Theology


I’ve been away for a few days, so I’m slightly behind on this one, but I can’t help myself: this may be a new low to which the feminist academy has sunk. According to Susannah Cornwall of Manchester University’s Lincoln Theological Institute, Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite. The London Daily Telegraph chronicles this train wreck of speculation:

Dr Susannah Cornwall claimed that it is “simply a best guess” that Jesus was male.

It’s as much a guess as that Caesar wasn’t actually the name of a salad that happened to get appended to a famous Roman general.

In her paper “Intersex & Ontology, A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”, she argues that it is not possible to know “with any certainty” that Jesus did not suffer from an intersex condition, with both male and female organs.

It’s also not possible to know with certainty that Jesus wasn’t an alien from the planet Teegeeack.

In an extraordinary paper she says: “It is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness.

I’m not sure how they define “maleness” at Manchester U, but I suspect it has something to so with scissors.

“There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some “hidden” female physical features.”

When you get right down to it, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether Jesus had any internal organs at all. Maybe He was actually a cyborg from the future. Or an android. Heck, how do we know He even had a body at all? Maybe it was just an elaborate illusion designed to fool those Jewish primitives He hung around with?

Dr Cornwall argues that the fact that Jesus is not recorded to have had children made his gender status “even more uncertain”.

Because all people who do not have children should be assumed to be intersexed.

She continues: “We cannot know for sure that Jesus was male – since we do not have a body to examine and analyse – it can only be that Jesus’ masculine gender role, rather than his male sex, is having to bear the weight of all this authority.”

People whose sex is also unknown: Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Moses, Muhammad (now that’s gonna cause some trouble), Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock, the passengers of the Titanic, Gary Coleman, Amelia Earhart, Osama bin Laden, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Robert Heinlein, Ru Paul, L. Ron Hubbard, Janis Joplin, Vincent Price, H.G. Wells, Adolf Eichmann, and George Harrison, among others. All of these are people whose bodies were cremated, lost at sea, or have since turned to dust. Without proper examination (I mean, who really checked out bin Laden’s innards before they dumped him overboard? For all we know, he could have been half goat!), we have no way of saying anything about the sex of any of these people (with one exception meant to see if you read the whole list, and things are a bit uncertain even in that instance, if you know what I mean).

One serious thing to say, and that’s this: if this is the kind of epistemological standard that some academics are going to employ, they should be stripped of their positions at once. Why? Because it is next to impossible for them to know anything at all about their so-called “specialties,” and what their “research” and “papers” amount to is writing down what the voices in their heads tell them. Undergraduates don’t need some fruitcake with a Ph.D to tell them bizarre stories–that’s what frat parties and beer is for.

*Line from Madeleine Kahn in Blazing Saddles–it’s a punning reference to Bismarck Herring, a brand of fish sold in Germany, named in honor of the first Prime Minister of united Germany, Otto von Bismarck, from which her character Lili Von Shtupp hails.

(Via MCJ.)

UPDATE: For more on the academic origins of this particular form of insanity, check here, an article by someone named Bruce Gerig called “Jesus the Intersexual.”

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In response to the post of my World commentary, reader Kyle Smith has offered a very insightful comment, which I urge you to take a look at before proceeding. His observations deserve a measured reply, and so I’ve put a bit more thought into this post than my usual fare.

First, let’s agree that Occupy Wall Street and its religious left cheerleaders are irrelevant. As Charles Cooke has observed, OWS is more about performance art than actually getting anything accomplished. The religious left, meanwhile, is hopelessly stuck in the 1960s, their only answer to America’s current economic and social problems being, “more of the same!” More Great Society, more government intervention, more regulation, more imposition of values that have been firmly and repeatedly rejected by most Americans, as well as most American Christians. That way lies madness.

But that is not to say that OWS and the religious left are entirely wrong. They have glimpsed the truth, but failed to understand it because of their Manichaen, us-against-them approach. You see, what ails America is not that it’s the 1% against the 99%. Instead, it’s the 100% against reality.

The reality is that every human being in his or her unredeemed state is selfish (in fact, even the redeemed continue to struggle with it their entire lives). Selfishness is a universal characteristic that none of us, no matter how idealistic or politically correct, can escape. Businesspeople, politicians, community organizers, college students, pastors, government bureaucrats, religious social justice activists, conservatives, liberals, moderates–all of us deal with the same problem.

