I was in middle school when I first heard Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, and it touched a place deep within my soul. In it, I learned about keeping my “head when all around [me] are losing theirs and blaming it on” me. I learned that I “could talk with crowds and keep [my] virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch.” In high school, I would actually commit the poem to memory. I learned that all of this was a way to grow into adulthood and be the kind of person who would be a valued part of my community and my world.
The interesting part about this was that it was a poem. It wasn’t a checklist. It wasn’t just a list of rules about how to live. It was an appeal … an invitation … to be the kind of person who would bring honor. It created an image … a narrative … to which I could aspire.
In recent weeks, I have been doing a great deal of work on the distinction between two different ways we approach the witness of scripture, theology and … perhaps most importantly … the way we do church.
As I shared on Easter, there is a transactional way to think of the work of Christ through his death and resurrection. It is how we often hear people talk about what is known as atonement. Our God is a righteous God who exacts a price on humanity for our sin. The ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to appease God, and the assumption was that it lasted for a time and could atone certain sins. Then people would have to sacrifice again. Jesus then finally came to offer “the ultimate sacrifice.”
The notion of sacrifice … even the sacrifice of Jesus … is transactional. It is payment for a debt that is owed.
The problem here, however, is that Jesus talks about a new form of love, and does not speak of his own death in purely transactional ways. Interestingly, we find people who very easily talk about the “unconditional love of God” only to then turn around and talk about Good Friday and Easter in conditional terms. If not for the sacrifice of Jesus, we would never be able to afford our sin.
You see the dilemma here, I trust.
But when we consider an aspirational approach, we see that the cross of Jesus is not part of a divine transaction to settle up our accounts. As Father Richard Rohr shares in his Daily Meditation for Monday, April 15,
Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin of the world (which is ignorant violence rather than not obeying purity codes); by refusing the usual pattern of revenge, and, in fact, “returning their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:27-28); and, finally, by teaching us that we can “follow him” in doing the same. There is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys—in both short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to others around us.
So what would it mean for us to understand the cross aspirationally instead of transactionally?
First, it would mean that we would not see it from a western economic worldview. It is very easy in the American mindset to think of the cross as that place where we get life the same as we get milk from the grocery store. I shared on Easter that we often think of “redemption” in the way that I grew up thinking of Green Stamps. We would collect enough green stamps from the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station, and then, when we had enough, we would go to the Green Stamp Redemption Center and turn them in for various household items. I grew up with a set of dishes and green glasses (which eerily went with our shag carpet) from the redemption center. The cross, however, doesn’t bring that kind of redemption.
An aspirational understanding of the cross would instead be the place where we would “hold the pain and let it transform us.” My doctoral work was centered around the notion that brokenness (specifically in the church) could be that which annihilates us or that which becomes foundational to our faith. Our culture is typically focused on the avoidance of pain and suffering. So much of our medicine, our psychology, our economy, and most especially, our religious life is too easily organized around the avoidance of pain and suffering.
The ancient church never considered the avoidance of suffering to be an option. Early on, suffering became a significant way to connect with Christ. It was not a masochistic suffering brought about by a sadistic God. Instead, it was the notion that authentic life brings with it authentic suffering.
Authentic faith … a faith that understands letting go and letting God … is rarely well-received by those in power because power doesn’t show up well in the light of such faith. Martyrdom (which comes from the word “witness”) was brought on when the Roman government was cast in a negative light by the people of faith … those who believed that the body could be killed but that the soul was outside the grasp of the powers of this world.
A second implication is that we are offered a different worldview than that of power sealed by violence. There are those who believe that Jesus simply gave up his life … passively … and let the world think it had won until God’s violent overthrow of the world should redeem us at the end of the age. This is not the Jesus of the gospels.
The Jesus of the gospels did not show up as people might have expected. He showed up as Dr. Martin Luther King showed up in the last half of the 20th century … leading a nonviolent movement that was contrary to the ways of human power. Jesus did not come as the warrior king. He came as a non-violent messiah who from the cross offered forgiveness for his executioners. He did not come to bring harm though he knew that his movement would not bring peace.
The General Rules of the Methodist Societies reflect this premise:
Do no harm. Do good. Attend upon all the ordinances of God, which directs us to the means of grace.
In the gospels, Jesus is anything but violent, and he is anything but passive. Those who have heard me use Walter Wink’s explanation of Jesus’ Third Way know that we no longer talk about Jesus as a passive victim. Jesus is, in every way, radical … in how he brings a non-violent revolutionary message … in how he stands his ground in creative ways … in how he offers us insight into this redemptive suffering referred to by Fr. Rohr.
Finally, the implication of an aspirational view of the cross comes in how following Jesus can radically transform our world. In so many ways, the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just this message. We can effect a radical change in our world by following the path Dr. King sat before us.
It is true that direct action (active resistance) tends to create crises, but unjust power rarely changes its course when there is no crisis forcing its redirection. The Beloved Community of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke does not come easily (as evidenced by the continuing systemic racism found in every institution up to and including the church), and it will not be possible by keeping our minds focused on a transactional atonement. Dr. King’s is a truly aspirational model.
[NOTE: The next paragraph was not part of the original blog post, but comes as a postscript following the ruling of the Judicial Council of the UMC on Friday, April 26.]
The Judicial Council just ruled that parts of the Traditional Plan passed by the 2019 General Conference are upheld. Those include mandatory harsher penalties to be imposed upon clergy who defy church law and do same-gender marriages and mandatorily override the will of annual conferences who wish to ordain gay clergy and jurisdictions who wish to elect gay bishops. No matter how we try to look at this, there is no way to see that as the work of Jesus Christ, and it has no place in the body of Christ. It seems clear that a division is imminent, and we are witnessing one more time how our efforts at being church does harm to others with the implementation of laws that are unjust.
But as we consider the direction of the United Methodist Church, I think I see a pathway here. We who consider ourselves “progressives” (along with many centrists) have fallen into thinking that the only way to have this conversation was by use of transactional language … just speaking on the other side of it. We have thought that, if we just argue persuasively enough, we would be able to convince the people who think differently to change their viewpoint.
In Fr. Rohr’s language, we have returned curses with curses while ironically hoping that shouting louder might quieten the room a bit. But if we consider the third way … the way of Jesus … we will stand our ground because we know it to be the authentic and best way forward. We will “return curses with blessings,” and find a new way of living into our own authentic language.
An aspirational language that provides for us a different narrative … a narrative that challenges us much like Kipling’s poem challenged me as a child … may well provide us a narrative that is far more insightful and hopeful.
After all, we follow a savior who answered most questions with a story! A story of faith!