I hate going to live music concerts. I know that in terms of popular culture this is the equivalent of being a leper, but I have made my peace with it. The reason I hate them is because my reasons for attending them are not always in sync with the reasons driving the adoring masses, and although I don’t give in to it, the pressure to follow the crowd is unpleasant. You see, I love music, and I love watching talented musicians perform, so if I get an opportunity I will go. As it turns out, though, this is not why most people go to concerts.
Mostly, attending a live concert is expected to be an act of worship. One pays homage to the artist by donning appropriately branded apparel, screaming until one is hoarse, and gyrating wildly. The idol, in return, demands that you enter the sanctuary in a state of cleanliness (they keep insisting: “let me see those hands!”), and rewards this by making the extraction of hens talent look suitably anguished (moving around the stage as if there was something slightly uncomfortable probing hens nether regions, with matching facial expressions): we must admire the painful birthing of a song, a kind of blood sacrifice. The artist priest often insists that the worshipers demonstrate their merit, their worthiness to listen, by clapping in time to the rhythm (which may or may not be connected to why the hands need to be clean). But music is not my religion; I do not come to worship. So I get around all of these rituals by nursing a beer and looking pensive. It’s tough to sustain for the full two hours or so, but it can be done. And I can just listen without drawing too much attention to my irreverence.
The principle I wish to discuss is this: the aim informs the method; the reason I choose to do something informs how I go about doing it. I do not think that most people attend music concerts only because they want to appreciate the musical skill. That, however, is the only reason I attend. I do not need to, nor do I desire to, clap my hands in synchronisation with the song. I mastered that skill in preschool and feel no compulsion to demonstrate my proficiency to other adults. Anyway, it interferes with my ability to listen to the performance. The fact that the guitarist treats the guitar as a phallus is completely irrelevant to my experience. I do not wish to dance. I will keep my hands to myself: they do not need to wave above my head for me to hear properly. I do not need to scream the artist’s name: I have familiarised myself with it already and do not need constantly to remind myself whom I am watching. I have no inclination to sing along – if you hold out the microphone to me and ask me to complete the line I will not, even though I can: I am paying good money for a musician to do that. I do not need to reinforce a sense of identity by proving my credentials, my worthiness to be a part of this crowd: I feel no compulsion to look or act like any of the other fans, nor do I feel the need to let everyone know I was there. If I tell people about the experience, it will be because I admired aspects of the performance enough to comment on them, not for approval. I know I am being a bit facetious, and I do not wish to belittle anyone who goes to concerts for other reasons. I wish merely to point out that ‘why’ determines ‘how’. I don’t broodingly nurse a beer in the corner while listening, instead of dancing and whooping, because I do not know how to have fun: I refrain because I have different expectations of the experience that do not necessitate this. If yours do, that is fine too.
In music concert attendance, the differences in motivation are largely inconsequential, ultimately. In terms of religious expression, the ‘why’ matters profoundly. In terms of Christianity, the ‘why’ is influenced by what you believe the central purpose of Jesus’s incarnation to be. A vital part of that understanding will centre on how you interpret the Passion narrative. If, as is dominant in Evangelical and Protestant theology, you see Jesus’ purpose as saving people from God’s wrath, then the ‘why’ that drives your religious expression is populating heaven – getting your own ticket (primarily, of course) and helping others get theirs. If, as many who hold a nonviolent atonement theology – including myself – do, you believe that Jesus’s life, teachings and death acted not as God’s endorsement of scapegoating sacrifice but as Hens resistance to it, then the ‘why’ becomes developing a society structured around love and faith and forgiveness, rather than retributive justice and sacralised violence. Heaven, then, is not a future destination towards which the Faithful inexorably move, but a present project that the Faithful embark on to bring about God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”.
Your understanding of the “why” of the incarnation is important because it informs ethical expression. In other words, we always live out what we believe: if you believe that God is on the side of the mob, brutalising Jesus to achieve a reconciliation, then by extension violence is acceptable – even expected – if it brings about a desirable outcome, even if the innocent have to suffer. The end justifies the means, the needs of the many outweigh the rights of the individual. Torture of heretics, holy war, the burning of suspected witches, all manner of atrocities become acceptable so long as they keep the bulk of the faithful in line. But I maintain that if the God you picture can not only endorse but actively participate in the use of an unjust act, even if it is to bring about a positive outcome, then there is no way that one can consider that God to be just at all.
