Church, Interrupted

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When you come to church, what kinds of things do you expect to do?

Sing hymns? Say prayers? Read from the Bible? Hear a sermon? Receive Communion?

In our denomination’s Book of Order (part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church), we have a list of ‘the Elements of Worship’ and they are:

  • Prayer,
  • the reading and proclaiming of Scripture,
  • Baptism,
  • the Lord’s Supper,
  • Self-offering, and
  • Relating to each other and the world.

All of these things are pretty normal things to have happen during church services. We’ve come to expect them. If there was a church somewhere that said, “We’re not going to pray or read the Bible anymore during our services,” we would wonder about that church (*Side Note: I’m particularly delighted to see that more and more Protestants are including the Eucharist in their list of things that are central to Christian worship).

If there was a church somewhere that didn’t do any of the above things, most of us would probably want to ask, “What then, makes this gathering a Christian church?”

It might be a perfectly good social group, activist organization, or educational institution, but most of us would have a hard time seeing it as a church (as people typically understand the term) unless there was some part of its communal life that was specifically devoted to worship.

It was that way in the ancient world too. People in that culture expected certain elements to be part of their worship experience. One of those elements was sacrifice.

It was widely believed in the ancient world that deities fed off of the sacrifices offered by the people. These sacrifices could be things like bread, wine, animals, or even people. The general idea was: the more precious the thing sacrificed, the more pleased the deity would be. If you really wanted to get on a particular deity’s good side, you sacrificed something really valuable to you. In return, that deity would then grant you favors related to his or her sphere of influence (e.g. fertility, harvest, war, etc.).

To the ancient mind, that’s just how religion worked. They could no more imagine worship without sacrifice than we could imagine a church service without hymns.

Human sacrifice, in particular, was just one of those accepted elements of worship. It sounds horrifying to our 21st century ears, but the idea that God would ask someone to sacrifice their firstborn child was not all that unusual for people in Abraham’s culture. That’s why we don’t hear Abraham raising a fuss when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac in this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Asking for the life of his firstborn would have sounded like a perfectly normal request for God to make.

Yet, this is a very shocking passage, to ancient ears as well as our own. The shock, for Abraham and the early Jews, was not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that God would stop the sacrifice from happening at the last second.

“Wait a minute,” they would have said, “do you mean to tell me that God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the end? Do you mean to tell me that God actually interrupted the sacrifice and asked for a ram instead? What kind of God would do such a thing?!

It would have been amazing and unheard of for them. It would have upset all their conventional religious ideas in favor of something new that had never been seen before. People in that culture might have even had a hard time imagining how such a religion would work; for them, it would be like church without hymns, or prayers, or the Bible, or Communion: it just wouldn’t feel like church.

Abraham stood at the forefront of a revolution: a radical shift in his culture’s understanding of God. His God would no longer demand human blood in exchange for favors. Only animals would be sacrificed from that point on. This move was a step in a particular direction.

Later on, the early Christians would do away with the practice of animal sacrifice as well, proclaiming that the death of Jesus had put an end to the need for sacrifice altogether. That was a step.

In the sixteenth century, our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin (among others), started another revolution when they proclaimed that membership in the Church of Christ depended on one’s personal faith, rather than loyalty to the Pope. As we already know, this idea blew people’s minds and shattered their cultural expectations of what church was all about. That was another step.

All of this leads me to wonder: What is our revolution? In what ways is God calling us to be radicals? How will history look back at us and say, “Wow, those really stood at the forefront of a new understanding of God/church/religion”?

Let me be clear that I really do believe they will. I really do think that we live at one of those turning points in history: one of those moments that influences the shape of things to come for centuries. Just like the ancient and medieval ages before it, our modern world is now coming to an end. We’re entering what many academics are calling the postmodern era of history.

As we make this shift and the world is changing around us, we Christians are asking some pretty big questions about things like church, God, and religion. Some of us are questioning old patterns and forms of worship; some of us are questioning old dogmas and concepts of God that were based in assumptions about the universe that people in the 21st century no longer hold; at the end of the iconoclastic modern era, some of us are returning to more ancient and medieval practices with a new set of spiritual eyes. Most of these questions are bound to make us uncomfortable. Like most of our ancestors who lived at similar turning-points of history, people in the postmodern world will probably end up keeping some things from the past while they change other things. That’s just the way life works: nothing stays the same forever, and nothing is totally independent of that which came before it.

