Saturday, February 26, 2011

More on Atonement: Did Jesus Come to Die?

Was a Blood Sacrifice Necessary?

Pieta, by Lorenzo Lotto 1508

Previous posts on the meaning of atonement can be found here, here, and here.

Previous ruminations on the elasticity of scripture can be found here and here.
God did not need the blood of Jesus. Jesus did not just come "to die," but God used his death to announce the end of death.
-- Richard Leonard, SJ in Where the Hell is God?
It's a pure, noble, and uplifting sentiment expressed by Father Leonard. It sounds very pleasing to our ears in 2011, but how often these days are we allowing our postmodern sensibilities to shape our way of looking at Jesus and in looking at faith, rather than the scriptures themselves? Are we drifting away from meanings more clearly relevant to the Bronze Age, when those books were written?

It is true that in Catholic theology, following St. Thomas Aquinas, we affirm that the satisfaction model of redemption was not absolutely necessary. In other words, God could have chosen some other way to redeem us other than way He did.

Nevertheless, it does seem like Father Leonard's assertion does take rather lightly our historical understanding of how important blood was as a symbol of life in Second Temple Judaism, and also how several biblical passages strongly emphasize the necessity of shedding blood for forgiveness, both in the Old Testament...
Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement.
-- Leviticus 17:11
..and in the New Testament...
According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore, it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified by these rites, but the heavenly things themselves by better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
-- Hebrews 9:22-24

They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed...
--Romans 3:24-25

Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree."
--Galatians 3:13
Father Leonard advocates for a much different view of atonement in Chapter 5 of his book Where the Hell is God? How well does he make his case? Of particular interest is the way he takes the hymn How Great Thou Art to task for its shaky theology... I've never been very fond of it myself. Whenever I hear it at Mass, I find myself looking around to see if Elvis has entered the building.

Excerpts from Chapter 5 of Father Leonard's book:
We should be very careful about what we sing. Spiritual songs and hymns are not part of our liturgy to fill in time, accompany a procession, or annoy the tone deaf who are pressed into making a noise. Hymns carry theology. We sing scriptural texts or a poetic version of a fundamental Christian truth to affirm our faith. Setting these texts to music makes them popular and memorable. That is why they can be so powerful and important, but also dangerous.

Hymns matter, and one verse of one hymn has more to answer for than most. “How Great Thou Art” takes its place in the top five of nearly every survey of the most loved hymns in the English speaking world. Written by the Swedish Lutheran lay preacher and later parliamentarian Carl Gustav Boberg in 1885, “O Store Gud” (O Great God) was translated into English by Stuart Hine. Hine was an English evangelical missionary in Ukraine, where he learned the hymn in Russian. In 1939, he returned to England and the following year published the first version of the hymn we now call “How Great Thou Art.” Its worldwide fame can be attributed to Billy Graham’s international crusade in London in 1954, during which time this hymn was sung over and over as it accompanied the altar call, and was broadcast and televised to an audience of millions. It did not hurt the hymn’s fortunes that it was the Gammy Award-winning title song of Elvis Presley’s 1967 hit record.

The Protestant pedigree of this hymn Is important. A little history first. Building on the earlier work of St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century Benedictine monk, wrestled with the question why God came into the world as one like us. In his famous treatise, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), he developed a theory that Jesus came into the world to act as a substitute for us. We were the ones who had offended God, but rather than sacrifice us all, God sent Jesus to take our place in offering up his own life to the Father as restitution for our sins. He paid the ransom that God demanded to set us free.

This way of thinking relies heavily upon St. Paul, where on many occasions he calls Christ our Redeemer. The word redemption literally means, “buying back,” It comes from the practice in the ancient world where there were two types of slaves—those who were born or forced into slavery, usually for life, and those who paid off a debt or a crime by becoming a slave, usually for a period of time. The second type of slave could be set free when someone else paid their debts, or the ransom their master now demanded for them was settled. They would then either be the slave of the purchaser, or set free completely.

