Tag Archives: jesus

Harm Is Not Justice On Earth Or In Heaven

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.  

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Resurrection: Fact vs. Meaning

I used to be quite consumed by the question of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. I read books, scoured websites, and listened to lectures from Christian apologists who assured me that the resurrection was an indisputable fact I could believe in with full confidence. This was helpful because I knew I had to believe in the resurrection to qualify for the rights and privileges of being a Christian.

Except, well, let’s just say that getting serious about scholarship and history doesn’t make it any easier to believe in the resurrection. One learns that the sciences don’t have much to say about miracles, except that they just don’t have very much to say about miracles. The selective “science” offered by Christian apologetics may be well-intended, but it does believers no favors by pretending to give them solid evidence for something that ultimately comes down to faith.

Today I’m far less concerned with proving the resurrection than I am with pondering it and feeling it. You can believe in something spectacular and impossible to your dying breath, never doubting or asking questions, but what’s the point if it doesn’t mean anything relevant or good?

So I leave the question of history and fact aside, except to say this: The best historical analysis can do (and has done, I think) is to demonstrate with some certainty that the earliest Christians really believed that Jesus had been miraculously raised from death. That’s as far as science can possibly go. To go any further and attempt to CSI the resurrection is to waste a lot of time and effort that could be redirected to more constructive questions, like “what does resurrection even mean?” The meaning of Easter as the climax of the Christian story has become far more important to me than a misguided attempt to prove it like a math problem.

Here are some brief thoughts and observations about the meaning of the resurrection that might be helpful to anyone trying to wrap their heads around it:

  • Resurrection should represent a vindication of everything Jesus taught.
    This makes good sense though it is rarely articulated. A prophet comes along and tells us what the world is like, what God is like, and how we should treat each other in light of these things. We tell him to shut up and he won’t so we kill him. If God brings that prophet back to life, the things he said will surely take on a new significance. If Jesus lives, so do his ideas! Strange then how many Christians actually devalue and diminish the teachings of Jesus precisely because of their strong focus on the resurrection.
  • Resurrection would confirm what Jesus said about the character of God.
    Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus ought to confirm and privilege his vision of an endlessly forgiving and merciful God against any competing visions of God, even those found in scripture. 
  • Resurrection constitutes a peaceful revelation rather than a violent takeover.
    In the ancient world, by all accounts, a vindicated prophet with God on his or her side would surely be an unstoppable agent of revenge and retribution. Instead, we have a story about a prophet who comes back quietly to announce “Peace!” to his friends.
  • Resurrection would put a crack in the otherwise impenetrable strongholds of suffering and death.
    I don’t want to take this one too far. There are Christians who “claim” the power of the resurrection to ward off and deny the ongoing realities of human suffering and death. That is an unhelpful delusion. But the story of the resurrection invites us to think and hope beyond the grim inevitabilities of life as we know it, and to imagine a world that has been infiltrated by divine life and healing.
  • Resurrection makes every innocent victim the hero of their own story.
    Oh, this one is good. As suggested above, the resurrection story is about the surprising revelation of the true and peaceful character of God. In terms of anthropology and religion, this means that God looks at human violence, ritual, and scapegoating and sides with the victim rather than the perpetrator. This is the one-two punch of Good Friday and Easter: first our sinful tendency to deal with our problems by blaming and killing innocents is forever exposed by the cross, and then God vindicates the innocent one in full view of the world which hated them. The “founding myth” of all human society, the sacrificing of the innocent to purge evil, is overturned and undone.
  • Resurrection hints at a brighter future.
    For most Christians today, the major ramification of the resurrection is the promise of a glorious afterlife in heaven. As pervasive as this belief is, it is actually not an explicit aspect of the gospel resurrection stories. Jesus doesn’t come back selling tickets to heaven, he’s concerned instead with the proliferation of his teachings on earth. Elsewhere, for the apostle Paul, Easter is seen as a vindication of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15), but even this is not about “going to heaven” in the way we think. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did saw a future for humankind here on earth, not in some far away spiritual realm. Christians would do well to embrace Easter as a beacon of hope for humanity rather some escapist fantasy. 