Time will not permit for me to talk about all the different questions and changes that might be coming our way in the near-future (I highly recommend the books of theologians like Stanley Grenz and Brian D. McLaren, if you yourself are interested), but there is one current shift that I would like to briefly touch on:

The Christian Church, ever since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, has long been at the center of Western European and North American society. Even where Christianity wasn’t established as the official state religion, the church (as an institution) nevertheless enjoyed the benefits that come with considerable money and power. Church membership was culturally expected as part of what it meant to be a person of a particular nationality (e.g. English, Italian, or American).

In the past half-century, all of that has begun to change. Our society is becoming more secular. People no longer assume that their neighbors go to church anymore. Neither our pews nor our offering plates are as full as they used to be. The Church has gone from being at the center of society to being out on the edge. Christianity exists in the margins of society at this point in history.

Many people are saddened or even frightened by this shift. Looking at the empty buildings and smaller budgets, they long for the “good old days” when the Church was more culturally central and enjoyed the money and power that came with such privileged status. Some folks even think they might be able to re-create that imaginary Golden Age, if only their church had the right kind of pastor or Sunday School program.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Just like Abraham, Jesus, and Calvin, I think we’re living in a time when ideas about God and Church are changing on a radical level. The Church of the future will look very different from the Church of the past.

I see Christianity becoming a religion that exists at the margins, made up of people who live at the margins. I see us becoming a Church of the poor, for the poor, and by the poor: a home for the homeless, a family for the outcast, friends of sinners, a community of prophets that critiques the values of the dominant culture instead of underwriting them.

When I imagine the future, I see a Church full of people like Abraham, who was so open to hearing God’s voice that he was able to stop the sacrifice of his son Isaac at the last possible second. He looked instead at the ram caught in the thicket and imagined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a new way of doing things, a new way of practicing religion, a new way of being Church, and a new way of understanding God that had never been conceived before.

I believe that we, at North Church, already have a head-start on that future. We are already a small church of the poor that exists on the edge of society. I believe we have something special to offer our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. We are showing them where they are going. In our life together, we are living proof that the future is not all doom and gloom, but light and hope as the Church-at-large returns with its whole to heart, not to the good old days of money and power, but to that which really makes us the Church: our passionate love for God and one another in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Old Rugged Cross: Rene Girard and the Resurrection of Substitutionary Atonement

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St. Martin’s Cross, Iona Abbey. Image by Colin Smith. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Friends and commentators from all over the theological spectrum have mentioned that I don’t seem to have given susbstitutionary atonement theory its due in my post from earlier this week, The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal.

In that post, I leaned heavily on presenting substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” (an excellent turn of phrase I’m borrowing from Sarah Sanderson-Doughty).  I wrote:

…penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Sadly, this (admittedly extreme) depiction accurately portrays substitutionary atonement as it was presented to me by fundamentalist pastors and teachers I encountered in high school and college. 

However, I realize that thoughtful evangelicals and catholics will cringe at my presentation, since they accept the theory, but not in its “cosmic child abuse” form.  For them, it represents the epitome of love and sacrifice.  I remember seeing an art project made by a teenager that showed one person pushing another out of the path of an oncoming car with John 15:13 written across the top: “Greater love hath no man (sic) than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  For them, substitutionary atonement is precisely the opposite of child abuse: it is the ultimate standard of loving sacrifice, established by Jesus himself, to which every parent, spouse, and friend should aspire.

I understand and respect this angle, but I suspect that many of these more informed and compassionate evangelicals and catholics may not realize what is being propagated in their name.  The heresy of “cosmic child abuse” is alive and well in traditional, orthodox congregations and parishes the world over.  Curious outsiders and wounded insiders are being exposed to violent, hateful theology and end up rejecting Christianity at large based on this misrepresentation.  That’s why I think it is incumbent upon liberals, evangelicals, and catholics alike to think well about what their atonement theology does mean to them and then speak up (loud and often) to counterbalance the voices of violence and hate that dominate public media in Jesus’ name.

With that in mind, I thought I might revisit the subject of substitutionary atonement today and present what I think are some of the more positive contributions it might make to the Christian theological project, writ large.  Sections of this article have been lifted and adapted from my reply to a comment on the previous post.