Selfishness, in turn, manifests itself in a variety of ways. For some, it’s the mindless accumulation of wealth. For some, it’s running a company or a government without any regard for how one’s actions effect anyone. For some, it’s demanding that those who produce wealth subsidize those who don’t (this is what the OWS demand for universal free college tuition is about). For some, it’s about exercising power over others without regard to their well-being. For some, it’s the demand for the freedom to do whatever they want unless it immediately and physically harms another (this is what some forms of libertarianism are about). In all of these instances, and many more that could be adduced, selfishness is at the core of what’s going on.

At their heart, the problems of the American economy come down to this universal characteristic. Capitalism is founded on the notion that human selfishness can be used to bring benefits to an entire population, a theologically counter-intuitive idea that only works inasmuch as the economic system is not isolated for all the other functions and institutions of society as a whole.

In fact, capitalism is the one system that instead of trying to change our innate selfishness (because neither economic systems nor political ones can change human nature), seeks to harness it in such a way as to maximize the benefits of human labor for those participating in the system. This is the reason why capitalism works better than any other system of economic organization in the modern world–because it works with human nature, rather than against it.

But that hardly means capitalism is perfect. Because it relies for its energy on a trait that is sinful, it requires constant fine-tuning in order to mitigate the worst effects of that sin. Hence the need for at least some forms of state regulation, regulation that needs to change as circumstances change. Why state regulation? Because there is no other mechanism through which the values of the population as a whole can be expressed, at least in democratic societies.

Capitalism has earned the scorn of the religious left because the ethics and goals of capitalism are not those of the Kingdom of God. That’s inane, because most people are not Christians–they do not live according to the ethics of the Kingdom because they are not part of it, and to expect them to live by those ethics is an expression of what amounts to a kind of economic Pelagianism (which is to say that people can, if they simply choose to, organize production, labor, markets, and consumers in a way that reflects the Kingdom, even though they reject the One who has given us those standards). In other words, the religious left wants the economy to function as if only saints ran it, and when it doesn’t, they insist that the government–which last time I checked wasn’t run by saints either–should step in and bring the Kingdom of God about. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen.

At the same time, the religious left, like OWS, is not entirely wrong. The poor do need to be cared for, the powerful do need to be restrained, and the forces of human selfishness do need to be prevented from doing harm where possible. But here’s the thing: I don’t claim to have all the answers to how to do that, and I feel reasonably sure that Jim Wallis, the National Council of Churches, and the social justice bureaucracies of the mainline churches don’t have all the answers, either. What I do have that the latter worthies seem to have lost, however, is a healthy understanding of human sin, its pervasiveness in all areas of human life, and its annoying tendency to muck up pretty much any plans that we have for bringing about the Kingdom of God on our own.

Sin–expressed in selfish attitudes, actions, and ideologies–is the reason why corporations do things that hurt others. Sin is why politicians do things that betray their offices. Sin is why protesters make stupid demands and do things that are seemingly designed to undercut their message. Sin is what we are up against, and sin is not something that we can legislate away, nor is it something that the market can fix, nor is it something that we can defeat with enough activism. So what should the churches be doing?

They should be faithfully carrying out the mission God has given them, and bring the gospel to bear on every aspect of human existence, including the economy, the government, politics, etc. But that means bringing the gospel into the lives of those who live and work in all of those realms. The gospel and its ethics cannot be imposed on people who don’t share them. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, however, by Christian businesspeople, Christian politicians, Christian social workers, Christian teachers, Christian accountants, Christian stockbrokers and money managers, Christian union leaders–in fact by Christians in every walk of life–when the people of God live as such within their innumerable contexts, the effect on society as a whole can be electrifying.

I was baptized in a Southern Baptist church. I was married in a different Southern Baptist church. I graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. Boy, am I glad I left the Southern Baptist Convention behind long ago. From the Western Recorder:

Was a western Kentucky church denied admittance to a Baptist association because it is too Calvinistic?

Acting on a report brought by its credentials committee, Daviess-McLean Baptist Association voted 104-9 at its annual meeting last week not to accept Pleasant Valley Community Church in Owensboro for membership.

