Yesterday, while proctoring an exam for my PHIL 110 students, I was reading Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. In chapter nine, he talks about the trivialization by overuse of sin, salvation, and repentance.
The contemporary church’s notion of sin is that of a catch-all. Jesus died for sin. My sin nailed Jesus to the cross. In fact, at least the way I was taught, every time I sin, I crucify Jesus anew. I recall being told that Jesus is forced to go up on the cross again, to go through all the tortures again, each time I tell a lie or swipe a cookie without permission. I recall one time being sat down in my parents’ room. My dad then read to me a very graphic account of the horrors of crucifixion, the strangulation, the shock of blood loss, the agony in one’s wrist bones and ankles, the dehydration. And I recall being horrified, bawling. My dad read that to me because I had recently been caught shoplifting. And it was, he said, my fault that Jesus had to go through all that. Jesus had to die to cover my shoplifting.
Is it any wonder Christians are wracked with guilt and shame? Whatever happened to the abundant life? I doubt my story is unique. I’m certain, given the many books I’ve read over the years and given the popularity of Jack Chick and so-called “Christian” radio, that there are many, many, many people like me, who grew up with a deep sense of inadequacy and down-faced unworthiness and guilt.
But—what all good philosophers live to say—there is a distinction to be made here.
Actually, there are a few distinctions to be made. The first is between ‘sins’ (plural) and ‘sin’ (singular). The plural term refers to specific activities, for example, my shoplifting as a young teenager. The singular refers to “social sin,” to the state of estrangement, the situation we find ourselves born into and perpetuating because we cannot but do otherwise. Jesus died on account of the latter. To quote Borg,
it wasn’t individual sins that caused Jesus’ death. He wasn’t killed because of the impure thoughts of adolescents or our everyday deceptions or our selfishness. The point is not that these don’t matter. The point, rather, is that these were not what caused Jesus’ death. Rather, Jesus was killed because of what might be called “social sin,” namely, the domination system of his day. (p. 171)
The point is that because of social sin, we find ourselves incapable of wholly avoiding individual sins. Clearly, I could have avoided a particular individual sin—for example, I could have not stolen that Snickers bar. In fact, I got caught when I was in the process of returning it. But what I cannot ever avoid is the fact that I will, on occasion, commit individual sins. I will, in fact, commit many, and often. But these are not what crucified Jesus. The whole system, which is way beyond my control, this is what killed him. My shoplifting didn’t. In fact, Jesus’ death gave me the hope of not having to steal, or, to speak more carefully, of not having to commit individual sins of any sort.
Oh what a different perspective! Jesus didn’t die because of me, but for me. Jesus didn’t die in my place, at least not in the sense that I would have to die because of my evil evil ways. Rather, Jesus’ death liberated from the system that gives me no options.
The problem, Borg rightly notes, is that contemporary Christianity uses ‘sin’ and its cure ‘forgiveness’ as a catch all for everything. But there are many images in scripture, many pictures of what our condition is and what the hope is for the removal of that condition. For example, there is blindness. Or slavery. We are lost. We are alienated. We are broken. And if the only remedy is forgiveness, well, that’s sometimes not enough, not nearly enough. Borg writes,
The story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt is particularly instructive here. There is no suggestion in the story that the Hebrews’ enslavement was their own fault. What they needed in Egypt was not forgiveness, but liberation. I have sometimes remarked that if Moses had gone into Egypt and said to the Hebrew slaves, “My children, your sins are forgiven,” they would have said, “Well, that’s nice, but you see, our problem is bondage.” (p. 169)
Once we realize that forgiveness is an image of God supplying a need, changing a condition, but that sometimes this particular condition is not the one that speaks to our situation, we can put it back in its proper spiritual place. Sometimes we need to recall God is the forgiver of our individual sins. But more often, we need to experience liberation, reconciliation, and sight. More often, we need a remedy for a condition that is in no way because of us, in no way our own fault. (Of course, one can exacerbate one’s bondage, but then, how can one not until one realizes that one doesn’t have to be bound?)
