an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


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So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!

 


Endnotes

i. https://carm.org/is-the-substitutionary-atonement-doctrine-immoral

ii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system#sthash.deJFTKcQ.dpuf

iii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/early-christians-emphasized-paradise-not-crucifixion

iv. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

v. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

vi. http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/12/the-wrath-of-god-was-satisfied-substitutionary-atonement-and-the-conservative-resurgence-in-the-southern-baptist-convention/

vii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system

viii. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-penal-substitutionary-atonem.html

ix. http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

x. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

xi. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xiii. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

xiv. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

3 Responses to “an angry God.”

  1. melhpine March 27, 2016 at 10:15 pm #

    Thank you, Dawn. Having grown up Jewish, I still have a hard time emotionally understanding Easter. This helps.

  2. Kathy Creech March 28, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    Pastor Dawn – it is always refreshing to read your sermons. I see Christianity so differently from others that I sometimes feel I must be the idiot. Your talk this time, once again, solidifies my own point of view with regard to Easter. Almost every year, I ask why Christians NEED a resurrection or an OFFERING of some sort. It never made sense to me that a person would have to die in order for their to be reconciliation in one’s life. I saw Jesus more as a strong man who believed what he taught and was willing to do whatever it took to stand by it. He was not willing to betray his own spirit or those followed him just because others wanted him to. We see this in others, too.

    I was not raised in any kind of religion – except when my mother got into one of her crazy obsessions, but I remember the first thing that ever affected me with regard to Jesus is the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. That probably seems silly to many and I was only 15 at the time. But what I saw in it was the brilliance of Tim Rice’s lyrical ability to humanize Jesus to the point that we could ALL be Jesus. Several years later, when I revealed this to my husband, his first remark was, “but the downside of this movie is they did not bring in the resurrection.” But he didn’t understand at the time that I did not need the resurrection. In fact, I think the idea of resurrection takes away from the whole story.

    I have my own theories on other “magical” stories and they all boil down to simple kindness and compassion towards others. You don’t magic for this to happen but unfortunately, too many others seem to need it. And I think they need it because of their own everyday fears or justifications for not showing kindness or compassion. It’s almost become a scapegoat to the point that people become angry when someone they deem undeserving of kindness or compassion, gets it.

    Sorry to go on and on. Of course, I could talk about this all day.

  3. Patricia Ramey March 28, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    I was one of those people who left Calvinist religion, not just because of my”horror at this merciless, angry theology,” but first because I couldn’t believe you could inherit sinfulness at birth. Also, because I saw so many people from other religions who were good people and couldn’t believe that anyone could go to hell for the accident of being born in a diffierent culture. I evolved from there to being horrified at a “loving father” accepting his own son’s death as a payment for the supposed sin of others. But mostly I was doing this as a gut reaction, not a theological investigation. It just came down to “that’s now how a loving father would act”, and “most people are basically good and don’t ever do anything worthy of ‘eternal damnation’.”. Everything else sort of fell apart after that. And here I am today, a born-again UU. 🙂 Great sermon.

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