“Our concern in the initial stages of our investigation revolved around the fact that Pleasant Valley Community Church’s confessional statement is one that (is) Calvinistic in nature. It affirms the doctrine of election and grace,” the report from the association’s credentials committee stated.

“It affirms the doctrine of election and grace”? Heaven forbid!

(Via Associated Baptist Press and RealClearReligion.)

The United Church of Canada, doing all it can to increase the theological literacy of its membership, has put out a list of authors and books that are recommended to the laity under the title, “25 theologians to help undermine broaden your faith.” Not all of them are, in fact, theologians, but that’s just part of the broadening process. C. S. Lewis is on the list, as are Karl Barth and N. T. Wright, but much of the list consists of the Usual Suspects:

1. Marcus J. Borg is an American theologian and a prominent voice among contemporary Jesus scholars. He is the author of 19 books.

They mean “Jesus Seminar scholars,” but what the hey.

3. John Dominic Crossan is a former Catholic priest who co-founded the Jesus Seminar, a group of 150 biblical scholars trying to establish the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus.

Well, actually trying to disestablish their historicity–details, details.

5. Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who has written more than 20 books on faith, studying what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common and how they’ve shaped world history and modern culture.

Professional pluralist.

7. Annie Dillard is the author of 13 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Her website says she has “no religion, or many religions.”

That pretty much says it all.

 10. John Shelby Spong, a retired American Episcopal bishop, is a liberal Christian theologian and author. He calls for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief, away from theism and traditional doctrines.

What would a list like this be without the best-known apostate of our time?

13. Elizabeth Johnson is a Christian feminist theologian and a professor of theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York City.

The orthodoxy of her work has been officially questioned by many Catholic bishops.

17. Dorothee Sölle was a German liberation theologian, writer, activist and poet. She coined the term “Christofascism” to describe the Christian church’s embrace of authoritarian theology.

How…inclusive.

20. Matthew Fox, an American priest and theologian, is a proponent of Creation Spirituality. A prolific author, he joined the Episcopal Church after being expelled from the Dominican order of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Austin Powers of American theology, including him on this list is like sending your six-year-old to the corner drug dealer for candy.

There are others, but you get the point. How they could have left off Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Margaret Atwood (who’s even Canadian, eh) from a list clearly designed to help the United Church to commit suicide is anybody’s guess.

(Via MCJ.)

I thought that I would only have to write one post on the exploitation of the tragedy in Norway for ideological purposes. Silly me.

Th execrable Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has been a frequent target of mine, but she hits a new low in the Washington Post this morning. Seems the mass murder in Norway was all about “right-wing” Christianity:

Anders Behring Breivik has now “acknowledged” that he carried out the horrific series of attacks in Norway that have left at least 76 dead. He has been described by police there as a “Christian fundamentalist.” His rambling “manifesto” calls for a “Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination.” Christians should not turn away from this information, but try to come to terms with the temptations to violence in the theologies of right-wing Christianity.

Let’s clear the field right away: Breivik is not, and does not claim to be, a Christian in anything but a cultural sense. He writes in his incoherent “manifesto” (3.139):

If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

Even someone as far removed from orthodox Christianity as Thistlethwaite would reject the claim of someone who wrote something like this to be a Christian. This, in fact, is much more akin to what the so-called “German Christians” of the Nazi era claimed, that they were Christians by virtue of blood and soil, of ethnic heritage, of cultural patrimony. To the extent that they understood what Christianity is about, they rejected it, as does Breivik, for all his pseudo-Christian ramblings.

Breivik’s chosen targets were political in nature, emblematic of his hatred of “multiculturalism” and “left-wing political ideology.” This does not mean that the Christian element in his ultra-nationalist views is irrelevant. The religious and political views in right-wing ideologies are mutually reinforcing, and ignoring or dismissing the role played by certain kinds of Christian theology in such extremism is distorting.

In fact, trying to discern a coherent political ideology in Breivik’s rant is next to impossible. He certainly doesn’t fit into anything like the convenient category that Thistlethwaite wants to put him. Oh, and I’ve got to say that for someone as thoroughly down-the-line left-wing in both her politics and her theology as Thistlethwaite to talk about how “the religious and political views in right-wing ideologies are mutually reinforcing” is the height of pot-kettle irony.

