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Questioning the Sacrificial Foundation of Contractual Theory

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

Traditional Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. Does this fit with the teaching of Jesus? Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), but God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice in order to do so? Is something wrong with this understanding and the view of God this entails?

Jeremiah 7:22 says, “for when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice.” This verse raises a question about the commonly understood impetus behind the Old Testament sacrificial system (specifically the book of Leviticus). Contractual theology is built upon the notion that God requires the Levitical sacrifices as antecedents to the sacrifice of Christ, but this verse would seem to contradict this understanding.

Contractual theory, in short, teaches humans are sinful (e.g. original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The contract (covenant) between humanity and God was not working, therefore God provides a way out in the sacrifice of Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in His sacrifice.

In this initial blog I want to suggest the basic premise of Contractual theory, and the theory of sacrifice undergirding it, directly contradicts the biblical teaching in the following ways:

1.   Contractual theology presumes life is in the Law (law keeping or fulfillment of the law), contrary to Romans 8:2 which says life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ.

2.   In Contractual theology those who kill Jesus act according to God’s will.

3.   The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus in Contractual theology is not to restore all things (as depicted in Acts 3:21 and elsewhere), but to serve as a sacrifice.

4.   Contractual theory assumes God or the Law require satisfaction for forgiveness, while this seems to contradict the very meaning of forgiveness. If justice is done, it would seem, forgiveness is no longer necessary. Why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ?

5. In Contractual theory, humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected not only human sacrifice, but in several verses in the Old Testament, sacrifice of any kind.

6.   God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but in Contractual theory He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

7. Is it justice if an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil and guilty? Did God require the ultimate evil, killing the Son of God, so as to meet his need for justice? Does human violence against the Creator simultaneously satisfy the justice of God and the skewed sense of justice that put Christ on the cross?

In summary, the biggest problem with many atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr so beautifully writes, “In order to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[1] In other words, where God requires the sacrifice of Christ, God is the original persecutor of the Body of Christ.


[1] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 208.

The Lie of the Divine Necessity of Sacrifice Exposed by Christ

Sacrifice is a central biblical theme but is this focus necessitated by God or humans? Does God require sacrifice or is it a human necessity? How we answer will determine our understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ: either as a culminating sacrifice required by God or as an intervention into human evil and an end to sacrifice. Combined with the prophetic tradition decrying the need for sacrifice (connecting it with disobedience, evil, and murder and echoed by Christ), and the explanation of René Girard of how sacrifice figures into human religion and culture as a cover for violence, I argue below that to interpret the death of Christ as a divine necessity conflates the Gospel with the evil it is meant to overturn.

The work of René Girard (1923-2015) decisively and exhaustively explains why sacrifice is at the center of violent human culture and religion and how it is that the Gospel intervenes in and halts this human necessity. In Girard’s depiction, religious sacrifice is the linchpin directing and organizing human violence so that cultures endure and arise in the midst of the need for spilling blood. There will be blood as human desire is mimetic or imitated, which gives rise to murderous rivalries (rivals desire the same object and this rivalry and desire snowball into chaotic violence). In Girard’s explanation, violence directed at a scapegoat contains this violence, so that culture depends upon an original murdered scapegoat. Religious myth hides the original murder as the victim is deified (as in the Enuma Elish, Marduk creates the heavens and the earth out of Tiamat’s corpse, myth depicts creation from out of death). Religion and culture do not cure this violence but organize it, direct it (onto enemies or victims), and utilize it behind religious sacrifice obscured behind myth. To be religious or cultured, under this definition, is not to be freed of the instinct to kill; rather, the need is sublimated and redirected onto a victim or group of victims and this “scapegoating mechanism” blinds those who deploy it.

According to Girard, Christ fills the role of the scapegoat so as to expose this blindness. The blindness presumes that the scapegoat is the source of all trouble and his death will resolve the problem (everything from sickness, drought, to fear of the destruction of the enemy). It is the fear that Rome would destroy Israel that points to the resolution of the crucifixion: “One man must die to save the nation” (John 11:50). As with every scapegoat, Christ is the perceived source of the problem and his death will provide the solution, as guilt and payment are loaded onto this innocent victim. In the words of the Psalmist quoted by Jesus, “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). They demonize and criminalize Jesus, who submits himself to their blindness as, “These words of Scripture have to be fulfilled in me ‘He let himself be taken for a criminal’” (Luke 22:37; Mark 15:28). In Girard’s explanation, the victim’s guilt is the mainspring of the victim or scapegoating mechanism – so that “persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without cause.”

