God’s Restorative Justice

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I started this Lenten Call to Resist series as a public way of rejecting the theological sadism of right-wing Christianity, which sees God as damning all humanity except those who believe in Jesus, the “perfect sacrifice,” sent by God to die in our place.  This is an ancient theology of retributive justice, based on Anselm’s medieval satisfaction theory of the atonement.  It points to a God who cannot (or even worse, will not) freely forgive human sin, who needs someone to die for divine honor to be restored and to be reconciled to humanity.

Since this is a foundational belief of the Christian Right, which helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency, it makes sense that its true believers support the scapegoating of Muslims, harsh policies toward immigrants, unconditional support for aggressive (and even deadly) police actions, unrestricted access to guns, punitive laws (such as the death penalty), and military policies based on domination, violence, and war.  Policies such as these are consistent with the view of a wrathful and punishing God, who can only accept those who, under fear of hell, are willing to jump through a series of theological hoops that, in my mind, are too small for a compassionate thinking person to get through.

On the other hand, the God I have come to know through Jesus is a God of restorative justice who reaches out in love to everyone, regardless of creed, social standing, or background and invites them into a reconciled relationship with God, self, others, and creation itself.    Like Jesus, God reaches out to us, offering forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love.  Jesus did not preach his healing, saving message for his early disciples only, but for all.  He did not simply reject the world’s values, demonstrate his vision of an inclusive community based on alternative values, challenge the governing authorities, and stand firm in the face of death for his early followers alone, but for those who would come after.  He lived faithfully and died “for us.”

Those of us who hear the Spirit’s call are invited into a process of truth and reconciliation. It involves facing and coming to terms with our history, our past, our immersion in whatever culture and milieu we find ourselves, and our current participation in social sin and institutional evil.  This reconciling process of “salvation” also involves accepting ourselves and the apparently limitless willingness of Divine Love to accept us as we are.

This is not exactly a get out of jail free card.  For Love to be effective in my life, I must do my part.  What is my part?  Here’s how twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich put it:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” By simply accepting that we are accepted as we are, we are set free from guilt, shame, and pre-patterned bondage of the past. This crucial choice sets us free to start anew, to enter a new way of living that includes openness to the ongoing transformation of our lives.

The way I have experienced this process goes far beyond anything that I could work out on my own.  Fortunately, God’s restorative justice is always at work.  Like the Prodigal in Jesus’ parable, I am always welcomed home.

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Jesus’ Death was not God’s Need

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Palm/Passion Sunday, 2016

 “Naturally one can develop a theology that no longer has the somber cross at its center.  Such an attempt deserves criticism not because it bids farewell to Christianity as it has been, but because it turns aside from reality, in the midst of which stands the cross.” Dorothee Solle

 Today is Palm/Passion Sunday, the first day of Holy Week.  This week before Easter offers those of us who seek to follow Jesus the opportunity to reflect on the events of the last week of his life:  Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as he travels toward the city; the palm procession and the people proclaiming him king; the direct action of overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple; the cruel plot against him by the authorities; the Last Supper; his prayerful struggle with God; his arrest, abandonment, betrayal, torture, crucifixion, death; the grief of his mother, followers, and friends; the sadness and seeming futility of it all; the shadow of death.

But why would we want to go there?  Why focus on the story of the cross?  Why not go directly from joy to joy, from Palm Sunday (minus the passion) to Easter?   Wouldn’t it be healthier to simply use positive thinking to realize our human potential, to try (once again) to do whatever we want to do and be whatever we want to be?

That may work for some people, but not for me.  I have found that facing the pain of life is necessary in order to find both joy and personal transformation.  I’m not saying that Christianity is the only way to find God or to find meaning in life.  There are an infinite number of ways to experience the divine.  But for Christians the story of the cross is central.

This story has often been interpreted in a way that makes God responsible for Jesus’ death, as if God needed Jesus to die in order to set things right.  According to this “sacrificial model” of the atonement, human sin has thrown the universe out of balance, and that the only way to balance out God’s judgment with God’s love was by the sacrifice of Jesus.  In other words, God needed Jesus to die in order to forgive individual sinners and save them from hell.  This is a popular form of Christian belief, especially among conservatives.  But it’s not mine.

Here are two verses of a hymn from my colleague and friend, Dan Damon that offers a different view of the atonement:

Jesus’ death was not God’s need,

but to offer grace;

anger did not make him bleed for the human race.

Jesus’ life and what he taught

more than any creed,

this the gift God’s joy has brought;

this love’s only need…

 

Bless the stones that cry aloud

as the prince rides by;

bless the humble and the proud who return to cry.

Jesus was not born to die

but to show the way;

Christ invites us each to try

living what we pray.

For me, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death in some way sums up the suffering and injustice of our world, in ancient times but also today.  The Powers that rule the world today still target “subversives” who seek to transform the world in the direction of compassion and justice for the marginalized, as Jesus did.  But the ruling Powers do not have the last word.  I continue to trust in “the One who, by the power at work within us, is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or even imagine.”(Ephesians 3:20)  In the profound suffering and widespread dying of our world today, I continue to live in the hope of resurrection and the transformation of our world.

See the video of a previous Palm/Passion Sunday reflection by Sharon here:  Speaking Peace on Palm/Passion Sunday.     Follow Sharon’s blog by clicking the “Follow Sharon Delgado” button at the right or by “liking” the Shaking the Gates of Hell Facebook page.   Go to  Dan Damon’s website to see or order his hymns.