Richard Rohr Meditation: Compassion, Not Sacrifice

In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren writes about the possible meaning behind Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (see John 2:13-17):

Perhaps it is not merely the cost of sacrifice that Jesus protests. Perhaps it is the whole belief system associated with sacrifice, based on the fundamental, long-held belief that God is angry and needs to be appeased with blood. Perhaps Jesus is overturning that belief right along with the cashiers’ tables, right along with the whole religious system built upon it. . . .

More than seven hundred years before Jesus, Hosea dared to say that God desired compassion, not sacrifice [see Hosea 6:6]. . . . Around the same time, Isaiah dared to say that God found sacrifices disgusting when people weren’t seeking justice for the oppressed (Isaiah 1-2). And centuries earlier, the poet-king David made the audacious claim that God takes no pleasure in sacrifice, but desires a “contrite spirit” and “truth in the innermost being” (Psalm 51). In other words, . . . when [Jesus] said sacrifice wasn’t necessary . . . he was siding with the prophetic and mystical/poetic traditions within Judaism, even though that set him against the traditions of the priests and scholars. . . .

When the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah come along, they don’t advocate rejecting religion and culture, even though they are highly critical of its spiritual hypocrisy and social injustice. They want their religion to expand, to evolve, to learn and grow. The same is true with Jesus. He came, he said, not to abolish or replace, but to fulfill what came before him [see Matthew 5:17]. . . . [Or “transcend and include,” as Ken Wilber would say.]

The spirit of goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness, Jesus said, is always moving. Like wind, like breath, like water, the Spirit is in motion, inviting us to enter the current and flow.

The problem is that we often stop moving. We resist the flow. We get stuck. The word institution itself means something that stands rather than moves. When our institutions lack movements to propel them forward, the Spirit, I believe, simply moves around them, like a current around a rock in a stream. But when the priestly/institutional and prophetic/movement impulses work together, institutions provide stability and continuity and movements provide direction and dynamism. Like skeleton and muscles, the two are meant to work together.

For that to happen, we need a common spirituality to infuse both our priestly/institutional- and our prophetic/movement-oriented wings. The spirituality will often be derived from the mystical/poetic/contemplative streams within our tradition. Without that shared spirituality, without that soul work that opens our deepest selves to God and grounds our souls in love, no movement will succeed and no institution will stand. . . . It’s the linking of action and contemplation, great work and deep spirituality, that keeps the goodness, rightness, beauty, and aliveness flowing.

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

Layered Meanings (Richard Rohr)

Two theologians I deeply respect, Marcus Borg (1942-2015) and John Dominic Crossan (b. 1934), offer important historical and symbolic context for the crucifixion. The theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” only became dominant in recent centuries. [1] Over the next two days, consider their advanced perspective on Jesus’ death on the cross:

This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says. Of course, sacrificial imagery is used there, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. They also see it as the domination system’s “no” to Jesus (and God), as the defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation [dying and rising], and as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us. . . .

Though Mark provides the earliest story of Good Friday . . . Mark’s narrative combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. . . .

Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits.” The Greek word translated “bandits” is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s point of view. Their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome. . . .

[When Jesus died,] “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). As with the darkness from noon to 3 PM, this event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered. . . .

To say. . . that the curtain was torn in two has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a judgment upon the temple and the temple authorities . . . who colluded with imperial Rome to condemn Jesus to death. On the other hand, . . . [it] is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark’s presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.

Then Mark narrates a second event contemporaneous with Jesus’s death. The imperial centurion in command of the soldiers who had crucified Jesus exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:30). . . .

That this exclamation comes from a centurion is very significant. According to Roman imperial theology, the emperor was “Son of God”—the revelation of God’s power and will for the earth. According to the same theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who had brought peace on earth. But now a representative of Rome affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God. Thus the emperor is not.

Richard Rohr Meditation: A Bigger God

In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some “necessary sacrifice”; if it could, it would not and could not work its transformative effects. Duns Scotus and his followers were committed to protecting the absolute freedom to love in GodIf forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all. Love and forgiveness must be freely given or they do not accomplish their deeply transformative healing. Self-serving love does not change the heart. It must be free and undeserved love or transformation does not happen. (Think about that and you will know it is true!)