Christians are often reluctant to see these connections between their religion and extreme violence. They will dismiss it as “madness” rather than confront the Christian element directly. As a woman interviewed in Oslo observed, “If Islamic people do something bad, you think, ‘Oh, it’s Muslims,’ ” she said. “But if a white Protestant does something bad, you just think he’s mad. That’s something we need to think about.”

Ah, moral equivalence. Hey, it worked with the Soviets, right? Rather than drawing facile comparisons between apples and oranges, Thistlethwaite ought to learn something about the subjects she writes about. The connection between political and religious realms was built into Islam from the beginning. The early centuries of Islam are all about military conquest and the establishment of empire. Recognized, popular schools of Islamic thought, such as that of Ayatollah Khomeini, advocate a tight bond between state and mosque, and not only acquiesce to violence against non-believers, but positively encourage it. Followers of those schools applaud when they see infidels struck down (think of the reaction in parts of the Muslim world to 9/11, 7/11, 3/11 the Bali bombings, and others). When stuff like Norway happens, the reaction in even the most conservative Christian circles is universal condemnation.

Yeah, I know–details, details.

Exactly right. Christians do need to think about that, both in Europe and in the United States. Examining your own religion in its historic as well as contemporary connection to lethal violence is something Christians tend to shun. Stephen Prothero describes this dynamic in his students: “When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christian bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories.” Prothero confesses he found their response “terrifying.”

I’m not sure why their response is “terrifying,” though it may be wrong. These students evidently understood something that Prothero and Thistlethwaite don’t: that no authentically Christian theology or worldview could possibly countenance actions like the Nazi campaign against the Jews. The only way to get from Christianity to Nazism’s racial beliefs is to so distort the faith that it was no longer Christianity. The German Christians were, among other heresies, Marcionites (they rejected the Old Testament in whole or in part) and Pelagians (they reject the inherited sinfulness of humanity), and rejected most if not all of Paul’s theology regarding the breaking down of walls between Jews and Gentiles. Many of them essentially rejected the historicity of the Gospels by declaring that Jesus was an Aryan. Is it any wonder that people like this would approve of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism? Is it really any wonder that Prothero’s students had a hard time identifying this as “Christianity”? The truth is that the only way that the ideology of the German Christians could be supposed to be Christian is if the words “Christianity” and “Christian” have no intellectual content, so that they may be twisted and shaped into whatever form one wishes. The fact that the German “Christians” wanted to hold on to that word is no more morally significant than Theodore Kaczynski identifying himself as an “environmentalist.”

When I consider the theological perspectives that “tempt” some Christians to justify hatred and even violence against others, such as, in this case in Norway, the following perspectives seem especially prevalent: 1) making supremacist claims that Christianity is the “only” truth;

So holding to biblical faith, as well as the orthodox faith of the church through the centuries, “tempts some Christians” to hate and murder others. You might as well say that believing in the crucified Christ encourages violence. Oh, wait–some “theologians” on the loony left do say that. (I should mention that she seems to be doing a weasel by using the expression “only truth.” What she means is the view that Christ is the only way of salvation.) In any case, Thistlethwaite has obviously not bothered to look at Breivik’s rant, which makes clear that his beef is with Islam–he says nothing negative about any other religion, and supports Christianity because of its place in European culture, not because it is the “only” truth. She simply assumes that Breivik must believe this, because a police official (!) called him a “Christian fundamentalist.”

2) holding the related view that other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” and “of the devil”;

This view of other religions may or may not be true, but the fact is that there are countless people who believe this, including an awful lot of atheists who believe that all religions are evil, but who don’t go around indiscriminately killing people. In any case, Breivik never says this.

3) being highly selective in the use of biblical literalism, for example ignoring the justice claims of the prophets and using biblical texts that seem to justify violence;

Not surprisingly, selectivity in the use of “biblical literalism” is universal, which makes sense given that there is a variety of types of literature in Scripture, some of which is meant to be taken literally, some of which isn’t. Even Thistlethwaite takes some of it literally. Generally, those who use it to justify violence are those who would be violent anyway, but grab hold of some text or another justify what they want to do, rather than discovering a call to do what they wouldn’t otherwise.

4) identifying Christianity with a dominant race and/or nation;

See “German Christians” above.

