• Did God Really Demand the Death of His Son as a Sacrifice for Sin?

    As you are perhaps aware, today is Good Friday, and as I said yesterday, I’m more interested in looking to Easter Sunday than in thinking too deeply about the crucifixion this year. But I thought this would be a good time to share my take on the why’s of the cross. Why did Jesus die? Why did that result in the forgiveness of sins? etc. . . 

    One of the more poignant arguments against Christianity is that the Christian God demanded that his son be offered up as a human blood sacrifice in order for justice to be satisfied and forgiveness offered. In this view the Christian God is an angry, blood thirsty tyrant who must be sated before he becomes a loving father. Christians will of course argue that people who view the crucifixion this way are missing the point, don’t understand God’s righteous anger, are minimizing the need for justice, etc. However, I think that the real truth is that many Christians misunderstand the reasons for the crucifixion and our critics are simply making some pretty obvious observations about our own teachings regarding the propitiation of sins and the death of Jesus. I know that I’m treading on some pretty hallowed theological ground here, but if you’ll stick with me, I think you may find that my upside down world understanding of this issue is a better fit with reality than what many of us have been taught.

    Let’s start our discussion with the issue of blood sacrifice itself. The first thing to be noted is that blood sacrifice is not something which originated with the Hebrew God. It had been practiced for millennia prior and has occurred all over the world. It is a human invention. In his excellent book Ideas That Changed the World, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto offers the anthropological explanation for the pervasiveness of the practice of blood or animal sacrifice:

    Gifts are a common way of establishing reciprocity and cementing relationships between individuals and human groups; by extension, a gift should also work to bind gods and spirits to the human givers, connecting deities to the profane world and alerting them to its needs and concerns. . . During the last 10 millennia . . . sacrifice has acquired a great many meanings: as penance for sin; as thanksgiving; as homage to divinity; as a contribution to the well-being of the Universe; or as a sacrilized gift, considered as an act of worship or of imitation of God.

    One of the things which we need to understand about God as revealed in scriptures is that over and over again, God does not wait for us to become acceptable or advanced enough to establish a relationship with him. Instead, he reaches out to meet us where we are and bit by bit draws us forward towards him and away from our previous ideas and ways of doing things. The rituals of animal sacrifices did not reflect a need or demand of God. Instead, by instituting rituals of animal sacrifice God is co-opting a human institution and way of doing things and directing it back to himself with the ultimate result that the human institution drops away while the devotion to God remains.

    If we look in scripture the first offering made to God is made by Cain and Abel, which did not turn out so well. But it was not an offering in response to a demand of God. We don’t know what prompted them to make their offerings to begin with; perhaps they were imitating the actions of others around them. The second instance of animal sacrifice which appears in scripture is when God makes his covenant with Abram. Again it is not a sacrifice made in response to a demand on God’s part. The purpose of this sacrifice isn’t Abram seeking to appease or please God, but God’s way of demonstrating his commitment to Abram and the promises made to him. The specific actions of the ritual – cutting the animals in half and passing between them – are noted in other contemporary accounts as a form of sealing an agreement between two parties. The implication was that if either party broke the covenant, they would be cut in half like the sacrificed animals had been. So, we see clearly here God using a ritual of mankind’s own making that Abram would understand and be comfortable with. The first example we have of God demanding a ritual sacrifice is when God tells Abram, now Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At this time, God then provides a substitution for the sacrifice and the boy’s life is spared. In fact, the first actual instructions from God regarding ritual animal sacrifice don’t come until the law is given through Moses hundreds of years later. By that time, the Hebrews had been living among the Egyptians for many, many generations and would have been heavily influenced by Egyptian religious practices which included animal sacrifices.

    I’ve gone through all of this out simply to establish that animal or blood sacrifice did not originate with demands from God at all. Instead, they are almost certainly an example of God meeting people where they were and using what they were already familiar with to turn them towards himself. God didn’t need animals sacrificed to him. But people needed assurances that they were acceptable, forgiven and in right relationship with their God. God uses the already familiar rituals of animal sacrifices to meet the needs of the people, not to meet his own blood thirsty demands.