 Pilate, the official Roman judge, declares Jesus innocent: “I find no fault against this man” (Luke 23:4). Even with his wife’s warning though, he is swept up along with the crowd. As Girard depicts it, blind anger becomes a contagion and Pilate, and all of the rulers, are caught up in the epidemic, fulfilling the role of a universal scapegoat depicted by David in Peter’s description: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one” (Acts 25-26). Even Peter is swept up in the contagion with his violent denunciation of Jesus.

From the cross Jesus says, “Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The exposure of this blindness is a key part of the revelation of the Gospel. Peter confirms: “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” (Acts 3:17). Given Girard’s notion that the scapegoating mechanism depends upon belief in the guilt of the victim, the perpetrators acknowledgement of Christ’s innocence means the scapegoating mechanism and the blindness upon which it depends is exposed. The repentance and conversion of the first Christian congregation directly pertains to their involvement in sacrificing Christ. The willful disobedience that killed him is exposed and is not a backhanded way to achieve Divine forgiveness (as portrayed by Anselm).

They killed Christ, in part, in expectation that his sacrifice would save the Nation from the wrath of Rome but also that it would save their religion and Temple. The worst evil, killing Christ, imagines this sacrifice can propitiate and turn away wrath (the violent wrath of the enemy). At the same time, as with religious myth, the violence within the society, the potential violence of the enemy, the violence inherent to the human heart, is projected onto God as a Divine necessity. The Jews imagine, in their ignorance, that God demands the sacrifice of Christ due to his “sacrilegious” claims he will destroy the Temple (with its sacrificial system). His ultimate crime in their estimate is against the Temple and its sacrifices, on behalf of which they sacrifice Christ.

This understanding aligns with prophetic texts which depict sacrifice as conjoined to willful disobedience to God and rejection of his word:

For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

Jer. 7:22-23

God, through the voice of the prophet, disclaims any command to sacrifice and equates sacrifice, either directly or indirectly, with their walking in “their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart,” and the fact that they “went backward and not forward” (v. 24). Sacrifice parallels willful ignorance: “I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear” (v.25-26). Instead of obeying and listening they sacrifice and this sacrifice does not curb their wickedness. It seems to enable transition to human sacrifice: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind” (v. 31).

Anti-sacrifice is thematic in the Psalms and Prophets: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required” (Ps. 40:6). “Open ears” seem to stand in contrast to sacrifice. While disobedience is not directly linked to sacrifice, “pride” and “falsehood” stand in contrast to those who trust in God (v. 5), and those who trust in God understand God desires obedience not sacrifice. The full realization of this points to the coming Messiah: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart’” (v. 7-8).

The verses decrying sacrifice are explicit in connecting it to a misapprehension of God:  

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? (Is. 1:11)

This question comes amidst the accusation that these people “despise” God and are “corrupt,” “iniquitous,” “evildoers” (v. 4). They are morally sick from top to bottom (v. 5) and they presume to hold up “blood covered hands” in prayer (v. 15). All of this presumes on the notion that they offer up sacrifices to cover their sins. Instead, here and in Jeremiah (as in James), true religion will involve caring for widows and orphans, and ceasing to do evil (v. 16-17). A religion which presumes sacrifice covers evil is apparently worthless.

Specifically sacrifice is connected to disobedience which often culminates in murder: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Far from sacrifice enabling love and knowledge, those who sacrifice simultaneously “dealt treacherously against Me” (v. 7), leaving “bloody footprints” (v. 8) and their “priests murder on the way to Shechem” (v.9). Shechem was like an alternate Jerusalem, the ‘holy place’ for the Northern tribes where Abraham had received the first Divine promise. Now, instead of loyalty (covenant keeping), murderous religion reigns.

Jesus sights this passage in Hosea (Matt. 9:13; 12:7) and maintains that if they understood it they would not, by implication, have condemned him: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). It is not only his death but all murder which Christ links to their misapprehended religion. Jesus claims that the history of murder and its cause is interwoven with the spiritual blindness of the Scribes and Pharisees:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.

(Matthew 23:34-36)

The first murder and the last in the Hebrew Bible stand for the history of murder. The Pharisees did not commit these murders but they encapsulate the impetus behind murder, as revealed in their reaction to Jesus. They disclaim responsibility and connection to the history of this murder – and of course they are not directly responsible. It is not that they have inherited guilt but in distancing themselves, scapegoating their forefathers, they perpetuate the problem. “For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Luke 11:47-48). It is not simply that they like dead prophets and would kill the living prophet Jesus, but in not recognizing themselves in their forefathers they perpetuate their crime. Their blindness to what they are doing is evident even as they are doing it. They immediately demonstrate a willingness to kill Jesus in disclaiming any likeness to those who killed the prophets (11:54). As with Christians who scapegoat the Jews for killing Jesus and then kill Jews, scapegoating perpetuates the founding murder and its propagation.

