Hypernormal Christianity: a Legacy of Fear

Alexei Yurchak, in his book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, describes what it was like to live in the Soviet Union prior to its collapse. He argues that its flaws were readily apparent to everyone, and that people could see that the system was failing them. But because no alternatives were readily apparent, and because generally the people genuinely believed in the socialist ideals espoused by the state, the social psychology of the people adapted to normalise and accept the dysfunction and the artifice of the system as it was being implemented by its leaders. Yurchak termed this “hypernormalisation”.

 

I think many Christians live with a hypernormal theology: we can sense at a gut level the deep problems in trying to reconcile a peace-loving Jesus with a violent Father, but because we are convinced that Jesus is – as he claims – God, and at the same time that the Bible – which is quite horrifically brutal in parts – is the inerrant Word of God, we adapt to accept the inconsistencies and the deep dysfunction that characterises so much of the way we express our faith.

 

I owe the following analogy to Brad Jersak, who compares our picture of Jesus to the picture we get of Santa Claus in what has become a traditional (and frankly quite disturbing) Christmas song:

 

You better watch out

You better not cry

You Better not pout

I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town

 

He’s making a list

And checking it twice;

He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice

Santa Claus is coming to town

 

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

 

O! You better watch out!

You better not cry

You Better not pout

I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town

Santa Claus is coming to town

 

We sing it so merrily every Christmas, teach it to our children without a second thought, without giving any consideration to its devastatingly misleading messages, that 1) children need to be terrified into compliance because (it is implicit) they are inherently bad and will not respond to positive reinforcement, and 2) that good things happen to good people and bad people get what’s coming to them (teaching children that if something bad happens to somebody, they have done something to deserve it: an attitude many adults still hold with regards to poverty, natural disasters, diseases like AIDS…). There is nothing remotely comforting about Santa Claus, make no mistake.

 

Worse, this picture is eerily similar to the picture we have constructed of Jesus. He is sitting up there with a big accounting ledger, seeing everything, and keeping a list in his “Book of Life” of who is naughty and who is nice. You better hope you are in the “nice” column. Because he is coming again…

 

After Jesus’s resurrection, as he is “taken from them into heaven” (Acts 1), the disciples stand gawking at the sky (I can’t say I blame them), probably wondering what the heck had just happened, when they are informed by a couple of angels that they can get on with life – Jesus will come back. No dire warnings of death and fiery torture, no threats of eternal banishment, no hint of a bloodsoaked champion returning to avenge the chosen. Just the assurance that it is not over (and given that the Jewish understanding of the Messiah’s role is that he is to restore and re-establish Israel, and given that Jesus had done no such thing, this was a necessary and no doubt comforting assurance). That satisfies the disciples, and off they go, galvanised into a renewed sense of purpose, to spread the gospel.

 

What I want to point out is this: the promise of Jesus’ return was never intended as a threat. It is only menacing if we hold to a penal substitution understanding of the atonement : if you believe that you have a very narrow window of opportunity in which to accept Jesus or get tortured by God, then Jesus coming back unexpectedly is a terrifying prospect. I need to stress, though, that the concept of God needing to die – essentially committing suicide – in order to rescue us from Henself *, because Hen doesn’t want to have to punish us for breaking laws that Hen Henself created, really doesn’t make sense. Nevertheless, what this has translated to in contemporary Christian theology is the belief that when Jesus comes again, as the angels said, it is to complete the unfinished business of smiting the unrepentant. He is, in a way, giving us a last chance.

 

But that is not how we ought to understand salvation. We are not being saved from God, we are being saved from sin (read the New Testament, if you don’t believe me). The Jews who were Jesus’ disciples would not have understood salvation in the way we do today, as a sort of personal fire insurance. Salvation, for them, was social. The question driving the writing of much of the Old Testament texts – written largely during the exile in Babylon – was “What did we do to deserve ending up here, abandoned by God and alienated from the Covenant?”. Hence the histories of Israel’s disobedience and the call to repentance as a people. The promise to Israel was that God would restore them, despite that. This obsession with individual holiness is a modern invention. Consequently, salvation ought not to be understood as smiting-avoidance but as the coming of God’s Kingdom to Earth and the reconciliation of God and Hens people.

 

Understood that way, the Second Coming is not a threat. If, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews claims: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8), then it is simply delusional to think that while Jesus – throughout his life on earth – preached peace, enemy love and unconditional forgiveness, he will suddenly undergo a radical personality shift in the interim and become a completely psychopathic megalomaniac, returning to slaughter billions of people. How does that make sense?! No, Jesus will return to complete the establishment of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Jesus renounced vengeance, and I think it is safe to assume that when he returns, nothing will have changed.

 

Indeed, that is the picture we see in Revelations (a part of the Scriptures that has been horrendously abused, because of the vulnerability to anachronistic and decontextualised interpretation inherent in its style): when the rider on the white horse (symbolically implied to be Jesus) arrives on the battlefield, his robe is already dipped in blood ie. the blood is his own, not the blood of massacred millions. Furthermore, the sword with which he defeats the enemy is not in his hands, but coming from his mouth. It is probably too complex to address in this post, but there is a lot of really convincing scholarly work that suggests that the “beast” destroyed by the Lamb in this great battle is the brutal power of Empire, undone not through violent retribution but through extravagant self-giving love. Certainly not God crushing humanity. That picture of Jesus returning in a blur of blood is simply one facet of our hypernormalised theology.

 

So here we stand, gawking at the sky, wondering what on earth to do with this Jesus fellow. In his day, he confounded the people who followed him by rejecting the mantle of the Davidic warrior Messiah they wanted to place on him and preaching love and peace instead, even for his enemies. Somehow, two thousand years later, we still await the return of a bellicose Davidic warrior Messiah, hellbent on slaughtering those who will not bend the knee to him. Sigh.

 

*Hen is a gender-neutral pronoun invented by the Swedes

** I chose the header image to illustrate just how violently Eurocentric our conceptions of Jesus are, not because I actually like the picture.

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