Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Two Lessons from Crucifixion

I think we can all agree that crucifixion is horrible. The very thought of nailing a person to anything sends a chill along my spine. As an execution method it surely ranks amongst one of the worst that we humans have ever devised but Jesus tells us to carry our cross daily. And Paul boasts in the cross of Christ, as well as insisting that each Christian has been crucified.

Crucifixion has become a formative concept in Christian theology but doesn't feature highly in most contemporary Christian discussion. So what are we missing out on? Let me suggest just two ideas.

From the artistic representations of crucifixion available we see that it's a humiliating way to die. Sometimes the victim had been beaten beforehand. Sometimes the victim was naked. Total exposure to the elements and to the world. In the cross of Christ we see humiliation and scorn in the eyes of the world. There is no glory here, none that looks like pomp, celebration or adulation. If this is how Christ was willing to die, Christians are compelled by their obedience to be willing to be subject to humiliation for following him.

Beautifully, this spares us from being worried about blasphemy. If Christ was willing to be humiliated on the cross, there are no signifiers strong enough to turn him away. The world can continue to profane his name but we have no right to be offended by that. Jesus is willing to bear the brunt of it.

Abandonment of Power
Jesus died as a political enemy of Rome, through the same method used to execute terrorists and revolutionaries. He refused a crown from his followers. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, evoking the image of the conquering Davidic king. He refused to call legions to fight for him. He refused all the trappings of a political messiah of the type of the Maccabees or the Judges. And yet he died the death that Rome would have ordered for any of these. 

To be crucified along with Jesus is to die a similar death; a death that abandons all the power structures of this world. It's a death that faces Caesar and refuses to become Caesar. To die to that death is to be free from that kind of politics, and be free to engage in the politics of loving the neighbour. The political power of the church is not found in lobby groups or petitions. The power at our disposal is the power to freely act, to be indifferent to Caesar in the act of loving the neighbour. This is the real, social and political power of the church.

Crucifixion as a theological concept formative for the Christian subject opens us to thinking about living in ways separate to the ways of the world. If we are truly crucified with Christ, we share in that death in many ways. Sharing in that death then allows us to live as Christ, free from the constraints of Rome.

Monday, 29 April 2013

A Panel on Hot Topics

I had the opportunity to be part of a panel for our church's young adult group. We were to deal with a couple of hot topics in society today and give a few different perspectives on each issue to help the audience develop their own opinions. Importantly, however, was the recognition that none of us were speaking for "the church" or for this church. Official church policy is not currently in my portfolio. I'll be sure to let you know when someone asks me to act pontifically.

Here's a little summary of what I said. The other panellists had their own opinions but since I didn't record it I don't really want to misrepresent their comments.

Gay Marriage
The question here was whether Christians should support it and what does that support look like. Should we officiate same sex marriages?

My response was largely what I'd argued before on this blog. In addition I made some comments about the pejorative use of the word "gay" - particularly in daily language. Taunting and bullying are not options for Christians and we shouldn't stand by while others talk that way.

Christian Faith in the Workplace
I had to take off the theology hat and put on the manager hat for this one. I, like most of us, spend most of my days in service to the empire of money, as I manage a factory. I said that I don't mind if people are talking faith in my workplace but that slacking off from work is giving bad witness. Being proactive at work is much like going the extra mile when forced to carry a load for Caesar. Being an unproductive employee will turn colleagues and supervisors against you and against Christians.

That all sounds like a sell out, that the capitalist enterprise takes priority over the testimony of the saints. I think, though, that's a systemic issue more than it is an individual issue. Testify through good works, kids.

Admittedly, no one actually called it theodicy. The "why do bad things happen to good people" question is usually a bit of fun but they only gave me sixty seconds to answer it. I managed to invoke Luke, Matthew, Proverbs, Job and John in my answer. As you can tell, sixty seconds to harness those five didn't allow much time for nuance but did allow me to address the notion that somehow the victims of evil are responsible for it. "Who sinned, this man or his ancestors, that he was born blind?" is the rot that Jesus dug out. When his disciples asked that he turned it around completely to say that the man's blindness is the opportunity for God to intervene. Likewise when there is evil around us it is our opportunity to intervene; clothe the naked, feed the hungry, tend the sick.

I know it's not an answer that everyone's happy with, but it's the answer that most obviously leaps from the bible.