 Jesus proclaims “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). The murder of Abel at the foundation of the city of Cain is the first in a series of murders upon which the religion, culture, and cities of humankind are founded. The City of Man, as with Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus and every founding myth begins with a founding murder. The myth which would deify and cover over the murder of the victim is now exposed. In Christ what sacrifice hides is now revealed. No longer can we claim that sacrifice and murder are perpetuated by God – as His murder and all murder “shall be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:51). All that would claim the necessity of His sacrifice perpetuate the lie that killed Him.

(Allan S. Contreras Ríos will take up this topic in coming blogs. I hope this serves to introduce his work, which inspired this blog. Thank you Allan.)

The Gospel According to . . . Romans?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Augustine of Hippo

 Recently I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was sharing thoughts on the important role which the gospel plays in each believer’s life and in the life of the church. He used the term “gospel” repeatedly. I agreed with his assessment on the centrality of the (whatever we mean by the word) “Gospel,” but, though he said “gospel” repeatedly, I found myself questioning what he really meant when he used the term. “Gospel” has been used so much within evangelical Christianity that no one really thinks about its meaning. It is one of those buzz words which it is expected every Christian or church going person should know. But do we?

For many years I understood the gospel as simply the good news of Jesus making a way for me to go to heaven. I am guessing this is the view many others have as well. The book in the Bible which I thought best supported this view was the book of Romans. My understanding of Romans and the gospel came while I was in seminary. This gospel of going to heaven could be summed up in a popular approach to sharing Jesus called “The Roman Road.” For me the book of Romans existed to share how one could escape the punishment of hell and go to heaven.

The Roman Road goes something like this: We all have a problem, it is sin (Romans 3:23). The problem with sin is that it leads to death (Romans 6:23). God then steps in and makes a provision for us through his son who takes on our death and punishment (Romans 5:8). This is a free gift which we cannot earn (Romans 6:23b). If we want this free gift then we must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). For many the Roman Road ends there, though I saw baptism as an essential part of the road as well, as Paul talked about baptism in Romans 6.

This is certainly a simplified look at the Roman Road, but I do believe it represents what many people think about when they think of the Gospel. They believe the good news is that we are doomed but thankfully Jesus died on the cross, so we don’t have to go to hell but can go to heaven. Yet, is this what Jesus meant by good news, and is this what Romans is claiming is the good news?

The heart of the Roman Road is a false understanding of what God desires and what he is trying to accomplish. Central to its thinking is the belief that God’s justice has been violated and that he must receive punishment for sin. This idea sets up a pagan belief that God’s anger must be avenged [sic, satisfied?]. Sin, if it is to be paid for by humans, will mean an eternity in hell. But instead, God allows Jesus (who is perfect) to take on the full wrath of the Father. Once the son takes on this wrath, he is able to impute his righteousness (his good deeds) on us. Inherent in this view is that our main problem is a judicial one. The Father is seen as a judge who is “righteous and holy.”

A verse in Romans which has been misused to support this view is found in Romans 1:17 which says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The key word which has been misused is the word righteousness. To correct this misunderstanding, I will seek to show two things: First, I will define the word “righteousness” in the way Paul uses it. Second, I will show how this word takes on practical meaning in Romans 8:18-24. By looking at these two things I believe we will have a better picture of what the word “gospel” means.

The Greek word for righteousness which Paul is using in Romans 1:17 is δικαιοσύνη. This word can imply restorative justice as well as judicial justice. Paul uses it in the former sense, instead of the latter. Scholar N.T Wright when defining δικαιοσύνη uses the phrase “God’s covenant justice.” Covenant justice implies not that God must punish people for sin, but that God is committed to making things right in the World. This promise to make things right can be traced through the whole story of the Bible, including Genesis 12 when God said to Abram that he would bless the world through his seed. Any talk of “gospel” must include this idea of making the World right. Anything short of this will misinterpret what God is doing in the World.

When we turn to the book of Romans, we realize that this is the gospel message Paul has been presenting. Paul does not focus on people being punished because God must somehow appease his anger, but Paul shares how δικαιοσύνη is God being faithful to complete the task he has promised. There are many passages which we might turn to in Romans to show how covenant justice works but I want to focus on Romans 8:18-24. In this passage we get a beautiful glimpse of God keeping his covenantal faithfulness to fix the whole World. The passage reads:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.

Paul says in verse 24 “for in this hope we were saved.” This is a key verse that tells us quite a bit about the gospel Paul is preaching. In chapter 8 Paul has been talking about those in the spirit and those in the flesh. We know that in Christ there is no condemnation. Those in the Spirit are those who are in Christ who have given their allegiance to him.