5) believing that violence is divinely justified to “cleanse” or “purify” as in a “holy war”;

This idea used to be common within Christendom (as it has been and still is common in certain segments of Islam). But the only people who hold to this now are either the “German Christian” types or people who are so unhinged that they hear voices or see divine messages in the butter patterns on their English muffins.

and 6) believing the end of the world is at hand.

That must refer to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his threats to wipe Israel off the map to facilitate the coming of the 12th Mahdi, because it has nothing to do with Breivik at all.

Such theological views, I have found, are more accurate predictors of where political extremism and certain interpretations of Christian theology will mutually contribute to justifying lethal violence. This kind of specificity is more helpful, in my view, than the term “Christian fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism is a more historical term, dating from the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy in the early part of the 20th century in the United States, and I find it is less helpful today in understanding right-wing Christianity.

This kind of specificity would be more helpful if it had any kind of link with actual examples, since Breivik doesn’t fit this mold. He doesn’t claim to be Christian in any sense other than the cultural; he has no interest in whether the theological claims of Christianity are true, much less exclusively so; he has no apparent problem with any religion other than Islam; his apocalypticism is cultural rather than theological; etc. But other than that he’s a textbook case of what Thistlethwaite is talking about.

I also think it’s funny that she gets all scholarly on the use of the word “fundamentalist,” considering she uses it all the time as a synonym for “right-wing Christianity,” but hey, maybe she was looking at her doctoral sheepskin when she wrote this.

The real point is this: she doesn’t show that there is any connection between violence and “right-wing Christianity” because there isn’t one. A handful of deranged people, many of whom don’t even fit the stereotype, do not make a “connection”–they make an excuse for religious leftists to throw slime at Christians with whom they disagree.

UPDATE: Here’s the aforementioned Stephen Prothero at CNN’s “Belief Blog” today:

He affirms Christianity. He describes himself as “100% Christian” in his apparent manifesto….

If he did what he has alleged to have done, Anders Breivik is a Christian terrorist.

Yes, he twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash.

Here’s Breivik in his manifesto:

At the age of 15 I chose to be baptised and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church. I consider myself to be 100% Christian. However, I strongly object to the current suicidal path of the Catholic Church but especially the Protestant Church….

As for the Church and science, it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings. Europe has always been the cradle of science and it must always continue to be that way.

Regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I’m not an excessively religious man. I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe.

Yeah, that sounds like a Christian to me. In some ways, he’d fit right into Thistlethwaite’s United Church of Christ.

UPDATE: Yet another academic, Marc Jeurgensmeyer of Southern Cal, weighs in at Religion Dispatches:

The similarities between suspected mass killer Anders Behring Breivik and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh are striking.

Both were good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom. Both thought their acts of mass destruction would trigger a great battle to rescue society from the liberal forces of multiculturalism that allowed non-Christians and non-whites positions of acceptability. Both regretted the loss of life but thought their actions were “necessary.” For that they were staunchly unapologetic. And both were Christian terrorists.

Thereby demonstrating (as if further evidence were necessary) that some academics would rather be politically correct than factually accurate. McVeigh explicitly said he was an agnostic. I know–details, details.

Jeurgensmeyer’s point seems to be that if you are going to call Osama bin Laden a Muslim, then you have to call Breivik a Christian:

Is this a religious vision, and am I right in calling Breivik a Christian terrorist? It is true that Breivik—and McVeigh, for that matter—were much more concerned about politics, race, and history than about scripture and religious belief; with Breivik even going so far as to write that “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter)).”

But much the same can be said about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and many other Islamist activists. Bin Laden was a businessman and engineer, and Zawahiri was a medical doctor; neither were theologians or clergy. Their writings show that they were much more interested in Islamic history than theology or scripture, and imagined themselves as re-creating glorious moments in Islamic history in their own imagined wars. Tellingly, Breivik writes of al Qaeda with admiration, as if he would love to create a Christian version of their religious cadre.

If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones.

So here’s what religion is in the hands of one sociologist:

In case you can’t make out that warning in the corner, it says: “May be dangerous when used for political purposes.”

The Unitarians Considering Christ United Church of Christ meets for its biennial convention in Tampa this weekend, and will be considering a variety of resolutions of the leftist kind. There’s absolutely nothing surprising about that, of course. Among other items the delegates will consider is a change to the UCC constitution. Here’s the current language:

A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in God as heavenly Father, and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.

