"It is a wisdom that none of the masters of this age have ever known, or they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory." - 1 Corinthians 2:8
The doctrine of the cross is the great interpretative key that makes many things clear, at least for Christians, but perhaps also for history. It's no accident that we have made the cross the Christian logo, because in the
revelation of the cross, many great truths become obvious and even overwhelming, yet not so obvious beforehand. I guess that is what we mean by the "revelation of a mystery" that Paul speaks of in the quote above.
Crux probat omnia was a statement used by some early systematic theologian. Translated, it says, "The cross proves everything." This might seem like an overstatement or like more Christian triumphalism. But once you see the crucifixion event as an iconic symbol clarifying the very nature of God, the core human dilemma, and the essential religious agenda, one can see how true the statement is. Let's try to see why we would claim so much wisdom from one event. Trust me on this one, and stay with me, if you will.
There was a book, out of print now, written by Sebastian Moore. It was entitled The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger. I was haunted by that title because I realized, certainly for me and for many people I have worked with, the crucified Jesus was no stranger to their souls at all. It had little to do with the traditional atonement theories and everything to do with their inner lives, and their attempts to make sense out of the tragic history of the world. The mystery of Jesus crucified names and releases the lives and even the deaths of many who live on our planet.
Those who "gaze upon" (John 19:37) the crucified long enough with contemplative eyes are always healed at deep levels of pain, unforgiveness, aggressivity and victimhood. It demands no theological education at all, just an "inner exchange" by receiving the image within and offering one's soul back in safe return. No surprise that C. G. Jung is supposed to have said that a naked man nailed to a cross is perhaps the deepest archetypal symbol in the Western psyche.
The crucified Jesus certainly is no stranger to human history either. He offers, at a largely unconscious level, a very compassionate meaning system for history. The mystery of the rejection, suffering, passion, death and raising up of Jesus is the interpretative key for what history means and where it is all going. Without such cosmic meaning and soul significance, the agonies and tragedies of humanity feel like Shakespeare's "sound and fury signifying nothing." The body can live without food easier than the soul can live without such meaning.
If all these human crucifixions are leading to some possible resurrection, and are not dead-end tragedies, this changes everything. if God is somehow participating in human suffering, instead of just passively tolerating it and observing it, that also changes everything-at least for those who are willing to "gaze" contemplatively.
We Christians are given the privilege to name the mystery rightly and to know it directly and consciously, but in many ways we have not lived it much better than many other religions and cultures. All humble, suffering souls learn this from God, but the Christian Scriptures named it and revealed it to us publicly and dramatically in Jesus. It all depends on whether you have "gazed" long enough and deep enough. Call it prayer.
Our patterns of violence and alienation pretty much match and often surpass those of non-Christian peoples. In fact, Rene Girard says that because our justifications for war and hatred were taken away from us by the Gospel, we are actually more culturally unstable than others. We are caught in the double bind of approach and avoidance. We kill just as much as others, but do feel a bit guilty about it. I guess that is a good start, anyway. But such guilt has not kept Christian nations from our own rather consistent patterns of scapegoating and violence.
But before we leap to Jesus, let's look at some earlier biblical figures to see how the stage is both prepared and set for the Jesus "saga" that we now take as normative. Jacob's son, Joseph, is thrown into the well by his own brothers, and then rescued (Genesis 37:20-28). The prophet Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern by the civil leaders after he preaches retreat and defeat, and rescued by a eunuch. (Jeremiah 38:6-13). Jonah of course is swallowed by the whale and then spit up on the right shore. (Jonah 2:1-11). The whole people are sent into exile in Babylon and then released and allowed to return by Cyrus, the King of Persia (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). Enslavement and exodus is the great Jewish lens through which history is read.
