No More Scapegoat Jesus!

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

Facing the righteous indignation of an eight year old.

She stormed into the house, dramatically dropped her school bag and then slammed the door. My normally well-behaved and ebullient second grade daughter turned on me with eyes full of rage, nothing less than rage.

“What’s the matter hon? You’re a few minutes late.”

“Who? Did what?”
“THE TEACHER. Ian and John were talking, but she punished us all! She made us stay after. SHE MADE US PUT OUR HEADS ON OUR DESKS!

I started as brief explanation of classroom management and why a teacher might try the admittedly lame tactic of using group pressure to control the few bad apples. Then I stopped. She was having none of it. She wasn’t mad at the bad boys. She was furious with the misadministration of justice. I asked her if she wanted me to talk to the teacher. She wanted me to talk to the principal. She wanted me to get the teacher fired. She knew to her marrow that punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty was injustice of cosmic proportions. She couldn’t believe that they would let someone with such an obviously faulty moral compass teach children.

I knew right then that transmitting any semblance of Christianity to this child was going to be a challenge. Because sometime, someplace some Sunday School teacher was going to tell this kid that the core of the Christian message was that she, along with everyone else, was guilty, that God needed to punish somebody, because that was just how it was, somebody had to be punished, but that it didn’t really matter that you got the right person, so the good news was that somebody really good, could step up and get punished in your place and then you would get off Scott free. I knew this kid would be buying none of that.

Unfortunately I could not put the kid in stasis until I figured this one out. I started then to try and find different ways to talk about God, Jesus, and why death and resurrection are an important part of the story. It has taken me a couple of decades. The child is grown and gone. I am still working on it, but I have some handles.
The break for me started to come when I began to look seriously at the metaphors used for Christ. The most important one was this “Behold, the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.” This phrase comes from the earliest explainers of the Christ story, the Apostles, those who knew Him, or those who sat at the feet of the first witnesses. They were all Jews. They were using a Jewish metaphor. The temple sacrifice, which was especially poignant for those who had witnessed the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and the end of the animal sacrifice system. Jesus, they explained, was God’s Lamb. Which brings us right back to he was punished for your sins. Unless you really go back and look at the instructions for that temple rituals.

So I spent some time in the Pentateuch, looking at the instructions. The sacrifices are all about community and restoring community. Bad behavior negatively affects community. Bad enough behavior breaks community. There is an element of justice, and even in the last resort, banishment from community. There is also a way to restore community. I discovered this when I found out the difference between the scapegoat and the lamb. Nobody talked much about the scapegoat in the church I grew up in. Once a year the priest was to do a ritual, in which all the sins of all the people are symbolically placed upon the back of a goat and the goat is pushed out the gates into the wilderness, presumably to meet a bad fate. What happens to the goat doesn’t really matter. The punishment is being sent away from the community. The sins get sent away, not the people.

The lamb is a whole different deal. The lamb is not punished, the lamb is consumed. The lamb is fit to be eaten, fit to be taken in. The lamb is giving your best stuff to the community to show that your intention is to be restored. The lamb is making amends, not escaping judgment. The lamb is taking responsibility. The lamb is investing in community.

Then the lightbulb went on. I had been taught a scapegoat Jesus theology mislabeled as lamb theology. Jesus was the best God had, invested in us, not punished for us. Jesus was fit to be consumed, taken in, this was the message He himself taught at the last chance dinner. The Romans thought death was a punishment. God is not just a bigger badder Caesar. God understands that death is the universal human experience, and that joining us in even death is a connection of cosmic order. The ultimate community building experience.

But just wait one heretical minute! Did not Paul talk about “propitiation for our sins”? Yes, he did. I think Paul was spending way too much time hanging around with the Romans, I think it was starting to wear off on him.

So I don’t believe in scapegoat Jesus anymore. I don’t believe He was punished for my sins. I believe He taught me what to do about my sins, recognize them, send them away (i.e. stop) and then re-invest in community with my best stuff. Make my own amends wherever possible, and trust in the eternal resources that He made possible by joining my community to cover what I cannot. Come back, it works. Come as often as necessary.

So what happened to the indignant little girl? She doesn’t sit much under the teachers of orthodox Christendom. I think she is a Quaker in her heart, I know she is a friend of Jesus, she is earning her bread as a church secretary for the Lutherans, probably printing up those Lenten materials as we speak. But most tellingly she is training to be a teacher.

I think she has the right temperament for it.

