Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Contested Concepts: "Orthodoxy" and Jesus' Sacrificial Death
Our preoccupation with believing is because many of the central teachings of Christianity have come into question in the modern world. Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences. Beliefs have little ability to change our lives. One can believe all the right things and remain a jerk, or worse. Saints have been heretical, and people with correct beliefs have been cruel oppressors and brutal persecutors. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship to the God to whom the tradition points. What matters is the relationship, for it can and does and will transform our lives.
Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999)
The Episcopalian Marcus Borg is a religious studies professor at Oregon State University (my dad's alma mater) and has written extensively on the historical Jesus. His most recent book is The Last Week, a scholarly, historical analysis of what led to Jesus' crucifixion. What follows are a few excerpts from an interview Borg did with Homiletics Magazine about 5 years ago discussing the contested meaning of Jesus' death and what exactly one needs to believe or do in order to be a real, "orthodox" Christian (a term Borg doesn't like and neither do we). We recommend reading the whole interview, but here is a little taste-test with some of our thoughts following.
So why did Jesus die, anyway?
...I would say that Gibson [in the 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ] narrowed the meaning of passion to mean the suffering of Jesus rather than broadening the meaning to raise the question: “What was Jesus passionate about?” Because I’m convinced it’s what Jesus was passionate about that led to his arrest and execution.
What he was passionate about, of course, was the kingdom of God, which involved him in radical criticism of the authorities of wealth and power. Almost all of his teachings about riches are directed against the elites; he’s not talking about slightly well-to-do peasants who have a little more than what they need. The wealthy in that society were the wealthiest one or two percent who were also the powerful. His criticism of the temple is really of the temple as the center of the native aristocracy. His criticism of the temple is really about the economic role of the temple in the domination system of the times.
So Jesus was executed because he was criticizing the authorities and, quite frankly, they didn’t care for it. To which I’d add, he was criticizing the authorities and he had attracted at least somewhat of a following. If he had just been an individual criticizing the authorities and no one was paying attention to him, I doubt the authorities would’ve cared.
In order for us to really understand Jesus' death, we must understand his life first. The way he lived his life led to his execution. Borg's poignant explanation is similiar to the work of Ched Myers who proposes that we can best understand the meaning of Jesus' death by viewing it through the death of Martin Luther King. Like King, Jesus was a prophet who exposed the injustice and domination of the powers-that-be. Like King's Civil Rights Movement, Jesus' band of nonviolent resisting disciples threatened to turn the status quo upside-down. And like the Roman and Jewish powers who branded Jesus a traitor and blasphemer in order to turn popular opinion against him, the American powers branded King a womanizer and Communist (labels that still have a strong effect on white "Christian" America). It is too easy to underestimate the powerful agenda of the wealthiest 2% in any society. They have the greatest incentive to keep things just the way they are and they are almost always willing to kill to make that happen.
...The post-Easter interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death makes use of a lot of different metaphors. Even in Paul, we have at least three ways of talking about Jesus’ death. One is that he was a sacrifice for sin. The second is that the death of Jesus incarnated or embodied the path of transformation. Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” He refers to himself as having undergone an internal death and resurrection. That’s cross and resurrection as an image for an internal process we are all invited or called to go through.
And then Paul also speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus as exposing the moral bankruptcy of the principalities and powers. In the cross, God triumphed over the principalities and powers making a public display of them and also, if they had known what they were doing, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. That’s the execution of Jesus as exposing the moral bankruptcy of the very system that put him to death.
The idea that the meaning of Jesus' death was immediately self-evident to his disciples is deeply enmeshed in 21st century North American Evangelical Christianity. Because Borg takes the origin of the biblical documents seriously, he understands the 30-50 year process of interpretation that the Christ event undertook. As the disciples experienced the Spirit of God in the decades following the death of Jesus, in a variety of contexts and experiences throughout the Roman Empire, they were lavished with wisdom and discernment in order to interpret what exactly Jesus' teaching, ministry and death meant for them in their new settings. For Paul and other New Testament authors, Jesus' death became a symbol for the personal transformation of Christian disciples and their own creative and consistent confrontation with the powers.
OK, more on how the cross was a sacrifice?