How should we respond when people say bad things about us behind our backs, especially because we're Christian? A quick return to Matthew 5 (with dips into Romans 12 and Petrine letters) was enough to answer this.

Overall the experience was good. I've not been on a panel for a while and I enjoyed the return. There were some questions texted in as well. I'll bundle them into another blog post for later in the week.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Necessary Death of the Believer

Peering into the atonement once again, this time around the Pauline theology around the death of Christ and the believer's participation in it, I see that Paul makes large of the issue of the death of the Christian.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. Galatians 2:19-21, NRSV
These awkwardly translated words, even across several translations, make it clear that although there is a sense that Jesus died for our benefit, the believer also dies in some way. The believer is considered dead both to the law and to sin.

It's an odd phrase to use for someone who is plainly and biologically alive. Is this just a metaphor? As metaphor it's reduced to poetry; a nice word picture to convey the conversion experience. I think Paul isn't quite so vapid, however, and has deeper intentions. The very being of the believer has changed, and changed through death.

But what is that death? Today we'd refer to it as a transcendence of the self, but this doesn't do for Paul's purposes. It's not quite enough to just say that the believer has changed to the point that they're living as Christ would. Paul needs to connect this to torah and does so by linking torah and death. The ultimate consequence of torah is death, even though it was meant to bring life. And because death is an ultimate consequence, once a person is dead they are out of the scope of the law. They cannot be punished any more, neither can they be blessed any more. Along with Christ, Paul has died to the law and in so doing is free from the obligations of the law, free from the punishments of the law, and disqualified from claiming any benefits under that law.

If I died today, I would no longer have to pay taxes and would no longer be able to access benefits owed to me under Australian law. As dead to the law, I'm an invisible non-citizen; owing nothing and being owed nothing. Paul appears to put the believer in the same category. Invisible to the law, beyond its reach and beyond its protection. The believer has only the life of Christ.

The movement from death to life through participation in the death of Christ is therefore a qualitative difference in which the being of the believer is changed. No longer in the contract, now in the life of Christ. The death language is important because the believer has died, has transcended the self and transcended the law by escaping from it the only way possible. The self as we know it is utterly caught up in law, in the consequences of blessings and curses. The epistemological cause of sin is removed and replaced by the epistemological awareness of Christ.

The believer must die to the law in order to escape it. Without that death, without that crucifixion, the law still holds the believer.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

That They Will Not Kill Each Other

Every year I get to Anzac Day and write a blog. It's the same message every year.

1. War is evil and should be opposed.
2. It's terrible theology to take John 15:13 and apply it to soldiers.

And even though I've said it before, I need to say it again today. Anzac Day at its worst is drunken forgetfulness in the name of Lest We Forget. It's a woeful celebration of "our" heroes; people who became heroes while fighting people who were heroes for someone else. We need to remember more than the lives of the people who died in war, we need to remember the horrors of war and the evils of war. When we forget that horror we are too keen to send more people to war.

Jesus' message to us was to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to carry the load an extra mile when oppressors force us, to be peacemakers. He preached all of this while Israel was occupied by a military force. Roman soldiers patrolled the streets. They executed political prisoners in order to maintain their control. Even in the midst of this environment he told his followers not to resist. His way is the way that doesn't recognise state boundaries, it serves the needs of the neighbour. His disciples resist the occupier by being compassionate, not by being violent. There is a qualitative difference between them.

And as for John 15:13? Here it is.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
Can we honestly say that Jesus meant for this to apply to the soldier? Let's follow the logic.
No one has greater love than this, to take another's life for one's friends.
Can we really suggest that killing another human being, as soldiers do in war, is the "greater love" that Jesus preached? That is the kind of evil that war brings out in us, that we would kill each other and that we would justify it by insisting that it was Christian love that motivated us to do it.

If we are to hold days like Anzac Day as national holidays of remembrance then we need to remember war in its entirety. It is evil and brings out the worst in us. If we remember one thing from days like this we must remember to never again go to war.
"A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other." - Stanley Hauerwas

Sunday, 21 April 2013

First steps towards a ransom theory

In my ongoing quest to unravel the atonement I'm working through a ransom model. There are plenty of references to imprisonment and ransom in Paul's writings so it's little wonder that it was such a widespread theory for so long. Some versions of this theory put us imprisoned to Satan but this doesn't seem to hold much weight. I can understand how people would be averse to thinking that God owes anything to Satan, particularly in order to set people free. Nevertheless, the idea that there is some other power in control of us is appealing to me at the moment. It allows us to think about salvation as being from something other than God. It gets us out of the problem that puts God as the threat and the solution, like some kind of mafioso protection racket.

