Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.

For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.

The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).

While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.

When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.

For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.

God’s Wrath (And Other Inconveniences)

I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.

Does God Have a Temper Problem? from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.

……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?

One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.

Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?

In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.

I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.

The Gospel is a Joke

I don’t mean “the Gospel is a joke” in a pejorative way. I mean it in a metaphorical way:

  • When you hear it, you either get it or you don’t.
  • You can explain it and explain it and explain it and people will still not get it.
  • Sometimes after years of not getting it, something happens in your life that makes you say, “Oh, now I get it.” We call this feeling an epiphany.
  • You can tell by the quality of their laughter whether or not people get it. Some laugh along because they think they’re supposed to. Some assume that to be good, the joke must be at someone’s expense…
  • …but the best jokes are not told at anyone else’s expense. The best presentations of the Gospel contain no malice or contempt.
  • Sometimes you hear it so often you stop laughing. But maybe one day it sneaks up on you and you get it again, and you start laughing and can’t stop.
  • Sometimes you laugh so hard it hurts. Sometimes you laugh through your tears.
  • Sometimes you hear it and it’s not funny. Sometimes it’s the delivery. Other times it’s your attitude.
  • Something about being with other people who get it makes you laugh that much harder. Sometimes a group of you start laughing and you can’t stop, because you keep each other going. These moments of joy are when you feel most strongly that life is good, that this is a slice of heaven, and you want it to never end.
  • Sometimes when you try to tell it, it’s not funny. Usually it is because you are trying too hard. The best humor and the best Gospel emerges from being authentically human.
  • When you tell a really good joke, nobody stops you by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” because it’s worth hearing again.
  • Sometimes you don’t laugh, but you smile inside.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

Before You Say “Happy Anniversary,” Think About This

I wrote a bit about our anniversary last month, and then decided, for a variety of reasons, not to post it. I’m posting it today:

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We just celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. As people always say on such occasions, it is hard to believe it has been that long.

We went out to eat. I told our server that it was our anniversary, and he pretended that it was the best news he had heard all day. I told both friends and strangers that it was our anniversary. They said complimentary things. Sometimes I overshared and got sentimental, but people still smiled and politely congratulated me.

This is the point where I should post a picture, along with some words about how she is an awesome, wonderful, talented, beautiful human being, that she has helped me grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, that she is an example as well as a friend. I should say that I am proud that she is the mother of our son, her love helps me understand how God loves me in spite of my flaws, and so on. All of this is true.

And, if you are my friend, you should probably say “Congratulations!” People will “like” the status on Facebook. If I were to post a wedding picture, you would notice that I have less hair and a higher BMI than I did then. We look so young in our picture, you might say.

The wedding was good, but I’m posting a travel picture instead. Part of our marriage is actively working toward God’s kingdom: planting churches, promoting justice, helping people who need help. We share a mission.

Bolivia, 2007

Bolivia, 2007

Now, before you click like or make a comment, just let me make an observation:

Nobody — not one — will tell me that I SHOULDN’T talk about it. No one will tell me that my love for her isn’t really love, that it is really sexual perversion, that my attraction for my wife is a character flaw or an addiction like alcoholism. Nobody will tell me that we are an abomination, or that I should try not to love her. Nobody will criticize me for having the audacity to be PROUD of my spouse, or for wanting to shout from the rooftops that I am the luckiest guy in the world. In fact, they will praise my devotion because, even if they secretly gag on my saccharine words, they believe that I SHOULD say these things. That is part of what healthy couples do.

(I imagine that if someone did respond with contempt, or tell me to be silent on my anniversary, I would invite them to go and do something anatomically impossible to themselves.)

Some of my traditionalist friends might accuse me of turning our anniversary into a political statement. But the fact is, EVERY anniversary, every single year, every card and restaurant date and bouquet is a political statement, because we have historically given privileges to some people that we do not give to others. Every time you participate in the anniversary ritual and say “congratulations!” you are making a social and political statement: marriage is good, and we should be proud of it. This set of people has a right to be acknowledged, affirmed, celebrated… and these do not.

I am proud that I am married to a woman who will let, even encourage me to say these things that I believe to be true. I am thankful to have such a partner in life, love, and ministry. And I hope, both for our own church and for our denomination, we will become the kind of church that says congratulations to everyone who shares news of their anniversary.

