Reframing Christianity

What if we got it all wrong about Christianity?  What if the crucifixion and resurrection is not the cornerstone of the Christian narrative?  What if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the sacrificial lamb that has been slain for the redemption of the world?  What if there was a different meaning, a different purpose, a different narrative that Jesus was trying to teach humanity?  What if we have been distracted from that message by trying to find meaning in his death?

What if his torturous death on the cross was an attempt to kill an idea, akin to Gandhi’s assassination, or Martin Luther King’s?  When Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the late 1500’s, Sebastian Castellio wrote “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: It is to kill a man!”  It was true with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. their ideas were sought to be killed with their death. What if the ideas that Jesus taught were diminished in significance by glorifying his death on the cross?

The message that Jesus taught during his life was that God is love. Love one another. Be holy / be loving as your God in heaven is loving.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Place first the realm of heaven/ love above all else and everything shall be added unto you.  Be generous in all things; if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well.  If they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Love your enemies.

Contrast this message with God sacrificing his son to break the power of sin, the evils of the world in humanity.  God putting his beloved son in whom he is well pleased through torture, barbaric grueling torture for the salvation of humanity that is weaker, feebler, unable to measure up, unable to even come close to the love that Jesus exemplifies.

What parent would seek to punish a beloved child, perhaps a stronger, well meaning child for the wrongs committed by a younger, weaker, perhaps even physically feeble child?  What parent would then be called loving by doing such an unjust act against their children?

Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins writes:  “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”  My comment on this quote was: “We [would] do the same for a father who punishes his older, stronger, more able son for the shortcomings, the wrongs committed by the younger and feebler son.  This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified on the cross for our sins, for our wrongs committed.”

Now to be fair, the quote is taken out of context from Rob Bell’s text.  He is not talking about Jesus being punished for the sins of humanity.  He is talking about millions of people who have been taught that if someone does not accept Jesus in the ‘right’ way and they were then killed that very day, then God would have no choice but to punish them eternally with hell fire. Bell writes, “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.” Such a god who portrays as being loving that would then become vindictive at the moment of death is no loving god. I agree with Rob Bell on this point.

I remember in high school, one of my classmates dying in a horrible car accident. The story went around the school that moments before his car accident he was being witnessed to about Jesus; he became angry and stormed off and consequently died.  The moral of this story was exactly what Rob Bell is saying.  My classmate because he rejected Christ was now in hell.  See what happens? God will take us out too, if we reject his son. How in heaven is this good news?

But Rob Bell’s argument in my mind is the same.  No loving parent would punish a good child, an obedient child, a child that models the best qualities of virtue for the inabilities, the inherent flaws in the child that cannot live up to those standards. No loving parent would call that love, mercy, or grace.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The key is in how we define the word “gave.”  To be consistent with God being love, crucifixion on the cross does not fit the definition.  Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard that a king had leased out.  He sends a servant to collect his harvest and the servant is beaten.  The king sends another servant and he too is beaten. So the king sends his beloved son, and the workers at the vineyard conspire together and kill the son.  The king does not give the son to be killed; it is what the workers at the vineyard do. God did not give his son to be crucified; it is the action that the people chose to take. At best the crucifixion can be seen as humanities abusive tendencies with all of life’s gifts to us.

There is a flaw in the theology surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Now I understand how such a flawed theology could arise.  Humans are meaning makers.  We want everything to have a meaning, a purpose.  We want our lives to be meaningful and not just the drudgery of the day to day indifference.  We have incorporated this meaning making into our clichés and platitudes.  When someone dies, we hear things like “God’s ways are mysterious” or it was “God’s will”. When we go through tough times we hear that “God is working his purpose out” or “God only allows what we can endure.”   We want our lives to have purpose, to have meaning.  So here was this man who lived and taught extraordinary truths on the nature of love.  He is betrayed, he is tortured, and he is crucified on a cross.  We want this to have meaning. We need it to be filled with profound meaning.

What possible meaning could it have?  He lived in a culture that valued the notion of substitution of wrongs through sacrifice.  This is the culture of the scapegoat.  This is the culture that had stories of child sacrifices with Abraham offering up his son to God. This is the culture that believed that blood rituals could bring atonement for sins. It makes sense that this culture would seek meaning in this manner.

But this is meaning that contradicts the very teachings of Jesus.  This is meaning that makes salvation into a three minute sinner’s prayer with no more commitment than that to achieve life eternal.  Salvation becomes marketable and easy. This life is filled with grief and sorrow but there is pie in the sky with Jesus.  All the focus is on the here after and no concern on the here and now.

Rob Bell states in his book, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” 

But if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the atonement of sins to enable our safe passage into heaven, then what is his good news?  How do we make sense of his death?