    So we get to the time of Jesus. One of the pressing issues of the religious community during Jesus day was the keeping of the law. The Hebrews were, of course, living under Roman occupation and the keeping of the law had in many ways become a nationalistic rather than a spiritual pursuit. This is part of what accounts for the zealousness of parts of the religious establishment; breaking the Hebrew law was not simply a demonstration of a lack of faith – it was akin to treason. Keeping the peculiar laws of the Hebrew bible was what ensured that the Hebrews would remain a separate nation that could take its rightful place when the Messiah arrived and lead them to victory over their oppressors. In this environment, the law and the sacrifices no longer served to turn the people’s hearts and devotions towards God, but  often served largely secular, political purposes. Once again, God reached out to meet humanity where it was in a way it could understand in order to turn us back to himself again. Enter the Word made flesh – Jesus.

    Since the topic at hand is whether God demanded the sacrifice of his son to provide for the forgiveness of our sins, I’m going to skip straight to the death of Jesus here. The first thing we must understand about the death of Jesus is who it originated with. The reality is that throughout Jesus’ ministry there were people who wanted him dead. There are quite a few places in the gospels where Jesus slipped out of town in order to escape those who would kill him. Once again, the fact remains that it was human desire which sought the death of Jesus and not the demands of God. In fact, there was nothing about the execution of Jesus which conformed to the rules of God. Regular rules for trial were ignored. Jesus wasn’t subjected to the scriptural means of death for one who blasphemed – that being stoning. Even the usual proscription against killing during the Passover feast was ignored. And it wasn’t the fury of God which propelled events forward; it was the fury of men which did that.  This was an event of human motivations and means from start to finish.

    The claim that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice demanded by God, ignores the bald, ugly reality of what actually happened. The religious leaders, caring nothing for what God cares for – our hearts and need for redemption – had turned Jesus over to the powers of this world. The people in demanding his execution and the release of Barabbas committed an act of gross betrayal against Jesus who had never harmed anyone and healed many. It was the worst of human nature on display. The soldiers mocked Jesus, mocked his royalty, mocked the miraculous power he had demonstrated purely in service to needy humanity. The means of his death was a rather extreme example of man’s capacity for cruelty towards fellow man. It was carried out by those just doing their jobs – the banality of evil at work 2000 years before we had a term for it. While Jesus suffered on the cross, we see further examples of the difference between God’s ways and mankind’s ways. Before he is even dead, the soldiers amuse themselves with a bit of vice, gambling for his clothes. When he asks for some small comfort – a drink – he is met with yet another example of how people will treat those suffering and offered a dose of vinegar which will not alleviate his suffering but simply makes it worse. All in all, rather than an example of a sacrifice demanded by God, the death of Jesus is a fantastic display of the worst behaviors and traits that humans can muster up. There was nothing about it that reflected God’s desire or demands. This was the work of human beings through and through.

    And yet . . . God takes this ugly, evil display of cruelty, vice, power, betrayal, self-interest and arrogance and does what he is wont to do with the things we humans come up with. He uses it to turn us towards himself. It’s as if he says, “are you done now? Are you satisfied? Have you vented your fury and poured out your sinfulness on me to your satisfaction? Fine. Then it is done. You poured out your sin on me and my son. And now, I have redeemed even the worst that you can do. He is risen. He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings now. You sin has no power. It has no power to defeat me and it has no power to separate us any longer. Turn away from it and seek after me.”

    This claim that God reacts to this lurid display of human cruelty and sin by declaring it as the means by which we are reconciled to him may seem to be a stretch, but tomorrow I’ll use the story of the prodigal son to explain why this reaction is exactly the way that God behaves with us. I would do it today, but this post is already way too long. But I do have it written already, so if you aren’t already subscribed, you should go do that and it will be delivered into your inbox tomorrow. I know you’ll be waiting with baited breath for its arrival!

