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 N. 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:
- It bothers me that our most well attended services with the most visitors are our bloodiest (in imagery).
- 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 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.