Jesus saw his life to “proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4: 18-19) His life was to show the power of love, justice in the world.  His life was to offer a new way of being that was not caught up in greed, coercion, or power abuse; be it physical, emotional, psychological, or corporate abuse.

This is a harder message to absorb. It is not a quick fix salvation. It sometimes points the finger of justice directly at where we live and convicts us. But it does seek to embody love in a way that is liberating in the here and now. It proclaims that not even death can stop it from progressing forward. Love is more powerful than death.  Love will resurrect in the hearts and minds of those who seek after it. It proclaims that we can be a part of that message if we seek to love one another.

“Perhaps the story of the physical raising of a dead man to life is an allegory of something else like the hope and promise of resurrection in the living of our days.  In the days that followed the biblical story, there was a change in the people who had followed Jesus. We are told they were all in hiding, in fear of their lives when their teacher was killed.  Over the next few weeks, they began to come out of their own self imposed tombs to begin spreading a message they had learned from their teacher. They tapped into the message of Jesus’ ministry of love and justice for others and began to see new possibilities for their lives.  It was as if the words of this man began to live within their own hearts, and created a new perspective on how they viewed life.  The embodied resurrection was empowering them to create their lives anew with the message they had heard. “[From “The Silence of the Resurrection” © 2009 Rev. Fred L Hammond UUCTuscaloosa)

Our focus then should not be on the crucifixion of Jesus. It should not even be on the resurrection. These are just footnotes to the narrative that was Jesus’ teachings. Our focus in this narrative is on what Jesus taught.  How are we to live our day to day lives?  How do we help bring release to the captors and set the oppressed free?  How do we love one another? How do we embody the teachings of Jesus so that they too transform us and the world around us?  How do we love one another, especially the ones who have caused us pain?

These are the vital questions to be asking ourselves. These are the questions that will re-frame  and transform our lives in profound ways.    Blessings,

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Good Friday 2009

Theology grows out of the practice of the people and not the other way around.  People began honoring the date of Jesus’ crucifixion and then developed the theology of why they do this. Remembering the anniversary of a loved ones’ death was not an unheard of practice but it was generally reserved for those who knew the deceased.  

There was a need in the early church to explain this commemoration long after anyone alive remembered Jesus personally.  There was a need in the early church to explain how a loving God could allow the death of Jesus by crucifixion.  The early Christians scoured the scriptures [these would be the Hebrew writings, both canon and apochrophal]  to find anything that might be a prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ life.  As they did they found references of the sacrificial lamb and the scape goat that would atone for sins.  They applied these references to explain the events of the crucifixion and made remembrance of his death a holy day.  However, it is a disservice to make the focus of an entire life on the last fleeting hours.  [Mel Gibson are you listening?] It is also a bit of a paradox to call the day commemorating a crucifixion as good. 

People often quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son so that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”   Many read this verse then go directly (in their minds at least) to the crucifixion of Jesus as what it means to give up an only son.

However, this does not logically work for me.  If Jesus is indeed the only son of God, then it was not at the crucifixion that God gave Jesus to save the world but rather at his birth.   Jesus lived a life that was a profound example of how all people could live their lives.   His death did not seal the deal, it was just a result of the many things that happen to all prophets who are not welcomed in their land.   Socrates, Servetus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Norbet Capek are just a few of the prophets that have graced our land who were not welcomed and like Jesus were killed.  There are also those who lived out their natural days; Buddha, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Thomas Merton.  Jesus could have easily ended his life on earth with an ascension like Enoch in the Hebrew Scriptures. [Luke’s gospel thought this reference was important and added it to the Christian texts to take place 40 days after his death and resurrection.]  His life did not need to end in crucifixion in order to make his message more profound. 

It does not make sense that God as a parent would ask his stronger well behaved and obedient son to accept the punishment for the wrong doing that a weaker perhaps infirmed son had committed. Wouldn’t it show more of God’s love and grace to offer forgiveness to the weaker perhaps infirmed child?  And be an example to the stronger son of what comprises true compassion? (I believe I am paraphrasing Rev. William Channing in his “Unitarian Christianity” sermon of 1819)

The gift that God bestowed to the earth then was not the death and resurrection of Jesus but rather the life of one who so embodies the principles which we hold dear.  The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.  These first three principles of our Unitarian Universalist faith are based, not solely, but certainly primarily on the life of Jesus.   It is the life of Jesus that is the extraordinary gift and the focus of those who wish to follow in his footsteps and be called Christians.  The impact on the world would be great indeed if more people heeded the call of Jesus’ life and spent less time on the ramifications of believing or not the doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Blessings,

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 1:35 pm  Comments Off on Good Friday 2009  
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