    Next: The Sacrifice of Jesus and the Story of the Prodigal Son

  • Raising Moral Kids Pt. 3

    Let’s say that you take your young child to a friend’s house and while she is there, she breaks a toy. Would you prefer that she:

    A. Bring you the toy, ask for help fixing it and apologize for breaking the toy.

    Or

    B. Hide the toy so no one will know that she broke it?

    Let me give you a minute to think about this one . . . . OK, I’m psychic so I already know that your answer is A. You’d rather have a kid who admits her error, apologizes, tries to correct her error and will ask for help to do so. You’d also rather have a kid who didn’t lie to you, didn’t hide from you and was able to admit when she is wrong. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

    It just so happens that we know what the difference is between a kid who hides a toy they broke and one who takes responsibility for it:

    Parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders. ~ Raising a Moral Child, NYT

    The difference between a kid who admits error and a kid who avoids it is the difference between guilt and shame. While sometimes you will hear people talking about healthy shame, the truth is that shame is often really toxic. We will do just about anything to avoid it. Including hiding our errors, lying, engaging in destructive self-soothing behaviors, mistreating others and ourselves. People will go to their graves never knowing a moment of real peace or love rather than facing their shame.

    Clearly shame is part of the normal repertoire of human emotions, but way more often than not, we experience it in really unhealthy ways. Too many parents encourage shame in their kids as a way to control them. Even parents who know better will unknowingly create shame in their children. According to current thinking, based on pretty much every human’s experience, shame is what you get when a caregiver uses anger, fear, ridicule or contempt in an attempt to control their child’s behavior. Continue reading

  • Waiting on Easter

    I was raised Roman Catholic which means that I cannot go through Holy Week without feeling the urge to do something. Go to mass everyday. Attend the stations of the cross. And, of course, Holy Thursday communion (the mass most likely to make you cry every year). Even after I left Catholicism, Holy Week continued to be a time of increased spiritual activity. Get some palm leaves. Hold a fake seder. Do a special devotional. Consider doing footwashing with the kids. Cut back on Friday’s dinner and call that sort of like fasting in honor of the day. Things like that.

    I don’t know why other people do these things, but my urge was always driven by a need to make it real. To make those strange, confusing, important events of 2000 years ago seem real. Because maybe if those things become real to me, then God could be real enough for me to be satisfied.

    The thing with religion and scriptures is that they take on this flatness after a while. We no longer understand the elements of the story well enough to really understand it, but we keep repeating it anyways. Which makes it unreal. So we try various ways of putting flesh and bones on the stories. We meditate on the cross. We dress our preschool son up as a scourged Jesus on the cross. If you’re particularly desperate, you allow yourself to be faux-crucified so you can experience it all yourself. Or watch a gory movie about it. (I’ve never seen Passion of the Christ, btw. I was raised Catholic, so I just didn’t see the need.)

    At any rate, this year, I find that my urge to participate in holy week has disappeared. This morning I wondered if I should plan something for dinner tonight with the kids and I thought, “no. It’s too sad and ugly a story to go through right now. I’m not up for sad and ugly right now.” Continue reading

  • Electric Bills and Other Embarrassing Problems

    I really hate doing this, but my husband always says, “you have not because you ask not”. Which he claims is some religious saying or something. ;) But I just wanted to throw out there that this is the week in the northern part of the country when the gas and electric companies can start turning off service for those who have overdue bills. Which would be us.

    (I’ll spare you all the poor person’s litany/self-absolution of explaining how this came to be this time. The answer is because this is my life. I am a woman who once got 5 flat tires in a month. On one car. Or I could tell you about the time a clerical error put a felony child abuse charge on my husband’s record and his business tanked before we figured out why every new contract he lined up suddenly fell through. Or a dozen other equally ridiculous stories. It is what it is.)