Earlier in this chapter Paul gives hope for those in Christ reminding them that even though their bodies will die they will be raised again. The resurrection becomes a focal point of the Gospel message. It is the good news which says, even when believers are going through difficult times they will rise again.

Now as great as our bodily resurrection is, we find that the human body is not the only thing which will be restored. In the section quoted we find that the Earth waits in eager anticipation for its own redemption. This redemption is one in which Paul says that after the saints receive their new heavenly bodies that the creation will receive its new cosmic body. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that Christ is bringing all things under him both in heaven and earth.

God’s plan has been to restore all things, things in heaven and things on Earth. The gospel message is not some bodiless experience separate from creation, but it is very much a physical presence on a renewed earth in a redeemed cosmos. Just as our bodies will not be subject to decay, so the earth will no longer be subject to decay. It is in this hope that we have been saved.

The picture which Paul gives of the gospel is one which is vibrant and multifaceted. It is a gospel which takes the creation project that went off track in the garden and puts it back on course again. Once we realize the true nature of the gospel road, we are able to give people hope and a way to live now. Our hope for a renewed and restored creation pertains to life now in this created order.

A Meditation on Atonement

Language inscribes us into the world but what we would do with the letter, the word inscribed over the body, is escape. We would sink into language like a good Hindu loses himself in “OM” or soar heavenward on the wings of the letter. The word opens the third eye of entry and escape, it energizes the chakras of the body, transports to the essence of the universe, as it delivers from “ordinary reality.” Like the Babelites climbing heavenward the mystic, the philosopher, the engineer, the Don Juan, would sink into, climb upward, construct, or erect, his way to transcendence. The word is interwoven with desire as invisible vehicle and substance giving rise to fantasies of divine ecstasy. The mode of transport is the hidden letter, the invisible word, which brick by brick lures toward divine fullness.

 Fundamentalism of every brand clings to the word – an intonation dripping from the heavens – which has to be preserved in its original essence and repeated obsessively. Behind this compulsion to repeat is Being, substance, essence, endurance, which requires a neurotic grip on certain sounds, precise words, exact rituals, which repeated often enough will deliver the divine essence of self to self.  Like a snake consuming its own tail, the self-consumptive feeding on self presumes to fill itself with the word – the inner essence of self. This Borromean knot constitutes passage beyond “nature” to the pure symbolic order in which copulation, consumption, and desire are written over with (unnatural) eternal significance. The finite world is taken up as part of a divine symbolic order in which flesh would transform into spirit through subjection to the word.

An imagined lost innocence intrudes – a cut in nature to be healed. The drive to return, to achieve synthesis, to close the gap, to return to nature, is the Subject of desire. Achieving Nirvana, eternal return, Moksha, enlightenment, heaven, peace, is the dissolution of the subject. The word holds out the essence of being through a closed wound – the wound of self. Healing is disappearance, silence, dissolution, melding, ecstatic coupling, fantasmic flight. Ultimate meaning is paid for by the annihilation of its empirical vessel. The soul is paid for by the death of the body, heaven requires cosmic dissolution, peace demands absolute obliteration.

In the words of the theologians, first order reality is impassible, apophatic, unmoved, beyond. God is made to sustain a disincarnate symbolic order and the Sisyphean task is to ascend beyond on what is below. The fixed upward gaze can only tread on this incarnate stairway to heaven.

The biological body is refused and speaks only through the unconscious – as erogenous surface, inexplicable trauma, excessive enjoyment. The perceived center consists of organs – the heart, the brain, the bowels, the genitals – without bodies. No longer serving the body but the symbolic order, blood, excrement, thought, semen – the issue of each is an enduring letter – a point of infinite meaning, a sui generis whole. Identity with this production is a passage beyond the body, “outpassing myself into death,” in order to avoid death. The dead letter bears immortality as it cannot die.

 The choice is thought over being, the symbolic over the real, the soul over the body, absence over presence, alienation over love.

If sin names the gap, the struggle towards closure, the self as wound, will salvation accomplish the desire of sin? Does the death of Christ dissolve difference into sameness, satisfy the death dealing orientation to the word, or does Christ expose the delusion behind this murder? Is the Logos on a continuum with this word so that he accomplishes the obscene demand for infinite sacrifice (the body, the cosmos, God) or is Logos sent from God an intervention into this word and world?