Add to that the story of Job as one unjustly but trustfully suffering and restored (Job 42:9-17), and the four "Servant Songs" of lsaiah 42-53, of one who suffers in a way that is vicarious, redemptive and life-giving for others. The Jewish psyche and expectation is gradually formed by these stories and images. Clearly they were known by Jesus, and he evidently sees himself as representing this pattern in his talks to his disciples.
Three times, for example, in Mark's Gospel he makes it clear that this is his destiny, although it is always either misunderstood or outrightly rejected by the apostles themselves (Mark 8:31 ff., 9:30 ff., 10:32 ff.), just as you and I reject and fear any language of descent.
The pattern of down and up, loss and renewal, enslavement and liberation, exile and return, transformation through darkness and suffering has become quite clear in the Hebrew Scriptures, and you do not need to wait for the New Testament. Jesus will use his Jonah symbol and say, "it is the only sign he is going to give" (Luke 11:29). It almost seems like Jonah in the belly of the whale was Jesus' own metaphor for what would later become the doctrine of the cross.
The theological term for this classic pattern of descent and ascent was coined by Saint Augustine as "the paschal mystery." We now proclaim it publicly at every Eucharist as "the mystery of faith"!
So how does this happen? How does the victim transform us? How does the Lamb of God "take away" our sin (John 1:29), to use the common metaphor? How does Jesus "overcome death and darkness," as we often say? Is it just a heavenly transaction on God's side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side?
Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him "The Savior of the World"? John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, "This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over all death!"
Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing what is the real sin of the world (ignorant attacking and killing, not purity codes), by refusing the usual pattern of attacking and killing back, and,
in fact, "returning their curses with blessings" (Luke 6:27), then finally by teaching us that we can "follow him" in doing the same.
At that point, the human tragedy is over, at least in "yeast" form, which is exactly what he offers. He has set the inevitable in motion. Both the lie and the strategy have been revealed in one compelling action on God's part. It is not that Jesus is working some magic in the sky that "saves the world from sin and death." Jesus is working some magic in history that redefines its direction forever. Jesus is not changing his Father's mind about us; he is changing our mind about what is real and what is not.
When I was a little boy, my family had one of those common statuettes of the three monkeys, and Mother told me it meant, "See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" with each monkey covering the appropriate body part. It felt right to me, and I tried to do just that.
But this is not God's plan for overcoming evil, not at all. He did not come to merely offer us willpower and an upstanding moral education. That is more Confucianism than Christianity. There is nothing wrong with intellect and will, but I want you to compare the three monkeys image with the image of Jesus crucified, and feet, the huge difference. The monkeys are good conventional wisdom; the cross is absolutely subversive wisdom that came from God.
Jesus on the cross identifies with the human problem, the sin, the darkness. He refuses to stand above or outside the human dilemma. Further, he refuses to be the scapegoater, and instead becomes the scapegoat personified. In Paul's language, "Christ redeemed us from the curse ... by being cursed himself" (Galatians 3:13); or "God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him [together with him!] We might become the very goodness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Wow! Just gaze upon that mystery for a few years!
Like most spiritual things, it cannot be understood with any dualistic or rational mind, but only at the level of soul. It is a transformational image and message that utterly rearranges one's reality and idea of the very nature of God. Evil is not overcome by attack or even avoidance, but by union at a higher level. It is overcome not by fight or flight, but rather by "fusion''!
In Jesus we have a confluence of three sacred healing images: the Passover lamb, which is the presentation of the innocent victim (Exodus 12); the "Lifted-up One," which is the homeopathic curing of the victim
(Numbers 21:6-9); and, finally, the scapegoat ritual, wherein we have the presentation of the rejected victim (Leviticus 16) whom we beat into the desert, with our sins, to die.
The victim state has been the plight of most people who have ever lived on this earth, so in all three cases we see Jesus identifying with humanity at its most critical and vulnerable level. It is God in solidarity with the pain of the world, it seems, much more than the Omnipotent One who, with a flick of the hand, overcomes all pain. Let's look at all of them to unpack these rich images of compassion and transformation.
