but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
1 Corinthians 1:23 NRSV
In yesterday’s email, I shared about how there is more than one way to be Christian. The dominant American Protestant narrative is in large part a conservative Evangelical one, and many who end up rejecting that narrative feel they have no choice but to reject Christianity as a whole. Yet, the tradition and scripture of the Christian faith is a deep well with many different perspectives that allow one to remain Christian without holding on to a narrow and exclusive perspective.
This week I’m sharing my reflections on Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can Be Restored. I’m not a fan of all of Borg’s writings, but I do feel this book is a great resource for people who are looking to expand their understanding of some of the central terms of Christianity. Borg feels there is a two-fold crisis in American Christianity: religious illiteracy and a literalism which distorts Christianity by narrowing down the possible understandings of what it means to be Christian. Yesterday I shared about Borg’s views on “salvation,” and today I will share his views on “the Death of Jesus.”
In the dominant American Protestant (and Catholic) narrative of Christianity, Jesus died for our sins in our place--a substitution. This view is often called “substitutionary atonement.” It comes as a surprise to many (if they ever learn of it) that this view of Christ’s death is less than a thousand years old, which means Christianity existed for over a thousand years without any Christians holding this view! A theologian named Anselm of Canterbury first wrote about in 1097. Anselm wrote that God’s justice requires someone to pay for sin and only a human death can pay that price. Since humans are sinful, only a perfect human would do, so God came as Jesus Christ to die and pay the penalty for our sin.
Just because the “substitutionary atonement” view of Christ’s death isn’t ancient doesn’t automatically make it invalid. The Holy Spirit is still at work in the world and many changes in theology through the centuries are good ones—think of changes like considering slavery to be wrong, gender equality, and inclusion of LGBTQ people. Yet, “substitutionary atonement” has a number of significant weaknesses that make it problematic.
In the New Testament, Christ’s death by crucifixion is at the heart of the message but not as a substitution. Borg supplies several of the most common understandings.
Borg urges readers to think of Jesus as a “sacrifice” but not a substitution for our own deaths because a punishing God demands it be so. He notes how people often sacrifice themselves out of love for others. A soldier may die for their country or a firefighter dies rescuing someone from a fire. He gives the examples of three Christian “martyrs” of the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed for resisting Hitler’s Germany; Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated for advocating equal rights for African Americans; and Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated for standing with the poor against El Salvador’s military government. We would describe each as sacrificing their life, but we would not describe them as substitutions.
Borg says the most important way to understand the death of Jesus is as a revelation of God’s love. In Jesus, Paul and the early Christians believed, we have “the decisive revelation of God. In Jesus, “we see what God is like.” “Thus, in Jesus’ passion for the Kingdom of God and his challenge to the powers at the risk of his own life, we see the depth of God’s love for us. . . not a punitive God who sends Jesus to die for our sins, but a God who is passionate about transformation of the world.”
Grace and Peace,
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