I do not believe that God would sanction even one innocent person to suffer unjustly. Is that not the point of the Parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus depicts a God who will leave the 99 to save the one? Jesus audience would have asked: what kind of shepherd abandons the herd to save one stray? That’s the revelation about God’s character: God sides with the ones that others would abandon. The individual matters as much as the herd. Is it not abundantly clear in the way Jesus treats scapegoats that God would not be the one hurling stones with the mob, but the one finding a way to make them drop the stones? If you believe in the God that Jesus preaches, then it is inconceivable that at the crucifixion God was participating on the side of the 99, venting His (deliberate use of the masculine pronoun) fury on the innocent Jesus. God would be where justice dictates Hen must be: on the side of the victim of oppression. If God maintained a silence at the dark hour of Jesus’ execution, it should not be taken as an endorsement of the events, but as a refusal to be drawn into the terrible cycle of retributive violence by retaliating. God’s motive for allowing the crucifixion is not to punish sin vicariously (I still cannot believe that Christians can continue to delude themselves that this is in any way just or loving) but to rescue people from sin, although Evangelical theology conflates the two. God participates in the crucifixion as the victim, not as the persecutor. The violence is all ours. Evidence for this is in Jesus’ resurrection: if Jesus was indeed being punished by God for the sin of the world he should have remained dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, as the forgiving victim, God makes it clear that Hen does not accept the guilt of the sacrificed scapegoat, and assures Hens persecutors that there will be no retribution for the unjust act. God thus enables the deconstruction of a system of retributive violence that, left unchallenged, must spiral inexorably towards anarchy. Jesus took on our sins not as God’s elected substitute but as our elected scapegoat, and God defends scapegoats, Hen does not participate in their persecution.
The way we interpret God’s “why”, in terms of the incarnation, matters because it informs our “why” and therefore our “how”. Penal Substitution theologies would maintain that the crucifixion is God’s way of allowing humans to bypass God’s wrath and enter heaven by taking on the scapegoated Jesus’s innocence. If God’s motivation is to get you a free pass into Heaven, no matter the cost in blood, and employing an ethically dubious loophole in cosmic justice to do so, then that is not a ticket worth having. I refuse to believe that gaining entrance into Paradise is a worthy motive for religious conversion. There is nothing commendable about choosing a friend because you like their house. You choose your friends because you love them not their possessions, because you share values and interests and desires, not because they promise you free stuff. No true devotion to God can be founded on access to Paradise
Penal substitution theology not only problematises our relationships with God and others, but also the way God relates to people. If the church is Christ’s bride, and God ‘sees only Jesus’ when He (deliberate) looks at us, our theology would have God saying something like this: “Marry me or I will incinerate you. And I only like nuns. If you dress up as a nun, we can have a beautiful relationship. I won’t even look at you if you look like yourself. But if you accept that it is okay for me to torture and execute an innocent nun instead of you, because that’s what I do to non-nuns, we can overlook your imperfection. If you don’t accept these conditions, I hope you enjoy barbecues.” Penal Substitution theology turns God into a petty and vindictive monster. In turn, we who are created in God’s image cannot but follow suit. As long as the choice between heaven and hell is the motivating force driving Christian evangelism and ethics, God is diminished; we are to be pitied more than all people, because Christ has exposed the shortcomings of our oppressive political and religious systems and ideologies, and has already shown us a better way, but we choose to remain trapped in the cycle of blood and oppression, the myth of “good violence”.
Fortunately, there is another motivation we can choose: the desire to reconfigure our personal ethics, our relationships, and our communities, to be in line with the world as God intended: governed by love. Jesus’s life is a beautiful song. Sometimes we miss it when we come to the concert with our urges to worship, rooted in traditions of blood sacrifice and sacred violence. When we get swept up in the euphoria of the moment and bow to the pressure to wave our hands in the air or clap to the rhythms of the crowd, we can fail to appreciate the delicate power of the Musician’s art. Listen. Let the music touch and transform you.
*Given the content of this post, please know that the choice of image from a Stryper concert, accessed at http://www.stevejacklerocks.com, is in no way meant to imply any insult to either the band or their fans. I have a very deep admiration for Stryper, as musicians and as human beings.