The images most trivialized, though, are salvation and repentance. Salvation, Borg reminds us, is understood by Jesus and the early Christians as something in this life, not merely a “get out of jail free” card. Nowadays, when people ask “are you saved?” they generally mean (as most often heard on TBN) “if you were to die right now, would you awaken in Heaven?” But salvation is for today, is about the kingdom of God, which is “the life of the age to come.” Jesus said the kingdom of God was here, now, ‘at hand.’ It is how we can live when no longer enslaved, when no longer estranged, when no longer blind. That isn’t some faraway place we will some day, upon death, inhabit. It is now. Salvation is wholeness. In fact, the Latin for ‘perfect’ means ‘complete.’ When we are called to be perfect as God is perfect, it isn’t a call for us to live up to the impossible, but for us to live in wholeness, to be complete.
The theme of salvation, through scripture, is also shown through types and images. The Hebrews were saved from Egyptian bondage. Israel was saved from exile in Babylon. But what did salvation mean in these stories?
How amazing it is, to see that salvation requires transition from pseudo-security to the wilderness and uncertainty. When the Hebrews were freed from their bondage, they entered into the unknown, into a very long wilderness wherein they had to learn to trust the leading of God into a wholly alien and unknown place of promise. In the same way—I now personalize this—God has led me out of the pseudo-security of my ‘ex gay’ bondage. At least I knew then that I was God’s. And I knew I was unlike everyone around me, who lived in socially acceptable circumstances forbidden to me. And by God’s calling me out of this, via salvation, I have now entered into a place of complete uncertainty, of wilderness. At least before, I knew the fundamentalist doctrines, the Egyptian culture, so to speak. But now? Now I walk across the dunes of doctrinal uncertainty. All I have now, since God has yet to give me the law from Mount Sinai (allegorically speaking, of course), is a cloud by day, scant manna, and fire by night. But you see, this is salvation.
Salvation is being taken from bondage into freedom. It is the being taken, the taking, the process, not some state. It was Augustine who took the Neoplatonic notion of some otherworldly state of being and made that salvation, the hope of salvation. But in fact, the notion is not somewhere else, but right now. It is the journey. It is the opportunity to leave Egypt. To quote Borg again,
Salvation is “the dream of God.” It is a dream for the earth. And it is a dream for us. It is about being born again and about the Kingdom of God. Salvation is about the transformation of life, individually and together, here and now. And the Bible speaks of these two transformations as an experience now, and as a hope for history, and as a hope that leads beyond history. (pp. 182-183)
And salvation, because active, requires repentance, the final trivialized notion. We talk of repentance as if it is only contrition, feeling sorry for our sins. Every tract tells us to apologize to God for sinning, for nailing Jesus on the cross. Every revival tent meeting I attended (and I’ve been to many, many, many!) ends with an alter call. Everyone sings “Just as I am” or some other apropos song, and those who feel badly about their sins come forward to accept forgiveness. But the call for repentance isn’t a call to feel bad about what we’ve done wrong.
It’s a call to follow.
The biblical meaning of “repent” is not primarily contrition, but resolve. In the Hebrew Bible, to repent means primarily to return to God. Its metaphorical home is the exile. To repent means to return from exile, to reconnect with God, to walk the way in the wilderness that leads from Babylon to God.
In the New Testament, repentance continues to have the meaning it has in the Hebrew Bible. The gospel of and about Jesus sees repentance as following the way of Jesus. […] And repentance in the New Testament has an additional nuance of meaning. The Greek roots of the word combine to mean “go beyond the mind that you have.” Go beyond the mind that you have been given and have acquired. Go beyond the mind shaped by culture to the mind that you have “in Christ.” (p. 180).
Go beyond the mind that you have. Resolve to go beyond the mind that you have. When John cried out in the wilderness for us to “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he was saying, “Resolve to go beyond the mind that you have, for the life of the age to come is here!”
He was saying, you don’t have to stay the way you are—you don’t have to keep thinking as a slave—you can leave bondage and come into the unknown wilderness, where your every step will be led by God. Resolve to follow!
The wilderness path has a promised end, but salvation and repentance are not about that end, rather, about the wilderness, about the journey. About trusting God to care for us in the unknown, instead of staying in the discomfort but familiarity of bondage.
|The Lord is my joy, the Lord is my strength,|
|A fountain of mercy and grace|
|Over dry dusty plains, over mountains of pain,|
|The love of the Lord will sustain me.|
|The love of God moves like the wind|
|Searching for hearts that are broken.|
|The love of God falls like the rain|
|Bringing signs of new life,|
|Where death once had been.|
|The Lord is my peace, the Lord is my rest,|
|A treasure where my hope is kept|
|When the storms of life blow, as hard as they can,|
|The Love of the Lord will defend me.|
(“The Love of God” by Dave Irish)