October 2019: (Non-Toxic Christianity) Penal Substitutionary Atonement

This is a classic ethics dilemma: a train is headed down the tracks and there’s no way to stop it. You can pull a lever to change its course. On one track, it will kill five people. On the other, it will kill one. Will you take the action to move the lever? 

What would you choose? One death is somehow “better” than five. But what if you knew that one person? What if it were your friend?

Thank goodness this is just a test. 

But what if it wasn’t?

What if someone created this problem? Created the tracks and the lever and the people? And, what if someone set the train on the tracks and brought the people onto the two separate ends with no other way to escape? What does that make them?

Who would do such a thing?

This is just one of the problems with how we talk about Jesus’ death.

I thought for most of my life that this was the gospel. That the whole good news was a god who sent Their “only begotten son” to die one of the most excruciating deaths in order to be okay with us. The “good news,” we say, “is that God sent Jesus to die for your sins.”

The good news, we say, is that our debts are paid up. So now we can carry on like normal. Some people just call that Christianity. But it’s just one version of the story – one theory. And it’s called penal substitutionary atonement. All of us are looking at the cross from someplace on the hill where Jesus was crucified. And from all of our perspectives, there may be different ways to see the cross. But this version that I just described is toxic.

Now remember: we’ve said in weeks past that toxic Christianity is not the stuff we don’t like or the stuff we disagree with or the really, really hard stuff. Toxic Christianity is the stuff that bears bad fruit.

And from where I stand, from where I see the cross, penal substitutionary atonement bears bad fruit.

There are a lot of resources arguing against penal substitutionary atonement, with all the scripture to back it up, all the fancy work. We don’t have time to cover them all. What we can do is start a conversation. Because I think that how we see the cross – and moreover, how we see the death of Jesus – has consequences. Our worldview flows downhill into our actions and reactions.

First, let’s revisit an account of that day from Luke 23:13-35:

Pilate called in the high priests, rulers, and the others and said, “You brought this man to me as a disturber of the peace. I examined him in front of all of you and found there was nothing to your charge. And neither did Herod, for he has sent him back here with a clean bill of health. It’s clear that he’s done nothing wrong, let alone anything deserving death. I’m going to warn him to watch his step and let him go.”

At that, the crowd went wild: “Kill him! Give us Barabbas!” (Barabbas had been thrown in prison for starting a riot in the city and for murder.) Pilate still wanted to let Jesus go, and so spoke out again.

But they kept shouting back, “Crucify! Crucify him!”

He tried a third time. “But for what crime? I’ve found nothing in him deserving death. I’m going to warn him to watch his step and let him go.”

But they kept at it, a shouting mob, demanding that he be crucified. And finally they shouted him down. Pilate caved in and gave them what they wanted. He released the man thrown in prison for rioting and murder, and gave them Jesus to do whatever they wanted. As they led him off, they made Simon, a man from Cyrene who happened to be coming in from the countryside, carry the cross behind Jesus. 

A huge crowd of people followed, along with women weeping and carrying on. At one point Jesus turned to the women and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when they’ll say, ‘Lucky the women who never conceived! Lucky the wombs that never gave birth! Lucky the breasts that never gave milk!’ 

Then they’ll start calling to the mountains, ‘Fall down on us!’ calling to the hills, ‘Cover us up!’ If people do these things to a live, green tree, can you imagine what they’ll do with deadwood?” Two others, both criminals, were taken along with him for execution. 

When they got to the place called Skull Hill (Golgotha), they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Forgive them,” said Jesus, before he died. Before he was resurrected. As he still lived. “Forgive them.”

During his lifetime, Jesus did a lot. And I don’t mean that he had a full resumé, because as Pastor Sara pointed out last week, by lots of metrics, Jesus was a failure.

He was hated by the Roman empire. He made a lot of religious enemies. He didn’t have a home. He wasn’t married.

Though millennials may agree – he was really good at friendship. [Slide: Tweet that read that Jesus’ most astounding miracle was being a 30 year-old with 12 close friends.]

But Jesus’ life was his ministry, and his ministry was rich, counter-cultural, and complicated. It took into account where he lived and what was going on around him. And so often, when we tell the story of Jesus, we leave all that out. And I mean all of it. 

In the Apostles’ Creed, which some churches recite every week and is supposed to tell the whole story of a whole faith, folks skip over the whole of Jesus’ life. 

It starts: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.

He was born. And then he suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried.

What an obituary. Imagine if it were yours. You were born. Then you died. 

Someone unfamiliar with Jesus might hear the Apostles’ Creed and ask, What did Jesus do during his lifetime? His lifetime was his whole ministry! Every miracle. Every person he met, the hearts he transformed, the powers he confounded, the people he healed, the tables he turned.

Jesus didn’t come just to die. He came to show us how to live. Or, as Father Richard Rohr, one of our Desert Fathers said: “Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us. Jesus came to change our minds about God.”

