Shuck and Jive

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Holy Week Heresies

I thought it might be fun, now that Holy Week is coming, to get in trouble. I raised a few eyebrows in 2004 when I wrote this column for the local paper. It even captured the notice of televangelist Jack Van Impe and his lovely wife, Rexella. Jack didn't cotton to my evaluation of his precious blood atonement theory and questioned my education.

In the column, I reviewed Mel Gibson's, "The Passion" which at that time had just been released.

Many advertisements cross my desk.

Before me is a glossy multi-paged flier promoting Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion." The flier, distributed by "Outreach: The Official Church Resource Provider for The Passion" contains direct-mail postcards, door hangers, bumper stickers, posters, bulletin inserts and many other helpful products that I can purchase so that my congregation can cash in on what one happy customer termed "one of the most powerful evangelistic tools of the last 100 years."

One tempting item that caught my eye was a 4-by-12-foot banner with the phrase: "True or False? Find out this Easter!" The banner (originally $499 now only $349) portrays the film's trademark image of Christ's downcast face and bloody head pierced by a crown of thorns.

I saw the film the day after it opened. It had a Gothic feel with many cool special effects.

I love movies. One of my personal favorites about the Christ is "Jesus of Montreal" (French with English subtitles). Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" wasn't bad either.

Both of these films, like Mel Gibson's film, are neither historical nor biblical. Each of the three films emphasizes a particular theological interpretation of Jesus.

My comments on "The Passion" will be restricted to this one faith statement printed on one of the posters and alluded to throughout the film: "Dying was his reason for living."

This view of Jesus is classically known as "substitutionary atonement," a theory created in the Middle Ages. The basis of this theory is that humans are sinful and owe our righteous God a debt.

Because of our sin, we are powerless to make restitution for this debt of sin. Only God can do that. But man needs to do that. So, Jesus, the God-Man, intervenes (is substituted for us) saving us from eternal damnation when we trust in him.

I simply want to say that, while some Christians may interpret Jesus' life and death in that way and find great comfort in doing so, that interpretation is a not a requirement for the Christian faith. In other words, you do not have to believe this to be a Christian.

I am certain, however, that not all Christians would agree with me.

I believe there are more important things about Jesus' life than his death, namely his parables, which were an invitation to cross over to a new way of thinking, loving and living. Jesus' passion for justice, his acceptance and elevation of the marginalized, his love of enemies are just some of the things that mark his greatness as well as the hope for humankind, in my view.

Of course, when one lives with abandon for justice, love and human dignity; when one dares to declare that the divine one is in each of us, the powers that be tend to get perturbed. As John Dominic Crossan has so eloquently put it: "Living was his reason for dying."

If Mel Gibson's "Passion" is not your passion, don't worry; you are not alone. Jesus and God are both bigger than this.

You know why Jesus was crucified? This is my best guess. He was in the way. He was collateral damage like thousands of others. These unfortunates were used as tools for the propaganda of Empire.

"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."

The tales of Resurrection were told by people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired. The unfortunates organized. These stories were their way of saying, "Up yours, Rome. We aren't going away either. There is a new kingdom coming and it is already breaking through."

It is an anti-empire run by an un-king. Its way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence. Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things. The unking's army is a band of old, fat naked women who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace.

Don't look for this new upsidedown world in heaven. It is right here, right now, within and without us. Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the un-king's cabinet.

Join us for the adventure.


  1. This is powerful John. Thank you.

    Pax, C.

  2. I like the image of the unKing. I might steal that (I'm preaching on Palm Sunday and am going to compare David's entrance into Jerusalem to Christ's)

  3. This is a great posting. Thanks for writing it.

    In Crossan's and Borg's new book on Paul ("The First Paul"), they address the subject of substitutionary atonement in pages 140-147. The book does a pretty good job of parsing the theology of the authentic Paul (those seven letters that are authentically from him), and is worth checking out.

  4. Thanks Celicia.

    Doug, if you come back, I look forward to hearing how the unKing did!

    Seeker, I am in the midst of the Paul book and look forward to that section.