During the Holy Thursday celebration each year we read from Exodus 12:1-14. It tells each family that every year, on the tenth day of Nisan, they should pick out a perfect little lamb without any spot or blemish and take it to their home and then, on the fourteenth day, kill it!
Now if any of you have children, you would know what's happened in four days time with a cute little lamb in the house. Your children have fallen in love with it, and probably have even named it. This little lamb becomes part of the family. So, in the Passover commemoration we have an image of the death of something good, innocent and even loved.
What could that symbolize? I personally think it is an image of the ego, or the false self, which always feels good, adequate and even innocent. It is not something that looks evil that has to die bur, in fact, something that feels like "me"! It is exactly who I think I am; it is what I deem necessary for my identity; it is what I cannot live without. It is these seemingly essential and good things-when let go of-that break us through into much deeper levels of life!
Jesus on the cross is not an image of the death of the bad self but, in fact, the self that feels essential, right and necessary-but isn't necessary at all! It's the image of Jesus who was only thirty-three years old and had not even gotten started on his mission, the misunderstood and misinterpreted Jesus, the oppressed Jesus. There were all kinds of good justice arguments he could have made. He had every good reason to play the victim card or the blaming card, bur he was not attached to this petty, false self. You will know this to be true at your greatest moments of conversion. It is invariably our deep attachment to this false and passing self that leads us into our greatest illusions and even sins. It is precisely this "lamb" that has to be killed, our self-image as innocent, right and sufficient.
To understand Jesus in a whole new way, you must first know that Christ is not his last name, but his transformed identity after the Resurrection-which takes humanity and all of creation along in its sweet path. Jesus became the Christ, and included us in this identity.
That's why Paul will create the new term "the body of Christ," which clearly includes all of us. So think of the good Jesus, who has to die to what seems like him so that he can rise as the Christ. It is not a "bad" man who must die on the cross, but a good man ("false self'') so that he can be a much larger man ("True Self''). Jesus dies, Christ rises. The false self is not the bad self; it is just not the true self. It is inadequate, and thus needy and small, symbolized by Jesus' human body, which he let go of.
The second image of the "Lifted-Up One" is the image from Moses and the bronze serpent in the desert that became the symbol for doctors and healers. In the book of Numbers, Yahweh tells Moses to raise up a serpent on a standard, and "anyone who has been bitten by a serpent and looks upon it will be healed" (21:8). The very thing that was killing them is the thing that will heal them!
I would ask you to consider the crucifix as a homeopathic image, like those medicines that give you just enough of the disease so you could develop a resistance and be healed from it. The cross dramatically reveals the problem of ignorant killing, to inoculate us against doing the same thing.
Salvation history seems to lead people into the very darkness that they seek to overcome. There they learn its real character, and how to unlock it from inside. John sees it as what Jesus is doing on the cross (John 3:13; 8:28; 12:31; 19:37).
Jesus becomes the seeming problem and the homeopathic cure for the same-by dramatically exposing it for what it is, "parading it in public" (Colossians 2:15) for those who have eyes to see, and inviting us to gaze upon 'it with sympathetic understanding. This, I believe, is "the wisdom that none of the masters of the age have ever known-or they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory" (Corinthians 1:8). Amazing that we still are so ready to trust the masters of this age instead of him crucified.
This deep gazing upon the mystery of divine and human suffering is found in the prophet Zechariah in a very telling text that became a prophecy for the transformative power of the victims of history. He calls Israel to "Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son," and "weep for him as for a firstborn child," and then "from that mourning" (five times repeated) will flow "a spirit of kindness and prayer" (12:10) and "a fountain of water" (13:1; 14:8).
Today this is perhaps what we would call "grief work," holding the mystery of pain and looking right at it and learning deeply from it, which normally leads to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding. The hospice movement and the exponential growth in bereavement ministries throughout many of the churches are showing this to be true, but look how long it has taken us to rediscover such wisdom.