Penal substitutionary atonement forms the theological foundation for some Christians. And I think it’s a toxic foundation. Because how we define the purpose of Jesus’ existence has enormous effects on how we define and do everything else.

Penal substitutionary atonement says that in order for us to be reconciled in our imperfect nature to a perfect God, a perfect sacrifice must be given. And only Jesus is perfect enough for the job.

If an all-powerful God needed blood atonement in order to reconcile Godself to humanity, is that really how God would use that power?

Penal substitutionary atonement says that if Jesus didn’t die for our sins, then God would have to torture us for all of eternity. Can you even imagine carrying out a sentence like that yourself? On anyone? Is there one person whose life deserves to be met with an eternity of unending, conscious torment? According to this theory, all of us do.

If we cannot carry out such a sentence on anyone, then how can God, who is the epitome of love? And why would we even want to spend an eternity with that God?

If Jesus came to be a sacrificial lamb, then his sacrifice was in his humanity – to live and to die. But God would not choose to torture and murder God’s own.

Terrible Results

In a worldview governed by the idea that God sent Jesus to die for our sins, it’s hard to imagine a God that is good. Or, we can imagine a God who is good, but at the cost of our understanding of good and evil. We lose our ability to judge right from wrong. And in doing so, we subject each other to evil in the name of God and call it good.

Penal substitutionary atonement makes it easy to imagine a God who would inflict harm on us and call it love.

We did it in the Middle Ages – in 14th and 15th century, when 60% of Europe died during the Black Death. God was punishing people for their faithlessness. Some said it was because of women wearing jewelry. Some blamed it on European Jews. And this is supposed to be God’s love for Europe.

We did it in the colonization of the Americas with mass abductions and genocide of indigenous peoples. Christian boarding schools on Native lands carried out egregious harm in an attempt to “Christianize” Native Americans. They said, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” And this is supposed to be God’s love for indigenous people.

And we still do it today. We say that queer people or the increase in women’s freedoms are to blame for natural disasters. The televangelist Pat Robertson said that God sent Hurricane Katrina to punish America for allowing Ellen DeGeneres to host the Emmy’s. And this is supposed to be God’s love for America.

As Pastor Sara has said before, sometimes our job as Christians is to improve God’s reputation. To sully God’s reputation with evil is exactly what it means to take God’s name in vain.

Penal substitutionary atonement gives us permission to hurt each other and call it love. And it cautions us to call love hatred. Our own God does it, so why shouldn’t we?

If God can achieve peace through war, if God can give us life by inflicting death, if God can make us clean by doing something heinous, even against God’s own commandment to us not to murder, then what’s to stop us from doing the same? This toxic notion makes love out to be one hell of a messed up idea.

A Western Construct. 

Penal substitutionary atonement is medieval, brutal, and a way of thinking about justice derived from a specific cultural landscape. This is a god of a court system. A god who is judge, jury, and executioner.

The belief that God sent Jesus to die for our sins became popularized by Anselm of Canterbury, an English Benedictine in the 12th century, and again by Charles Hodge, an American theologian who lived in the mid-1800s (also a nationalist and a slave-owner). In the following century, Hodge’s ideas became some of the defining characteristics of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. The good news of Jesus Christ, we say, is that our debts are paid up. 

Penal substitutionary atonement is about retributive justice. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. 

A friend from my evangelical days once told me that Jesus’ death was needed because we are born into sin and measured against an infinitely sinless entity: God. And so the penalty, no matter how “light” the infraction, has to be infinite loss and sacrifice.

But Jesus showed through his life that he isn’t about that. He’s about restorative justice. Justice that re-establishes relationship. He reconciles outcasts to community. He heals the wound of the Roman guard who came to arrest him. He forgives his friends who betray him and puts them in charge of carrying on his legacy. He says on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus is about restorative justice. But we have made him out to be about our kind of justice, which is bound by our limited imagination. 

One alternative to the western way of resolving conflict is a Diné (Navajo people’s) Peacemaking tradition. It’s a parallel or alternative system to the western court system also in use. To mediate conflicts, communities elect “peace chiefs” who encourage participants to restore harmony and relationships rather than seek revenge. 

In contrast to European judicial practices, which use authority figures and strangers to enforce rules, the Navajo system relies on the philosophy that the law existed since the beginning of time in order to help humans live harmoniously.

Today, people can refer matters to the Peacemaking Program as a way to seek resolution and preserve familial harmony without court intervention, since the courts often break families apart instead of preserve them. Whereas the court system can command the suffering of an offender, “it does not offer a reduction in future crime or reparation to victims.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk this week about a story of justice and forgiveness that’s been on a lot of our minds. I’ll bet most preachers are saying something today about Brandt Jean and his brother Botham. But what we have to say, and what we see, may not all be the same. Like the death of Jesus on the cross, how we see Botham Jean’s death boils down to our worldview and our relationship with empire.

