One of the tent-pole ideas of the sort of protestant evangelicalism I was raised in is penal substitutionary atonement. This is the idea that God is repulsed by all the naughty, sinful, horrible things people do, and therefore has to take all that violent anger out on something, or someone (aka: you). Christ's death on the cross is about God-the-Father throwing down on God-the-Son (Jesus) in a once-and-for-all violent, retributive moment, whereby some sort of blood-for-blood formula is fulfilled/solved/whatever, so that God will no longer be obligated to maim and torture the rest of us, forever and ever, amen.
This, we are told, is an obvious and straightforward reading of what has come to be known as the Christian Bible.
On a basic, emotional level, I find this explanation to be distasteful, grotesque, and un-loving. And while my emotions are no perfect arbiter of Truth, I do think they're worth listening to as I choose how I'm going to approach/perceive the world.
What if my emotional instincts are right? What if "just because we said so" doesn't cut it, and the picture painted by countless power-centric Angry-God Loyalists is just an incorrect interpretation of the very scriptures they point to for their justification?
Yesterday at this church-thing I attend, the pastor pointed out that when Jesus spoke the famous words "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" on the cross, he was actually quoting the first line from Psalm 22, and that since the Psalms were actually songs... well, it's likely that he was actually singing up there. What's more, the people to whom he was singing (the Jews standing at the base of the cross) had put a lot of effort into knowing all the lyrics to all the songs in that particular songbook. So he pointed out that they would have known what he was referencing and would have filled in the rest in their minds -- like how if I were to sing out to you the lines "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" you would most likely know to finish with "that saved a wretch like me."
When I picture this mangled mess of man-flesh hanging in agony, parting his mashed-and-broken lips and singing to the sky of his feelings of abandonment and loss, I find the picture far more moving than the parsing/nit-picking interpretation of those who'd have me believe that on this one utterance I should build the idea that God turned away from Jesus, repulsed by all the awful human behaviors that Jesus had chosen to bear.
Instead of violence and retribution, I see empathy and love -- I see a Jesus who is right in there with me, echoing the way I often feel about a seemingly-absent, seemingly-unjust, seemingly-cruel God.
I can picture a present-day Jesus singing out the words, "They say there was a secret chord..." and I can picture the rest of us watching and mouthing along, from "that David played and it pleased the Lord" all the way down to yet another "cold and broken hallelujah."
But Wait, There's More!
In this particular folk-music reference, Jesus wasn't just singing about the feelings we all experience of anxious god-separation, isolation, and despair. He was also drawing our thoughts to the rest of the Psalm, which ultimately works its way toward a faith-filled hope -- a triumphant yearning for a believed-in time when things will all at last be made right.
The focus here is not on the perceived cruelty of God, which would fixate the significance of the cross firmly in the very-human obsession with power, retribution, and control. Rather, it is on a creative, artful crying-out for hope and for faith.
By choosing in his most profound moment of identification with the human experience of suffering and God-isolation to sing (or at least, reference a song), Jesus avoids an explanation of the brokenness of the human condition. Instead, he achingly explores it, in the direction of faith and love.
God-Almighty-I-tellya, there are plenty of times I wish he hadn't.
When I want ANSWERS, and NOW.
But given that explanations of God-to-man almost inevitably end in some sort of violence, I am glad he didn't. I am glad that whenever people asked him to nail down who was right and who would win, he chose Art over Answers and up-ended our natural inclinations about what-this-all-means.
While it is undoubtedly true that the Bible does paint a picture of Christ's death on the cross as the place in which Jesus most fully identified with the curse-of-death under which we all live, the focus here is not on divine-human retribution, but on divine-human identification.
Life is hard. Things suck.
And often when all you want to do is to love, heal, and help, the powers and principalities of this world will turn on you with blind, seething hatred. To kill. To destroy. To end.
When this happens, you have a choice.
You can join with them with in their violence, or you can sing.
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