Shuck and Jive

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Heresies for Holy Week: Day 4

Today's heresy comes from Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister in Washington, D.C. A few days ago Carol wrote this piece for the Huffington Post, Is God Vengeful? The Meaning of Holy Week for Social Justice Christians.

Because Carol questions the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement and labels it for what it is, bloodthirsty, vengeful, divine child abuse, etc., she gets the honor of being my heretic of the day! Go Carol! Preach it!

Historically, we have this notion that God the Father sent Jesus the Son to die in order to pay for our wrongs. Jesus was the last, perfect sacrifice. Ancient traditions are full of sacrificial systems and the need for a cosmic reckoning extends back for centuries.

We offend people, get angry, lose patience, become unfaithful, and make mistakes, and so we yearn for the ability to compensate for the wrongs, to wipe our record clean. In this heavenly economy, there is a timeworn idea that the lifeblood of an animal needs to flow, or crops need to be burned in order to make amends with God.

On Holy Week, Christians have said that Jesus Christ died in order to remunerate the final payment for our misdeeds.
But what does that say about God? Do we serve a divine being that needs blood to forgive? And, even more disturbing, would we worship a Creator who would require the sacrifice of God's son to extend mercy?

That sort of reckoning may have made sense in ancient times, but now it puts into question the nature and character of God. Is God vengeful? Does God need payment for wrongs that have been committed? Is God bloodthirsty? Is God some sort of divine child abuser, a being who needs to see his own Son suffer so that our wrongs might be paid for?

....Jesus was tortured and killed. As we think about the misery of Jesus, then our focus widens and we begin to realize the hardships of other humans. We take the time to remember the distress of those in Haiti who still do not have homes to live in, those who are living with the stench of dead bodies rising up around them. We reflect on those who have been bombed in their cities.

We imagine what it is like to live with the threat of Malaria or AIDS.
We recognize the homeless whom we would ordinarily ignore on our streets. We listen to those who have been thrown out of their houses because they have lost their jobs, cannot make their mortgage payments, and cannot sell their homes, because their house value dropped....

....Traveling with Jesus, reading this story, and remembering that brutal assassination gives Christians the ability to see suffering not as something that happens to the weak, but something that happens in unjust societies, that can occur to the innocent, and will happen to all of us. And the act of focusing our attention on suffering, of having active compassion for those who endure it, just might save our souls.
Carol uses measured language in her essay. But she echoes what feminist theologians have been saying for a long time. Remember the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference when Delores Williams said:
"I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all…I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff."
She was right then. She is right today.

Rita Nakashima Brock, author of Saving Paradise writes:

One of the great controversies to emerge from Re-Imagining was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you today that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.
John Shelby Spong put it deliciously:
Let me state this boldly and succinctly: Jesus did not die for your sins or for my sins.

That proclamation is theological nonsense. It only breeds more violence, as we seek to justify the negativity that religious people dump on others because we can no longer carry its load. We must rid ourselves of it. One can hardly refrain from exhorting parents not to spare the rod lest they spoil the child, if the portrait of God at the heart of the Christian story is that of an angry parent who punishes the divine Son because he can take it and we cannot.
I offered my heresies on the topic here.
Once upon a time, God created Heaven and Earth. God is good, just, and perfect. He created Adam and Eve and put them in a garden. Well we know that is fiction as we know that human beings are the product of evolution that has taken billions of years. But OK.

Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying. A talking snake convinced the "bad" woman to eat some fruit from a tree from which they weren't supposed to eat. The logic of this is that because of Eve and Adam everyone on the planet therefore deserves eternal punishment in hell.

I know. It is kind of a leap for me, too.

God's honor has been damaged by Adam and Eve's sin. So God sent Jesus the God/Man to be sacrificed (like a goat) to satisfy God's honor and to pay the penalty that we deserve, in fact you deserve, even though you didn't eat the fruit. But you did all kinds of other bad things and had bad thoughts (usually having to do with sex) so it all washes.

But if you believe in that story you will go to heaven and not hell.

That story is supposedly better than what really happened?...

....There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone. "Holy Week" is a misnomer as is "Good Friday." If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world.


  1. I'm sure the BFTSs are loving this article. Fact is, as she rightly acknowledges, there have been many complimentary theories of atonement.

    I'm no psychologist, but I find it interesting that the only one that the BFTSs like is the one involving blood and punishment. Someone should do a study.

  2. Theology is over my head as anyone who reads this blog knows.

    The simplest explanation is best for me.

    1) The BFTSs killed him.

    2) Resurrection Mystery.

    3) His followers found their voice and continue to carry the fire.

    That is about as theological as I can get! :)

  3. Magic Jesus believers refuse to acknowledge what is totally obvious. The people who wrote the Gospels KNEW they were writing fiction. I'm not saying that they created Jesus. But it's clearly similar to the historical novel genre of our times. If people today want to believe in a magical Jesus, that's their right although many are forced into such belief when they really want to acknowledge reality.

    They don't have to force it on others who want to be a part of a Christian Church for all the right reasons: compassion, justice, parties, dancing, singing, meditating, peacemaking, eating, drinking, thinking, sharing, welcoming, making friends. reconciling, laughing, crying, liberating and more.

    love, john + + "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire." -- Teilhard de Chardin

  4. That's MY kind of church, John W.!

  5. Whew, not sure how much Shuck's here; but I sure saw me a whole lot of jive.