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

This is a draft of the first page of the discipleship book I’m working on. I used to dislike the word “evangelical,” because it has picked up so much political baggage over the last several decades, but I have come to realize “evangelical” is exactly what I aspire to be: someone who delivers good news.

cropped-mossy-railroad-car.jpg

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I’m inviting you to join God in the renewal of all things.

Actually, I’m just delivering the invitation. God does the inviting. I think this is cool for several reasons:

  1. God wants you
  2. to join God
  3. in what God is already doing.

You may not believe in God, or in the Bible, or think of yourself as particularly religious. You may have a low opinion of churches and church people, or of people who call themselves “Christian” and talk about Jesus all the time. Or you may have a low opinion of yourself and your own value, and doubt that God would be interested in inviting you to do anything. That’s fine. The invitation still stands.

In one famous Bible story, a king (representing God) invites people who claim to be his friends (religious people) to a banquet, and they all refuse. Fed up with their hypocrisy, the king orders his servants to go invite people off the street until all the seats are filled. After they do so, there are still empty seats, and so the king orders his servants to just go grab random people and compel them to come in, until the banquet hall is filled with people “both good and bad.” Those random people represent the rest of us sinners, saints, and skeptics who never expected to receive an invitation! Some of us find ourselves sitting in the banquet hall hardly aware of how we ended up in this place. Maybe a friend even “compelled” you to come in! Apparently God is less concerned with the value judgments of people than we are. God wants you.

I suppose God could do this on God’s own, but that’s not the way God works. Some religious people like to describe God as all-powerful, sovereign, and in control, and I suppose those descriptions are true. But they are also often irrelevant, because God is first a lover and a creator. Lovers and creators (like parents and artists) know that both creation and loving involve giving up control. God made people in all their rich and wonderful diversity so they could participate with God in creating something wonderful. God wants us to join with each other and with God in God’s project of renewing and salvaging a broken world.

And God is already doing it. Everywhere he went, Jesus said that “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” Although many of his contemporaries believe that the kingdom meant something far off in the future, and although lots of people today believe that “heaven” is somewhere they go when they die, Jesus meant something different. “The kingdom of the heavens,” or the kingdom of God, represented the state of the world when people would finally live at peace with themselves, each other, and all creation; when oppression would end, everyone would have enough to live and thrive, and the world would be healed. Jesus believed in it so strongly he taught it as a prayer that summed up his teaching: “Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.” Moreover, he taught that this kingdom was already breaking through into the world, like a growing plant pushing through the soil. Unlike many modern religious people, he did not see this kingdom as the destruction of the earth, but the renewal of it.

So, there’s the invitation: Join God in the renewal of all things. It’s already underway. Do you want a piece of this action?

Getting Off the Streets

Over the last two months, I’ve been working to help a man get off the streets. We’ll call him “Hakim.” He’s an African-American man in his 50’s who has a remarkable knack for striking up conversations with strangers. I’m a white preacher in my late 30’s who’s a bit of an introvert. We met at the YMCA through a mutual friend.

When you meet Hakim, it may be hard to understand why he is homeless. He works hard (and works out), he’s smart, funny, and friendly. He has a commercial driver’s license. He has no mental illness and no addictions. When we met, he had a job waiting for him as a commercial driver, provided he could meet certain criteria.

But he also has—or had—the nearly insurmountable obstacles that face many people who are financially poor: bad checks he had written 12 years ago; the money to buy his own uniform; a place to store his clothes and few belongings.

I’ve been meeting with him weekly for a meal and conversation. We talk about his goals, the next steps he wants to take to get off the street, and our relationship. I’ve been as honest as I can about my motivations for helping him, and we’ve talked about keeping healthy boundaries and the distorting effect money, race, power and privilege has on our relationship. We also talk about the church I’m trying to plant, my family, and our thoughts about the world.

Many years ago when the company he worked for went out of business, checks he had floated toward his last paycheck bounced. He found out last month he wouldn’t be able to transfer his CDL to an Alabama license until he paid off this ancient debt. The job he had secured would wait for him for one month.

We’ve scrambled the last month trying to get him some odd jobs. He did some work for me as well, helping out with some ministry tasks around town, setting up and taking down our worship space. We resolved that last week, we’d take care of the debt, transfer his license, and get him ready to start his job. That’s when the circus began.

Monday, May 13
8:00 AM – I call ahead to [small rural Alabama town]’s DA’s office, worthless check unit. The phone rings and rings and rings. I try several other numbers.

8:30 AM – I call the DA’s secretary, who nearly hangs up on me until I explain I’m a pastor trying to give her money. She says the woman I need to talk to is on vacation, and I’ll need to call back next week. I explain I already have all the information I need, I just want to know how we need to make out the check. She becomes much more receptive.