In the world of early Christianity, the temple in Jerusalem claimed an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins, because there were certain sins that could only be dealt with through sacrifice in the temple. In that setting, for early Christians to be saying, “Jesus is the sacrifice for sins” is an anti-temple statement. It undermines or subverts the temple’s claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness. And because within that theology the forgiveness of sins was the necessary prerequisite for entering into the presence of God, the temple also claimed a monopoly on access to God. Once again, Jesus as the sacrifice for sin is a statement which subverts the temple’s claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and a monopoly on access to God.
...My claim is that the sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death is a post-Easter retrospective giving providential meaning to his death. An analogy that I would mention from the Jewish Bible is the great story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45. It’s the reunion scene between Joseph and his brothers. In this scene, once his brothers who had sold him into slavery recognize him, they’re terrified. He now has the power of life and death over them. To reassure them, he says “Do not be afraid, for it was not you who sent me to Egypt but God who sent me to Egypt ahead of you so that I might preserve a remnant.” So “it was not you who sent me to Egypt, but God who sent me to Egypt.” He repeats it twice.
Does that mean that it was God’s will that those brothers sold Joseph into slavery. No. I don’t think that it’s ever God’s will that you sell your brother into slavery. The point that the storytellers of Genesis is making is that God even takes the evil acts that we perform and turns them into providential purpose.
That’s the right way, or the most helpful way, to understand the providential interpretation of Jesus’ death. It’s the community afterward trying to see some providential purpose in this death and assigning providential meaning to the death. And that works very powerfully as metaphor.
I've never heard this interpretive connection between the meaning of Jesus' death and Genesis 45. Very powerful. This has greater implications for how we understand God to be working through all the tragedy and disorientation in our world today. God does not cause it and doesn't necessarily allow it to happen, but God works mightily in the midst of it all. To mutter "it must be God's will" to our disappointments, losses, failures and freak accidents does not reflect what it means for God to be providential. Instead, in the midst of all our brokeness, chaos and abuse, we look ahead, hoping and discerning what God will do to bring redemption and reconcilation. This is a divine pattern. We cannot realize the power of resurrection unless with go through the agony of death.
Is the word “orthodoxy” a useful word anymore?
It’s often a misused word. It’s often a fighting word.
Because it draws a line in the sand?
Yes, we’re orthodox, you’re not. When I say a “misused” word, I think many people have a mistaken understanding of what orthodoxy means. Literally it means, of course, straight teaching or straight glory. So if orthodoxy is used as a way to judge people or exclude people, I’m not that interested in it. If orthodoxy is a way of saying “There are certain foundational affirmations in Christianity without which the position isn’t Christian,” I think that’s true. I would keep those affirmations to a relative minimum and would always want to caution against too much certitude or precision.
For me the foundational affirmations are the reality of God, Jesus as the decisive revelation of God, the Bible as constitutive of Christian identity. And maybe I would be content with that much. Without those affirmations, I don’t think the position is Christian. Might be something else that’s very good, but not Christian.
Perhaps Christians of all stripes would consider Borg's orthodox trifecta: (1) the reality of God; (2) Jesus as the decisive revelation of God and (3) the Bible as constitutive of Christian identity. Of course, many present-day followers of Jesus would not be content to limit "orthodoxy" (a word EasyYolk finds a bit abrasive) to these elementary standards. But truly, all of the other "doctrines," "beliefs," "convictions," and "practices" within the worldwide Body of Christ are contested.
Does one really need to believe in the virgin birth or even the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian? Does one need to view the death of Jesus primarily through the lens of penal-substitutionary atonement (Jesus' death replaces my sins and acquits me before a righteous Judge)? Does one need to subscribe to "inerrant" or "infallible" understandings of the Bible? Does one need to vote Republican or denounce Roe v. Wade?
The Body of Christ becomes stronger and more compelling when we extend grace to our fellow believers who think and act differently than ourselves. Borg's view of orthodoxy is more humble and merciful and irenic. It acknowledges that none of us have the final word on what it means to be fully Christian. When we sideline Christian teammates--who have rejected absolutism, apathy and cynacism--only because they think a little bit differently than us, we lose out on important conversation partners. All Christian communities should weigh the unique, out-of-the-box ideas of this experienced scholar and disciple.