This list could be labeled “finding meaning in the resurrection” or even “why I believe in the resurrection.” Because I do believe it. Not with a closed-fisted certainty or a delusional superiority, but as someone who really hopes with all of my heart and mind that this is what the universe is really like.

I want to believe in this story. Not in the twisted version where a cruel God rewards a small remnant of humanity for believing in certain impossible things, but the story of heaven answering human cruelty with pardon and miraculous new life. The story where the violence of sin and religion is met with divine pardon and peace.

“Proving” the resurrection is a sticky proposition and a waste of time. This is a job for hope and imagination.

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Good Friday Is (Mostly) Bad

If you’d asked me ten years ago why the commemoration of the torture and death of Jesus is called “Good Friday,” without hesitation I would have rattled off an answer about the good and necessary things that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross for my sins. There was little nuance or irony in my understanding of the event or its observance, it all made perfect sense thanks to doctrine and theology. Jesus knew he had to die, he died, and that was a very good thing. Even his killers were, in some sense, just fulfilling an important duty that had been prophesied since ancient times. 

Today I want to toss all of that aside and recover the bitter tragedy of Jesus’ death.

It’s worth noting that the name “Good Friday” is a holdover from a time when “good” was a synonym for “holy,” not a comment on the value or efficacy of the event. In Germany, for example, the same observance is called Karfreitag, “Sorrowful Friday,” a name far more suited to the day. This is a day of harrowing loss and deep regret, not triumph or accomplishment.

While most Christians appreciate the pathos of the crucifixion as a dramatic downbeat before the glory of resurrection, many are baffled by the suggestion that Jesus’ death was anything other than a smashing success. Our doctrines of atonement and salvation and our retroactive appeals to “God’s plan” make the crucifixion little more than a pageant, a religious ritual manipulated by Jesus to trigger some sort of cosmic legal transaction.

I believe that we ought to see Jesus’ death for what it was: the unjust scapegoating and murder of an innocent victim by reckless powers of religion and empire. It was a scandalous and hateful event that did nothing more to please God or fulfill a theological need than any other human perversion of justice in history. To suggest otherwise is at least absurd, if not libelous toward the character of God.

Doesn’t The Bible Say That Jesus Had To Die?

A quick Google search for “why did Jesus have to die” reveals a mountain of detailed and footnoted Christian explanations of how and why the crucifixion was theologically necessary according to scripture. There is no single Bible verse that says “Jesus had to die because X,” so these presentations must cherry pick verses from popular passages on death and atonement like Isaiah 53, Hebrews 9, and Romans (though seldom from the gospels). They conclude that “God cannot let sin go unpunished” or that “only a perfect sacrifice could pay for sin.” This is the Protestant commitment to sacrificial logic, to the belief that God could only “deal with sin” by orchestrating the ultimate sacrificial death. 

There are at least two major errors in this view of the cross, apart from the way it plays with proof texts. First, it ignores and undermines Jesus’ peaceful and anti-sacrificial vision of the divine. Second, it dehumanizes and mystifies an event that ought to be a horrifying outrage. This sort of doctrinally-motivated revisionism turns Jesus’ bold but tragic self-sacrifice into a cosmic charade, a religious ritual that perpetuates the lie of divine wrath and bloodlust. If Jesus had to die, it was because of human treachery, not biblical necessity.

Why Good Friday Must Be Bad

There is a massive irony in the way Christians have emptied the crucifixion of its messy human drama. By imagining that Jesus was knowingly fulfilling some cosmic plan of salvation, and by even suggesting that the human perpetrators of Jesus’ execution might be agents of that holy plan, we forfeit the opportunity to see the crucifixion as a grotesque real-world collision of human sin and divine mercy. We’ve traded genuine horror, heartbreak, and a real chance at self-reflection for more dubious religious ritual.

Why and how has this happened? Because modern Christians are not nearly as outraged by empire and religious scapegoating as the Bible’s authors are, and because we are far too comfortable with the notion of a God who uses violence to solve problems. The passion story is not about heavenly powers coming down to earth to fight a battle in the body of a man, it’s about divine mercy and pardon revealed amid human injustice and hate. These two do not swirl together, holy violence producing divine mercy. The violence is human, and the mercy is divine. 

