And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
In a previous post I discussed Luke Cage’s mantra “sometimes backward to move forward. Always,” and how this mantra encourages us to move forward, leaving behind our past hurts and burdens, while always remembering our identity and where we’ve come from. In this post I want to apply Luke’s mantra to Christianity and the Christian vision for moving forward.
There are two poles of Christianity:
On the right is the fundamentalist tradition which tends to look backwards to the problems caused by our actions, and the sacrifice of Jesus which essentially undoes all of these problems.
On the left is the liberal tradition which tends to look forward to the vision of a better, more just, more loving, more peaceful world.
While fundamentalism yearns to return to the golden age of the way things used to be, liberalism yearns to throw off the oppressive chains of the past in search of a better future. Fundamentalism understands the necessity of looking backward in order to move forward, and it is this concept that we shall focus on today.
Fundamentalist Christianity asserts that God slays his son as a sacrifice, in order to wipe out the record of wrongs in our ledger, effectively saving us from the eternal damnation which our sins and wrongdoings supposedly deserve.
Now, before we criticise such a perspective as barbaric and primitive, we need to realise that sacrifice is present in all cultures, all over the world throughout history, and therefore appears to be part of the basic human condition. The big question is:
What is it about sacrifice which captures our imagination?
I suspect, that sacrifice is humanity’s way of dealing with our basic emotions of anger, guilt, disgust, and shame. These basic emotions threaten to tear apart our relationships with the Divine, others, and ourselves unless we find a way to satisfactorily appease them. It is not difficult to imagine the practice of sacrifice evolving as a method of keeping the peace between people by removing anger, guilt, shame, and disgust through the performance of a ritual act, which appeased the offended party, in order to restore the normal relationships. Similarly, when we offend someone we might buy them a bunch of flowers and/or chocolates to say sorry. These flowers and chocolates represent a form of modern sacrifice which aims to appease an offended party. At the end of the day, sacrifices aim to remove guilt, shame, anger, and disgust, and restore broken relationships.
Sacrifice also has a vertical component, that is, sacrifice also aims to restore a relationship with the Divine. When we feel guilt, shame, disgust, or other emotions we assume that others, including the Divine, share our feelings. Therefore, sacrifice not only functions on a horizontal level to restore relationships with others, but also on a vertical level to restore relationships with the Divine. The power of sacrifice is its ability to unburden us from feelings of anger, disgust, guilt, and shame, empowering us to move forward towards true life. Sacrifice acknowledges that we need to go back and deal with our past mistakes before we can move forward, as Luke would say: “Sometimes backward to move forward. Always.”
Now some might disagree with the fundamentalist portrait of an angry god who keeps a meticulous record of every mistake we make. However, we all agree that our actions can breed feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and disgust and ruin our relationships with others. The image of our mistakes and shortcomings (or sins) being nailed to the cross and buried with Jesus is a powerful image that allows us to leave behind our guilt and shame, and move forward. Imagining the actions of those who have wronged and hurt us being nailed to the cross and buried with Jesus empowers us to forgive them without harbouring malice and resentment. According to the Gospels Jesus, himself, asks his divine father to forgive his executioners. In a similar way, one of Jesus’ early followers, Stephen, asked forgiveness for those who stoned him to death. More recently, this power towards forgiveness was demonstrated in a very practical way when a local pastor recently forgave the man who allegedly killed his son in a motor vehicle accident.
Despite the fact the cross is couched in the ancient language of sacrifice it still has enduring power today. Jesus’ call to give up our vengeful games of tit-for-tat and to “turn the other cheek”is as relevant as ever. By looking backward to the cross we are freed from those feelings and actions which threaten to destroy us and the people around us. As Luke would say, “sometimes backward to move forward. Always.” Next week we’ll take a look at what moving forward looks like within the Christian tradition.
Images: Factmag and Pexels