I’m not sure many Christians recognize the dangers of penal substitutionary atonement theory. Perhaps the underlying assumptions were never made clear, even though thinking people throughout the ages were often repelled by such a crass notion of God. This theory has become a nail in the coffin of belief for many sincere, thoughtful individuals today. Some Christians just repress their misgiving because they think it implies a complete loss of faith. But I would wager that for every person who voices doubt, many more quietly walk away from a religion that has come to seem irrational, mythological, and deeply unsatisfying to the heart and soul. And these are usually not “bad” people!

Christianity can do so much better, and doing so will not diminish Jesus in the least. In fact, it will allow Jesus to take on a universal and humanly appealing dimension. The cross cannot be an arbitrary and bloody sacrifice triggered by a sin that was once committed by one man and one woman under a tree between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Frankly, that idea reduces any notion of a universal or truly “catholic” revelation to one planet, at the edge of one solar system, in a universe comprised of billions of galaxies with trillions of solar systems. A religion based on required sacrifices is just not glorious or hopeful enough or even befitting the marvelous creation. To those who cling to Anselm’s understanding, I would say, as J. B. Phillips wrote many years ago, “Your God is too small.” [3]

Jesus and the Cross: Changing Perspectives (Richard Rohr)

When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.

Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.

In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.

Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?

Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.

Richard Rohr Meditation: At-One-Ment, Not Atonement

The common reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”—either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109).

.. Duns Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used by the Gospel writers and by Paul). He was inspired by the cosmic hymns in the first chapters of Colossians and Ephesians and the Prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) and gave a theological and philosophical base to St. Francis’ deep intuitions of God’s love.

..  The terrible and un-critiqued premise is that God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept God’s own children! These theories are based on retributive justice rather than the restorative justice that the prophets and Jesus taught.

.. For Duns Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but had to be the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made” (Ephesians 1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the incarnation—or we were steering the cosmic ship! Only perfect love and divine self-revelation could inspire God to come in human form. God never merely reacts, but supremely and freely acts—out of love.

.. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God! 

God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model—which the ego prefers—to a world in which God’s mercy makes any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) notions of human and animal sacrifice (common in most ancient religions) and replaced them with an economy of grace and love.

.. Jesus was meant to be a game-changer for the human psyche and for religion itself. But when we begin negatively, or focused on a problem, we never get off the hamster wheel of shame, separation, and violence. Rather than focusing on sin, Jesus—“the crucified One”—pointed us toward a primal solidarity with the very suffering of God and thus of all creation.

.. God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we can do will either decrease or increase God’s eternal and infinite eagerness to love!

Substitutionary Atonement: It Doesn’t Get Any More Personal

Why evangelicals give pride of place to penal substitutionary understandings of the Cross.

.. Evangelicals more than most are deeply moved by the notion that Christ died for us on a cross, that he was a substitute who suffered in our stead, that he endured a punishment we deserved.

.. To be sure, it has been framed sometimes in crude and even pathological ways. But it remains a way of looking at the atonement that deeply moves millions and draws them in grateful love to the one who hung on that cross.

.. reminding us of the many models of atonement alluded to in Scripture. Like the ransom model: We are held in the power of the devil until Christ died and freed us from his grip. And Christus Victor: The malevolent principalities and rulers of this age have been defeated by Christ on the cross. And the moral model: Seeing the lengths to which Christ went to demonstrate his love by dying on the cross, we respond in love.

Still, evangelical Christians believe there are persuasive theological reasons for privileging penal substitution among these and other models

.. The main reason is simply this: It makes intuitive sense to men and women of an evangelical disposition.

.. But they are not sophisticated theologians when they first find themselves astonished at hearing about what Christ has done for them on the cross.

.. They are grateful because they have, as we have noted in earlier essays, “an urgent sense of man’s predicament … a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.” The mood is despair, and the urgency comes from a foreboding: If the reason for this despair isn’t addressed, one is doomed. The despair is grounded by guilt and shame for transgressions against divine law, which evangelicals recognize not as an impersonal and arbitrary law, but one that is a direct expression of the Personality behind the law.

.. When we sin, we are keenly aware of the connection between the law of God and person of God. We have not merely violated a law but a person, and as such we are subject not just to punishment but also wrath, not merely just consequences but also rejection.