9:30 AM – Information in hand, I meet Hakim at the YMCA. We make a plan for the day. We think we can get this knocked out by noon.

10:00 AM – We go to the bank and get a cashier’s check for the necessary amount.

10:30 AM – We drive to [small rural Alabama town] to pay his debt. He keeps talking about paying the church back, but I remind him that we do not do loans. We pay debts—that’s what Jesus does. We do a short Bible study in the car. This is like the day of jubilee!

11:30 AM – We arrive in the office of the DA. We pay the debt. She takes it to the Sheriff’s office and explains that it will take some time to clear out of the database, but we should be good to go. “In case it doesn’t clear,” I say, “Is there a number we can call?” See, I’m smart, because I’ve dealt with bureaucracy before. “Also, can I get a receipt?” See how smart I am? Good thing I’m so smart. She photocopies the check and writes a number at the top.

11:45 AM – Just to see if we can, we go downstairs to the license office. The officer behind he desk asks for his old driver’s license, his social security card, his medical examiner’s card… and his birth certificate. “You don’t need my birth certificate,” he says. I think he’s trying a Jedi mind trick on her. “Yes we do,” she says. He looks at me in disbelief. “It’s not a problem,” I tell him. “We’ll just go to the health department and get you a birth certificate.” “That’s going to be more money,” he tells me. He already feels like I’ve given him too much. “We’ve come too far to let this stop us,” I say. Very inspirational.

12:00 PM – Every office shuts down for lunch. We go to a cafe. “That lady didn’t need my birth certificate,” he says. “She was just being a butt.” “No, I’m sure she wouldn’t ask for it if she didn’t need it,” I say. “They didn’t ask for a birth certificate in Jefferson County.” I chalk it up to paranoia. He’s been living on the streets, so naturally he’s suspicious of people. He also has a tendency to get into arguments with the police. He physically shakes in the presence of people in uniform.

We get the directions to the health department from the wonderful lady who serves us. She’s pregnant, and we can tell she thinks we’re an odd couple in this all-white cafe. Hakim cracks a few jokes about being out of his element, which is his way of dealing with discomfort. Before we eat, we invite her to pray with us, and I can tell people are watching us. We pray for our food, for our server, for her expected child, and for our mission.

1:00 PM – We visit the health department to get a copy of his birth certificate. There’s just one problem—he changed his name nearly 20 years ago, from something white and English-sounding to something more African and Arabic. We go around and around with the people at the health department until we decide we’ll need to get the court documentation for the name change. It’s in another county.

2:20 PM – After driving to [second small Alabama town], we stand in line to get the name change documentation. After paying for that, we go downstairs to the DMV to try for the license again.

3:00 PM – When we go into the DMV, the lady behind the desk asks to see his license, medical examiner’s form, social security card… and NEVER ASKS FOR THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE. Hakim does not say, “I told you so,” but I do not feel so smart anymore.

We spend the next hour on the phone calling back and forth with [first small Alabama town]’s sheriff’s office and another number where people who hold the power to “clear it out of the computer” are spending their time watching YouTube videos of cats and eating Chee-tos. Well, I do not have evidence for this last part. They may be hard at work. But they clearly don’t want to be talking to us, and they keep referring us back to the former number.

4:30 PM – The government offices close. We drive home and get some dinner on the way. I drop him off at the shelter at 5:30. We’ll try again tomorrow.

The following day, Hakim called me in the morning. He had called the DMV in Birmingham and his name was clear! We went to wait in line for three hours, and he came out with his temporary Alabama CDL. We celebrated by going to Captain D’s (his choice). Man, that deep fried fish is good.

IMG_0742b

So far, we have spent nearly $1000 on Hakim: weekly lunch meetings, two uniforms and changes of clothes, shoes, supplies, the occasional motel room for when he had overstayed his shelter time, cell phone time, various costs associated with his debts, and so on. I’ve driven him over 200 miles.

I share this story for several reasons:

  1. I am so proud of our church for helping finance this guy’s efforts to get off the street.
  2. I want to warn anyone who ever says homeless people, or poor people in general, just “need to get a job.” If you say this in my hearing, I will not guarantee your physical safety.

