The task of entering into a living engagement with the text can be a complex matter. We read the words and firstly we note their emotional impact upon us? We then ask: what do I understand by the words as we sit with the feelings evoked? As we sit often in tension, or conflict, or a sense of being baffled by paradox what understanding begins to emerge in us in relation to the text?
Can you recall just a moment ago your thoughts and feelings when you heard Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans? Maybe it is even a blank for you because without even realizing it you switched off when you heard the well known phrases he uses. I find Paul often difficult to understand because I am left with a sense of hearing only one side of a conversation and only snippets of this conversation at that. All of us a familiar with some of Paul’s key phrases such as:
•being justified by Faith
•having peace with God
•hope resulting from endurance
• boasting of our suffering
•being counted as righteous
•Christ died for the ungodly i.e. for me no longer making me and enemy of God.
Many of us can only hear Paul speaking to us filtered through the doctrine of the ATONEMENT even when we are not conscious of this happening. Atonement theology is part of the blood stream of American religious culture and its logic goes a bit like this. Jesus died for our sins therefore Jesus is the sacrifice for sin. Jesus died in my place therefore Jesus’ death is the payment God exacted for the sinfulness of the world, i.e. for my sin.
Atonement theology is here understood as a theology of Substitution –i.e. Jesus is the substitute for me having to pay my own sin debt to God.
I want to look at the word Atonement. It breaks down into three word fragments At-one-ment. Atonement and substitution presupposes a situation of loss and alienation for which payment has to be made. At-one-ment presupposes a situation of estrangement- separation requiring reconciliation. Both Marcus Borg and J. Dominic Crossan make the point in their book The First Paul (2009) that atonement as substitution is a concept that would have been alien to Paul.
For Paul the meaning of the Cross is complex but in essence its about reconciliation and transformation through participation not substitution. Jesus’ death and resurrection is not a once for all instead of my death. Jesus’ death and resurrection is something we are invited by God to participate in. In Gal: 2 Paul says I have been crucified with Christ and its no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. He paints a picture here of a radical internal transformation and the death of an old way of looking at himself and the birth of a new identity and the death of an old way of seeing the world.
In Romans:12 Paul continues but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Paul continues may I never boast of anything except the cross of Jesus Christ by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.
At-one-ment is participation through transformation of heart and mind. For Paul it meant to enter into a different way of looking at the world. The world to which he invites us not to be conformed. This is not the world of nature which is good, but the world organized by the wisdom of this age. The world organized along the line of hierarchy, dominance, oppression and violence through abuse of power and pursuit of self interested greed. What might transformation of heart and mind this look like in our world?
I find myself experiencing a sense of profound culture shock. If you are like me you too may be experiencing profound culture shock. I was raised in a post World War II world which presented the middle class values of meritocracy and social mobility achieved through self help, educational advancement, and hard work. This world had a concept of a broad egalitarianism, social welfare for all based firmly upon a belief in the common good i.e. that what was good for me was good for others and an unquestioning faith in a steady scientific advancement that would bring with it only increased prosperity raising us above, and insulating us against the unpredictability’s of the natural world. This imbued in me a world view in which the forces of nature and human civilization were generally speaking predictable and benign.
This world view for me is now shattered by many things that are happening around me. Three elements stand out for me. The first is the full realization that the global economic order is not a projection of my values and I can no longer harbour the comfortable illusion that it is not my side. Secondly, that the global political order that sustained my world view is collapsing as other people claim the right to freedom and prosperity filling me with a fear that my birthright to these things is now at risk. Thirdly, the recent destruction of my home town of Christchurch – a gem of English Victorian architecture transported to the south seas – in two major earthquakes separated only by months. The disaster of catastrophic proportions that has hit Japan and which in a matter of hours reduced this beacon of technological culture to the conditions of primitive survival characteristic of many places in the undeveloped Third World shakes my confidence to the core. I contrast the socially cohesive values of Japanese society which at least enable them to all pull together with the current values in our own society. Were we to face a catastrophe of similar proportions our now totally individualized values would not stand us in very good stead as we might all run for the guns necessary to defend what is mine. For we live in a political culture where notions of the common good are derided having increasingly been replaced by individual self interest based upon the lie that we are each autonomous. Autonomy is an illusion that is sustainable only when there is an excess of resources to go around.
As I struggle to come to terms with what has and continues to happen all around me I turn with a new urgency to the words of Paul and take to heart that I need a radical transformation of world view and personal identity if I am going to meet the coming challenges with courage, confidence and hope in a loving God in tact.
The way of transformation is to open ourselves to the process of dying and rising with Christ in our relation on the one hand to the world around us and on the other an internal transformation of who we experience ourselves to be. You don’t need to know how exactly you do this. Transformation is not a recipe to be followed step by step. Transformation is rather more like a process to orient towards. Open yourself and trust that God will bring about in you the transformation he requires, the sacrifice of heart and mind. What are the signs to look for that this is happening? These would be a transformation of world view and personal identity exhibited by a strengthening in you of a sense of gratitude to God for his love which generates a generosity in you as you come to increasingly identify others through shared solidarity and service.