My thinking this week will then be about the prison. How did we get there? What is it? What is the power of that prison?

If this proves fruitful, I'll move on to the ransom itself.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Without you there can be no redemption

I first saw The Last Temptation of Christ about eight years ago. Right up until that moment it was probably running second in blasphemous media only to satanic death metal, or whatever it was that my evangelical upbringing couldn't countenance that week. I remember the cinema protests. I remember the media outrage. For an impressionable pre-teen, that was enough to blacklist the film forever.

And then I got myself an education. And I realised that Christianity isn't actually threatened by anything. As a religion born from humiliation, there's not much more ridicule that can be heaped onto it. So I watched Martin Scorsese's film. In fact, I borrowed it from one of my biblical studies lecturers. I was overwhelmed by its intensity, its provocative portrayal of Jesus in all his boldness and insecurity.

Best of all I was struck by the story's willingness to take on a question that has been asked over the centuries. Was Judas doing the will of God when he handed Jesus over to his enemies? The anguish of this scene, the power of the choice that it contains; I was entranced. Watch the clip for yourself.

How easy it is to make a sacrifice and be lionised for it? How much more difficult it is to make a sacrifice and be cursed by your peers and subsequent tradition?

Whatever you think of Judas, a scene like this is worth contemplating.

"Remember, we're bringing God and Man together. They'll never be together unless I die. I'm the sacrifice. Without you there can be no redemption."

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Jesus is not a Supergoat

I might seem late to this party but that's only in public. I've harboured suspicions for a few years that penal substitutionary atonement theology is wrong. After a lot of thought on the matter I've decided to come out of the closet as a skeptic.

We know it in its most famous form as a derivative from Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. For me I think its most famous form is in any number of evangelical tracts (thank you especially to Jack Chick) and the altar calls so common in pentecostal churches and tent revival meetings. Ostensibly derived from Romans but conveniently ignoring the other New Testament authors, it's a popular explanation.

But here are my suspicions.

It's nothing like the message of salvation in Acts. Throughout Acts the disciples preach that salvation comes when one believes that Jesus is the Christ so that one's sins can be forgiven. Note that this is "forgiven" and not "paid for."

The entire pistis christou debate (on which I side with the subjective genitive interpretation) either requires faith in Jesus or rests on the faith of Jesus, neither of which indicate substitution.

In Romans, sin enters through our participation in Adam and our salvation enters through our participation in Christ's death. Participation isn't substitution either. Adam's sin better not be known as penal substitutionary guilt theology.

Even in Hebrews, where Jesus' death is most explicitly compared to a Jewish substitutionary atonement sacrifice, the sense to me is that Jesus death is better but not by magnitude. It's not as though there's a quantitative difference between a goat sacrifice and Jesus' death (i.e., a goat balances the sins of a nation and Jesus is like a super-goat who is able to balance the sins of so many more), rather there is a qualitative difference between a goat-atonement and Jesus' death.

Let's not go much further for now. It's enough to say that the penal substitutionary atonement account has its problems. And let's face it, it was only developed in the late 11th century. For more than a millennium Christians believed something entirely different about Jesus' death. It's been around for less than half the life of Christianity and like most Christian teaching is open for debate.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Bonhoeffer the Celebrity

I'm struck by the standing of Bonhoeffer today. There seem to be three camps: people who encounter his biography, people who've read some of his writings, and people who've never heard of him. I can forgive the last group. I belong to the second group. I want more for the first group.

It seems that the age of the populist book has reduced Bonhoeffer to a mere hero instead of a teacher and prophet. He's more popular as celebrity than as instructor. Perhaps that's because our media saturates us with celebrity rather than with content. We seem to like the idea of Bonhoeffer as the martyr and would-be assassin much more than we want to take the time to read his lasting words.

I like his writings even though I don't agree with all of them. He writes clearly and he writes for the believer. This is especially true with Discipleship. If you have time for only one of his books, it's that one. For a little more chewing try either of his dissertations Act and Being, and Sanctorum Communio. It's well worth the time.