Move Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross to the top of your to-read list. Read it slowly. Read it all. Then read it again. That should do it.
It’s been out a decade, but I have little money and a long list of things to read. For some reason, though, it got moved to the top of the list, and since it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (no pun intended, given the subject matter), I picked it up. Here’s Heim’s summary of the book:
The event of Jesus’ death, his condemnation, suffering, and execution, is a bad thing. The Gospel accounts emphasize this. Christians remember it, retell it, and even celebrate it as a unique and saving action. The day of Jesus’ death is Good Friday. The New Testament emphasizes that too. This is odd. The main, first thing is not to miss that fact. Everything worth learning has its hard parts, the tricky passages, like math problems where there’s one point where it’s so easy to go astray. The difference between being right and being wrong is both small and enormous, like performing one last multiplication and remembering whether it should come out negative one billion or positive one billion (and that’s a difference of two billion!). We have to add up all the oddities or it won’t come out right. Jesus’ death is that passage in Christianity. The answer balances on a razor’s edge.
Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to destroy us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.
We humans took a terrible thing – scapegoating violence against the innocent (or against those who are guilty of something, but not the demonic effects we claim) – and made it a good thing. It brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We overcome our differences and make peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. We restrain violence with violence. Satan casts out Satan, and becomes all the stronger for it. This isn’t a random, pointless evil. It is woven into the way our communities work, and the problem it solves is real.
Is there any point in Jesus dying this particular, specific kind of death? Is he dying for our sins, in order to save us? Yes, because his death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it. In so doing, God made that occasion of scapegoating sacrifice (what those who killed Jesus were doing) and occasion of overcoming scapegoating violence (what God was doing). It is the same event, but what is happening in that event for the people who kill or accept the killing or fail to oppose it (in short, for all involved) is not what’s happening in that event for Jesus, for God, and hopefully for the church. God used our sin to save us from that sin. And the result, uneven but real, is that victims of such acts become harder to hide. They look too much like Jesus. The challenge, all too failed, is to build another basis for peace than unity in violence. That is what the gathering around the communion table attempts to do.
There is a saving act of God in the cross, and there is a sinful human act. The two are so close together that it is easy for them to get mixed up in our understanding, and in our theology. The saving part is so real that it exercises and effect even when distorted almost beyond recognition in our interpretations. The sinful part is so ubiquitous that even the best theology is subject to a kind of gravitational degradation. Without the language of sacrifice, innocence, guilt, punishment, substitution, and blood, we can’t tell the truth about our situation and what God does to liberate us, a truth that the cross makes available to us in a new way. With it, we always run the risk of taking the diagnosis for a prescription. Sacrifice is the disease we have. Christ’s death is the rest result we can’t ignore, and at the same time an inoculation that sets lose a healing resistance. The cure is not more of the same.
This is why Christian theology has what sounds like the same language overlaid on this event twice, once for what it means according to our sacrificial usage, once to turn it around. Christians say the cross is a sacrifice…but to end sacrifice. They say “blood shed for us,” but blood shed once for all. They say, “We are reconciled in his blood,” but they mean we have been freed to live without the kind of reconciliation that requires blood, the kind Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod had in mind.
That is what this book tries to explain
I’ll definitely be back with more on this wonderful book.