National Memorial for Peace and Justice

So on Saturday, I’m at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with a couple of other families. My friend’s six-year-old child asks me to read one of the placards to him. It’s about lynching.

There are some big words, and if I read them he starts getting bored, so I choose to paraphrase—very carefully, aware that there is also an audience of adults listening in to a white man talking to a black child about lynching. I’m trying to summarize without sanitizing. I explain that black men and women were being executed by white crowds for made-up reasons. He asks,

“You mean like Jesus?”

Through tears, I said, yes, like Jesus. It was like James Cone was standing over there, nodding.

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.

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.