Picture, for a moment, a hypothetical, completely dysfunctional family. The son’s academic performance is poor and he has become rebellious at school. The daughter’s devotion to her work borders on the obsessive and – although very few of her classmates know it – she cuts herself compulsively. Dad demands perfection from his children. For him, sound parenting is reflected in obedient children and sometimes, because it is for their own good, he is harsh and uncompromising in his enforcement of rules. He models, by the way, the subconscious picture of God he has held since childhood. Mom doesn’t always agree with how Dad handles things but she is too afraid of how he will respond to her challenging him to voice it. So she tries to excuse her silence by justifying his cruelty. Doing so helps her to avoid feeling guilty for not standing up to him on behalf of her children. Her guilt might also cause her to rationalise his unjust treatment of her, whether expressed in cruel indifference or violent anger. On some level she convinces herself she deserves it. Everybody in the family has found a way to point a finger of blame – even if it is at themselves – for the dysfunction in the family, and even if the individuals can see that the situation is not right, somehow they find themselves trapped in the roles allotted to them, acting a macabre script in a terrible and repetitious play.
The dysfunction in this family is not simply a derivation of the sum of the individuals’ dysfunctions. Rather, the individual dysfunction feeds into an organic system that is both fuelled by that dysfunction and which perpetuates it. The dysfunction becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts. The family unit is not defined merely by the individuals of which it is comprised: but by the nature of the relationships between them. What this means is that the system cannot be healed only by healing one individual. It is necessary for the relationship structures to change, and this requires the active participation of all within the system. Certainly, one whole individual acting proactively within the system has the potential to influence what happens, but change cannot be compelled; it must be pursued.
This family picture is not an uncommon one. It is not uncommon, because in many ways it is indexical of what human society is: a dysfunctional family. The problem with humanity is not simply that each individual is broken, but that these broken individuals consequently relate to one another in dysfunctional ways, perpetuating the dysfunction. Healing humanity would require more than only addressing individual brokenness; it must revolutionise the problematic ways we perceive both ourselves and others, and the terms by which we engage with them.
That is why the Penal Substitution theories of Christ’s Atonement (or – in layman’s terms – the theory that God punished Jesus for our sins) are woefully inadequate. Among the myriad other ideological problems with the theory, one of its primary shortcomings is that it reduces humanity’s problems to mere disobedience to God. In essence, it assumes that once the penalty for the crime has been paid, the problem is fixed. In terms of our family scenario, we would be asked to believe that once Dad has punished the son for his misdemeanours at school and put him on a strict study regime, once he has removed all razorblades from the daughter and insisted that she adopt a hobby, the problem has been corrected. It should be obvious that this would be addressing the symptoms, not the disease. One cannot simply legislate dysfunction away. To bring lasting healing, the nature of the familial relations needs to change, and that can only be achieved if all of the participants not only desire it, but pursue it. Different or stricter rules will not do, so long as the members of the group have no change of heart.
Any law is only effective when the community it serves values the principle that the law was designed to protect over conformity to that law. Let me give you an example: if all of the traffic police were to take a day off, and everyone knew it, and if all of the surveillance equipment were simultaneously to malfunction, you can bet that the chaos on the roads would escalate. This is because we have no real understanding of the fact that the road laws are there to save lives. They enable people traveling at high speeds in different directions to do so safely. As long as you believe that traveling at 61 km per hour is breaking the law but 60 is not, you have not understood the function of the law. Frankly, if you were traveling at 68 km/h on a quiet road, and were vigilant, you would be more in line with the prescriptions of the law than somebody traveling at 20km/h and distracted by the radio. Speed is not the primary issue; safety is.
Can I put it this way? I do not think that the problem of sin is one of disobedience to God. It is one of relating to Hen in dysfunctional ways. We have profoundly misunderstood how God relates to Law. The Ten Commandments are not a set of conditions to be met, a test to be passed if we want to merit God’s favour (and that is the misconception that underpins Penal Substitution Atonement theories). Rather, they are parameters within which we are able to relate to both God and other humans in life-affirming ways. God’s key concern with sin, if God is love, as Christians claim, ought not to be that we have transgressed and must be punished, but that those transgressions compromise our capacity to maintain functional relationships. Love does not happen in isolation.
The family in our story does not require a new set of family rules, with consequences for those who break them. It will not be healed by each individual’s being punished for hens inappropriate behaviour. What it requires is somebody within the family to start behaving in appropriate ways. Somebody needs – in the fullest possible sense of the term – to act in love. And at first things will not be easy. That person will most likely have to endure more (not less) injustice as the system tries to return to its default settings. The others will not understand the change and will misinterpret it. But if that person is strong enough in hens convictions, and persists in love (“love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:7), the others will be able to see their own actions for what they are, and will have the psychological space to both repent and to change. It does not guarantee change, of course, but it is the only way to make it possible. All the counselling in the world can only take that family so far. Somebody within the family has to change if the family unit is to be saved.
That is what Jesus did for humanity. That is why he had to be human. It is why Paul and Jesus go to such great lengths to break down traditional barriers that divide people (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28, for example). It is imperative that we see ourselves as part of a broader dysfunctional family. In the injustice of the cross, Jesus exposes the scapegoating, sacrificial mechanisms (which God neither desires nor requires) that we use to achieve a kind of twisted social unity, and by which we attempt to relate to God, and models instead an appropriate way of relating to one another through forgiveness and love. Jesus is the member of the family who decides to act appropriately.
And we have misunderstood him, predictably, and attempted to remodel everything around our default settings, which understand only sacrifice, scapegoats, blood justice and retribution, and we have developed theologies that paint God and Jesus in that light. Some of us will never change. Fundamental change can never be legislated. We will continue to blame and to accuse and to divide: that is all we know. But Jesus offers life. More than that, he models it. I don’t know what role you play in the dysfunctional family that is humanity But Jesus has shown you the Way. The old behaviours don’t heal or bring lasting peace. Scapegoating others, pointing fingers and accusing does not bring healing. Justice that demands an eye for an eye cannot culminate in social order. If you want to know what Kingdom living looks like, you need to reject the comfortable, dysfunctional ways of relating to both God and others, and learn what it is to love.
I will leave you with a stunning example of how Jesus subverts a traditional reading of Scripture, with its depiction of a “justice” system that merely escalates violence, and replaces it with an interpretation that encourages escalating forgiveness:
Then Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, Even a young man for hurting me. 24 If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)