    So anyways, if you have ever thought about throwing a $5 spot or whatever my way, now would be a great time to go ahead and pull the trigger. Being able to pay off at least half our overdue bills would help us sleep much better at night. So, if you enjoy The Upside Down World and want to support me because you know how hard it would be for me to continue blogging without any electricity, you can make a donation via paypal by using the link below:

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    Please and thank you and please forgive me for doing this all wrong! O_o

  • Raising Moral Kids Pt. 2

    So, I started telling y’all about an interesting article on what research can tell us about raising moral kids. Today’s take-away from that article has to do with the role of positive re-enforcement in creating moral children. But first, a quick word about positive re-enforcement. Back when I was in college, in the very first education class I took, the very first lesson we got on classroom management was this: punishment is the least effective tool in your disciplinary toolbox. So it should be the tool of last resort, not your go-to when things got rough.

    There was plenty of research to back this claim up as well as the fact that exemplary teachers report that this is their experience as well. By far, the most effective tool you have is praising what a kid gets right. Everyone wants approval. It’s human nature. If you show approval of the sort of behavior you want from your kids, they will engage in more of that behavior because it now has a very positive association for them. It reminds them of something about themselves that they can feel good about.

    Of course, then you have nimrods like the man who is principal of our local middle school. I once had a conversation with him that, I swear to you, went like this:

    Me: Mr. Nimrod Idiot, Sir, as I am sure you are aware, since it’s the first lesson they teach on classroom management, punishment is the least effective form of discipline. I am concerned that the only discipline tool being used to address the tiniest of infractions involving my dear innocent child is punishment. The child has being punished for a wide variety of infractions, including, but not limited to: trying to take a plastic bottle he brought from home out of the lunch room so he could continue reusing it, being late for class because the janitor hasn’t managed to get the lock on his locker fixed and you won’t assign him a new one and laughing at a joke I made when he called from the office to ask me a question. I would like to discuss alternative ways of helping my child to conform to the school’s expectations which do not depend on punishing him continually.

    Principal Nimrod: Yes, you are correct, we do know from research and experience that punishment is the least effective form of discipline. However, we just believe that if we continually confront and punish students when they step out of line, they will eventually get tired of it and exert some self-discipline to change their behavior.

    OK, I didn’t actually call him Mr. Nimrod Idiot, that’s just what I call him in my head, but seriously – that’s nearly word-for-word what he said. And that’s why I think I need to go pray for him some more.

    Anyways, positive re-enforcement is a tried and true tactic, but it turns out that there’s a small caveat; you can do it wrong. Continue reading

  • A Random Hump Night Thought

    I mean hump night because today is Wednesday which is halfway through the week, thus earning it the name “hump day” because it’s all downhill once you get over the hump. Just in case you were thinking about that thing your dog does to visitors.

    At any rate, I just wanted to share a random thought with y’all. Don’t worry, my random thoughts are more interesting than most. If not, I figure they’re still worth reading for the bad jokes I have the gall to write on my Christian blog if nothing else. So, here’s my random thought for tonight:

    Did you know that researchers sometimes stumble on these weird connections between the language people speak and some quirk in their thinking which can have disasterous outcomes?

    For example, in most languages, a broken bone is something that happens, not something you do. So you would say, “my arm got broken.” But most English speakers say, “I broke my arm.” This would make no sense in most of the world; a sane person wouldn’t deliberately break their own arm! But in America, we regularly speak this way. If you take a minute, you can think of other examples. “In crashed my car”, “I lost my job”, “I let the dog get out”, etc.

    Which makes me wonder if this isn’t part of what makes America such a blaming culture. Why we have to sue everyone when something bad happens. Why we reflexively blame people for their own misfortune. Because there’s this quirk built into our language which subconciously teaches us that things don’t just happen; some one always has to be responsible. Even if that someone is you right when your arm got broken in an accident.