Good News On a Bad Day

The murder of Jesus was a heinous sin, like the scapegoating and murder of every innocent victim in history, and where was God? Not pulling strings or drinking it in but suffering, dying, and announcing forgiveness upon his killers. This merciful posture is God’s role in the crucifixion, not complicity or wrath. And this is the only thing that can be called “good” about Good Friday: that amid the blood and filth of human violence and scapegoating, God is revealed in the sufferer and not the killer, in humility rather than conflict, and in pardon instead of retribution. This is the good news in Good Friday, a hint of the glory of Easter obscured now by loss and sorrow.

I am profoundly grateful that Jesus gave himself, that he died in solidarity with every victim of sin, declaring pardon for every perpetrator of sin. I am moved and struck dumb by the courage and mercy of the crucified Messiah. But I refuse to call his death “good,” and I am appalled by the notion that such a senseless tragedy might have been necessary. If it was inevitable, it was not because of prophecies or God’s plan, it was because of the madness of a world that cannot abide the embodiment of divine peace and forgiveness. And if Jesus achieved anything, it was not to satisfy God’s wrath or provide magic blood for an efficacious sacrifice, he succeeded in exposing our addiction to violence and scapegoating and revealing the unexpected divine pardon that is our only hope.

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Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 2: Away From Me!

In part one of this series I examined two gospel passages commonly used to suggest that Jesus advocated (sword-based) violence. That post was basically an apologetic, as I sought to demonstrate that the ethos and message of Jesus was consistently and inherently nonviolent. But it’s important to note that apology is not my default approach to every troublesome Bible text. In this case, I strongly believe that the true sense of the texts in question had been misunderstood and needed correcting. But in general, I am not committed to defending the Bible at all cost. I am open to being challenged and corrected, and I am willing to learn from or ultimately even to disagree with the text. The material today will put this to the test.

Many Christians, in service to inerrancy and systematic theology, accept apparent tensions and contradictions in the Bible as part of some grand, unifying plan. When it comes to Jesus, many Christians have no problem acknowledging that he was a teacher of peace, even as they have no doubt he will return to earth riding a wave of fire and retribution. Round one may have been all hugs and back pats, but round two will be a different story.

For the most part, this tense view of a peaceful-but-eventually-violent Jesus comes from contrasting what the gospels report about Jesus with what other New Testament texts (eg. 1 Thessalonians or Revelation) say about his return. But even in the gospels, Jesus offers his own vision of the “coming age,” replete with dramatic prophetic imagery. Since this series is concerned with the presentation of Jesus in the gospels, we will focus on his apocalyptic sayings, especially some in Matthew which seem to promise violence. Continue reading

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The Heart of American Christianity Isn’t Jesus, It’s Winning

There has been a lot of talk this week about the term “evangelical” and whether or not it can be “saved.” I really couldn’t give a rip about that, to be honest. It’s just a label, a word, and one that has less than ever to do with the actual gospel of Jesus. So, whatever. What’s far more important and meaningful to me is the question that underlies that debate about nomenclature: the sorry state of American Christianity. When people ask if “evangelical” has lost its meaning, they are really asking if there’s anything left in American Christianity that can still be called “Christian.”

Many unflattering things can be said of American Christianity. It is combative. It is arrogant. It tends toward nationalism. It is obtusely focused on a hypothetical future and reckless in the present. It is more eager to be certain than it is to be kind. It is quick to demand respect and obedience but slow to listen or learn.

Put simply, American Christianity is obsessed with winning. It has inherited this ethos from the national culture, so that the “American” aspect far outweighs the “Christian” one.

Win. Be right. Dominate. Influence. Favor in this life, reward in the next.

How did these become values of people who claim to follow Jesus? Consider the ways American Christianity has compromised and contradicted the vision of God and humanity set forth by Jesus:

  • We have been paralyzed by dogma and tradition while our neighbors are dying.
  • We have defended our own rights to security and self defense while justifying the exploitation and suffering of others.
  • We have treated beloved children of God like subhuman enemies because of abstract ideological and doctrinal differences.
  • We have hoarded possessions and wealth while children starve to death.
  • We have become mired in nationalism and right wing politics instead of loving our enemies and advocating for the marginalized.
  • We have exploited the Holy Spirit as a source of personal power instead of the abiding and peaceful presence of Jesus.
  • We have obsessed over a cosmic and vengeful Jesus instead of honoring the humble Jesus who taught peace and self-sacrifice.