The atonement comes to this: The Subject is structured around an absence, and the reification of this absence in the fundamental fantasy (“I am my own essence”) marks the origin and core of the Subject put to death in Christ. The tomb is exposed as empty; the essence is an absence. It is not the supposed noumenal real that harbors danger and promise for the Subject; it is the exposure of this fundamental fantasy that threatens the consistency of the existence of this Subject. This is the primal fear cast out in the perfect love of Christ.

God as love revealed in Christ means the body is raised, renewed, made available. The incarnation is the dissolution of the body as an orthopedic of the soul, as the bearer of the symbolic. The dissolution of the Other (God as apophatic, immovable, impassable, law giver) suspends the world as sign, as law, pointing toward a transcendent signified.

Salvation does not accomplish the desire of sin; rather, communion, koinonia, love, are the signified order fusing flesh and spirit, soul and body, heaven and earth. The body as bearer of the symbolic (law) is dead. As a result, John tell us, “In this world we are like Jesus” (I John 4:17, NASB).

“God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

(I John 4:15-18)

John is pointing believers to an immediate realization of the truth in love. The capacity to love (to walk as he walked in obedience to his example), and the mindset of belief (to put on the mind of Christ) as part of this love are immediate existential proofs (as I’ve written about it here). Where the human word opens a gap (marked by fear and alienation), agape love does not simply close the gap but displaces it with the connectedness to neighbor, God, and self.  Where the distance between sign and signified (the law of the mind and the law of the flesh) disables the will, love is an enabling of human agency, an experience of belief (without dependence on distance or difference or fear), and an immediate realization of the goodness and beauty of God. This is the undeniable accomplishment of the Christ!

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous I knew Jesus had come for me.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid

God is Dead and What a Relief

We have reached a peculiar moment in this country in which a form of conservative evangelicalism is proving empty personally and nationally. The strange convergence of evangelical subculture with a crude political populism disdaining kissing prior to marriage on one hand but allowing for “pussy grabbing” porn star sex on the other, may be proving unsustainable. The thin film of the evangelical bubble, of Jesus camp, witnessing to strangers, and rescuing souls from hell, constitutes a universe which seemingly depends upon the hard-shell counter orbit of building the wall, imprisoning children at the border, and relentless capitalistic greed. Is it the notion of two kingdoms, one in which the obscenest cruelties are required while the other is all heavenly bliss, or is it that the character of this God who requires infinite torturous punishment of the many is falling into question? The misogynistic cruelties, the inherent racism and classism of the megachurch (attempting to grow by being attractive and entertaining), the manipulations of the super-preachers in gaining more members and more money (and, frequently, more sex), the hothouse of anti-intellectualism and a ghetto of disengagement, may in fact align with racist, populous politics. At the same time, the latter may be the blaring sign of the emptiness of the former. Being a part of this particular in-group requires a disproportionate out-group, a narrow engagement with reality, and the tendency to reduce every person to a potential customer for Jesus, and to become an exalted Tupperware salesperson. Max Weber’s secularization hypothesis, that secular values are creating a break with the once absolute authority of the church, would clearly seem to be at work. Whatever the cause, the bubble of evangelical belief is bursting for many. For the generation of Joshua Harris and now for Joshua Harris himself, who literally wrote the book on purity culture, this sort of God and faith are proving implausible.

Ultimately, I think it is the psychological burden of belief in this God, which is so punishing and constrictive that it may not be enough to “be saved,” elect, chosen, special, in his sight. The fact that one has built his life, constituted his reason for being, or more intimately – constituted his very subjectivity in the reality of this God, means that being liberated from his clutches is not reducible to any of the above – though each may be a contributing factor.  

Harris seems to have kissed both his God and his wife goodbye simultaneously, indicating this is not merely a crisis in his belief in transcendence. Marriage is the prototypical religious and social obligation (the foundation of the family and of society) but normally one would think it is the prototypical love relationship. Clearly the two stand in opposition for Harris, who acknowledges, fear was a primary impetus in his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. His evangelical upbringing caused him to pass on fear and suspicion of the opposite sex (of God?).[1] This is the natural outworking of a belief where the one stands opposed to the other – social obligation against love – society against the intimate self – the intimate kernel of self against the imposition of God. The mistake would be to imagine that this self exists apart from this imposition.

It is precisely the move to divest oneself of God or law and to experience true (transgressive) love which Paul deploys in Romans 7. In the case of the woman whose husband is alive but who has fallen in love with another man (Rom. 7:1-4), she experiences God or the law (the same thing) as that which opposes her love.  In fact, her love, her identity or self, is synonymous with the force of opposition. Paul will describe this self, constituted in an oppressive self-punishment, as one given over to the law. The God perceived as synonymous with this law is not God at all but a self-imposed law and by extension a God, as in Feuerbach’s and Freud’s explanation, which is a self-projection or a God conceived through the lens of sin.