Many of the New Testament passages dealing with substitutionary atonement center around interpreting the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of sacrificial worship in Second Temple Judaism. The use of such a schema made total sense as an apologetic strategy in that time and place (much like Anselm’s strategy made sense in feudal Britain).

Jesus, of course, is presented as the priest and the sacrifice that supersede the Temple cult. The temple authorities claimed exclusive access to God through their rituals and institution. The early Christians, on the other hand, used this priest/sacrifice imagery to legitimate their own Christocentric practice while demonstrating its continuity with traditional Judaism. The language of temple, priest, and sacrifice would have helped the gospel make sense to a first century Jewish mind. Obviously, the strategy worked: Christians and Pharisees were the only forms of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This interpretive schema gave Christians the framework they needed to survive without a standing Temple.

The Pharisees, for their part, had the Torah, the synagogue, and the family home as centers for their faith-practice. They went on to complete the Talmuds and form the basis for modern rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all pretty much died out as movements by the end of the second century.

Substitutionary atonement, understood within the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism, makes total sense as a first century apologetic strategy. It’s actually rather brilliant and obviously effective, given the lasting impact it’s had on the development of Christian atonement theory. The scholastic Anselm further developed the idea susbstitutionary atonement in the 11th century as part of his own brilliant and timely apologetic effort.

My only problem with it is when it is used as the primary or only legitimate atonement theory in our day. Such a narrow focus ignores the multiple other models for salvation presented by scripture and tradition. I fear that a one-sided emphasis on individual guilt and forgiveness through substitutionary atonement is unnecessarily handcuffing our evangelistic efforts by ignoring the many ways in which the gospel might be interpreted, preached, understood, and received by people today.

In addition to priest and purifying sacrifice, Christ can also be embraced as a physician for the sick, a liberator for the oppressed, a light in the darkness, food and drink for hungry souls, or a friend for the lonely. My hope is that Christians today might let these many images take root in our imaginations so that we might be inspired to become more faithful and effective witnesses of Christ in word and deed.

Rene Girard is one writer whose work presents, in my opinion, some rich possibilities for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice.  A Roman Catholic scholar of mythology, Girard identifies patterns of mimetic violence at work in the development of religions and societies.

From birth, human beings are presented with models that we are meant to imitate.  This happens on a primal level with one’s parents and siblings.  As societies grow, our caches of models will grow as well.  Post-industrial consumer capitalism in the Information Age presents us with a greater supply of models than any other culture in the history of the planet.

As imitators of models, we compete with one another.  Over time, our competition grows fierce.  The “war of all against all” (thank you, Hobbes) threatens to unravel the fabric of society and return us to primal chaos.

At this point, according to Girard, a scapegoat is chosen: someone at whom the rest of society can redirect the energy of their internal conflict and self-hatred.  The scapegoat is made to bear the blame for this conflict and is summarily sacrificed.

In the wake of the sacrifice, the mimetic conflict is temporarily relieved and the community enjoys a period of relative peace and stability.  Previously blamed for the violence, the scapegoat is now credited as the source of the temporary peace and is deified as a god.  Girard’s theory is that this is how the deities of classical mythology received their identities.  The cycle of violence then resets and repeats itself.

Applying his theory of mimetic violence to his own Roman Catholic theology, Girard presents Jesus as the willing scapegoat.  Jesus deliberately enters into the cycle of mimetic violence with the intention of stopping it.  He is aware of what is involved in that process and embraces the role of scapegoat.

According to this reading of the atonement, Jesus is still “sacrificed for our sins” but the wrath he is appeasing is not the wrath of God, but the rage of sinful, selfish humans.  He substitutes himself in the place of all other scapegoats who endure the unjust violence of society.

In the resurrection, God intervenes to vindicate the scapegoat, unmasking and disarming the patterns of mimetic violence.  Christians, as followers of Jesus the willing and vindicated scapegoat, are called to side with all future scapegoats and end the cycles of violence and exclusion, even if it means being crucified ourselves.

Rene Girard’s theory presents us with a way of unserstanding susbtitutionary atonement that can redeem it as a viable apologetic strategy in this consumer capitalist society, just as Anselm of Canterbury and the New Testament authors used it in their respective eras.