When did winning become more important than grace and truth? When did we commit ourselves to victory at any cost? When did we forget that we follow one who died for others, who forfeited glory and retaliation and then announced divine forgiveness to his own murderers?

There is no point in defending your identity as a follower of Jesus if everything you believe and do explicitly mocks him. How did this happen? How did we lose Jesus? How do we get him back?

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Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 1: So Many Swords!

From the earliest days of Christianity, mercy and nonviolence have been integral to the character and legacy of Jesus as understood by most of his followers. It’s unfortunately true that some of the most popular and influential Christian institutions have diminished or even contradicted this theme, but there have always been prophetic voices calling us back to the fundamentally peace-loving and forgiving ethos of Jesus. For a growing number of Christians today (your humble blogger included) this isn’t just a nice fact about Jesus, that he happened to be a pacifist, it is the very heart and essence of his message, his life, and his revelation of the divine.

Those who seek to challenge or to mitigate Christian nonviolence find plenty of cause to do so in the Bible’s own words. Violent visions of God and judgment aren’t just relegated to the “Old Testament,” they are common in many books of the New Testament, from the letters of Paul and Peter to the politically charged visions of Revelation. If you want a God and a universe which are ultimately and inescapably violent, the Bible’s got you covered. Those of us who espouse nonviolence as the true heart of Christianity – and the true heart of God – do so based almost entirely on the words and person of Jesus as described in the gospels.

And that’s why critics love to throw certain verses from the gospels in our faces. Continue reading

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Jesus and “Family Values”

American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.

There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:

  • A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
  • In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
  • Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
  • Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
  • Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.

Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families

The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).

In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.

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Depravity Follow-Up

Wednesday’s post really seemed to resonate with some people and to irk others. On the one hand, lots of folks seemed to identify with my personal journey away from burdensome and fear-based religious beliefs. Meanwhile, others pointed out that I wasn’t quite describing or analyzing the doctrine of depravity correctly. And guess what? They’re technically right (the best kind of right!).

When I published that post I thought to myself, Someone’s going to tell me that I don’t understand depravity. Someone’s going to explain that depravity relates to the pervasiveness of sin in all aspects of the human condition and has nothing to do with original sin, divine violence, etc.  And that’s true, I suppose, by the book. I took those courses and read those texts. I know what the doctrine of depravity is all about. My post was rather sloppy, I admit, from a doctrinal perspective. I basically used “depravity” as an umbrella for related doctrines about sin guilt and its legal ramifications. I should have been more precise.

But my bigger point, which was also challenged, was about how divine violence is always the elephant-in-the-room with such doctrines, whether they spell it out or not. Ideas like depravity and original sin understand the human dilemma in terms of a desperate legal battle against the cosmic justice machine, an anticipation of divine wrath and violence instead of an embrace of divine forgiveness and mercy. This effectively makes people feel like tiny wads of sputum instead of beloved children of God, and God seem like the ultimate supervillain instead of a loving Father. It’s an arraignment instead of a party. It’s a millstone around the neck instead of a shattered yoke. It’s Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Piper instead of Jesus.

Doctrine has value as both a subjective intellectual analysis of biblical material and a snapshot of how our forebearers in the church responded to their historical circumstances and challenges. The authors of our doctrines, like the authors of scripture before them, are products of specific times and places, and their work reflects a contextual attempt at faithfulness to God and tradition. We benefit from their work, and within our respective traditions it can help to shape our identity and inform our response to our own times and challenges.

But doctrine is no substitute for Jesus. Each generation has the opportunity and the duty to reassess its inherited doctrines in light of who Jesus was and is. This is why I feel not only permitted but obligated to critique and even to reject doctrines which distort or forsake Jesus’ kingdom vision. Clarifying and emphasizing that original spark of divine hope and liberation will always be more important to me than compiling biblical data or balancing my doctrinal ledgers.

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Depravity: The Sickest Thing I Used to Believe

I used to believe that I was so depraved in my mind, heart, and DNA that I deserved to be killed by God, but that Jesus died in my place so I was off the hook, except that I wasn’t really off the hook unless I believed and felt bad and obeyed every word of the Bible forever. I called this “good news.” I didn’t know any better.

