When I pray publicly I often close with, “Let what we do be for our good and the good of all concerned.” It’s a reminder for me that this church thing, this Christian thing only works within the context of a community. Salvation according to the scriptures is not so much an individual thing as it is a thing that happens within the community. And by community I mean everyone, and not just those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. I mean, Jesus didn’t die just for Christians. There weren’t any Christians around when Jesus died. Jesus died for the whole world. At least that’s what scripture says. The way I see it, Jesus chose to die in order to expose the folly of what theologian Walter Wink calls the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.” This myth has been around for millennia. I can best describe it through the example of Popeye cartoons. In every Popeye cartoon you have the victim, Olive Oyl, who is being sexually abused by Brutus, and Popeye tries to save her. Brutus beats the daylights out of Popeye and all looks lost until Popeye remembers his magic potion, spinach, eats the spinach and turns the tide, defeating Brutus and restoring order.
But here’s the thing. Popeye never fully defeats Brutus, the sexual violence continues, and Popeye never thinks to eat the spinach before he takes on Brutus. It is a never ending cycle that says over and over the only way good will overcome evil is through violence.
Most westerns are like that. Bad guys seem to have their way. Lone good guy stranger appears. Lone stranger takes on the bad guys and shoots them all dead. Order is restored.
You see. Violence is redemptive. Even many Christians believe that. Their understanding of atonement is that Jesus was sacrificed through violence in order to restore order. Redemptive violence. But what if something else is going on, that Jesus was up to something entirely different when he went to the cross? It might help to understand the Jewish concept of sacrifice at the time of Jesus.
When a person did something to offend God they would go to the temple and make a sacrifice. They brought an animal to be sacrificed as a gift offering to God, a way of saying I’m sorry, please forgive me. The Temple priest would then butcher the animal quickly and as painlessly as possible. You see, Temple priests were expert butchers. The goal was to prepare the animal for a meal (think barbecue), and not to inflict pain. God would then receive the sacrificial gift and return it to the offender symbolically in the form of a meal.
Meals were the ultimate sign of hospitality and restoration of order/healing within the community.
If we connect the dots of Jesus’ passion we see that he identifies himself with a meal and then dies on the cross. If redemptive violence is at work here that would have been all that was needed. But…
Jesus was raised to life. Death was exposed as the weaker power. Violence was exposed as the weaker power.
Unfortunately we experience the rule of violence and death even today. And sadly the idea that the power of death and violence is redemptive is accepted even by some Christians. Sometimes Christians get it wrong.
But there are times when we get it right, when we recognize the mission Jesus outlined for us is to continue his work of making the world a better place for all. Within the context of community. It’s hard work. Really hard because it involves loving even our enemies. Really hard because it means forgiving those who have hurt us. And asking to be forgiven when we have done the same.
I’m betting my life on this.