This year Holy Week generated more than the typical number of articles and debates about the nature of atonement and the meaning of the cross and Easter. I was happy and gratified to add my voice to the growing chorus of Christians rejecting theologies of wrath and punition, embracing instead the essentiality of divine peace and nonviolence.
Throughout the comment threads and Twitter debates, however, it was clear that traditional perspectives are alive and thriving. A not-so-surprising number of times I saw this response to the proposal of a nonviolent God and/or atonement:
“If you remove violence from God, you remove justice. If you remove justice from God you remove justice from the world, then people will do whatever they want.”
This is not one cranky strawman taking up a contrary position, this is a tried and true axiom espoused routinely by legions of committed Christian theology nerds. And to be honest, as deeply as I disagree with this statement today, it still gets stuck in my throat because, well, I used to think this way. Yes, I used to be that guy.
Here is a paraphrase that I think reveals the problematic assumptions in this formula: The point of justice is to punish people who won’t behave properly, the only way we know to achieve this kind of justice is through violence, and so if God does justice it must also be accomplished through violence.
Can’t we do better than this? If not, can’t God do better?
The False Dilemma of Punishment vs. Doing Nothing
From a conservative Christian perspective, the worst thing we can do is to give people the impression that they are OK as they are, that their sin is not a problem, and that God forgives their sin apart from any mechanism of sacrifice or punishment. This will just encourage them to sin more, denying them the opportunity to “get right with God” and putting them in real danger. Thus the caricature of a progressive/nonviolent theology that shrugs off sin while imagining God as little more than a loving, doting grandfather (or grandmother, sheesh!).
While I’m personally on board with the grandma metaphor, I reject the false binary offered here. God as a violent punisher of sin on the one hand and sin as not a big deal on the other are not the only two options available to us, nor are they mutually exclusive.
What if sin was a big deal, a huge deal, in fact; an undeniable epidemic and an oppressive slavemaster over all of humanity, but God was ALSO good and merciful and eager to pardon our sin apart from any requirement of punishment or sacrifice? This still puts the onus of repentance and righteousness on every one of us, but the threat of harm comes not from God’s hand but from our own commitment to violent and self-destructive habits and agendas? God’s role being only to bless and heal, never to hurt?
Wait, where have I heard this before?
Jesus, Sin, and Justice
I’m just one idiot blathering on the Internet, but isn’t this nuanced view more in tune with the way Jesus talked about sin?
I agree with my conservative friends on this: Jesus did not “look the other way” or downplay the problem of sin. In fact, he was on about it. But that’s also where Jesus departs from the evangelical party line on the issue of sin and justice. Jesus tells people they are guilty of sin and implores them to repent, but he does not tell them that they are depraved, or that God’s wrath burns against them, or that they need a blood sacrifice to cover their sins.
In fact, Jesus preached mercy over sacrifice, rejected the idea that God punished people for sin in this life, and his main metaphor for judgment was a fiery garbage dump where humanity destroys itself with war and violence. For Jesus, sin is an ungodly plague from which we need to be healed and delivered, not a trespass for which we must be harmed for God’s satisfaction.
Maybe God’s Better At Justice Than We Are?
Here on earth, violence is still the tool of choice for enacting justice. We have yet to apply our collective, God-given imagination to the task of discovering more compassionate and restorative ways of responding to danger and sin. But let’s give God some credit. Christians, let’s give Jesus credit for his vision of a God whose posture toward humanity is not threat and punishment but mercy and pardon.
For too long the church has mitigated the theology of Jesus because of its theology about Jesus. Theories of atonement predicated upon divine wrath and sacrifice have overshadowed and supplanted the peaceful and beautiful gospel of Jesus. We should repent of that sin and get back to God.
Have we really believed that a God who can calm storms, heal the sick, transform lives, and even raise the dead cannot forgive sin apart from acts of wrath, whether against guilty sinners or an innocent scapegoat? This might make sense if all we knew was the punitive justice of human tyrants, but we have met Jesus! We have glimpsed a better way, and now we have no excuse.