Millions of children are taught from a very young age that they are broken and bad, utterly unacceptable to God as they are, and that only a religious negotiation will give them a chance at last-minute salvation. These are not the teachings of some fringe cult, they are the mainstream beliefs of American conservative Christianity.

Like so many harmful doctrines, the belief in “total depravity” (codified by Calvin) is based on a legal conception of the relationship between humans and God as well as a flat and technical reading of an inerrant Bible. When the poets and teachers of scripture describe their personal woes or the sorry state of the their society and world, they say things like “there is no one on earth who is righteous,” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) These powerful and subjective testimonies have somehow become burdensome legalities, a forensic diagnosis of humankind’s “fallen” state. The message behind the doctrine is clear to those living in its shadow: you may think you’re doing OK, but the Bible says you are awful and bad and God can’t even bear to look at you.

A Depraved Doctrine

In the Reformed formula, depravity is the necessary premise for an entire “plan of salvation.” Without a legal status of depravity, the legal solution of Jesus’ blood cannot be efficacious. This mires our Christian faith – which ought to be an open-hearted journey along the Path of Jesus – in the archaic and dangerous logic of blood sacrifice and sacred death.

The pastoral failure of depravity as a doctrine is how it teaches people (especially young people) that they have no worth apart from their legal standing within a religious system and, bad news, your default status within that system is “screwed.” It teaches them to feel bad about who they are, out of the box, and sets them on a lifelong journey of anxiety and self-doubt. Ironically, while the mantra of Reformed theology is that humans play no part in their own salvation, its effect is that of a death sentence for every human being unless they begin to frantically dig themselves out of the pit.

Theologically, depravity and its implications are deeply rooted in a commitment to divine violence and sacrificial religion. This is the notion that from the ancient past God has demanded lifeblood as a payment for human sin, and the expectation of an ultimate future in which God uses violence to set things “right.” In the framework of depravity and substitutionary atonement, the “good news” is that God has provided a loophole out of the inevitable catastrophe for an elect few, but it nevertheless upholds the essential violence of God and of the divine plan. Again, it fails to follow Jesus in envisioning and following after a God who is bigger and better than our broken and bloody systems of justice. It cannot imagine victory or peace without a necessary shedding of blood.

The Alternate Way of Jesus 

Jesus warned his neighbors and followers that they were committed to a path of self-destruction. He invited them to repent of their sinful and violent ways before it was too late. But Jesus saw humans as beloved children of God who had lost their way, not legally damned fodder for the divine bloodlust. He called them back to the loving embrace of a God of peace and reconciliation, not into a legal machine that might make them conditionally acceptable to a violent God through substitution and sacrifice.

Prof. Bernard Ramm is quoted as saying that “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.” We must stop teaching our children that they are inherently deficient and depraved. Jesus points us away from shame and sacrifice and toward joy and peace. The young ones will discover soon enough how compromised and treacherous the world and their own hearts might be. Let’s be ready to encourage and affirm them as recipients and agents of God’s rescuing love in a world that needs them. This is the path of Jesus. Violence and depravity are the other path.

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Reframing the Question of Jesus and Divinity

In today’s post I’m not particularly interested in the academic question of whether or not Jesus thought of himself as divine, or of how early the ancient church came to identify him with/as God. I’m more concerned with the modern side of history and what it might mean for us to say that Jesus is or isn’t divine. In fact, I’d like to sketch out two basic models for understanding the “divinity” of Jesus, a traditional authoritarian model and a more subversive model grounded in faith and risk.

The Authoritarian Appeal to the Divinity of Jesus

The classic church approach to this question is, like so many of our traditions, grounded in an authoritarian appeal to an inerrant Bible. A flat, literal, uncritical reading of scripture yields a systematic (and schizophrenic) concept of God which is then retrofitted onto Jesus of Nazareth. Our knowledge of “the God of the Bible” comes first, and then Jesus comes along to confirm and endorse it. In this model, believing that Jesus is God becomes one of many Christian shibboleths, like inerrancy or creationism, load-bearing doctrines that must be affirmed lest the entire house of cards should topple. Continue reading

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