 A self and God constituted in opposition depends upon a double logic of exception – the God prohibits the things he does (violence, genocide, continual anger, the demand for human sacrifice) and the ego or “love” is a symptom of the prohibition (God and ego stand in the same relation to law). Paul’s discovery of the law and his discovery of the “I” are simultaneous with his having broken the law – all of which accounts for his skewed Pharisaical notion of God (prior to his conversion). This means the prohibition only has its force in the exception or in standing outside of it.  Or conversely, the exception can be seen as creating the rule. As in Kafka’s short story The Trial, Josef K. discovers that the elaborate system of the law which bars him from entering a certain door is actually built by himself for himself.  The law is a construct erected by and for those who stand outside of it (and this fits Paul’s description of the sinful orientation to the law).

The point is that this sort of love is not agape love but rather a form of love or enjoyment in which the obstacle (God or law) constitutes the (lost) love. The woman’s living husband as representative of God or the law, is a necessary part of identity, as he is the obstacle that makes relationship with some “other” an imagined possibility. In this construct which Paul calls sin, sin is the resistant core (love, ego, “I”) on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which God or the law is experienced as a foreign crushing power. It is precisely this God and this law from which Christ delivers (“Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4)).

The question is if the evangelical religion reduplicates this sense of self and God constituted in exclusion, with its imputed or theoretical righteousness (a righteousness that is never achieved), of a mostly future salvation, of a continual sense that the self is pitted against the self? The God who demands infinite satisfaction, continual repentance, absolute purity, must be felt as an oppressive force. The punishing sense of guilt seems to constitute the dynamic of the religion and the sense that the law/God is in effect. Could it be that this law is no longer God’s law but the sinful means of gaining life, love, fulness, or divinity?

Christ, rightly understood, overcomes false notions of the infinite identified with God and the law.  The positing of this bad infinite (the lie of sin, the guilt of the law, the punishing superego) gives rise to a living death (women are fearful, my body is not me, love is transgressive).  The infinite in this sense is a negation of the finite and material, so to negate this negation is the first step in bringing a return of the world. Luther’s phrase that God died on the cross, passed through Hegel to Nietzsche to the effect that God is dead. The God of the philosophers, the God constituting modernity, the God of reason, the constrictive God of the law, is indeed undone by Christ on the cross. Nietzsche’s error was to presume that this God was the Father of Christ. The death of this God in atheism, whether in the religion of Marx or Hitler, makes it clear that atheism has not “rid us of his shadow.”

In this sense, forms of evangelicalism may only be a practical atheism in falling short of the tectonic shift in identity, in a renewed understanding of God and the universe, introduced by Christ. It is questionable whether a religion which reduces to political populism, self-realization, or to a punishing purity, should survive. One can only expect that the freedom and relief realized in the death of this God is an opening to the faith of the One who displaced him.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Hello Goodby,” Slate, Aug. 23, 2016 accessed at https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/08/i-kissed-dating-goodbye-author-is-maybe-kind-of-sorry.htm “What I was writing about was ‘Avoid this pain, avoid these mistakes, don’t do these things.’ Is that really how we grow as human beings?”

A Week in the Life of Forging Ploughshares

Helga had lost four husbands, though I never inquired specifically how or when she had lost them, an oversight I soon regretted.  “Leaky pipe,” she said when she called. “Don’t try to keep me from crawling under there,” she said. So, I drove into the country to try to persuade her to let me crawl into the two-foot space under the floorboards of her house. It was breathtaking how easy it was to persuade her: “Ok, you do it,” she said as soon as I got there. Only it came out “jew do it.”  Though in her 80’s she was clearly in charge. “You are quite macho,” she said and I was sure she was mocking me. She could have searched the five-county region of northern Missouri and not found someone less qualified to fix a leaky pipe. I told her, “When you call the water company tell them you have a PhD on the job.” She found this terribly amusing and repeated it several times to let me know how clever she considered me. Being a foreigner and well educated she clearly had refined sensibilities. Missourians – I learned after 15 years in their native habitat – are highly un-amused with life and are a hard people to impress.

I was feeling appreciated – until I saw where she was having me crawl. I am not given to claustrophobia and have squeezed through the tightest spots in caves but I got a sick feeling looking into the cobweb covered hole. I barely managed to twist around the beams head-first into the dark mud-filled hole. “Crawl toward the var zide,” she shouted.  I barely fit under the floorboards and I had to crawl on my elbows and it was hard to slide forward in the sticky mud. “Go vurther back,” she coaxed in her East Berlin accent. Then I realized there was no light from where I had crawled in.  I was surprised she had managed to close the heavy trap door but she is quite athletic – a former coach. Then it occurred to me where I would find Charles, Obed, and Hans, the former husbands no longer with us. The call had been so urgent I had not told Faith or anyone where I was going and I had left my phone in the car.