I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God's heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.
John's Gospel seems to see it this way, since he quotes this verse from Zechariah at the crucifixion scene (John 19:37) and seems to refer to it in the "breast from which flows fountains of living water" (7:38). They pierce the crucified Jesus' side and from it flows forth blood and water (19:34). Remember, those are two bookmark images, the blood being the price of letting go and the water being the invitation to union and divine feeding. Such images as these have been central to many, if not most, of our Catholic mystics. They cannot be unimportant for the soul.
I very much agree with Carl Jung, who said that transformation at the deeper levels happens in the presence of images much more than through concepts. This is a difficulty for both Protestantism and Islam, in my opinion. Good art seems absolutely essential to healthy religion. Jews use the "art" of storytelling and midrash.
Jesus as Scapegoat
The third image deserves a bit more treatment, because it is central to understanding the very engines of history, and how Jesus resets that enigma.
What has happened in human history is this. We have always needed to find a way to deal with human anxiety and evil by some means-and it was invariably some "technology" other than forgiveness. We usually dealt with human anxiety and evil by sacrificial systems, and that has largely continued to this day. Something has to be sacrificed. Blood has to be shed. Somebody has to be killed. Someone has to be blamed, accused, attacked, tortured or imprisoned-or there has to be capital punishment-because we just don't know how to deal with evil without sacrificial systems. It always creates religions of exclusion and violence, because we think it is our job to destroy the evil element. Remember, both communism and fascism thought the same, from inside their logic.
Historically, we at least moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice, to various modes of seeming self-sacrifice. Unfortunately it was not usually the ego self that we sacrificed, but most often the body self as its vicarious substitute. In forgiveness, it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught. I am told that forgiveness is at least implied in two-thirds of his teaching!
As long as you can deal with evil by some other means than forgiveness, you will never experience the real meaning of evil and sin. You will keep projecting it over there, fearing it over there and attacking it over there, instead of "gazing" on it within and "weeping" over it within all of us.
The longer you gaze, the more you will see your own complicity in and profitability from the sin of others, even if it is the satisfaction of feeling you are on higher moral ground. Forgiveness is probably the only human action that demands three new "seeings" at the same time: I must see God in the other, I must access God in myself, and I must see God in a new way that is larger than "an Enforcer." That is a whole new world on three levels at once.
We are the only religion in the world that worships the scapegoat as God. In worshiping the scapegoat, we should gradually learn to stop scapegoating, because we also could be utterly wrong, just as "church" and state, high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome, the highest levels of discernment were utterly wrong in the death of Jesus. He was the very one that many of us call the most perfect man who ever lived! If power itself can be that wrong, then be careful whom you decide to hate, kill and execute. Power and authority itself is not a good guide, if we are to judge by history. For many, if not most people, authority takes away all of their anxiety, and often their own responsibility to form a mature conscience.
Much of history has been determined by powerful people telling us whom to fear and hate. Millions of soldiers have given their only lives have given their only lives by believing the lies of Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, to name a few. If only they had not believed "the masters of the age" and had gazed upon the victim whom first-century Palestine was also taught to fear and hate. He offered us what some call "the intelligence of the victim," a unique intelligence from the bottom and the side and the edge of history. That's God's hiding place, the Scriptures seem to be saying.
Jesus took away the sin of the world, by exposing it first of all as different than we imagined, and letting us know that our pattern of ignorant killing, attacking and blaming is in fact history's primary illusion, its primary lie. Then he shared with us a Great Participative Love, which would make it possible for us not to hate at all. The game was over after Jesus, at least for those who gazed long enough.
We all had to face the embarrassing truth that we ourselves are our primary problem. Our greatest temptation is to try to change other people instead of ourselves. Jesus allowed himself to be transformed and thus transformed others!
