Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why Jesus suffered on the cross


For the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided this year. A creative person dreamt up some novel Valentine’s Day cards especially for the occasion. One read, “Violets are blue, roses are red, Lent is beginning, no chocolates for you.” Another read, “Won’t you be my Valentine, you miserable offender.” And a third read, “Remember you are dust, but awfully lovable dust.”[1]

This week I listened to a domestic abuse survivor recount her life-changing visit to the state prison’s mental health unit. The visit’s coordinator instructed the women, both visitors and prisoners, to arrange their chairs in two facing rows, close enough to hold hands. Then they were to pray for one another.

The prayer changed both the woman who told the story and the prisoner with whom she prayed. For the woman telling the story, the depth of the other woman’s anguish – an alcoholic mother, physical abuse from every male in her family who was supposed to protect her, and years in prison – birthed an ongoing commitment to prison ministry. She is a Christian who lives Jesus’ exhortation to visit those in prison.

After seventeen years, release eventually came for the prisoner. She left prison with only the clothes on her back, no money, and nowhere to go. Not knowing what else to do, she called the woman with whom she had prayed and who had stayed in touch. This woman provided the new releasee with some much-needed hygiene items and enough cash for a couple of meals and rent for a room. Five years after her release, the former prisoner continues to struggle, but believes that only through God’s grace has she maintained her sanity, stayed free, earned a college degree, and gained a new career and family.

That story reverberated in my thoughts as I considered today’s epistle reading:[2] Christ suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. Christians generally interpret Christ's suffering using one of three paradigms or models:

·       God is perfect. Perfection of any kind, especially divine perfection cannot include imperfection because the imperfection would pollute the perfect.

·       Humans are imperfect, whether because of original sin or the universality of our failure to obey, completely and always, God’s perfect law.

·       Therefore, forgiveness requires atonement for sin, that is, someone or something must pay the penalty for our sin or offer a sacrifice to wipe away the sin that blocks our relationship with God;

·       The only possible sacrifice able to wipe the slate clean or to pay fully sin’s debt (the theological terms are propitiation and expiation) is that which itself is perfect and without sin, the unblemished lamb of God, Jesus.

The second and third paradigms build on that basic framework of God’s perfection and human sin or brokenness. The second paradigm replaces atonement with redemption (humans are captives to sin; Jesus is the only one who can set us free). The third utilizes the language of reconciliation (putting our relationship with God right, which is only possible as God sees an imperfect human through the lens of the perfect Christ).

In seminary, I found these paradigms problematic, although I could not then explain my objections. Admittedly, the New Testament seems to offer prima facie support for all three paradigms, sparking Christian theological debate that sometimes erupted into violence. Each paradigm has been transformative for persons whom I know, helping an individual accept God’s grace and live more abundantly. Nevertheless, the three paradigms leave me feeling uncomfortable.

By the time I began my doctoral work a dozen years after seminary, I could finally articulate my fundamental objection to those three paradigms. The paradigms implicitly depict God as a child abuser. God established the rules. God knew humans would sin. And God decided God’s forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice to wipe away or pay the debt of sin, or that redemption or reconciliation was achievable only through the crucifixion of God’s beloved son. In short, God knew from the beginning that Jesus’ crucifixion was an inevitable necessity.

Other objections to the traditional paradigms include the models’

(1)  Dubious reliance on a jurisprudential framework to describe God’s dynamic, creative, and uninterruptible relationship with humans, i.e., why posit that God thinks and acts as a divine version of Santa Claus keeping score of who is naughty and who is nice;

(2)  Reliance upon a Greco-Roman understanding of perfection that excludes not only imperfection but also the possibility of future growth or change;

(3)  Adoption of a sacrificial understanding of atonement that mirrors some first-century cults, which may have then been contextually and culturally helpful but an understanding that is necessarily timeless or definitive.

(4)  Presuming that belief in Jesus is the only path to salvation, a presumption increasingly challenged in our twenty-first century globalized world. Twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner proposed the concept of the cosmic Christ, whose death was efficacious for all Godly people, regardless of when and where they live(d). He memorably dubs these Godly individuals anonymous Christians. Anglican theologians have widely rejected Rahner’s proposal because it paternalistically devalues other religions and the integrity of non-Christians’ faith journeys. Similarly, a continuing difficulty for Christian theologians has been how to affirm the salvation of Jews (e.g., Noah, Moses, and the prophets) while continuing to assert one of the traditional paradigms for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross.