In this Girardian sense, I am able to reclaim substitutionary atonement and “cling to the old rugged cross”.  I see in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection the end of all hate and violence.  I look forward to a time when all humanity will “exchange [the old rugged cross] one day for a crown” as cycles of mimetic violence come to an end.

Serious as a Heart Attack

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Jesus’ Baptism.  Photo by David Bjorgen. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Click here to listen to this sermon at my church’s website.

I’d like to begin this morning by stating three tragic facts:

  • First, while you were sleeping last night, around the world, 30,000 children died of starvation or malnutrition.
  • Second, most people sitting in church today don’t give a damn about it.
  • Finally, more people will be upset at me cursing in church than they are at the death of 30,000 kids.

Now, I realize that I just dropped a bomb in your lap a moment ago, so let’s press pause and step back to look at what’s going on.

First, I have to cite my sources.  This little stunt comes from a guy named Tony Campolo, who is a Baptist minister and college professor in Pennsylvania.  Believe it or not, I actually toned the language down from Campolo’s original version!

Second, I want you to pay attention to what happened inside of you just now.  Your heart probably skipped a beat and your adrenaline started pumping.  You might have been angry at what I said or fearful that a lightning bolt might strike me dead.  I certainly hope that it led you to a moment of insight and self-reflection.

What I just did here is employ the rhetorical technique of hyperbole.  Hyperbole happens when you overstate something in order to make a point.  In this case, the point I was trying to make was a point about our moral priorities.  Which issue is more important: mass starvation or bad language?  Starvation, obviously.  But which one is more likely to cause a ruckus in church?  Probably language.  Maybe we church folks need to rearrange our priorities?

Spiritual masters of many religions often use hyperbole as a favorite teaching technique.  For example, Lin Chi, a Zen Buddhist teacher from the ninth century, is thought to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  This is another example of hyperbole.  Obviously, a Zen master would not want his students to assassinate the founder of their religion.  The point he was trying to make is that they shouldn’t idolize or attach themselves to anything in this world, even a religious figurehead.  They should exist in a position of openness to reality, willing to let go of their most precious possessions, ideas, and beliefs.  That’s what Lin Chi meant when he said, “Kill the Buddha.”

Don’t we all sometimes use hyperbole to make a point?  How about this one: “I’m starving!  I could eat a horse!”  Are you really?  Is your life actually in danger of ending due to malnutrition?  Probably not.  If someone barbequed up an entire horse and served it to you for lunch today, could you finish it?  Probably not.  You were using hyperbole to get people’s attention and let them know that you feel hungry and would like to eat food as soon as possible.

I’m giving you this crash course in the art of hyperbole because I think it’s essential to understanding the point that Jesus was trying to get across in this morning’s gospel reading.

In the second half of the passage, Jesus says some pretty offensive stuff to his would-be followers in three separate conversations (that have been conveniently condensed into one by the author of Luke’s gospel).

In the first conversation, the would-be follower says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere and Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

The second person requests permission to attend a parent’s funeral, but Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The final person just wants to say goodbye to loved ones, but Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Now, that’s some pretty harsh and offensive stuff!  In fact, it’s downright rude!  We imagine Jesus to be a person of great compassion, so why didn’t he ease up on someone whose father had just died?  This is anything but the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we used to sing about in Sunday School.

Well, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point.  He is being intentionally offensive and overstating his case.  What’s his point?  That discipleship is hard but it’s also the most important thing in the world.

Think about it: what could be so important that it would cause you to miss your father’s funeral?  It would have to be something pretty big, wouldn’t it?  You would pretty much have to have a heart attack in the car on the way to the funeral itself.  Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying: he’s as serious as a heart attack.  Following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is a drop-everything scenario: stop the presses, hold the phone, and pay attention.  You’re on your way to your dad’s funeral, you say?  Forget about it, this is too important, even for that.  Discipleship is hard and it will cost you everything you have, so you’d better be ready to let it all go.

Do we relate to our Christian faith like that?  I kind of doubt it.  Unlike most of our fundamentalist neighbors, we mainline Protestants don’t tend to use guilt and fear to manipulate people into faith.  For the most part, I think that’s a good thing.  Real faith should be an honest, authentic response from the heart, not something people do because they’re scared of punishment.  But we sometimes adopt a rather casual relationship with Jesus and we don’t always take him seriously.  The things he says should offend and disturb us.  Jesus is supposed to make us extremely uncomfortable.  If we’re not troubled by the things he says, then we’re probably not really paying attention.