Here are what the Three Transformative Images can achieve in the soul, and which come together in the image of a crucified man/God:
1. The Scapegoat-Shocking revelation of the essential human lie that underlies most fear, hatred and violence. As long as we project our evil elsewhere, we cannot heal it here-or there.
2. The Passover Lamb-Surprising revelation that it is not the so-called bad things that we have to let go of, nearly as much as the things that appear good and make us feel strong, secure and superior. This is the "lamb" that must be sacrificed, an apparent good.
3· "The Pierced One" that must be gazed upon.
a. The accessing and forgiving of our own humanity as wounded and yet resurrected at the same time.
b. The reshaping of God from an omnipotent dictator to a participating Lover.
c. The effective understanding of both the Scapegoat mechanism and the Passover Lamb.
d. The release of immense reserves of compassion, solidarity and forgiveness of ourselves, others, history and even God.
Atonement: Did Jesus need to "die for our sins"?
Most Christians--Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant-- do not realize that what is commonly accepted as the mainline opinion on Jesus' death as an atonement or heroic "sacrifice" of some type--was not the only Christian opinion in earlier centuries. Most assumed that a debt or sacrifice had to be paid to someone for some reason. Some said to the devil, Saint Anselm said to God the Father, while others like Peter Abelard were not sure why either was necessary.
This "Atonement Theory" was a subject open to debate as the universities appeared on the scene. The Franciscan spokesman and scholar was a Scotsman whom we now know as Blessed John Duns Scotus
(1266- 1308). He held the early theology chairs at Oxford and Cologne, after studying at the University of Paris.
He is known as the "subtle doctor" of the church. Such subtlety is surely exemplified in his teaching on Saint Anselm's (1033- II09) famous writing, Cur Deus Homo? ("Why Did God Become a Human Being?").
Duns Scotus did not question God's redemptive work in Jesus, but only the precise "how?" and "what?" of it. How did God transfer transformative love to humanity? Not if, but what is the precise nature of Jesus’ redemption? And why the strange metaphors of "debt" and "payment of price"?
Our Franciscan interpretation was never condemned or denied by the orthodox Catholic tradition and was considered a legitimate "minority position." When the Reformation occurred, the Protestant reformers largely accepted and even furthered the "majority position" (necessary blood sacrifice, or atonement), rather uncritically. This opinion was, of course, developed by early church fathers, and later by Saint Anselm, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the mainline Catholic tradition.
This very issue is an example of two telling patterns: Catholicism was once more broad-minded. It allowed for alternative interpretations of doctrine more often before the Reformation than it does today. Second, the Protestant Reformation often either reacted to--or continued with-popular Catholicism much more than it realized.
In short and simple form, John Duns Scotus was not swayed or limited by the numerous metaphors of ransom, debt, redemption, "buying," blood sacrifice, payment of price (the Hebrew goel), "purchased in blood" vocabulary that we frequently find in the Bible, in both the New and the Old Testament.
Recognizing he was primarily a philosopher, I would assume that Scotus saw them for the metaphors that they were: images that would have spoken powerfully to a people formed by temple sacrifice, animal offerings, a quid-pro-quo kind of mind. The biblical text, after all, did use frequent sacrificial imagery, and even images of divine vengeance, from Genesis to Revelation.
Duns Scotus saw these metaphors as limited because they made God's redemptive action a "reaction" based on human sin instead of God's perfect and utterly free initiative of love. This he could not tolerate. God is in charge of history, Scotus knew; not us and surely not our sinfulness.
These sacrificial and atonement metaphors would have appealed, or even seemed necessary, to a judicial mind uncomfortable with the concept of forgiveness. They would have made sense to any dualistic mind that prefers tit-for-tat explanations. Jesus came to change all of that, of course. That's where we get our central concept of grace. Duns Scotus' systematic philosophy and theology was utterly committed to protecting the perfect freedom of God, and also the necessary inner freedom of each creature.
