Why You Gotta Be So Mean?

by on December 5th, 2013

mean go away

While surfing the interweb the other day I happened upon yet another attempt at describing the “people you meet” in society. Apparently stereo-typing people is some sort of hobby on line. But one of these got my attention. I can’t vouch for anything on the site itself but this seemed dead on: Some people’s idea of right and wrong just boils down to “Is it mean?”

No good can come from any discussion on race, you see, because the very word “race” is “mean.” Only “mean” things can come of it. If we act like race does not exist, things will be nicer, which is always better.Seemingly all of their political beliefs stem from a “Is it mean?” type mentality. They are opposed to all war because war is a very mean thing. They hate those big corporations because big corporations are really mean. Opposing gay marriage is mean, and sealing the border is mean. Meanwhile they like poetry, because it is nice. Drugs are nice too, as are revealing clothes, since sex is very nice.

Some of you faithful readers are nodding your heads right now. Mean and Not Mean are the only categories they can handle. This goes for theological concepts as well. A dear friend of mine recently sent me a post entitled “Why Did Jesus Have to Die”  Most Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus died to atone for our sins. However, atonement implies a debt and that seems to imply a mean God:

. . . As powerful as the idea of unworthy sinners being saved by a loving Jesus may be, the corresponding idea of an angry God so unwilling to forgive that he has no choice but to murder His only son causes many of us some problems. So is it possible to push back against the atonement theory formulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury and imagine other meaningful reasons for Jesus to go to the Cross this week?

I’m sorry. I’m trying to be charitable here (i.e. not mean) but can we critique the atonement doctrine mentioned by Anselm by imagining some other reasons? Who talks like that? I’m going to “push back” against assumptions about taxes by imagining other ways we might think about taxes. I’m going to “push back” against your arguments in favor of the right to own a hand gun by imagining everyone buys guns for their artistic quality? And what sort of reasons does the author’s imagination latch on to?

First and most obviously, Jesus died because he stood up against the world-shaking power of the Roman Empire. To assert that Caesar was not Lord was treason — and to assert that there were powers beyond the temporal power of Rome was enough to get anyone killed.

Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan remind us in The Last Week about the prophetic and counter-cultural courage of Jesus. The very Palm Sunday celebration many Christians reenact was actually a prophetic demonstration against the power of Rome: Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives on his donkey, a peasant hailed by the people for his message of the Kingdom of God. Pontius Pilate rode in from the west at the head of a column of Roman legionaires, bearing the power of Rome. It was a collision between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, and as Borg and Crossan write, “The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.” (2)

Jesus staked his life on the belief that God’s power is supreme — and his resurrection proves it. The power of the Empire to torture and kill, to impose its will, is nothing compared to the power of God, which will not let sin and death have the last word.

There’s a fallacy here that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “The All or Nothing Fallacy.” I agree with Borg and Crossan that speaking truth to power is one of the things Jesus’ death did. However, that doesn’t “push back” against the doctrine of the atonement as if its Jesus the revolutionary or nothing. The author almost implies Anselm of Canterbury formulated instead of you know, a thousand years of church history where Christians articulated the concept of God which included radical love and sacrifice for our sin. We can simply ignore those bits of evidence in favor of a less mean God that we are more comfortable with. This seems to echo the previous description of the those who reduce all ethical discussion to “Is it mean?”

What makes this so frustrating is that having a political or philosophical discussion with an adherent of the “Is it mean?” mentality is impossible. They never even bother reading thinkers that should interest them like Tom Hayden or Karl Marx. Why bother learning the nuts and bolts of a complex social issue when all you have to do is check your “mean-odometer” to know what position you hold?

Now I want to be fair to people who struggle with the morality of the fall and the atonement. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary explanations. The concept of an inherited evil and a judgment based on it is something counter our modern concept of individual responsibility. That’s fair but notice struggling with God’s reasons for something is a far cry from simply picking from the obvious symbolisms associated with the complex act of Jesus’ crucifixion those that aren’t so mean.

2 responses to “Why You Gotta Be So Mean? ”

  1. Karen says:

    Jonathan, are you aware the the predominant understanding of the Atonement for the first thousand years of Christian history (and certainly in the East) was Christ’s sacrificial death (as our “Passover”) being a victory over sin and death for our benefit, freeing fallen humankind–not from the demands of an angry, but “just,” God demanding “justice” or payment for His “honor” as Anselm’s theory of “Satisfaction” and the Reformers’ “Penal Substitution” propose–but rather from slavery to sin, death, hell and the devil (as the NT teaches)? One of the greatest of the Greek Fathers, St. Gregory Nanzianzus, is representative of the orthodox understanding when he writes:

    “To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; . . . “

    . (Italics are my emphasis.)

    It is clear these Church Fathers understood the Father to be pleased with the Son’s voluntary sacrifice of His life on the Cross, NOT because sin was being punished or a debt to God’s “honor” was being paid through Jesus’ “infinite” suffering, but because righteousness was being fulfilled in humanity through the sinless obedience of the Son and because, in this way (through Him who is Life entering into death), sin and death were being overthrown by Life, making possible the repentance and resurrection of all humankind.

    The treatise, On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius (famous as the minority upholder and articulator of orthodox Christology in his day) presents what is still the understanding of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. It can be summarized as follows: God in Christ became what we are (human), that we might become what He is (“God”)–that is, sharers in God’s own divine nature by His indwelling us through the grace of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:4).

    (to be cont.)

  2. Karen says:

    (cont.)
    The Atonement, from a genuinely Orthodox (and I believe orthodox) Christian perspective, is about God through Jesus, ransoming/liberating fallen humankind from slavery to sin and death (to which we sold ourselves) that we might be reunited with God and transformed into His likeness. Humankind’s “fall” into death is understood in the Eastern Church to be the intrinsic natural consequence of turning away from God, the only Source of life, toward self-and self-will: it is not understood as an extrinsically imposed (and therefore on some level arbitrary) “punishment” from God. Christ’s sacrifice, therefore, is not, from the classical Christian perspective, about rescuing sinners from the hands an angry God, who demands appeasement of His offended “honor” or “justice” for the infraction of a legal code (in the sense that is understood in Penal Substitution theory). The latter is a thoroughly pagan, not genuinely Jewish or Christian, understanding of the nature of biblical sacrifice and is the unfortunate result of the imposition of philosophical frameworks foreign to the Scriptures (i.e., Medieval feudal law and Enlightenment notions of forensic justice or criminal law) on the Scriptural language and images used to describe the various aspects of the nature of our salvation in Christ. Better to use the predominating biblical paradigm of the nature of our salvation in Christ given in the Gospels themselves—that is, the narrative of the Jewish Passover.

    I would suggest that those who struggle with the morality of certain Western theological nuances of the Church’s teaching of original sin (where humankind’s fall into death is understood as God’s in a sense arbitrary punishment of man’s guilt for sin) and with Penal Substitution as presented in Pierced for Our Transgressions are showing a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s conviction in their hearts and to a genuinely biblical ethic.

    By the way, Jonathan, I could not find any information regarding your background and training. Would you fill us in?

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