..  Many argue such notions are more akin to primitive religion that seeks to appease angry gods

.. The biggest problem is the sabotaging of trust; the teen has failed to respect, honor, and love his mother.

..  “The wages of sin is death”

.. What type of universe is this in which every day and relatively harmless behavior—lying, greed, pride, lust, and so forth—deserves eternal and irreversible damnation? Evangelicals respond, “This type of universe,” and point to common experiences with very much the same dynamic—relatively insignificant actions that result in horrific and lasting consequences.

.. A woodworker thoughtlessly moves his hand too close to the table saw blade, and in an instant, his hand is lost forever to him. A jogger glances at her cell phone and momentarily wanders onto a busy street; she is hit by a passing car, and after multiple operations, she is told she’ll never be able to run again. Why the world is built this way

.. where small lapses in physical laws can have such devastating consequences

.. evangelical Christians are also more comfortable than most in calling such consequences a form of punishment. To talk only about consequences drains the blood from the dynamic and moves us in the direction of deism, into a world where God sets up the moral and physical laws and steps away.

.. thus in Scripture, God reacts to sin less like a judge who impassively metes out justice, but more like a wounded lover who has been rejected. It’s very personal.

.. This personal dynamic is what gives substitutionary atonement such homiletic force, and why it is a staple of evangelical preaching, teaching, and devotion. Of all the models of atonement, it best reflects the personal God of the Bible

.. The punishment that results is not an arbitrary expression of a rejected lover’s wrath, but also an act that somehow balances the moral books. That is why forgiveness as a mere act of the will is not sufficient

.. Sins must be paid for, as a debt must be paid for. Why this is the case, why the moral universe operates in this way, is hard to say, another deep mystery of life.

.. An apology from her is all well and good, but you are not satisfied until your father adds that your sister can’t watch TV for a week. Punishment is part of the solution to this problem, and if there is no punishment, you feel like justice has been cheated.

.. Or take the trope that Hollywood regularly relies on in revenge movies. The screenwriters are appealing to something deep and basic in the human heart: When a great injustice has been done, retribution is due.

.. The villain rapes and murders a series of teenage girls; all through the movie, the viewer wants the villain not merely caught but punished, usually in some violent scene that leads to the villain’s death. In spite of the predictable fireworks and excessive violence, we keep coming to such movies precisely because we are deeply satisfied by the punishment of offenders.

.. Again, evangelicals see this dynamic at work at a spiritual level. Our sins cannot be swept away by the wave of a hand. They deserve death, and only by death can they be adequately paid for.

.. Again we’re tempted to think we’ve regressed to primitive religion, but once more, we look around to see this phenomenon all around us. It’s another regular trope of storytellers, who create “Christ figures” whose deaths liberate others.

.. This is a powerful motif not merely because it mimics the crucifixion but because we recognize a mysterious law of the universe in play: Sometimes the suffering and death of one key person—who is perceived as good and loving—transforms the lives and situations of others for the good, as the deaths of activists like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. suggest.

.. evangelical preachers have proven themselves more open-minded and ecumenical than their liberal brothers and sisters. Whereas the latter insist on completely eliminating substitutionary atonement—and especially penal substitution—as primitive and unworthy of the modern mind, evangelicals simply will not eliminate any of the other models, no matter their weaknesses (which each model has).

.. evangelicals give priority to substitutionary atonement; they see it as the one model that holds all the others together, making sense of each one. And many agree with Packer who, in the essay noted above, suggests that substitutionary atonement is not a theory as much as a model, not an ironclad explanation of the mysterious ways of God but a dramatic narrative

.. is not in any sense to “solve” or dissipate the mystery

.. the effect is simply to define that work with precision, and thus to evoke faith, hope, praise and responsive love to Jesus Christ.

.. Yes, the model has been abused. Some have explained it as if Jesus appeased the wrath of an angry Father who gleefully watched his Son tortured to death—as if the Father and the Son had two different wills about what was going on. Not quite. Substitutionary atonement grounded in good Trinitarian theology insists on the unity of purpose of the Father and the Son, since “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NASB). That is, God was enduring in his own self the divine wrath that we deserved—that I deserved.

.. Where Christus Victor, for example, is a wonderful model to describe cosmic redemption, substitutionary atonement is about my salvation: Christ died for me. It doesn’t get any more personal than that. And evangelical religion is nothing if not personal.