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Friday, April 06, 2012  

Concerning the Wrath of God and the Forgiveness of Sins

Since it's Holy Week, it's the time Christians ask questions about what exactly that death on Calvary means, what it accomplished, and how. Like every other question, from what sport do you like to follow to what was your college major, this topic has been polarized along culture-war lines--at predictable cost to the usefulness of the answers we tend to offer and to the comprehension of the issues at stake. Basically, conservatives tend to gravitate to a general position identified with a "substitutionary" or "penal atonement" theory that stresses God's righteous wrath against humankind and Christ's self-sacrifice in payment of our rightful penalty. Liberals, on the other hand, gravitate to a "Christus Victor" theory that stresses the cross as Christ's triumph over sin and death.

In any event, what I am here calling "theories" of salvation don't really exist, in any pure form, in the classic sources of Christian theology. There is a marvelous diversity of interpretations of the incarnation and death of the Son of God in the approved and orthodox literature, and this befits what has been called from the earliest days a mystery. But there is no doubt that the idea of the wrath of God has become deeply controversial, even offensive of late, and the idea that this wrath may be appeased by the death of Jesus only compounds the scandal. So I thought I'd excerpt something I wrote a few years ago as I was finishing up my seminary work. It's from a sketch of a character, a Lutheran pastor who came to the Southside of Chicago in 1964, recollecting those days from the vantage point of 1995. He's definitely not me. Lutherans tend to come in three varieties--bad Baptist, bad Catholic, and bad Mennonite, and this guy is the last (while I'm definitely a bad Catholic). It's a meditation on the second and third articles of the Augsburg Confession, which go as follows:

"...all human beings who are propagated according to nature are born with sin, that is, without fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence. And they teach that this disease or original fault is truly sin, which even now damns and brings eternal death to those who are not born again through baptism and the Holy Spirit."

[Jesus Christ] is true God and true human being who truly "was born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried" in order to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but also for all other sins and to conciliate God's wrath.

So here's the story:

Elias blinked down at the page again. “Without fear of God, without trust of God, and with concupiscence”--was this what we really meant when we talked about non-violent change and the beloved community? That doesn’t sound like the humanity we thought we were talking to. That doesn’t sound like the humanity we thought would be impressed by a lot of white men in Anglican collars marching with John Lewis between Selma and Montgomery.

Elias was one of those who was suspicious of Saul Alinski’s methods, not for their radicalism, which he fully shared, but for their disdain for dialogue, their theatrical manipulations, their naked invocation of self-interest. And then King came to town and the movement sank into the bog of Chicago politics. Elias was at those meetings. He remembered the heat and smoke, the reek of rooms packed with decent people. And we all stared at each other in disbelief that this was happening. And that, at some level, the community was letting it happen. Harold finally got it right, he thought, but even he had to do the saintly racial-moderate shuck-and-jive, going to the Northwest side with Walter Mondale and making an honest effort with the white folks, the kind of effort that white candidates had proxies for in the black community. Harold knew what was what, and he still had to pretend that he believed everything was on the level, that white folks would give him a shot. If that’s not proof the world’s warped, nothing is.

Maybe he was onto something here. There are two kinds of people in the world--the ones who are angry or disappointed that some things go wrong, and the ones who are surprised and grateful that anything goes right. Maybe politicians and pastors should switch places, because pastors are usually the former and politicians the latter. We all grew up in the church, mostly, we all trust that with God all things are possible. We might believe in sin, but we don’t really think it’s something you ought to make an allowance for. The dumbest hack politician could tell you different on that score. We always hold ourselves and the world responsible for being better. Any Chicago pol would wish you good luck with that.

It had been hard parting with the dreams, Elias thought. It took a lot of years. Riots, gangs, arson sprees, cheap handguns, crack cocaine, Ronald Reagan--it was a death of a thousand cuts. It had been hard to surrender the goal of a society at peace with itself, as King said; but that would be a society without people. For so long he had been a lost and weary pilgrim from the world-as-it-should-be; at last, he was at home in the world-as-it-is.

The third article was the kind of thing it had become fashionable to say was simplistic or narrow in its depiction of Christ. Too much Paul, not enough Synoptics, as the professors might put it. “Conciliate God’s wrath,” all that atonement stuff. But what had we just gotten done saying--that humans are wrecked from top to bottom. Atonement theology was in a bad odor these days. It smacked of something primitive, feudal, even redolent of child abuse. It never seemed to strike anyone for what it is and was: a statement of almost pitiable idealism. That one death, no matter how horrible or unjust, could do this! Not to mention, Elias considered, the monstrous delusion that we are somehow better or more enlightened in our days--an idea people held to even at the close of this, the bloodiest century in humanity’s bloody history. He had been milking cows or putting up hay while tens of thousands burned alive in Dresden, or were evaporated in Japan. He had slept in his bed while the gas chambers and furnaces ran double shifts. The sons of pious families died beside him in Korea. He had protested every war since, to no avail. The tide of blood laps even these holy walls; there was that young man, eyeballs fixed, blood splotching the bushes. Perhaps he had knocked at the church door and died in despair of an answer. The dark gods can never be sated, Elias thought. There were always more sins and always more expiations to be done, more victims to be found and punished for their own or another’s crimes. Humankind didn’t even pause to consider whether it should draw the line there, where God had drawn it, but fell all the more grandly to appeasing its dark and insatiable divinities. The heap of bodies still mounts, from the pits of Korea to the sands of Iraq, to the fetuses and school kids and convicts and collateral damage. This reeking, towering monument of carnage reaches up to heaven and causes God to weep, whether in pity or disgust no one knows. Granted, Elias thought, that “wrath” might be imprecise; could a God who was not amoral or heartless or deaf to the cries of the innocent or heedless of any notion of justice not feel something much like wrath? It’s the most beautiful thought in the world that the true and living God should be satiable. That He should be satisfied by the blood that he himself sheds. That the kingdom of death should ever have enough.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:35 PM
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