Cowboy Diplomacy in a Frightening World

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 2 August 2006 0 Comments
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In your answer of May 10, 2006, you wrote, "I see Christianity at

its heart as deeply humanistic. The core doctrines of the

Christian faith suggest that God is revealed through a human I see secular humanism as the residual remains of

Christianity once the supernatural elements have been removed."

In the next paragraph, you say you do not think "the

supernatural understanding of God is essential to Christianity."

In your answer of May 3, 2006, you reject "the interpretation of

Jesus' death as a sacrifice required by God to overcome the sins

of the world" as making God "barbaric" and "Jesus the victim of a

sadistic deity." This "deeply violates the essential note of the

Gospel, which is that God is love calling us to love" and is not

"found in the pious but destructive phrase, 'Jesus died for my


My question is: If Jesus did not die on the cross to atone for

humanity's sins, why did he have to die to bring us the message

that "God is love, calling us to love"?


First, let me say that you have rightly summarized my

thinking, for which I am grateful.

Second, this understanding does challenge the

traditional understanding of the cross as the place where the

price of our redemption was paid and leaves many people with a

gaping vacuum at the center of their understanding of

Christianity. You have articulated that well.

I believe what you need to do is to free yourself of

the theistic God who lives above the sky and who guides human

history to accomplish the divine will. That mentality forces us

to find purpose in everything. Locked into this view of God, the

early Christians sought to find purpose in the cross. That is

how we got substitutionary theories of the atonement and began to

view the cross through the lens of the sacrificial Day of

Atonement that the Jews called Yom Kippur. In the liturgy of Yom

Kippur a perfect Lamb of God was slain. Its blood spread on the

mercy seat of the Holy of Holies that was thought of as God's

place of occupation. Therefore, to come to God, people had to

come through the blood of the lamb. Then a second animal was

brought out and the priest began to confess the sins of the

people. As the priest confessed, the sins of the people were

thought to leave the people and land on the back and head of this

animal. Then burdened with the sins of the people, this animal

was driven into the wilderness. The sin bearer (called 'the

scape goat') thus carried the sins of the people away. Both the

sacrificial lamb and the sin-bearing goat became symbols by which

Jesus was understood. In our liturgies today, we still say "O

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

If that understanding is removed from the cross, as I

believe it must be, then questions like 'What is the meaning of

the cross?' and 'Why did Jesus die?' become perennial

questions. Take purpose out of them and what is left is a

picture of a free man - whole, complete, with his life being

taken cruelly from him. In the portrait painted in the gospels

of the cross, the dying Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness to the

soldiers who drive the nails. He speaks a word of encouragement

to the thief who is portrayed as penitent. He speaks a word of

comfort to his mother in her bereavement. Whether these are

historical memories or not is not important to me and I do not

think any of them literally happened. They are, however,

expressions of the corporate memory of Jesus. Here was a life

being put to death unjustly but instead of clinging to his

fleeting existence, he is still giving life away. That is a

picture of a new level of human consciousness. The cross reveals

for me the infinite love of God calling the world and me to a new

humanity, calling us beyond survival toward the deepest secrets

of transcendence. That is what the cross means to me and it

moves me deeply.

I hope this helps you.

John Shelby Spong




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