Monday, 23 June 2014

Atonement is political - non-violence and leadership

A famous text in Mark's gospel which is taken as a proof text in atonement theology is 10:45

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Usually, this is wedded to penal substitutionary atonement, and so Jesus' death is seen to be a payment to ransom us from punishment. This view needs a bit of nuancing. Context will help as well will see shortly.

The word ransom is lutron, and is used in the context of slavery and ransoming or freeing a slave from the market. The most obvious source of the slavery here is to sin, but I wonder in a sense (and context might make a case) that the devil is also part of it - given the theme early of binding the strongman and robbing his house. There are echoes of this in John's gospel when Jesus says that the ruler of this world is going to be thrown down when he ascends to the cross.

We need to be careful with demonology, but the idea behind human evil, particularly that of evil structures and systems finds a good deal of resonance in the gospels. There are plenty of models of the atonement; we don't need to flatten them into one.

In the Exodus, chapter 8 and verse 23 we read:

I will put a division between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign will occur.

However, the Hebrew has "set a ransom" instead of "put a division". The Israelites were rescued from Egypt, it's slavery, empire and gods.

Now it makes more sense of Jesus' critique of the disciple's question of who is the greatest, and his critique of the way in which Gentiles (read Rome) rule over people.

Jesus ransoms us from every evil empire, evil structure, with sin and the devil at its heart so that we can live a new life of freedom. That new life includes a new way of being in society at all levels, a new approach to leadership. Atonement is communal and political.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fighting violence with violence means violence wins - Genesis 4

I don't suppose I am a complete pacifist; if you drew a spectrum I'm not sure where I'd sit. I do however understand that violence is a failure of peacemaking, war a failure of diplomacy. Sometimes that's because someone was not interested in peace, and sometimes that means that second best must be turned to.

But in the lives of most of us, for most of the time, violence of behaviour or rhetoric means that violence grows, violence wins. In argument, in relationships, there can be another way. And in public policy, we can lobby for better ways.

The story of Cain and Abel has a strange end - the warning that Cain would be avenged seven times if he were killed (Genesis 4:15). It is still a limit on revenge, and it is declared by God. It does stress the sanctity of life. And it is from an age of violence.

So when Lamech himself proclaims a much larger vengeance, and an unbalanced one, for it was death for a wounding and not death for death, we see how retribution can go so wrong (verses 23-24). Vengeance, not justice is in view. The image of God in chapter 1 seems not to extend to Lamech's victim. In many Ancient Near Eastern contexts, the image of God was limited to the nobility or king. In Hebrew thought, murder was denied because all are in the image of God.

Comparing Rwanda to South Africa, we see how the pursuit of truth and reconciliation trumps revenge. While due process and punishment are often appropriate, simply locking someone up or taking their life is not enough, when reconciliation and restorative justice can bring more closure, greater peace, and an end to the desire for revenge. This isn't being soft on law and order, but simply seeking a better order.

As long as there is sin there will be prisons, but for the every day of our relationships, we lock ourselves in prisons of anger and unforgiveness if we want to pursue vengeance for ourselves. God promises to repay. There are authorities to trust in. Sometimes we just let go, other times we actively seek reconciliation. But if our words and actions turn violent, it can only spiral in one direction. And Jesus died, not so individuals can wield weapons and words of anger, but so we can be agents of peace.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Keeping our brothers and sisters - Genesis 4

I've been thinking a bit about origins of late, and the whole issue of human goodness and tendency to evil. Students in a course on science and religion I tutor on answered a question about evolution and "Original Sin". The more informed students understood that this phrase is often associated with Augustine. An Irenaean approach is more compatible with evolution, where there is no perfect past, just a humanity that is created in order to grow up and aspire to fully carry out the role of bearing the image of God.

I've also started reading Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall after hearing her speak recently. She's a Christian, though these days it seems of a more universalist persuasion if I've understood her right. She obviously has some insight into human behaviour and its origins by studying chimps.

In the end, regardless of how you view our material origins, Genesis 4 shows us what history has illustrated again and again, we are capable of great violence.

Cain kills Abel out of jealousy when God sees into the heart and prefers Abel's gift. When asked where he was, Cain asks "am I my brother's keeper?" This disavowal of his role to care for another human seems to me a rejection of his brother as also bearing the image of God. It has always been the case that violence against other humans is preceded by dehumanising them. The Holocaust is a shocking example of this, but I suspect much of what is felt towards asylum seekers who come by boat in popular thought, the unemployed in conservative thought, Indigenous Australians by those who'd deny them recognition in the constitution are all symptomatic of the inability to empathise because they have been dehumanised.

In a world where the lines on maps are often drawn by us, but where trade, greenhouse gases and pollution all flow over these lines, everyone is our neighbour. Given our shared genetic origins, everyone is a brother or sister. For Christians, there is a special sense of this "in Christ", this does nothing to diminish our need to regard everyone this way, for we are all in the "image of God". This means rather than being an object of violence, other people should be the subjects of our keeping: keeping safe, keeping well, keeping in filial relationship.

Blessed are the peacemakers.