Right on, sister! This is an issue that I have been doing a lot of thinking & reading about lately. I argued in my 1999 QRT article on 19th century Quakerism that the "substitutionary" or "satisfaction" theory (i.e., "scapegoat theology"!) was already opposed by George Fox and Robert Barclay! For long I suspected in the back of my mind that the big problem with that theory was its assumption that punishment was the "proper" response to sin or crime; my recent reading for an essay on restorative justice clarified for me the alternative -- that repair of the harm and restoration of the broken community (just what you are suggesting) is the proper response to sin/crime! -- and also pointed me to several recent books that confirmed my own suspicions re the basic assumptions involved in atonement theories. Expect lots more from me on this when I get to chapter 6 of "Friends, God, & the Bible" -- I've just completed chapter 4 --

What a teaser from Vail. I can hardly wait. I wonder if we could get him to leak a few points to muse about. I have been doing some thinking along those lines myself (in spite of the pain thinking causes me). "Atonement" is one of those interesting issues that does not seem to have a settled and universal perception (check for a quick review) I recently made the following comment:
"I think that it is self-evident that people do stuff that hurts others and causes uh, bumps in the functioning of society. Throughout history, and anthropologists will tell us pre-history, society has had to deal with such "bumps" and or the individuals that cause them. Somewhere else, we or I talked about "guilt" as a social mechanism for helping such dealings. It is effective when not over used (how does a Jewish mother change a light bulb? "don't worry about me, go out and have fun, I'll just sit here in the dark.") When we do feel guilt for actions that cause harm, there has to be a mechanism for replacing or destroying that guilt. Often, repenting and making whatever amends are possible is enough, but sometimes not, and often there is no possibility of making amends, and a load of guilt can build up. How do we deal with it? Sometimes there is a catharsis if we receive punishment appropriate to the guilt. Sometimes we may feel that there is no punishment that could do the job. There are a number of theories about "atonement," but I think that it is less a requirement of God than it is a requirement of man; to feel that a price has been paid (most often with a feeling of gratitude and love for the one who paid it) and that we are free from that accumulated burden."
NOW I'm gonna hafta look into that "Paschal Lamb" thing and THIS time it's YOUR fault.

In His Love,
I do not mean to be inappropriate, but I have to be brutally candid. If what I say sounds offensive, please disregard it.

You are actually saying that Christ died in vain or that your sins are not that bad or even that you find it impossible that He should love you so much that He should lay down His life for you and yes, suffer injustice.

On the road to Emmaus He explained, using the whole Hebrew Scriptures, that He must die for many. There is massive evidence throughout the Bible. This is not some guy's interpretation.

Yes, I do believe the Spirit speaks. But are we being led by His Spirit or by our own minds or, worse, feelings? Jesus once said in Luke 18 that "God will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to Him day and night." Because He IS just AND good, He punished Jesus in our place. That is called love. Do you love your children? Would you give your life for them? Would you suffer injustice for them? I'm sure you would. Why then should it be preposterous that Jesus should love us like that and suffer the supreme injustice for our sake and as an example?

What you call silly gospel is His gospel, the only gospel there is. Much as I admire George Fox, he was just a man. And he did not die for me.
Nate -- since you ask, I can't resist thinking out loud a bit on the issue! This may take more than one "comment"-- I'll make the first comment a bibliographical one. My jumping off point is my article, "Some Issues from 19th-Century Quakerism" in Quaker Religious Thought # 92 (Jan. 199)--I deal with atonement on pages 12 to 18 and 27 to 29. My jumping-off point there is Gustav Aulen's book CHRISTUS VICTOR.
My recent reading: Timothy Gorringe, GOD'S JUST VENGEANCE, clearly unveils the interconnection between Anselm's "satisfaction" theory and feudal ideas of justice, and also between Calvin's "substitution" theory and 16th-century concepts of law. All of these involve the underlying assumption that if you hurt someone, you deserve to be hurt in response ("an eye for an eye" etc.). J. Denny Weaver, THE NONVIOLENT ATONEMENT, unpacks in satisfying detail Aulen's "Christus Victor" type of atonement theory, and emphasizes that the victory which God in Christ won over the forces of evil was won by nonviolent means. S. Mark Heim, SAVED FROM SACRIFICE: A THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS, emphasizes the scapegoating motif -- sees this motif as underlying many biblical writings -- and sees the cross as turning scapegoating inside out or upside down -- pretty murky, with some sharp insights; recommended only if the scapegoating issue is significant for you. I am now reading R. Larry Shelton, CROSS & COVENANT -- at first glance a completely new take on atonement theory, tying in the cross and the atonement with the covenant theme (a major theme in biblical theology). More in my next comment.
Vail - Thank-you so much for the lucid comments. It helps so much to have an actual theologian on the team!I consider myself to be a sort of intuitive theologian and a narrative theologian, but as you know I always feel more confident when I have your affirmation.

Nate - Thanks for dropping in so often. I wish you would write me an e-mail on the back line. I have a couple of questions to ask you.

Friend Spock - just in case you check back.

I never choose to feel offense in response to honest, respectful, disagreement. You are welcome.

I use my blog for self-expression and hopefully inspiration, and not debate. I have never found debate to be effective or edifying.

But I have a few responses for you.

1 - about the blog title "silly poor gospel" I am not referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a reference to a quote from Margaret Fell. I refer you to the very first post in the first section of the archives which explains the title of the blog. It is a Quaker in-reference. When I strated this thing I never imagined so many non-quaker readers.

2- I am not saying that Christ died in vain. I think the cross was important and effective, I just do not believe that the purpose was punishment.

3-I sin as much as most people. - more than many. But I do not believe that I have ever committed a sin worthy of capital punishment. Neither have my children.

