Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Normative Way of Jesus: Remembering the Cross as More Than an Atonement Theory

The following is something I wrote in April of last year. I usually assume anything I've written before "today" is unenlightened slop -- you know, because at that point I hadn't read this book or heard that idea, so how could I have known anything? -- but upon reading through old posts I found this one instructive, and worth re-engaging, especially as friends posted comments with questions afterwards. Later this week I'll take one of the comments (by Mr. Jason Anderson) and address some of his questions. Enjoy!

(Two notes: First, this was one when my brother Garrett was blogging, so I'm referring to him in the beginning; second, I am resisting the urge to edit the post, so if you find any grammatical errors -- namely, over-italicization -- please ignore.)

(And one more note for your reading pleasure: This post parallels nicely Mark Love's six-part ongoing series on the gospel and atonement, of which this post is a kind of conclusion. Highly recommended.)

- - - - - -

Garrett and I often, I think, sound like we are fighting against an imaginary enemy when we post theological thoughts on our blogs, and I have been reflecting on this lately. I think it stems from our own conversations, usually directed at a view we deem false, and the only way we can perceive as directly addressing the issue is by taking it head on -- almost as if you, the reader, hold said view. For the record, this is never my (or his) intent, and I hope we can do better at moderating our sensitivity by stating thoughts positively instead of against the so-obviously-wrong ideology.

In that spirit, I would like to share something I have been extremely bothered by lately, something I've noticed to be quite widespread. (Having been raised in a household that didn't really see the need to poke holes in everybody else's "wrong" perspectives, I continue to observe and learn well-known attitudes and views about which I was clueless growing up. I say this to my parents' credit.) I am referring to the tendency of Christians to see Jesus' life and death not as the fundamental model for how we are to live our lives, but as some sort of one-of-a-kind super-religious fulfillment of what God demanded as necessary to forgive our sins. If that sounds confusing, allow me to elaborate.

Jesus was a Jew who lived under the oppression of one of the most powerful empires to ever exist on the earth. He was also poor and homeless. When His ministry began to pick up, much of the fervor around Him (especially when He "triumphally" entered Jerusalem) was due to the spirit of revolution in the air. Israel -- the very people of God! -- were oppressed, even after having returned from exile, and surely God would finally, decisively deliver them from the accursed Gentile oppressors! The Zealots were the most radical example of this: they were fundamentalists (not dissimilar to modern-day terrorists) ready to do anything and everything to liberate Zion from the foreign occupiers. Let us remember that at least one (if not more) of Jesus' disicples was a Zealot.

So when this famed prophet starts to gain some popularity, the Jews are ready for God to finally act! And hey, it actually seemed like this guy was legit. Not only was He healing people, helping people, teaching people, etc. -- He was angering the religious elite, which was always a sign of the true prophets, and was a man of the people! When He cleared the temple, all of Jerusalem was ready for Jesus to head right next door to the evil Romans who were oppressing God's people -- just like the Egyptians! -- and kick them out, too. Now was the time when God would destroy the idol-worshipping pagans, now was the time when God would liberate His people, now was the time when God would bring His reign fully and intimately to the earth and to His people!

And what happens? Jesus doesn't go next door. Jesus doesn't pick up a sword. Jesus eats a final meal with his closest friends, weeps and bleeds in patient anticipation, offers Himself freely to the authorities, submits Himself completley to the great evil to be exerted against Him, refuses to call down God's power against such evil, and anticlimactically is executed as a common criminal by the religious elite and the military powers of the empire. Not only is He executed without a fight, Jesus is hung on a cross as a sign of absolute shame and abject weakness. Everybody sees, and everybody knows the truth: this guy wasn't the real thing. God wasn't with Him. Nothing's changing. He didn't even put up a fight, and He really could have accomplished something. Now all is lost.

Okay, so we know the rest of the story at this point. God vindicates the way of Jesus, raises Him from the dead, and not only that, but lifts Him up to sit at His right hand -- this Jesus is not only a crucified and risen Messiah, this Jesus is Lord of the universe: very God Himself, embodied and human yet transcendant and divine. This part is for another day, and obviously of no less importance, but my focus is Jesus' life leading to the cross.

It is hard for me to fully articulate the disturbing attitude that I have observed, partly because it is difficult for me to understand and partly because I am not sure those who hold it do so knowingly. But allow me to try.

One way to look at the life and death of Jesus -- and in my view, the way of the New Testament writers and the early church -- is that it is normative for all followers of Jesus. That is, Jesus' life did not exist solely for the sake of fulfilling some sort of abstract "need for atonement," but that embodied in Jesus' very existence and way of life is the new way of life for all humans seeking to be truly human. I assume this way of life to be what all Christians (knowingly or not) sign up for in baptism and confession of Jesus as Lord. In a nutshell, this "Way" -- incidentally the first name given to Christians in the New Testament -- turns everything on its head. We love instead of hate, serve instead of kill, submit instead of overpower, give instead of take, suffer instead of inflict. Everything that the fallen world does instinctively, followers of Jesus -- by following the radical and paradoxical way of Jesus -- do, more or less, the exact opposite.

And, if you are paying attention, Jesus' way of life ended in a particular way and at a particular place: the cross. Thus, if we see Jesus' life as normative and paradigmatic for all of His followers, then it follows necessarily that the way in which Jesus' life ended must be normative and inherent for all Christians as well. Thus we see that Jesus did not die on a cross "merely" to "save us from our sins," but also as the necessary and expected end to a life lived in complete faithfulness to the true way of God.

Let me reiterate that this perspective in no way diminishes what Jesus did on the cross for us: it is 100% biblical and true and necessary that Jesus' blood shed on the cross offers us redemption and forgiveness from sins.

However, the attitude with which I have been coming into contact is that the life and death of Jesus is merely for the sake of "dying for our sins." The very idea that we are expected to follow the way of Jesus -- the fullest representation of which is the cross -- is ludicrous from this perspective. Jesus was God in the flesh -- He was perfect! How could we ever be expected to sell everything we have, hang out with prostitutes and homeless and sick people, and be killed for the way we live in opposition to the powers that govern the world? Jesus did that as a religious device to get us off the hook, not as an example for us to follow!

That is what I have been coming into contact with lately. I don't mean to sound sarcastic or irreverent; I feel like that description is fairly honest in its representation, at least according to the ambassadors of the attitude with whom I have come into contact. Please forgive me if I sound like I'm presenting a straw man to beat up on.

Regardless of the quality of my presentation, I find that attitude to be decidedly false, unbiblical, counterintuitive, and wholly destructive to what Christians are called to be in the world. We are called to witness to a crucified Messiah, who offered a window into how God would have us live if only we would take Him up on it. The church is supposed to embody in its very existence and community life this standard of living that reveals to the world God's offer of true life, in which we can partake even now! This is why love is at the center. Love for God and neighbor defines everything, for love is the ultimate paradox. Love accomplishes nothing, yet through love God changes the world. It makes no sense to give in to death on a cross; yet Jesus did, and we are called to the same path. We are called to suffer and even to die, even if we don't think it will accomplish anything; contrary to popular belief, it is not our job to alter the course of history, but to live faithfully by following Jesus. And the way in which we follow Jesus is by picking up our cross and walking the long road to Golgotha.

No comments:

Post a Comment