Most middle-class and wealthy people just have no clue how forcefully the spiral of poverty can suck you down. It’s one thing to be a white college graduate starting out with $25 and a duffel bag. It’s another to have to claw your way out through injustice and a system rigged to keep you poor. While I believe Hakim could have eventually dug his way out, this relatively short experience of bureaucratic frustration made it even more clear to me that a skewed legal system, stress, depression, and discrimination are all part of the obstacles in the way of people becoming self-sufficient.

And I have not begun to address those who can’t quite reach self-sufficiency. Plenty of research has shown that we spend more on people in poverty if we neglect them. It would make much more sense to simply give people housing. In Hakim’s case, it doesn’t make sense to let a fine of a few hundred dollars prevent him from getting a job and becoming a productive member of society and paying taxes. It is remarkably inefficient to keep such a person in a shelter or a prison.

I also share this story because I have wanted, for a long time, to focus our mission efforts on helping a smaller number of people make one or two significant changes in their lives. Rather than open a kitchen to feed hundreds, what if we resolved, as a church, to take someone out to lunch and spend time with them? To treat them not like a problem to be solved, but a friend and helper with whom we could walk as they tried to define and meet their own goals? Who might have gifts or graces that could benefit us, too? I think churches need to ask, “What do homeless people or people trapped in poverty have that we need?”

As I said, I do understand the complex relational, economic, and development issues surrounding all mission work. I constantly reevaluate my own motivations. Am I trying to be Jesus and live out a savior complex? Am I carrying a white-man’s burden? Am I maintaining healthy boundaries? Do I understand that money, power, and privilege affect all of my relationships, but especially those with people more financially poor than myself?

I’ve decided that though I need to raise those questions and wrestle with them, I can’t wait until my motivations are pure and my methods foolproof before I act. Hakim may be Jesus in disguise, the man robbed by thieves on the road to Jericho. Or I may incarnate Jesus when I act out of compassion. Or maybe Jesus is incarnate not in either one of us individually, but in the moment when we both try to reach across the physical, economic, and spiritual barriers that the kingdom of death has erected to divide us.

I should also add that I’m no expert at this, and I’m not sharing this story to be self-congratulatory. People much wiser than me have been doing this kind of work for much longer, and much more effectively. I’m not a full-time social-worker. I’m a pastor trying to plant a church. But something about this situation was compelling enough that I knew I could not continue to pastor my congregation and say the things I say if I didn’t make the effort to help Hakim realize his goals of getting off the street and into what he says is his dream job.

Anyway, yesterday I picked up Hakim after his first day of work. He looked professional in his uniform and name badge. He was tired but happy. I know his work is not over yet. He has a long way to go, and, like other homeless people I know, he will take two steps forward and one or more back. But he is on the way to supporting himself and, he says, paying it forward. He has managed to do very well under a crushing burden. Now that it is being lifted, I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Atonement: Christ the Victor

I’m glad to see Christus Victor gaining more traction among popular Christianity. There are even a few contemporary Christian songs that borrow some of the concepts. I’ll confess I get a bit antsy, though, because the Commercial Evangelical Juggernaut is really good at appropriating other theological ideas and using them to dress up the same tired theology of power and violence.

There is a great book on the subject, but I think the best way to illustrate it is with the following video.

The best strength of Christus Victor theology is that it takes seriously the whole story of Jesus’ life: incarnation, birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. His incarnation makes atonement, because by taking on our flesh and our frailty, God is with us. Even our human limitations become holy. His birth makes atonement, because he transforms what we mean by power, family, love, and mortality. His life makes atonement, because God has to learn to walk and share, just as we do, making the whole process of learning holy and pointing us toward maturity. His ministry make atonement as God shows us what real humanity looks like, spreading grace everywhere he goes. His death makes atonement, not because he dies in place of us, but in solidarity with us. And his resurrection makes atonement, because even our rejection and our failure to recognize him does not stop God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, in the story told by most Western Protestants (“penal substitutionary atonement”), the only thing that really matters about Jesus is his death. As one Christmas banner put it, he was “born to die.” This allows Christians to support, among other things, capital punishment — after all, if God believes in redemptive violence, shouldn’t we?

In the popular imagination, it isn’t even Jesus’ death that makes atonement, but his suffering. Because he bears the sin of the whole world, his suffering must be the most profound and severe in the cosmos, and we elevate the brutality of his death. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, it is simply the blood that makes atonement—not the pain. Sacrificial animals were sacrificed humanely, and the entire point of doing so was that people could enjoy a covenant meal of reconciliation with God.