St. Paul introduced this metaphor into Christian theology to describe how we, who are enslaved by our destructive behavior, gained a liberator in Christ who entered into a sinful world, subjected himself to its violence and death, in order to set us free. At its best, the notion of Christ the Redeemer shows us that we do not have to live destructively anymore. Now claimed by the love of Christ, we are no longer slaves, but his friends; indeed, through the redeeming work of Christ we have been welcomed into God’s family.

The Protestant Reformers took up these substitution ideas and gave them a more biblical spin. Relying on a literal and tougher stand on the role of the Fall of Adam and Eve, John Calvin held that, because the first parents of humanity in the Book of Genesis rebelled against God, our whole human nature was corrupted forever. There was nothing we could do about it. God was so angry with us that, in time and in his mercy, and even though we did not deserve it, he decided to save us. However, because humanity could not do anything to save itself, to satisfy God’s wrath at Adam and Eve and all humanity’s subsequent ingratitude, the Word of God had to take our flesh, our place, and offer up the sacrifice of his own life in and through his suffering and death as atonement for our inherited and ongoing sinfulness. It is often called “satisfaction theology” because it was through the violent death of Jesus that God’s wrath was satisfied. It must be admitted that some elements of this satisfaction theology continue in Catholic theology as well, though we have never held that humanity was totally corrupt or depraved, and that God had only one option in appeasing his own anger.

There are libraries written on the stuff of the last couple of paragraphs, but for our purposes here, this wholly inadequate summary will have to do.

In its more stark form, satisfaction theology is given a full confessional expression in the third verse of “How Great Thou Art”:
When I think that God his Son not sparing
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the Cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Why does this matter? Well, if we keep singing hymns like this, then some people may think it is true, may remember it, and want it sung at all their family’s baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. And they do. But this hymn gives a very limited version of the truth it is trying to articulate, and the implications it holds in regard to where God is to be found in our suffering and pain cannot be underestimated. God’s will for Jesus affects everything about how we think God deals with us. If our God wants and sends suffering, even setting up a grizzly (sic) death for his only beloved son, then why should we complain when we get a disease, an illness, lose a child, or become a quadriplegic? We are getting off lightly in comparison to what some claim God wanted from Jesus.

For Christians, the paschal mystery—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is the central paradigm around which our faith in God is constructed, It is the central story through which we explain our own origins, meaning, and destiny. This hymn concerns itself with this mystery, and I can scarcely take in that God simply sent Jesus “to die,” and to die a gruesome and bloody death, at that. If that were baldly true, then why did God spare him from the outcome of the most unjust theological story in the New Testament—the slaughter of the innocents (Matt 2:13—23)? If Jesus was murdered by Herod at two years of age, then God could have gotten his blood sacrifice over nice and early.

Alternatively, If all God wanted was the perfect blood offering (echoes of Zeus here) of his only Son for the sake of appeasing his anger, why did Jesus not leave Nazareth, stir up plenty of trouble around Galilee (as he did), and then march straight into Jerusalem and offend everyone and get crucified early on? It would not have been hard. If Jesus was simply sent “to die,” then what was the point of his hidden years and the public ministry? They were not there for God’s sake, but for ours.

The simple truth is that the third verse of this beloved hymn is wrong. Jesus did not simply come to die. Rather, Jesus came to live. As a result of the courageous and radical way he lived his life, and the saving love he embodied for all humanity, he threatened the political, social, and religious authorities of his day so much that they executed him. This is, I think, an easier way for us to make sense of the predictions of the passion. Jesus was not clairvoyant; he was a full and true human being and therefore had informed but limited knowledge. His full and true divinity cannot obliterate his humanity or else he would be play-acting at being human. His divinity is seen in and through the uncompromisingly loving, just. and sacrificial way he lived within the bounds of his humanity.

Many of the most morally courageous people in history knew that their personal life and liberty were threatened because of what they were saying or how they were living. They may not have known beforehand that they would be executed or murdered or assassinated, but they could read the signs of their times well enough to predict that there were serious consequences to the freedom they were embodying and to which they were attracting other people. Sometimes they spoke or wrote about the cost of the stands they took. In this regard, they reflect Jesus Christ.