The freedom of the will (to love!) was a higher attribute than knowledge for the "Subtle Doctor" and his followers. This differentiated the Franciscan from the Dominican school, which Aquinas, the Dominican, represented. The Franciscan and Dominican schools were almost the official "debating society" of that time.
I would like to think Duns Scotus got his concept of free will from the concepts of biblical election and chosenness, those concepts discussed above. Choice is absolutely free and arbitrary on God's part, and
not in any way rational or determined.
John Duns Scotus, however, was more in harmony with Colossians and Ephesians. Those would have appealed to his philosophical and aesthetic sense of the whole and of history, more than would any of the literal symbols of sacrificial payment found elsewhere in the Bible.
These letters saw Jesus as the "first image in the mind of God" (Ephesians 1: 3-6, 10-11), which is even further described in the hymn in Colossians 1:I5-20.
Jesus, Scotus said, was not "necessary" to solve any problem whatsoever--he was no mopping-up exercise after the fact--but a pure and gracious declaration of the primordial truth from the very beginning which was called the doctrine of "the primacy of Christ."
The Incarnation of God, in Jesus, gives us the living "icon of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15), who is the template for all else (6), who reconciles all things in himself (1:16), who is the headmaster in a cosmic body that follows after him (1:I8). If I may use a contemporary image: Jesus is the "hologram" for all that is happening in a holographic, constant and repetitive universe (1:19). He is the pattern for all. He does what we also must do, which is why he says, "follow me."
The human Jesus, in other words, is God's preemptive statement to humanity about history and the soul. This "Word of God"--all distilled and focused in one visible life--which is "secretly" Divine but overtly human. Sort of like us!
Let me summarize: Whatever happens to Jesus is what must and will happen to the soul: incarnation, an embodied life of ordinariness and hiddenness, initiation, trial, faith, death, surrender, resurrection and return to God. Such is the Christ pattern that we all share in, either joyfully and trustfully (heaven), or unwillingly and resentfully (hell).
Christ's primacy and pattern is ironically undone and even made unnecessary when all that really matters is the last week of his life. One could get that impression from such movies as Mel Gibson's The Passion
of the Christ.
Instead, "Through his goodness revealed to us in Christ Jesus," he showed us how infinitely rich God is in grace, saving us by pure gift. .. so that we are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it" (Ephesians 2:7-10). Jesus is not the afterthought here, but the forethought, the first thought, the distilled icon of all that God is doing in creation. It says that what God is doing, in the words of Genesis, "is good, very good!"
Jesus Christ is both the medium and the message, therefore (read, "way, truth and life")-all combined in one compelling and convincing human body (Jesus) and cosmic body (Christ)! Jesus is not a ''necessity.” Rather, Jesus is pure gift, grace and glory! And why would a gift be less good than a necessity? "From his fullness (pleroma) we have all received, grace in return for grace .... No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 16:18).
Jesus, of course, communicates this Godself most graphically and dramatically on the cross itself. There we see and learn to trust the free offer of God's love in a brutal yet utterly compelling image. lt's one that assaults the defended psyche, mind and heart. Self-giving "love calls forth love in return," my Father Francis would say.
The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue. The cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation.
We ended up with a God who appears-at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice--and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. As J. Denny Weaver points out in The Nonviolent Atonement, sin becomes the very motive for redemption instead of love, and the very central act of the redemption of the world the very central act of the redemption of the world appears to be based on an act of violence!
The Son of God is presented as reacting, whereas a free and loving God would always act from God's own primordial and eternal truth. Divine love is not determined by the worthiness of the object but by the goodness of the subject. Such problem-based, sin-based Christianity makes for a very uninviting and even unsafe universe to the Franciscan mind.
No wonder mainline Christianity has produced so few mystics and so many detractors. True Christianity beguiles, seduces, invites, cajoles, creates spiritual yearning and draws humanity into ever more desirable mystery, healing and grace.