Real Christian faith cannot be reduced to an institution, a tradition, or a system of beliefs.  Real Christian faith requires a total commitment of one’s whole being to the service of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Real faith, as theologian Paul Tillich put it, is a matter of “ultimate concern.”  To the Christian, everything else in life becomes secondary.  You have to let it all go, let the dead bury their own dead, put your hand to the plow, and never look back.  It’s as serious as a heart attack.  It will cost you all you have.

Many of us are already familiar with the idea of total sacrifice.  We would gladly give all we have, including our lives, for the sake of spouse, kids, or country.  We realize there’s a payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.  In this case, when you let go of everything and commit your whole being to following Jesus, what you get back is your true self.  Bit by bit, you let go of your false identifiers (e.g. property, money, job, politics, nationality, religion, etc.), you get underneath them and discover who you really are.  This is frightening at first because we have been so thoroughly trained to identify ourselves by these things (e.g. I am an accountant, a mother, a son, a Republican, a Presbyterian, an American, etc.).  We think we are these things.  We’re terrified that if we let go of these things and they are swept away, there will be nothing left of us.  But Jesus shows us that this is not true.

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  In other words: when we let go of our egos and our false identifiers, we discover who we really are.  This wonderful paradox is illustrated so beautifully in the sacrament of baptism: you go down into the water, where all that extra stuff gets washed away and you are left standing there: naked, wet, and shivering, just like the day you were born.  You are now born again.  And it is then (and only then), as you come up out of that water, that you are given your first glimpse of your true self: the heavens break open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks to you as it did to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved child.”

Jesus knew this truth about himself.  That’s how we was able to walk so freely, securely, and courageously across the face of this planet, unbound by the fetters of attachment to stuff, status, religion, or nationality.  Jesus was free in his true self and he lived to show the rest of us the way to freedom.  He knew that journey would be long and difficult for us.  That’s why he was so urgent and serious as a heart attack.  He knew we have a long way to go and a lot to let go of: all that stuff that keeps us bound up and wound up like bedsprings.  But he also knew what waits for us on the other side of that process: freedom in the knowledge of who we really are as God’s beloved children.  This is the freedom to which Christ calls us.  This is the promised land, the kingdom of heaven on earth, the state of being where we can finally hear the words that the Spirit of God is eternally speaking into our hearts: “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The Greatest Crime of All: Being Poor

Rene Girard is a mythology scholar and theologian who has made a name for himself by naming what is potentially one of the most terminal spiritual diseases in western, capitalistic society: Envy.

According to Girard, humans perpetually compete with one another in an attempt to imitate certain models of appearance, behavior, and status.  This constant competition would quickly degenerate into an anarchic “war of all against all” were it not for periodic episodes of “scapegoating” where the hostile energy of the community is directed toward a chosen outsider (individual or group) who is subsequently “sacrificed” for the good of the group.  The sacrifice of the scapegoat temporarily releases the pent-up tension and allows this cycle, which Girard calls “the cycle of mimetic violence,” to begin again.

One could easily point to the scapegoating of Jews during the Third Reich as an example of cycles of mimetic violence in action.

I got to see this phenomenon take place firsthand on a citywide scale in Vancouver during the buildup to the 2010 Olympics.  City legislators passed the notorious “Safe Streets Act” which made it illegal to panhandle anywhere within 30 feet of businesses, residences, or bus stops.  In a west coast urban center of two million, is there anywhere in the city that meets these criteria?

Poverty was thus outlawed in pre-Olympic Vancouver.

In a culture that has made an unholy idol of success, failure is criminal.

Here is a link to an NPR article that documents a similar process going on in Hungary.  The primary difference is that Hungary itself seems to be in a state of economic failure and the powers that be would like to attach blame to those who are least likely to have caused the collapse and least likely to defend themselves in the event of a large-scale attack: the homeless.

I find this to be an appropriate article to post this Easter weekend, as we remember the ignominious death of another sacrificial scapegoat who was unjustly made to endure the wrath of a political-religious system that could not imagine another way of being human…

Homelessness Becomes A Crime In Hungary