The feeling was that of being trapped in a coffin. But I could breathe and after the initial panic I accepted my fate. Of course, I was sorry that they would never find my body and no one would gather to say nice things about me.  Faith would be mad that I had so irresponsibly disappeared.

I wished I could have gone to the shore and enjoyed a final visit on the beach with Jason and Vangie. Jason’s beautiful vision of heaven which he has written about (here and here) came to mind – a little community of people gathering, sharing, enjoying one another’s company – I realized it was something we had enjoyed together these last days.

 It had been a good week. Mazie made a fine pasta and a dozen of us gathered and we sang “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and “The Vine and the Fig Tree.” Louis, a good Quaker, joined our group as well as Mary Jane and Dorothy. I met Gary and Mary Jane when I was 18 and Gary went, “To see Jesus first,” as he put it. He had so enjoyed our little group and I think spent some of his happiest final days in our fellowship.

At the end, a few of us travelled down to Joplin to see him – Mazie, David, Chris, and Kelsi had prepared some really bad jokes to try to cheer him up. It was his jokes that had gotten us started on joke nights. Gary had been my prayer partner for over 40 years and I had often depended upon his faith to bolster my own. We laughed, reminisced and prayed. David, one of the most sensitive souls I have ever met, grew sentimental but I knew Gary would have none of it. “You going to return my hand or take it with you,” he asked. He survived a few more days and we met up with Mary Jane and Dorothy at his funeral. The group was able to help Mary Jane move into her new house in town and it was wonderful having them here the past few weeks.

In thinking about resurrection, our discussion as we ended I Corinthians, we had all described the simple pleasures of the week and the little things we could do to make it resurrection like. David had described his work with the suicide hotline and veterans groups. I had decided to join him on a veterans kayak trip. Most everyone in attendance suffered some form of PTSD – some bearing visible scars but most suffering mentally. David has a wonderful gift of affirming people and I very much enjoyed our float trip.  

Kelsi’s younger sister, Jaycee, was visiting and we had spent a brief time pulling weeds in the garden – Kelsi’s resurrection work.  She has a Japanese-like sense of neatness and presentation, and though our garden is smaller this year, the cucumbers, tomatoes, sage, and basil, are thriving. I had spent several evenings admiring the garden while watching the hummingbirds coming in to the feeder. We had celebrated Jaycees thirteenth birthday and Mazie presented her with the only mochi birthday cake I have ever seen.  Mazie and Chris’s resurrection work is all around them in their kindnesses to people. Chris came and looked at the leak in the Carpenter’s House roof and repaired it temporarily before taking on the task of replacing the windows.

Though Frank is far enough in the country that he does not make it in often, he had come to fix the garage door but ended up installing two ceiling fans and a light fixture – something I could have spent months attempting and failing at. His expertise makes everything we do possible – I should have told him that. Little Frankie, Andrew, and Chelsea entertained us for the day while Frank fixed everything. The little guys were such a delight to be around that I wished I could have seen my grandson more often.

It had been a good week and as usual one of the highlights was the Romans class in which six guys from Mexico, Canada, and between, meet up online. I had been encouraged by Matt’s great enthusiasm and energy. His blog on resurrection (here) coincided with the theme we were pursuing in both the class and in house church. We had phoned him in on Tuesday, David and Michael figured how to put him on the tv, and he joined the discussion as I quoted him at length. He described his work with the girls in Uganda through 91/Four and the fellowship of men he ministers to coming out of addiction – his resurrection work. Sharon sparked conversation with references to Richard Rohr – whom she was having me read and I remembered we had planned a podcast. The Cosmic Christ was on my mind as I heard Helga banging on the floor.

“What do you see,” she shouted. It was then I realized she had not closed the trap door. I did not bother to explain that I had been dying in the mud – enjoying my final week on earth.   

(Names and events have been altered and rearranged for narrative purposes).

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Enjoy Your Symptom

The following is a guest blog by Archbishop Apollyon Creed.

Dying is such a pleasure. In fact, the stain of death evokes final pleasure, ultimate fulfillment, ecstatic disillusion, final and full release. The full satisfaction of death will relieve the tension, complete desire, resolve the pain, and the very hope evokes pleasure. Satori, nirvana, desire, fuses life with death so that the pleasure of living is in the dying. Life without death is a weariness, a too muchness. Life reduced by death is manageable, commodifiable. With only so much to go around the very stuff of living, the gusto, the being, the value, the pursuit of more, is made possible. Where would be the living in any but a zero-sum economy, creating the value of more – more money, more power, more importance, more esteem, more fame? What is the point without this surplus value?