When Christianity is not rightly mystical (read "experiential"), it always settles for mere moralisms, belief systems and explanations, which invariably reflect a dualistic mind. God instead wants us to become "an altogether new creation" (Galatians 6:16), "with the mind of Christ" (Corinthians 2:16), "friends, not servants" (John 15:15).
Whose mind needs changing?
In Franciscan parlance, once again, Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This grounds Christianity in love and freedom from the very
beginning; it creates a very coherent and utterly attractive religion, which draws people toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing and even universal "at-one-ment," instead of mere sacrificial atonement.
Nothing "changed" on Calvary, but everything was revealed so we could change!
Soon we have an energetic basis for a joy-filled and mystical Christianity, as Franciscanism always preferred. God is not someone we need to fear or mistrust, a nonviolent atonement theory says. ("What will God ask of me if he demands violent blood sacrifice from his only Son?") Our only desire is "to fall into the hands of [such a] living and loving God" (Hebrews 10:31). Bur like any trust fall, first we have to trust the one we are going to fall toward.
Jesus, for us, is the mediator of a Christianity that is much more about divine union than a demanded payoff or a solution to a cosmic problem. Such "ungracious" religion has only led to a kind of false idealization of egotistic self-sacrifice, a quid-pro-quo universe that Jesus himself never taught and even rejected: "Go, learn the meaning of the words, what I want is mercy not sacrifice. I did not come for the virtuous, but for the sick" (Matthew 9:13). After all, suicide bombers are living a much more sacrificial life than most of us, but there is no love! (see Corinthians 13:3).
Jesus was precisely the "once and for all" sacrifice given to reveal the lie and the absurdity of the very notion and necessity of "sacrificial" religion itself. That's much of the point of Hebrews 10 if you are willing to read it with new eyes. But we perpetuated such regressive and sacrificial patterns by making God the Father into the Chief Sacrificer, and basing the very notion of divine redemption on a kind of "necessary violence."
Can God do no better than that? Or were we attracted to such a violent redemption theory to legitimate our own conscious or unconscious desire to be violent? Is dominative power not our humanly preferred way of dealing with our problems? (We must ask that question!) A violent theory of redemption legitimated punitive and violent problem solving all the way down-from papacy to parenting! There eventually emerged a huge disconnect between the founding story and the message of Jesus itself!
If even God uses and needs violence, maybe Jesus did not really mean what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, and we don't have to follow it. Remember, how you get there determines where you finally arrive!
Our bellicose Christian history has made this core problem rather clear. If God solves problems by domination, coercion and violent demand, then we can too. Grace, mercy and eternal generosity are no longer the very shape of God, as the Trinitarian nature of God seemed to say. Free will, grace and love became less admirable than some theoretical cosmic justice, law and blind obedience. We end up making God very small and draw the Godhead into our own ego-driven need for retribution, judicial resolution and punishment. Yet that's exactly what Jesus came to undo!
If God can forgive, then God can forgive! We do not need one major exception where we need atonement and payment of price. But theoretical religion has always been more comfortable with cosmic problem solving than with personal surrender to the healing and transformative mystery of divine love. Healing and forgiveness have not been in the forefront of Christian history, even though these are almost the only things Jesus does.
Sacrificial thinking is in the human hardwiring and has been so glorified in myth, ego and war, that most people are unable to live without some form of blood expiation and vengeance toward problems. Now if the Godself even needs appeasement, atonement and necessary victims--we are in an utterly closed system of supposed redemptive violence. That's exactly the "useless" offerings that most of the prophets, and many of the Psalms (40, 51, 69) railed against.
It has always surprised me that many Catholics, and those who know through story, inner image, prayer and art, are not so invested in any sacrificial atonement theory as those who begin and end with books and texts. In fact, Catholics will say, "What is the atonement theory?" Most do not even get upset if you deny it!