    Another example is found in countries with high savings rates. Many of us struggle to save or really to plan well for our future at all. But there are a few countries like China and Finland where people sometimes save too much. It turns out that in countries where people are savers, there is no such thing as past, preasent or future tense in their languages. They use the same verb tense and rely on context to convey whether you are talking about past, present or future events.

    Economists theorize that in languages where we shift into future tense whenever we speak of the future, it teaches us to think of the future as something which is different than the present. In languages where the present is spoken of no differently than the future, the fact that the future is most likely going to be very much like the present is obvious. It makes the benefit of saving for a better future seem like the obvious thing to do. Thus, this higher savings rate in countrie where the language has this quirk.

    And then there are those quirks of language which reveal a truth which we all know, but would never say out loud. Like the German word scheudenfreude which means to take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Or my favorite; the Japanese have over a dozen different ways of saying thank you. And it is said that all of them convey varying degrees of resentment between the parties. And isn’t that the truth?

    Ahhh . . . .language. Just what you needed to finish your hump day off right, Although perhaps you have a better way of ending it . . . ;)

  • Raising Moral Kids, Pt 1

    I thought this was a great article in the NYT about what researchers have to say about raising moral kids. A lot of it is stuff we all know is true (but hope we can find a way around). So it’s interesting to learn that some of our old parenting gems aren’t just theoretically true, but that they’ve been proven true as well. Which is particularly comforting for some of us who went against the grain, did these things and discovered that raising a good person doesn’t automatically turn them into leaders of industry. Those are two different skills sets, it turns out.

    Anyhow, the article covered a lot of ground, but I have a take-away I wanted to pass on today and one more for tomorrow. And one more the day after that. I decided that two 2000 word posts in one day might be a bit much, so I’m splitting it up.

    Besides, it’s an important topic. I genuinely believe that the way we raise our kids is what will ultimately change the world. For my part, I believe that raising kind, caring, moral children should be just as important as raising kids who can get into college. Or who can still find her purity ring to wear home from college. More important, really. But if we believe that, we have to live it. So, here’s today’s research-supported bit of parenting wisdom:

    Your kids will do what you do, not what you say.

    I know, crazy, right? Who knew? It’s not like every single one of us is walking around feeling guilty as hell knowing that our kids will inevitably struggle with many of the same imperfections as we do. And that I am completely helpless to stop it because I am simply not capable of being perfect enough to keep it from happening. So I lie to myself and think, “they’ll take my advice rather than following my instructions. After all, why would they want to end up like me? That’s got to be a powerful deterrent, right?”. . . Or maybe that’s just me. It’s probably just me.

    Anyway, the good news is that what you do right has more power than you probably realized. Continue reading

  • The Entrance Leads to the Whole

    So, know anyone with some really bad theology? Like you hear them talk and all you can hear are the lies, errors and misrepresentations they are spouting and it makes you want to scream? OK, maybe you don’t actually care about theology that much. It’s probably better if you don’t when you get right down to it.

    But, we all know people who are intensely passionate about their opinions. And hey – if just putting your theology into the category of “opinion” offends you, well, passion’s not a bad thing. But that’s not really here nor there. My point was that some people have terrible theology. Like Westboro Baptist. And . . . well, we won’t get into the rest. Let’s just say there’s no end of churches believing really wacky things.

    Of course, it doesn’t all lead to crazy land. Some people have theology that you just think is wrong. Like Jehovah’s witnesses. I had a pair who stopped coming after I told them that living forever on Earth would never, ever be desirable to me. Because until I can reside with the God of the universe, I will not be content. There’s more to the world than our little planet and our people. They were appalled that I would reject the gift of eternal life. I was going to go into the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem to illustrate that their perfect Earth couldn’t exist, but they left before I had the chance. But again, not my point.

    What I really want to talk about is why we need to stop worrying so much about how wrong everyone else is. We’ve been doing that for a while now and I’m not sure what we think we’re going to gain by keeping it up. We disagree. About almost everything. Maybe we need to get over it and start building on a different foundation. Continue reading