If you are just joining us, we have been knocking down houses lately. Not physical dwelling-place houses, theological ones. Sometimes our theological houses are so dangerously shaky that we need to demolish them and start again. And it is my contention that much of what passes for Christian theology in the modern world falls into the “dangerously shaky” category. And perhaps, in case I already have not made it absolutely clear already, I am not challenging God; I am challenging the way we think about God. I don’t have issues with God. I have serious issues with how we think about Hen. So I have been arguing against the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, as well as against penal substitution as a legitimate understanding of Jesus’s death. Not because they reveal an unacceptable God, but because they are unacceptable attempts to shape God in our own image.
One of the major issues I have with both theological positions (Biblical inerrancy and penal substitution) is that they legitimate a view of God that is fundamentally violent. And I simply cannot see how a violent God is compatible with God as revealed through Jesus. In other words, if – as Christians – we are truly Jesus-centric, then – as far as I can tell, anyway – doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and of penal substitution are decidedly unChristian, because Jesus is characterised by a non-violent ethic. Today’s offering, in defence of my position, is from Jesus’s trial, as recorded in John 18:33-38:
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
I am fully aware that I am doing interpretive work when I say this, but I am convinced that it is an interpretation that is completely in line with the teachings of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels: I think Jesus makes it very clear here that there is no place for violence in the way God would have society function. If I can paraphrase Jesus’ response to Pilate: “If my kingdom functioned on the same principles as human ones”, Jesus argues, “those who call themselves by my name would fight for me. But that is not the way we roll”. Violence is simply not a Christian option. That seems clear to me from this exchange. It is why, when he was arrested, and Peter drew his sword and chopped off the ear of one of the men arresting Jesus (and he wasn’t aiming for the ear, is my guess, he just had horrible aim – he wanted to relieve the man of several kilograms of useless weight), Jesus healed the man and berated Peter: “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”. It is a warning that you do not break an unjust cycle of oppressive violence by employing violence. That simply plays into the cycle of retaliation, characterised by escalating brutality, which ends up hurting you. You don’t win peace through war. Justice – in the restorative sense – does not come by blood.
Simply put, I do not think you can infer any sort of violent God from Jesus’s exchanges with his “enemies”, even when they are treating him unjustly. The fundamental ethic of Jesus is pacifist; the fundamental ethic of the God implicit in both Biblical inerrancy and Penal Substitution is not. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you have to choose. Why would you not side with Jesus?
When questioned by Pilate, Jesus makes a telling claim. He does not say: I came to take the punishment of humanity. He does not say that the purpose of his incarnation was to satisfy God’s bloodlust. He says that he “came into the world to testify to the truth”. And what is the truth he testifies to? If you want to know that, look to the patterns in his teachings, the patterns revealed in the ethical stance that shaped his relationships: that there are better ways to configure society than around violent legitimations of power. Instead, we ought to love those who persecute us, to serve our fellow humans, to accept the marginalised and break down the social barriers that compel us to dehumanise, dismiss and disenfranchise others. If we listen to him, if we elect to be known as his disciples by our love for one another, even our enemies, because God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike, then we are, to quote Jesus, “on the side of truth”. Never, not once, not ever, in fact, does Jesus state that ‘being on the side of truth’ means accepting that he is to die in our place. Please hear this point: Jesus never equates faith with what we believe about him; he consistently equates it with responding to others in the way he does (ie. mercifully).
Right here, in this exchange between Pilate and Jesus, we will see Jesus’ understanding of his mission and purpose. It is explicitly laid out: Jesus does not say that truth is about ‘accepting him as Lord and Savior’. He does not say that truth is about believing that he is dying in our place. He never once states that the purpose of his existence is to serve as God’s whipping boy. No. The truth Jesus alludes to is – by his own testimony – linked to a kingdom that is not configured by the violent expressions of justice that characterise ours. The truth is that God loves even those who would call themselves Hens enemies. And just like Jesus, that love is characterised by extravagant forgiveness and self-sacrifice.
But we are more like Pilate than we care to admit. We have equated justice with bloodshed. We are content to legitimate scapegoating violence. We cannot see what is right before our eyes: that there is a truth that does not involve violence, (because violence always escalates until there are no winners); that it is the peacemakers who are the true children of God, and that we can choose to structure society around love and mutual respect. Peace does not require blood. There does not have to be an “us” and a “them”; there can be only an “us”. Sadly, even as Christians, like Pilate, we are quite happy to accept Jesus while adamantly and even conveniently ignoring everything that he actually stood for. And we can use our philosophies, our Calvinist and Evangelical theologies, as a basis to completely dismiss him: “What is truth”? we retort dismissively, and implied is: “your truth. Jesus, does not closely enough resemble ours to be taken seriously”, and we send Jesus, and the non-violent worldview he consistently stood for, off to die.