I have a strong opinion why this is true. Although the Dominicans might have formally won the debate back in the thirteenth century, and the Protestants largely followed them, God actually won-through the many who learned how to pray, look and listen. They just gazed upon the crucifix long enough-and they knew. They knew it was all OK. They knew "Jesus died for our sins," but not through any needed heavenly transaction or convincing Bible quotes. They knew it by gazing upon the one that we have pierced, praying from a place of needed mercy and allowing Love which changed them from the bottom up.
They needed no top-down theory. God gazed at them through the suffering and sad eyes of Jesus, and they looked back- and up. Redemption again happened. To stand under is still the best way to understand. You do not need to believe a theory to know God's love.
Cross as Agenda
It all hinges on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is about how to fight and not become a casualty yourself. The cross is about being the victory instead of just winning a victory. It is a way of winning that tries to bring along your opponents with you. The cross is about refusing the simplistic win-lose scenario and holding out for a possible win-win scenario. The cross is refusing to hate or needing to defeat the other because that would be to only continue the same pattern and reciprocate the violence and to stay inside of the inexorable wheel that the world has always called normal.
The cross is very clearly saying that evil is to be opposed but I am willing to hold the tension, the ambiguity, the pain of it, instead of insisting that others do the same. "Resist evil and overcome it with good," as Paul says (Romans 12:21). The cross moves us from the rather universal myth of redemptive violence to a new scenario of redemptive suffering.
On the cross of life we accept our own complicity and cooperation with evil, instead of imagining that we are standing on some pedestal of moral superiority. Jesus identified with what Paul taught: "everyone has sinned" (Romans 5:12) and the Lamb of God had the humility to "become sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21) with us, whereas we pretend to be above it all.
What the mystery of the cross teaches us is how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. Can you feel yourself stretching in both directions--toward God's goodness and also toward recognition of your complicity in evil? If you look at yourself at that moment, you will feel crucified. You hang in between, without resolution, your very life a paradox, held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23- 25).
The goal of nonviolence is always winning the true understanding of the supposed opponent, not his or her humiliation or defeat. It is to facilitate reconciliation, but also to realize, probably sadly, that I, like Jesus, must pay the price for this reconciliation, that "the two might become one," as Ephesians so poetically states (2:13-18). All religion is, in its best moments, making one out of two!
What the mystery of the cross reveals is that the opponent is not so much evil as a symbol of a greater evil of which he or she also is a victim! Please think about that. The mystery of the cross takes a great capacity for empathy and forgiveness, and probably is a sign of "fusion" with God. On the cross we agree to carry that victim status together with Jesus. We agree to bear the burden of human evil, of which we all are victims and all are complicit. It is the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity. We can't do it alone at all, but only by a deep identification with the Crucified One and crucified humanity. Jesus then does it in us, through us, with us and for us. Then we have become his "new creation" (Galatians 5:14-16) and definitely a very different kind of human being.
This is Christianity's unique revelation. We share many things with many religions, but no other world religion has the revelation of the cross. It's called a revelation because it's not something the rational and calculating mind will ever come to it by itself. It's given almost from outside of history because our logical mind doesn't come to it by any rational or dualistic process. The best it can do is to go halfway.
The mystery of the cross is saying that human existence is neither perfectly consistent (though that's what educated, ideological and control-needy people want), nor is it total chaos (our philosophical words for that are post-modernism, nihilism or even atheism). Human existence, though, is filled with contradictions. To hold the contradictions with God, with Jesus, is to be a Christian and to share and participate in the redemption of the world (Colossians 1:24). It feels like a forgiving of reality for being what it is.
If the choices are either perfect consistency or utter chaos, don't go there. The cross is holding the middle. The world is neither particularly consistent nor total chaos; it's a coincidence of opposites, and even geometrically that forms the cross. The price you pay for holding together the contradictions within yourself, others and the world is always some form of crucifixion, but the gift you receive and the gift you offer is that at least in you-"everything belongs. "