If you do not follow Game of Thrones, please keep reading anyway. I promise that I will not make this post about the series, although I do want to use an incident from one of the recent episodes to illustrate a point. The show is seven seasons and a few years in, and it was only last week that I – a faithful adherent – recognised just how vividly and insightfully the story presents modern Christianity’s theological flaws.
The scene: after completely routing her enemies in battle, Daenerys’s troops round up the surviving stragglers of the defeated army and bring them before her. She addresses them from atop a large rock, with a terrifying dragon perched menacingly at her side. Initially, she demonstrates a promising empathy in understanding the plight of these commissioned soldiers, wrenched from their homes and families to bleed for a cause they do not really believe in. Throughout the series she has attempted to define herself as a defender of the people, a queen who refuses to compel others to follow her but insists that they choose to do so freely. Now she offers her prisoners a simple but horrifying choice: choose to join her in her war to liberate the world from tyranny (and incidentally to become ruler of every people) or die. The irony seems utterly lost on her. It is a refrain that has become –as far as I am concerned anyway – an annoying part of her character development: she is unbendingly insistent that everyone else acknowledge her rightful claim to the throne. She is admirably merciful to those who do… but not everyone does. The general of the defeated army and his youthful son (and only heir)refuse to bow. Even in defeat, their allegiance is unwavering. The director frames them as admirably honourable and we cannot but respect their decision. But with a cold imperiousness, and in spite of protestations and pleas for clemency from her advisor, Daenerys orders the dragon to incinerate them and they are obliterated in a torrent of flame.
If you believe that God speaks to people, and orchestrates events so that we can ‘hear’ Him, then this was one of those moments. That very morning I had been challenged by a Facebook post from one of the men I regard as a theological mentor, Michael Hardin. He had made the observation that in the gospels, forgiveness always precedes repentance, and not the other way around. Forgiveness, he argues, creates the environment in which repentance is possible; it can never be a prerequisite for forgiveness. Since it is impossible to legislate a change of heart, repentance can never be achieved by making it a legal requirement. While a law may compel people to modify their behaviour, it can never compel them to change their attitudes or beliefs. Certainly, true loyalty and devotion are not won through duress. Force only breeds resentment and anger, compliance possibly, but never love.
As I watched Daenerys’s failure to understand that hearts are not won at the point of a sword (or the maw of a dragon, as the case may be), her incomprehension that a choice between death and devotion is no choice at all, but simply another form of tyranny, I understood very clearly the fatal flaw in modern Christian theology. The choice Christian theology presents people with is exactly the one Daenerys offers her prisoners: turn or burn. Choose to love God or roast eternally. No choice to follow God, under those constraints, could be considered authentic. The only authentic choice possible is the flames. And that is supposed to be “good news”?!
Like Daenerys, we – Christians – are blind to the tyranny we perpetuate through our theologies. We cannot grasp that insisting that people must love God and bend the knee before they can be forgiven is monstrous. We cannot seem to see that such a theology is not consistent with a truly loving God. Love does not demand that the lover change, or even express a willingness to change, in order to be loved. But Jesus understood. Consider his interaction with ‘sinners’, if you do not believe me. Notice how he never requires tax collectors or prostitutes or lepers or religious zealots to change before he is willing to eat with them, to speak with them, to heal them. The words “your sins are forgiven” are never predicated upon a confession. If repentance is evident, it is born out of Jesus’ mercy; it is not the catalyst for that grace. Sometimes there is no repentance at all. At the cross, Jesus offers his most powerful teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Whether the “they” refers to his persecutors or was meant to pertain to humanity as a whole, the principle remains the same: forgiveness is unconditional. Nothing is required to earn it. Not even repentance. Paul notes, in Romans 5 (my emphasis), “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. If repentance was a requirement for forgiveness, then God would be a tyrant.
That does not mean that repentance is unimportant, though. It is important for reasons other than the ones our theology assumes. It is not a precondition for acceptance by God. Repentance is important because it means we turn away from a system of social organisation that is founded on violence as the ultimate expression of power and justice. It means rejecting religious practice that requires scapegoating and bloodshed to win God’s favour. Repentance means – in Jesus’ words – “picking up your cross” and following him: refusing to participate in retributive justice, in violent and oppressive systems of power (if you are interested, watch Brian Zahnd’s excellent sermon on this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRtfKrbC4tQ) .Repentance means responding like Jesus did to those systems. And not because our salvation depends on it; because it is the only sustainable way to create a peaceful and equitable society. Repentance is a big “no” to the monster God embedded in our blood-soaked religions. If we want to understand God’s character, we need to turn our backs on the sacrifice-oriented theologies that are so deeply ingrained in us. Jesus’s extravagant and subversive forgiveness enables us to see that.
I was chatting online with an old friend and past pupil a couple of weeks ago, and he remarked that Christianity was useful only as an ambulance for the weak, but that it had no value in moving the human race forward. I would agree, if the only ideological beliefs of Christianity were the personal salvation, holiness-code-obsessed, me-my-Bible-and-Jesus ones that dominate contemporary Christian theology. I, too, see no value in a theology that depicts Jesus as a Daenerys-like figure, demanding that we love him or die, or which exists to provide a sort of psychological security blanket to a clearly delineated in-group in the form of free fire-insurance and a Sunday morning entertainment and coffee club for the middle class. But that is not the Jesus of the gospels. And when I look at the mess the world is in today, where we use difference (whether race, religion, sexuality, gender, culture, age, political affiliation or favourite sports team) to justify violence against others (and liberals are as guilty of this as conservatives – look at the way we talk about Trump or neo-Nazis, for example), then the only way I see of moving the world forward is through forgiveness. And not the sort that requires the other to acknowledge her wrongdoing first. Conditional forgiveness is a veiled attempt to wield power over another; it uses the moral high-ground as a platform to launch an attack. Conditional forgiveness is oppressive. A free and peaceful society cannot be built on demands to bend the knee. I think Christianity – following Jesus’s teachings – is the only way forward for humanity. Time and time again we have borne witness to humanity’s inability to learn from history. Violence breeds only violence. Hatred gives birth to more hatred. What we need is Jesus-style forgiveness. Extravagant. Self-sacrificing. Completely contrary to all of our notions of common sense. If we want the world to be other than it is, we cannot keep insisting that others conform to our definitions of good and right, that our own sense of justice must prevail. We need to give up the right to hate. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
If you want to understand repentance, read Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 13. Repentance, born out of being loved, seeks to love. It discards childish ideas of a God that needs to be appeased, gives up the right to judge, surrenders the moral high ground, recognises that adherence to some social or moral code is inadequate:
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.