4-I have no trouble believing that Christ loves me. none at all. He was there when I went to sleep last night and there when I woke up this morning.

5-I think a good parent let's their children have the consequences of their own behavior.
I checked out the site that Nate referenced -- it turned out to be a summary of 5 types of atonement theory, by our dear Friend Arthur Roberts! These relate to Aulen's 3 types, as follows. Roberts' 2. (Christ satisfies Divine honor - Anselm) and 3. (Christ substitutes for us) are 2 varieties of Aulen's "Latin" type. Roberts' 4. (Moral influence - Peter Abelard)is the same as Aulen's "subjective/moral influence" type. Roberts' 1.(Christ ransoms us from the devil)is what Aulen calls an early (Church fathers) form of the "Classic" or "Christus Victor" type --"Its central theme is Atonement as a Divine conflice & victory; Christ -- Christus Victor -- fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, & in Him God reconciles the world to Himself" (Aulen, p. 4) Roberts' 5 (Jesus the Peacemaker - Phil Smith) sounds so much like Denny Weaver's "Narrative Christus Victor" that I wonder of Phil had read Weaver's book and adapted/adopted it for himself -- I'll have to email Phil & ask him!).
In any case, I have for long preferred Aulen's Christus Victor theology -- now I know much better why, and am delighted with how Denny Weaver (a Mennonite, teaching at a Church of the Brethren college!) fleshes this approach out -- it even ties in with the "Mighty Acts of God" interpretation of Biblical Theology which I have long subscribed to. An important aspect of that theology is that it brings in the Covenant theme -- the Mighty Acts of God are covenant-creating and covenant-renewing acts -- and that is where I think Larry Shelton's views might combine well with Weaver's to make a richer, fresher atonement theology -- that's what I want to keep working on. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19).
Everyone who has studied the issue in the past 60 years agrees that early Friends rejected the satisfaction/substitution view of the Atonement. I think I was the first to recognize clear elements of Christus Victor in George Fox's writings -- and of course the whole Lamb's War theme in early Quaker thought is a marvelous extension of Christus Victor. This also fits wonderfully in with Denny Weaver's "narrative Christus Victor" approach" -- like Fox & James Nayler, Weaver clearly sees that in the book of Revelation, "The slain lamb indicates a nonviolent confrontation between the reign of God and reign of evil, and a nonviolent victory via death and resurrection for the reign of God."

(I owe a debt of thanks to Sarah Hoggatt for clueing me in to Larry Shelton's book, which adds such a good dimension to "narrative Christus Victor.")

Evangelical Friends in the early 1800's -- especially Joseph John Gurney -- all strongly believed in the substitution theory, and believed it was the ONLY valid theory (I suspect Spock in his/her comment may be in the same situation?). And so (failing to recognize that early Friends had a different view!) they accused Elias Hicks & his friends (who may have held to the Moral Influence view) of "denying the atonement" -- with disastrous results, splitting Quakerism into two hostile camps.

Anything you want me to clarify or expand on, Nate?

Peggy --

You are a narrative theologian! Of course! Biblical theology IS narrative theology -- the narrative of the Mighty Acts of God!

I think that is what G. Fox and his friends intuitively recognized, and why, therefore, they refused to ossify their insights into a creed.
Through the 19th century, Hicksite Friends gradually moved away from the original Christ-centered commitment of Quakerism; Gurneyite Friends forgot the original anti-credal stance, changed narrative theology into propositional theology, and eventually came up with that humongous "Richmond Declaration of Faith" in 1887.
That's why we need to be Convergent!!!
So as a final note here.
This morning I followed a visitor back to the google search 'jesus scapegoat' and was amazed to find many many site specifically touting how wonderful it was to recognize Jesus as scapegoat. (go ahead and try it)

I am not aware of any Biblical reference to Christ as God's goat - only "the Lamb."

this sort of amazes me - I suppose it should not.
Vail, thank you much for your comments and concern. I think I will wait for your full exposition, though I am interested in that idea of "the cross turning scapegoating inside out," and "murky" fairly well describes my mind.
This is one of those areas of interest that are not essential to my faith that Peggy described as something to check into as opportunity allows in her previous blog post. I surely agree with her that restoration of community is the primary concern.

In His Love,
I would like to tell you how much this week's article touched me. This is a theological point I have been grapplig with for several years now and this is one of the most meaningful ways I have heard the subject addressed. More and more, as much as I deeply appreciate my years in Sunday school, I believe there is far more than the Western Protestant perspective I have been taught and this article helped give me a good piece of what I needed to turn the next corner and grapple with it some more. Thank you.


P.S. Vail - I have Dr. Shelton's book too and will be reading it shortly. We should sit down and talk about it sometime. That would be fun. :o)

I'm not a Quaker (though my grandfather was!), but as a humble Episcopalian, I have never been able to make sense of the loving God/atonement paradox. It has always seemed to me that the crucifixion was an extravagant act of love, the proof of God's endless love for us, and that the Resurrection offers the assurance that this love will save us, flawed and broken as we are.

But what do I know? I'm hardly a theologian!

WOW. This resonates with me better than any explanation I have ever read on the subject.
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