walk away from a religion that has come to seem irrational, mythological, and deeply unsatisfying to the heart and soul. And these are usually not “bad” people!

Christianity can do so much better, and doing so will not diminish Jesus in the least. In fact, it will allow Jesus to take on a universal and humanly appealing dimension. The cross cannot be an arbitrary and bloody sacrifice triggered by a sin that was once committed by one man and one woman under a tree between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Frankly, that idea reduces any notion of a universal or truly “catholic” revelation to one planet, at the edge of one solar system, in a universe comprised of billions of galaxies with trillions of solar systems. A religion based on required sacrifices is just not glorious or hopeful enough or even befitting the marvelous creation. To those who cling to Anselm’s understanding, I would say, as J. B. Phillips wrote many years ago, “Your God is too small.” [3]

Jesus and the Cross; Changing Perspectives

February 5th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and the Cross

Changing Perspectives
Tuesday, February 5, 2019

When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.

Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.

In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.

Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?

Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.

Jesus and the Cross

February 4th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Substitutionary Atonement
Sunday, February 3, 2019

For most of church history, no single consensus prevailed on what Christians mean when we say, “Jesus died for our sins.” But in recent centuries, one theory did become mainstream. It is often referred to as the “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” especially once it was further developed during the Reformation. [1] Substitutionary atonement is the theory that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins.

This theory of atonement ultimately relies on another commonly accepted notion—the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, which, we were told, taints all human beings. But much like original sin (a concept not found in the Bible but developed by Augustine in the fifth century), most Christians have never been told how recent and regional this explanation is or that it relies upon a retributive notion of justice. Nor are they told that it was honest enough to call itself a “theory,” even though some groups take it as long-standing dogma.

Unfortunately, this theory has held captive our vision of Jesus, making our view very limited and punitive. The commonly accepted atonement theory led to some serious misunderstandings of Jesus’ role and Christ’s eternal purpose, reaffirmed our narrow notion of retributive justice, and legitimated a notion of “good and necessary violence.” It implied that God the Father was petty, offended in the way that humans are, and unfree to love and forgive of God’s own volition. This is a very untrustworthy image of God which undercuts everything else.

I take up this subject with both excitement and trepidation because I know that substitutionary atonement is central to many Christians’ faith. But the questions of why Jesus died and what is the meaning and message of his death have dominated the Christian narrative, often much more than his life and teaching. As some have said, if this theory is true, all we needed were the last three days or even three hours of Jesus’ life. In my opinion, this interpretation has kept us from a deep and truly transformative understanding of both Jesus and Christ.

Salvation became a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and his Father, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for the human soul and for all of history. I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of the infinite and participatory love of God, not some bloody payment required by God’s offended justice to rectify the problem of sin. Such a story line is way too small and problem-oriented.

An Alternative Story
Monday, February 4, 2019

The theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At its worst, it has led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure who demands acts of violence before God can love creation. There is no doubt that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is filled with metaphors of sacrifice, ransom, atonement, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. These are common temple metaphors that would have made sense to Jewish audiences at the time they were written. But they all imply that God is not inherently on our side.

Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if we just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for us in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.

Christianity’s vision of God was a radical departure from most ancient religions. Instead of having God “eat” humans, animals, or crops, which were sacrificed on altars, Christianity made the bold claim that God’s very body was given for us to eat! This turned everything around and undid the seeming logic of quid pro quo thinking. As long as we employ any retributive notion of God’s offended justice (required punishment for wrongdoing), we trade our distinctive Christian message for the cold, hard justice that has prevailed in many cultures throughout history. We offer no redemptive alternative, but actually sanctify the very “powers and principalities” that Paul says unduly control the world (Ephesians 3:9-10; 6:12). We stay inside the small “myth of redemptive violence”—which might just be the dominant story line of history. I think the punishment model is buried deep in most peoples’ brain stem.

It’s time for Christianity to rediscover the real biblical theme of restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation, healing, and reconciliation, not punishment. (Read Ezekiel 16, especially the revelatory verses 53-63, for a mind-blowing example of this.) (Below)We should call Jesus’ story the “myth of redemptive suffering”—not as in “paying a price” but as in offering the self for the other. “At-one-ment” instead of atonement!

Restorative justice, of course, comes to its full demonstration in the constant healing ministry of Jesus. Jesus represents the real and deeper level of teaching of the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus never punished anybody! Yes, he challenged people, but always for the sake of insight, healing, and restoration of people and situations to their divine origin and source. Once a person recognizes that Jesus’ mission (obvious in all four Gospels) was to heal people, not punish them, the dominant theories of retributive justice begin to lose their appeal and authority.

Ezekiel 16:53-63 New Living Translation (NLT)

53 “But someday I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, and I will restore you, too.54 Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison. 55 Yes, your sisters, Sodom and Samaria, and all their people will be restored, and at that time you also will be restored. 56 In your proud days you held Sodom in contempt. 57 But now your greater wickedness has been exposed to all the world, and you are the one who is scorned—by Edom[a] and all her neighbors and by Philistia. 58 This is your punishment for all your lewdness and detestable sins, says the Lord.

59 “Now this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will give you what you deserve, for you have taken your solemn vows lightly by breaking your covenant. 60 Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. 61 Then you will remember with shame all the evil you have done. I will make your sisters, Samaria and Sodom, to be your daughters, even though they are not part of our covenant. 62 And I will reaffirm my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord.63 You will remember your sins and cover your mouth in silent shame when I forgive you of all that you have done. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!”