That language has been unchanged since the 1957 formation of the UCC through the merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But that’s sooooooo behind the times. Hence the new language:

A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.

Here’s a question for the authors of this change: how can one claim to “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior” and yet reject the language that He used for His heavenly Father? And why would the feminists of the UCC want to follow such a sexist rube?

This is mostly a matter of conforming to the prevalent (though by no means universal–there are still evangelical congregations in the denomination) practice in the UCC, where biblical language for God has been passé for a long time. Come to think of it, much of what the Bible teaches and affirms has been passé in the UCC for a long time, so I guess this isn’t actually all that big a deal.

(Hat tip: Chuck Huckaby.)

I saw this last week, but decided to spare my readers the stomach upset during the Easter Triduum. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, for United Church of Christ seminary professor and president, is trying her darndest to figure out just what the crucifixion of Jesus could possibly have been about. At the Washington Post, she opines:

What could be holy about this? Christianity has interpreted the sufferings of Jesus in many ways. The role of the crucifixion is central to what is called the “atonement,” the doctrine that discusses how human beings can be reunited with God, overcome the estrangement from God caused by sin, and be restored to relationship, i.e. “at-one-ment,” with God. All Christian theologies of the atonement stem from the fact of the crucifixion. Jesus underwent this horrific death. Why?

A common view is that Jesus had to suffer the great pain of beating, scourging and crucifixion, and die a horrible death, in order to pay for the sins of humanity. Sometimes this payment is considered a “ransom” paid to the devil, sometimes as an innocent substitute paying for someone else’s crime, and sometimes as the moral example of sacrificing for others.

Actually, all of those and others (Christus Victor and Grotius’ governmental theory, in particular) are typically recognized as being valid expression of the atonement. It’s a both/and, not an either/or, though some are more important and contain a greater degree of the truth than others. But these aren’t what Thistlethwaite is looking for.

The problem is that suffering, in these views of the atonement, becomes an end in itself. Even the moral theory of the atonement, the model of self-sacrifice of Jesus, has been used through human history to justify suffering in the name of religion. This becomes even more extreme in the classical theories of the atonement, the so-called “penal” or “ransom” theories. As I wrote about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in a chapter called “Mel Makes a War Movie,” the extreme focus on the violence of the crucifixion in the movie, to the almost complete exclusion of Jesus life and teaching, skews the Christian narrative toward an unhealthy focus on humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death. This leads to religious, cultural and political justifications of suffering for its own sake. [Emphasis added.]

She doesn’t even begin to understand The Passion of the Christ, nor, I suspect, does she understand the “classical” theories of the atonement. But leave that aside. The emphasized phrase is the really remarkable one. For one thing, who has ever said that suffering was “for its own sake?” Yes, there is popular misunderstanding of the Christian view of suffering, but I know of no “religious, cultural, and political justifications” for suffering that have anything to do with an accurate view of the crucifixion or atonement. The idea of “redemptive suffering,” on the other hand, takes what otherwise would be an evil and turns it to good. (The story of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice through starvation in place of another at Auschwitz is one of the best examples of this I know.) One also wonders what a “healthy focus” on “humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death” would be, if in fact Thistlethwaite thinks that humanity bears any such guilt at all.

But despite these issues, there is a crucial truth about Good Friday that must be recognized. There is tremendous suffering in human life. That’s real.

What I think is holy about Good Friday is that as Christians we stop and remember the victims. Innocent human beings, and even the not-so-innocent, are routinely tortured and killed by the cruel and the unjust. I do not believe that God authorizes this suffering, but is God-with-us in the fact of suffering and death. I believe that really was God on that cross.

“Remembering the victims.” That’s what Good Friday is about–not Jesus’ victimization by a sinful world in particular, but victims in general. It’s not about God taking on the sin of the world, and freeing us from its guilt and bondage, it’s about Him joining us in the reality of suffering.

The sad thing is, both of those statements are true, they are just completely inadequate to express the fullness of what Godo Friday is about. It’s a shriveled vision of an event of cosmic proportions that has changed the world, changed history, changed us. It’s about what you’d expect from a faith that has become entirely political.

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