Another paradigm for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross has persistently lingered on the margins of Christianity, a paradigm my seminary but not doctoral professors derided as an insufficient understanding of Jesus’ death. In this paradigm God is not a child abuser, celestial judge, Greco-Roman philosopher, or exclusionary lover. Instead, God loves us and all creation with the infinite, unconditional love Jesus manifested in life and death. God’s love is so limitless that neither death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor even sin can separate us from God. I see Peter employing this paradigm in today’s epistle reading and I heard it in the story of the women who prayed for each other. In Jesus, God extends God’s arms to embrace us with God’s infinite, unconditional love.

Hopefully, none of us is an axe murderer or sinner of similar magnitude. Our burdens of guilt are real but more frequently attributable to self or to other people than to our sin. Consequently, the three traditional paradigms have lost much of their power. In a world of preventable tragedies, most recently the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we desperately need the good news of a crucified God whose open arms announce God’s readiness to embrace us in healing, life-giving, unconditional love. This image of God in Jesus suffering with us, lovingly drawing us into a life-giving and sustaining embrace, makes sense to me in our badly broken world.

May you have a holy Lent in which to journey more deeply into the mystery of God’s infinite, unconditional love. And may rainbows be for us, as for Noah, a sign of God’s abiding and loving presence in our midst. Amen.

(Sermon preached the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018, in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI)



[1] Found on the internet, source unknown.
[2] 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The future of humans


This post appears on Ash Wednesday. The typical Ash Wednesday homily or theological reflection addresses sin and repentance, explaining the symbolism of the ashes imposed on foreheads. For some thoughts on that subject, read these previous Ethical Musings posts: Rethinking Ash Wednesday and Getting Ready for Lent.

Instead, I want to consider the future of humans, not as individuals but as a biological species. Generally, this subject receives little explicit theological attention apart from affirmations that God, in God’s time, will fulfill God’s vision for creation. That also is not the focus of these musings. I just read two books on evolution, one arguing for a version of intelligent design and the other describing how Darwin’s theories emerged from his personal and familial interests. Both books emphasized evolution’s dynamism; neither book explored what that might mean for humans. Nevertheless, the books were a catalyst for these musings about future directions of human evolution.

First, I’m confident that homo sapiens are not uniquely static. Evolution, even if we cannot see it, evolution continues in our midst with our species exhibiting minor adaptations to environment that promote the survival of the fittest.

Second, cyborgs – entities that combine a living being with a machine – have arrived or soon will, depending upon how one defines machine. Replacement joints have become commonplace. Replacement sensors (e.g., an eye or touch in a fingertip or other piece of skin) are in the experimental stage. Scientists are also experimenting with a human using her/his brain to control an artificial limb. Perhaps the next major step in human evolution will be a cyborg with a human brain and an electro-mechanical body.

Third, racial and ethnic differences are disappearing through increased breeding among persons of different races and ethnicities. In Hawaii, for example, finding someone who is 100% Hawaiian is now difficult. To a lesser extent, similar trends are evident globally as global migration increases and cultural barriers against intermarriage and childbearing by unmarried women erode.

Fourth, manipulation of an embryo’s genome, selection of a particular sperm or egg, and modification of a person’s genome all portend changes to the human species. Once begun, these genetic modifications are unlikely to stop. And once begun, these genetic modifications may slowly but permanently alter the human genome. Perhaps one day parents say be able to select each of a new fetus’s twenty-six chromosomes.

Predicting the outcome of these moves is impossible. Nevertheless, rejecting all such changes as unethical is wrong. Some changes may eliminate diseases for which no known cure exists (e.g., sickle cell anemia), may reduce the incidence of birth defects or diseases such as diabetes and cancer, or may otherwise dramatically improve the quality of human life or its longevity. These subjects deserve more attention in Christian ethics, theology, and churches.

Fifth, I wonder what other evolutionary changes are currently happening to humans to which all but perhaps a few scientists are oblivious. For example, are humans, to the extent that these traits are genetically determined, becoming taller, losing certain physical capabilities, gaining or losing aggressiveness, gaining or losing resistance to particular diseases, etc.?

Sixth, how long will the human species survive? I recently met a professor of biology from Italy who teaches in New Zealand. He wonders whether popular understandings of the causes of war and other forms of human violence and oppression bode ill for our species’ longevity.

Seventh, will humans crossbreed with a species from another planet, producing a new species as unimaginable to us as humans were to their predecessors?

For me, one key theological and ethical implication of continuing human evolution is that humans do not represent the apex or culmination of creation. Contrary to the myths in Genesis 1-2, the understandable anthropocentrism of our spiritual ancestors is incorrect. Humans are simply part of creation; in calling humans to be stewards of creation, God valued all creation equally and trusted us to do the same.