Our martyrs are not Christian versions of suicide bombers. They do not go looking for death in any active sense. That would be the ultimate betrayal of God’s gift of life. They know, however, that they may die as a result of witnessing to their faith and the demand for justice that must flow from it. In their lives and deaths they follow the pattern of Jesus. He did not seek death for its own sake, but would not and could not live any other way than faithfully hopefully, and lovingly. In his day, as in our own, this is immensely threatening to those whose power base is built on values opposed to these virtues. The world continues to silence and sideline people who live out the Christian virtues and values now, just as Jesus was thought to be ultimately sidelined in his crucifixion. But God had the last word on the death of Jesus: Life.

For most of Christian history, the question that has vexed many believers seems to be, “W’hy did Jesus die ?“ I think it is the wrong question. The right one is “Why was Jesus killed?” And that puts the last days of Jesus’ suffering and death in an entirely new perspective.

This is how we can stand before the cross and listen to Jesus in John’s Gospel say, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” This life is not about the perfect Son of the perfect Father making the perfect sacrifice to get us back in God’s good books, and thereby saving us. It Is the Trinity’s inner life overflowing to the world in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Our God does not deal in death, but life. Everything in the New Testament shows this, even the grand apocalyptic narratives about the end of time, which show all the hallmarks of an inspired rabbinic teacher drawing big strokes on the largest of canvases. Jesus did not intend us to take this imagery literally. I assume the experience of judgment will not actually be a livestock muster of sheep and goats. However, the lesson behind the imagery is a real one for us to learn. God’s compassion and love will ultimately see that justice is done. He will hear the cry of the poor and we will be called to account in the next life for what we have done and what we have failed to do in this life.

In this context we need to look at one other gospel text. Some people quote Jesus in the garden saying, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink It, thy will be done” (Matt 26:42) or “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me ?“ (John 18:11) as conclusive proof that God wanted and even needed Jesus to suffer and die. It all depends on what we think the will or the cup of the Father is for Jesus. If it is, as the hymn sings, “to die,” then that is quite clear and final. However, if, as argued earlier, the will of God is that we are faithful, hopeful, and loving, then Jesus’ prayer is about the Father strengthening and emboldening the Son to stay on the Way, to speak and be the Truth, and to witness to the Life, even if it costs him his own. Such a life of transparent goodness is never easy; it always involves a cup of suffering. In the garden scene we have Jesus becoming aware of his impending doom and struggling to finally claim the power to confront death and destruction and sin head-on. Jesus’ anguish at whatever might be his fate is an entirely human response, one that consoles all of us as we face our own anxieties.

And think about what we have done to the cross of Christ. Many of us now wear small crosses and crucifixes in rolled gold. platinum, or sterling silver. They dangle around our necks or from our earlobes… This provocative and contemporary image brings home what Paul calls the scandal or “foolishness” of the cross (1 Cor 1:18—26). The cross of Christ is not a fashion accessory, no matter how many of them Madonna and Eminem wear. Looking upon it should still take our breath away, not only because it shows us how far Jesus was prepared to go in establishing his reign of justice and love in this world, but also because it spells out the cost for all of us who follow his Way, speak his Truth, and live his Life. This should be as radical and threatening now as it was in the first century. For those of us who put on a cross, and for everyone who carries one, we want to answer Christ’s question, “How far will you go out of love in following me?” with the same answer he gave the Father, and us, “I will go to the end. I will see it through, no matter the cost.”

I like creative and stirring arrangements of “How Great Thou Art.” I am very happy to sing strongly about how we can wander through the woods and glades and praise “all the worlds Thy Hands have made.” And in the final verse, I sing more loudly than anyone about “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation and take me home what joy shall fill my soul.” It is just verse three. Because I take popular theology seriously, I cannot and will not sing it because I hope the verse, and the bloodthirsty God behind it, just isn’t true. In fact, what makes God great is that he wants nothing to do with death.
Here is an Elvis version of How Great Thou Art. It leaves that third verse out...


crystal said...

Hi Jeff. Nice post :)

Jeff said...

Thanks Crystal. It very nice to see a comment from you again!