I think the penal substitutionary view is bankrupt, and will become increasingly so in our lifetimes. Moral violence does not make us safer, it supports bullying, abuse, inequality, and oppression, and it stands in contrast to everything Jesus preached and taught. A theology of God that depends on redemptive violence is the best ideological ally of white straight male supremacy. I believe we are seeing it crumble before our eyes: nearly all of the news headlines these days are about it. I don’t want to sound too optimistic. Violence and the Kingdom of Death can get quite cozy with whoever happens to be in power.

In the Christus Victor story, though, we focus on the things Jesus actually said and did, not the abstract idea of his role as a sacrificial animal. This is why I think Christus Victor is gaining traction, and why it will continue to do so.

I’ve already written about understanding atonement through Jesus as a moral teacher. In my next post, I plan to write a bit about how I’m learning to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Atonement: Jesus Isn’t “Just” A Teacher

Gustav Aulen says there are basically three ways to think about how Jesus “fixes things” in Christian theology. (“Atonement” is the fancy way of saying, “How Jesus fixes things”. I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement theories recently, so when a friend posted this article  I found it helpful.)

One theory of the atonement is the “moral teacher” or moral influence perspective. Jesus, through his ministry, death, and resurrection, reveals to a lost humanity both our brokenness and a way to approach God. This is probably the easiest atonement theory for non-Christians and skeptics to swallow, because almost nobody is going to say that Jesus wasn’t a great teacher or moral leader.

But this approach often gets panned by hard-core North American evangelicals because they don’t want Jesus to be “just” a teacher. I have real problems with the phrase “just” a teacher, because I think it makes false assumptions about education and transformation. I think it misses the mark of what “teaching” actually is.

Have you ever sat, literally or figuratively, at teachers’ or professors’ feet and felt a light go on in your soul? Has a special teacher transformed you from one kind of person into another, or ignited a passion in you for something you would never have predicted? Did you hang on this teacher’s every word? Have some of you ever developed a Platonic crush on your teachers that made you want to spend more time with them? Did you start affecting their mannerisms because you wanted to be like them so intensely? The best teachers shape who we become. They reconcile us with ourselves, our neighbors, our world, and our futures. They heal our broken images of ourselves.

If you can identify with what I’m saying, then you know that “just a teacher” is about the worst way you can misunderstand this kind of atonement. I’ve heard people say, “My teacher saved my life.” I’ve been to developing countries where kids walk miles to go to school because they know an education is the only way that they can individually or collectively escape the slavery of poverty. I think these folks have a pretty good idea that teaching can save, and I think they have a pretty good idea of how to relate to Jesus.

I’ve spent most of my life as a student of one kind or another, and I owe an enormous debt to my best teachers, mentors and coaches, who didn’t just teach math or English or running or knot-tying, but living. These people changed me from the inside-out, and they pointed to something and someone beyond themselves. They embodied passion and compassion, and were concerned with teaching the whole person, not just the brain. I should also point out that I’ve also had teachers who never finished high school or held an academic degree, who have taught me about leadership, humility, stamina, praying, and grace.

There are some shortcomings of this atonement theory, of course. It can trade some of God’s sovereignty and grace for a more “up-by-the-bootstraps” image of applying yourself to your studies. It can leave open the possibility of separating the importance of the teacher (Jesus) from content of what is taught. It privileges Jesus’ life and ministry over his death and resurrection. I do see these as common shortcomings in liberal Christianity, but I don’t think they are unsolvable problems. I think at most it just takes clarification of what “teaching” means.

If presented well, the moral teacher theory can make people passionate about studying the Bible and learning about Jesus. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I realized that the parables can be read as jokes. Once I learned that Jesus used humor, I started seeing his wit all around, and I thought, “Now here’s a character I can follow and believe in.”

Even though it’s not my preferred way to talk about Jesus and atonement, I think lots of Christians should give the moral teacher theory a second look. The disciples were students of The Way, and thinking about atonement this way can connect us with their tradition. It can also connect us both to more Eastern ways of doing theology and to critical academia.

If it helps us respect teachers more, so much the better—because they aren’t “just” teachers, either.

God Shows No Partiality Promotion

My book God Shows No Partiality will be available for Kindle for free from Sunday, March 10 until Thursday, March 14 (Pi day!). If you haven’t read it, pick it up! If you have read it, spread the word and change the conversation! It’s high time people knew and reclaimed this slogan from the New Testament.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can always come by our worship service and pick up a hard copy for free—then you can pass it on to someone else when you are done.

A free study guide (which is a work in progress) is available here.