Ongoing human evolution also underscores the error of believing in a utopian Eden from which humans fell out of favor with God. That erroneous belief also presumes anthropocentrism. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time in the Christian calendar for self-examination and repenting of our errors and sins.

Thinking about human evolution identifies more questions than answers. Human knowledge has expanded exponentially over the last century, yet there is so much about which we know little or nothing. Humility, not hubris, best prepares us for today as well as the future.

Finally, ongoing human evolution, along with the continuing evolution of the entire cosmos, makes life seem like an adventure, even from God’s perspective, since God may very well not know where the processes that God initiated will eventually lead. Omniscience, after all, is a human construct. Omniscience may denote knowing everything about past and present without necessarily knowing the future.

What are your musings about the future of our species?

Friday, February 9, 2018

When winning at any cost is not worth it


The conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar for sexually abusing gymnasts he treated at Michigan State University and in the Olympic program has deeply disturbed me.

First, his crimes were heinous and numerous.

Second, numerous enablers were complicit in Nassar’s actions. These enablers turned a blind eye to warning signs, refused to act on complaints from the abused, and failed to establish adequate safeguards to prevent abuse, e.g., never allowing a male physician to see a female patient without another woman being present. Efforts to hold these enablers accountable should proceed along with mandating policies and protocols to prevent future incidents of abuse.

Third, where were the athletes’ parents? International gymnastics are highly competitive. Successful athletes depend upon family sacrifices, support, and encouragement. Having a daughter in the ranks of elite athletes who are part of a winning program feels good for parent(s) and daughter alike.

However, when the desire to win blinds a parent to the changes in his/her daughter caused by sexual abuse, then winning is no longer worth the cost. If one family had blown the whistle on Nassar years ago, that family’s daughter may not have won the gold. But she would have preserved more of her mental health, taken a step to reclaim the fulness of her selfhood, and prevented dozens and dozens of other girls from suffering similar abuse. Those victories are surely worth more than is a gold medal.

The father who attempted to physically harm Nassar during the sentencing phase of his trial acted, I strongly suspect, out of an abject sense of his own failure as a father. The judge wisely declined to take legal action against that father. Parents who failed to protect their children will have to live with their guilt. Parents who pushed their child to become a world-class gymnast when that was not originally the child’s dream will live with a double measure of guilt.

Children are precious. Parents rightly encourage and supporting a child’s efforts to achieve her or his personal ambitions – whatever those ambitions may be. Nevertheless, protecting the well-being of his/her child is a parent’s sacred duty.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

#Me too


In my last Ethical Musings post, Employment and ethics, I argued that inculcating virtue is the best approach to Christian ethics.

Women refusing to accept sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, have spawned the Hashtag Me too movement. Women are denouncing harassers; employers are beginning to take those complaints seriously, appropriately disciplining or firing abusive male employees instead of paying the accuse hush money upon signing a confidentiality agreement.

One explanatory factor for the movement, although in no way a mitigating factor in terms of a harasser’s culpability, is that women historically were not part of the workforce. World War II marked the first widespread entry of women into the labor force. Regrettably, women entering the workforce did not become a catalyst for men treating women with the dignity and respect with which men treated male members of the workforce. Instead, men continued to devalue women. Too often, men regarded women as lesser beings to be exploited as sexual objects rather than human beings equally worthy, along with men, of dignity and respect. This treatment of women as subordinate beings is evident in women typically earning less money for the same work than do men, slower or more limited promotion opportunities for women, categorizing certain tasks (domestic work, teaching, caring for the sick and elderly) as “woman’s work,” and sexual harassment.

In the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal vows, Christians promise to respect the dignity of every human being. No distinction is made for gender (or sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, political views, etc.). Sexual harassment – in any context – is immoral and unchristian.

Given human imperfection, sexual harassment will never entirely disappear. But the Hashtag Me too movement is an overdue growing pain as our society moves towards becoming more just, more equitable. Instead of being dismayed by the prevalence of sexual harassment, recognize that the growing refusal of women (and many men) to accept immoral behavior in the workplace and elsewhere is a sign of progress in an otherwise discouraging time.

Critically, cultivate in yourself, your friends and colleagues, and, most importantly, children and young people habits consistent with perceiving and treating all people with equal dignity and respect. These habits include use of appropriate language and touch, avoiding demeaning thoughts or words, and seeking to see God, or at least the good, in each person. Then, when confronted with a situation in which you have the opportunity to ill treat someone for your pleasure or gain, a situational temptation that is generally inevitable if not frequent, have confidence that your habits reinforced by God’s luring, will cause you to act rightly without having to think about what to do.