This excess evokes desire – the life force itself. The child is drawn into the world, beyond womb and breast, into a fulness of life only where this excess is sparked. The first couple are drawn East of Eden toward heaven’s gate, toward a fulness of cognition and the heights of personhood, only through this weight of glory. The greatest pleasure, the most efficient healing, is the unrelinquishing pursuit of desire. The pearl of great price, the fundamental reality, that which gives coherence to love, passion, and ambition, is pursuit of this excess. By definition, to keep love alive, to maintain the power of life, passion must increase and not dissipate. Every thesis needs its antithesis, every entity a non-entity, every something its nothing, as synthesis and balance is the obliteration of the force and counterforce of desire. The ultimate hope is that there is no reconciliation, no harmony, no peace. The irreconcilable, the eternal war, the ongoing struggle, is salvation.

So it is, all obstructions, every prohibition, each obstacle, in its punishing effect, evokes the possibility of pleasure – keeping desire alive. Rightly understood, the punishment is the pleasure as it is the final end – the short-circuit to ultimate enjoyment. Every pleasure is accentuated, heightened, filled with an eternal weight of meaning, where gallows await. Each of us must take rope in hand, become our own obstacle – law giver and executioner – so that the full pleasure of pain is meted out and enjoyed in our happy compulsions, our splendid depressions, the delights of madness. Resist or do not resist the compulsion to repeat – it is the same. Do not step on the crack, or step on the crack that will break your mother’s back, it does not matter. It is the compulsion, the creed, the prohibition, in its punishing effect, which will deliver you to your savior.

Every young aesthete must learn the first and only rule: do not give way on desire! To obtain the object of desire harbors the grave danger of despair, or worse, boredom.  The young Don Juan must calculate, tabulate, and fixate, not on mere humans, but on the realm of the infinite. Apart from the eternally enduring realm of more, lurks the danger of enduring choice, wholehearted commitment, serious relationship, the death of freedom. To slip from the bonds of earth’s gravity personas, relationships, character, cannot be fixed or settled as desire needs infinite choice – the only true freedom. The gravity of friendship, the weight of marriage, the earth’s material pull will tend to ground the young Jeffrey Epsteins before they take flight. Or the boring additions of the flesh: another mark in the journal, another passion spent, more effort expended, and it may not add up. Indeed, as the Great Master has taught, “the body is meant for fornication and fornication for the body,” but eventually the candle burns low. “I do not feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding—the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking—it is too tiring. I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything” (E/O I, 20).

It is best the aesthete learn the discipline and punishment of the ethicist who bears his cross of guilt and delights in moral masochism, his true religion, no matter the name of his God. The lack of being giving rise to desire is the Law Giver, who holds out the possibility of total unity and mergence through law. This religion of lack serves as the ultimate obstacle, the final prohibition, before which God himself must sacrifice. The God is immutable, unmoving, impassable, stone faced, or merely stone, it does not matter.  Death is the coin of this divine realm and all must bow and pour out life to the true divine and in offering the blood of sacrifice his desire is ensured. The God is, of course, the by-product of desire (the true life-force) but better reify and dub divine lest one balk at the eternal sacrifice required by death and desire. No greater delight is there than to do “evil” in the name of God!

All who are weary come, find rest and peace, an end of pain and the fulfillment of pleasure. Every illness bears its own cure, every sickness and suffering its own end. Do not give way on the death of loneliness, the death of lovelessness, the death of friendlessness, the death of neurosis, as judgment has been passed, punishment is extracted and, in the exchange, the immortal soul feels the pleasure of his God. The heightened moral conscience, the intensification of meaning, calls for a propitiating death. The dying may be a dying of self or other, but the world is soaked in the meaning of this sacrifice. Come, bow and worship the drive to death. Enjoy your symptom, while you can.

(From the Editor – Please note that Forging Ploughshares does not endorse the work of today’s contributor, Archbishop Apollyon. The Hebrew term Abaddon, and its Greek equivalent Apollyon appear in the Bible as both a place of destruction and an angel of the abyss. In the Hebrew Bible, abandon is used with reference to a bottomless pit, often appearing alongside Sheol, meaning the realm of the dead. The Archbishop is portrayed as the “King of the Locusts” in Revelation and is also called “The Angel of Death.” In Latin he is known as “Exterminans” or “Destroyer.” Though he has achieved great heights in his religious order, and though his advice is followed throughout the world, we at Forging Ploughshares have chosen to follow one not so well known or popularly heeded.)