Yesterday I drove past a neighborhood church sporting the sign, “Jesus paid the price… you can keep the change.” Disconcerting was the dissonance between the progressive denomination (United Church of Christ) and the regressive theology invoked (sacrificial atonement). Having walked away from my life in ministry just weeks earlier, I am loathe to jump into a theological conversation and I initially pass on the bait. “To each their own,” I reply when asked to comment.
Later in the day I received an email from a former colleague, expressing his concern with theological integrity and requesting conversation. Like me, he explains, he believes Jesus about God but does not believe the church about Jesus. With this truth, he asks, how can we stand before congregations uncritically parroting phrases that infer sacrificial atonement? What, he wonders, is the price for claiming that Jesus already paid it?
Before I reply to the theological question, I must confess a personal investment. Despite my dispensing of the church in all formal ways, I find myself showing up to pews on Sunday morning. I try to find places where the words won’t make me cringe, at least not much. I seek places that don’t look tolerantly surprised when I lean into my wife’s open arms. I appreciate signs of multi-ethnic sensitivity and, better yet, presence. Yet I admit that I still unwittingly seek community in houses of worship. And perhaps therein lies an important clue to the relevance of engaging the conversation. As one still experiencing the need for gathered community, I find myself grateful for the conversation and hoping that we can find and create and cobble together some communities that embody the life and teachings of Jesus even as we step away from the trappings of the church.
And step away we must for the trappings are destroying our communities.
I know that once upon at a time it was different. Even as I came into ministry there were still remnants of the glory days, but the past two decades have been brutal on the institution. As institutions face such massive assaults and begin to implode, they are not generally practicing their most compassionate stances. And in all fairness, I don’t know that Christianity ever truly experienced glory days if one is measuring by compassion’s rule. A decade ago, American Christians were invited to two very different movies. The Passion of Christ was Mel Gibson’s gory festival of macabre laud, dripping with almost as much insipid antisemitism as blood. Around the same time, James Carroll published Constantine’s Sword, an important work which looked at the dark side of Christian history (Oren Jacoby later created a movie based on the work). Perhaps it was the collision of these messages that pushed me to a new way of seeing. Perhaps it was the lynching of James Byrd or Matthew Shepard tied in cruciform to the fence that opened my eyes to the cost of our theological constructs. Perhaps it was the company that I was keeping in those years or more like still simply it was my time to see. Regardless, once having seen the tragic cost of our bantying around trite theological platitudes, I saw it everywhere.
To hang a billboard that says, “Jesus paid the price” is to perpetuate a cavalier theology that is commonly known as substitutionary atonement. In a nutshell, it is the idea that humans are intrinsically corrupt, that the supreme deity demands a blood sacrifice, and that Jesus fulfilled that mission. Not only am I a Christian that disagrees with each of these suppositions, I am follower of Jesus who is offended them. But more important than my personal beliefs and even my indignation (however justifiable), these theological beliefs unwittingly shape our cultural norms in ways that lead us further from the compassion that we desperately seek. To repeat these phrases and however unconsciously perpetuate the beliefs is destructive. While it is no doubt comfortable to repeat the prayers and songs we learned as children, to seek a world of compassion while sing about “our Savior” is like subscribing to a new diet program while savoring a Snicker’s bar.
And let’s face it, we allowed original sin and the power of human evil a good long run. These doctrines have reigned in our community consciousness for centuries and given us horrors like the Crusades, the Holocaust. They have insipidly undergirded otherwise atrocious efforts of greed like colonialism, Apartheid and the American holocaust of slavery. Believing in human deficit models and an imposed need for conversion, repentance and salvation, we have built a prison industrial complex, created a tiered education system, and demonized the ones who stray. But all we have to show for it is an earth that is groaning and a people morally exhausted. Business as usual in the church is, I believe, not only counterproductive (ie: the church’s decay) but also specifically destructive. What we need is a new paradigm.
The incredible good news is that such a paradigm is not beyond our reach. Like many people who believe Jesus about God, I seek a spiritual community that shares my belief that people are intrinsically good, that the sacred is immanent and known most fully in compassion, and that Jesus life and teachings embodied this compassion and invite us to do likewise. To share this community, however, we must together be willing to let go of the words, the traditions, the songs, and the trappings which pull us away from the simple goodness to which Jesus pointed.
To my brave colleague who asks the questions, I say simply “yes.”