If you grew up within ten miles of a church, you probably heard the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.” The ten dollar theological word is “substitutionary atonement.” The gist is that Jesus had to die to appease an old-pissed off-white guy-with-a-beard-god because all of humanity was so wretched. Sometimes I get the wretched humanity part. People do some pretty awful things to each other.
The pissed off old-guy god is more problematic. While many people think that the God of the Old Testament is all wrath and condemnation and the God of the New Testament is all love and light, both are off the mark. First, it is all the same God. There’s only one God. That’s one of the important things about the Judeo Christian tradition. Second, the God portrayed in the Old Testament is the God who created all of everything and then loved it to life. God is in everything and everyone. All of creation is filled with the holiness of God. Our essential nature is not original sin, but original blessing (see more on original blessing in the book of the same title by Matthew Fox). We are God’s beloved creatures. There are instances where God gets angry, but usually with pretty good reason. Humans have done pretty awful stuff to each other.
The God portrayed in the New Testament (through Jesus) got angry and had harsh words for the Romans and the religious leaders who colluded with them. Jesus spoke words of judgment to those who put extra burdens on the poor and marginalized people because of their social or economic standing in society. So the God of both testaments is both angry and loving.
The notion that Jesus had to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin perpetuates two central myths that have wrought misery and destruction throughout human history: redemptive violence and redemptive suffering.
The myth of redemptive violence undergirds the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace and that might makes right. According to Walter Wink, it is one of the oldest and continuously repeated stories in the world. There is a good guy and a bad guy. The good guy suffers and the bad guy appears to be winning. The good guy eventually triumphs and everyone identifies with the good guy. Violence in this view is a means to an end; good finally triumphs over evil.
The myth of redemptive suffering essentially holds forth suffering as a means to an end; namely a means to salvation. It holds that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to save humanity from its sin. Just as importantly, this myth purports that suffering makes us holy.
An aside about suffering itself; it may indeed be a consequence of the life of faith. The powers of the world are still deaf to the message of justice and peace that Jesus and every prophet from every age brought to the people. The kind of suffering talked about in the bible is suffering because of faith and conviction, and it does not make one holy, it means one suffers. It does NOT mean suffering at the hand of another in an abusive relationship or suffering in an abusive family or work environment. It does not mean suffering brought on by unmet medical needs or symptoms, suffering brought on by any kind of privation or suffering in any of the countless ways humans find to bring pain to their sisters and brothers.
There is nothing holy about suffering.
I do not believe it was God’s will for Jesus to die. I do not believe his death was necessary to appease God in any way. I do not believe Jesus’ death does anything except expose the unjust and corrupt power systems that have always run the world.
The death of Jesus was and always will be a tragedy. Jesus was crucified because he dared to speak truth to power. He dared to stand apart from the dominant culture and speak a prophetic word about God. Jesus’ death was not a means to an end for us or any previous generation. It was an unspeakable act of violence committed by frightened and fearful leaders who sought to silence the voice that exposed their greed.
So, perhaps it is time for us to rethink the whole notion of sacrifice and violence and what they mean. Perhaps we can see that Jesus’ death and suffering was a tragedy played out at the expense of an innocent man who refused to back down from his deeply held convictions. Would that our convictions were so deep.