Botham Jean was a 26 year-old preacher, leader, and singer in the church choir. He lived in Dallas, Texas. Last year, while he was eating ice cream in his own apartment, a white cop entered his apartment, shot, and murdered him.

She claimed self defense. She said she walked up to the wrong apartment, thinking it was hers. She ignored her training as a police officer, and she ignored the signs that she was intruding in another person’s home. And when Botham Jean got up to see who had entered his home, she shot him in the heart and killed him.

A year later, his murderer was tried and found guilty of murder, for which she will serve ten years in prison. After the sentencing of Botham’s murderer, Botham’s brother gave a moving speech. In it, he forgives her – his brother’s murderer. He said he wishes that she didn’t have to go to jail. And afterward, he hugged her.

How Brandt Jean chose to grieve the loss of his brother is his business, not ours. But how we react to the forgiveness that this man extended: that is our business, and it’s a matter of how we encounter Jesus at the cross.

I’ve been thinking all week about penal substitutionary atonement. And I’ve been thinking about Brandt Jean’s forgiveness. And all the fibers in between the two. Penal substitutionary atonement, and the temptation for a whole society to receive absolution through the forgiveness of one person.

Penal substitutionary atonement says that the violent way that Jesus died was not only unavoidable but necessary because it was God’s plan to absolve us. It ignores the context in which Jesus was killed, because it’s about what God ordained. It ignores the fact that he was tortured and murdered by an empire with seemingly endless power. It was God’s will, so it’s all fine – it’s fair. And why should we fault the empire for carrying out God’s will? 

Better Fruit

But there are other ways to see the cross. Complex, harder ways that may yield better fruit. The theologian Dr. James Cone sees it this way: “And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

In the story – the reality – of the Jean family, we are bystanders at the foot of the cross where Botham Jean died. And it is a cross. In the same way that the cross was devised to torture and execute subjects of the Roman Empire, overpolicing and the prison industrial complex are how we express dominion over the subjects of today’s empire. 

We’re a crowd with varied reactions to Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive and hug his brother’s murderer. Some of us celebrated. Some of us felt like this was a happy ending. Some of us felt discomfort. Or betrayed. 

I think that what we felt depended partly on how we saw Brandt Jean’s forgiveness. Do we see it in a vacuum, separated from the oppression of empire? Because the reality is that, for hundreds of years, the empire of this nation has relied on the subjugation of Black people for its prosperity.

And this nation’s conscience has relied on the forgiveness of Black people. But if we celebrate forgiveness as though it were something sweet, a happy ending, then we miss the context of the cross. We miss the context in which Botham Jeam was killed. And we miss the context that Black men are killed by police officers at astonishing rates, and their loved ones have every right to loudly demand justice. We pretend the world is fairer than it really is.

Foremost, Christians who follow in the way of a crucified man must see the death of Botham Jean as avoidable and unnecessary. Christians must imagine a world where Black people do not have to die like this, surrendered to the cross.

The Peruvian theologian Friar Gustavo Gutierrez Merino said, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.”

What he means is that to commit to justice, as Jesus did during his lifetime – which led to his death – we have to reject the use of Christianity to uphold the parts of our system that stand for oppression. We cannot co-opt Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of his brother’s murderer and say “that’s how people who are persecuted should act if they want to be like Christ,” because that ignores the context, the established order. It skips restoration and looks for absolution.

If we want to be like Jesus, then we – the onlookers and citizens of the Roman Empire – must reject the notion that God sent Jesus to die to atone for our sins. Jesus was tortured and killed because of sin. And for that, for all our collective human failing, we are forgiven, but now comes restoration.

Jesus was not the only crucified man of his time. He wasn’t even the only person crucified by the Roman Empire that day. But he understood full well what he was doing. When Jesus says, “Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do,” that’s to us. But not-knowing is not our eternal human condition. We get to know. We have to know.

We see the man on the cross and the two beside him, too, and the whole of the empire that devised crucifixion as a means of torture and death. We see the preacher with an angelic voice murdered in his own home, and we see the empire, too. So which version of the crucifixion do we see?

Brandt Jean’s forgiveness and embrace are not ours to cash in to pay the debts of our anti-Blackness. Restoration is not satisfied with forgiveness and an embrace. It is only begun. His mother, Allison Jean, spoke about restoration. She asked for better training and more accountability for the Dallas police department.

Neither does Jesus’ death absolve us of the responsibility of God’s grace and the opportunity to be in relationship with the Spirit. It is only a beginning.

Let me be clear: I believe that we are forgiven for our human failings. I think the God who created and knows us wants us to be in relationship with God. And because the Spirit of God is in us and active, the work of establishing relationship is done. 

But for us, the work of reconciling heaven and earth doesn’t stop with God’s forgiveness and mercy. It starts when we say yes to following in the way of Jesus. It starts with recognizing all the crosses and the empire that put them up. We are forgiven, and we are embraced. But that’s only the beginning.

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