Heavily influenced by Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr OFM has for years promoted the importance of the Christian contemplative tradition – long predating the Reformations of the 1500s – as a means of healing Christian divisions and the wider Earth crisis. Now reportedly ill with prostate cancer, he operates out of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, USA and is active in the inter-church ‘Emerging Christianity’ movement, along with Brian McLaren and others from the Protestant evangelical tradition.
The CAC distributes a daily email reflection from Richard and his associates – focused this week on ‘atonement theory’: i.e. the different historical explanations of the teaching that ‘Christ died for our sins’.
This is, of course, just one person’s perspective on a critically important issue. It is offered here as a sampler of what ‘Emerging Christianity’ is saying, and will hopefully be useful at least as information. I compile below the reflections for Monday to Friday, February 4-8, 2019.
You can have these daily reflections in your inbox each morning by clicking the ‘Sign Up’ button on the CAC site.
Jesus and the Cross
by Richard Rohr
An Alternative Story
Monday, February 4, 2019
The theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At its worst, it has led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure who demands acts of violence before God can love creation. There is no doubt that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is filled with metaphors of sacrifice, ransom, atonement, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. These are common temple metaphors that would have made sense to Jewish audiences at the time they were written. But they all imply that God is not inherently on our side.
Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if we just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for us in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.
Christianity’s vision of God was a radical departure from most ancient religions. Instead of having God “eat” humans, animals, or crops, which were sacrificed on altars, Christianity made the bold claim that God’s very body was given for us to eat! This turned everything around and undid the seeming logic of quid pro quo thinking. As long as we employ any retributive notion of God’s offended justice (required punishment for wrongdoing), we trade our distinctive Christian message for the cold, hard justice that has prevailed in many cultures throughout history. We offer no redemptive alternative, but actually sanctify the very “powers and principalities” that Paul says unduly control the world (Ephesians 3:9-10; 6:12). We stay inside the small “myth of redemptive violence”—which might just be the dominant story line of history. I think the punishment model is buried deep in most peoples’ brain stem.
It’s time for Christianity to rediscover the real biblical theme of restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitation, healing, and reconciliation, not punishment. (Read Ezekiel 16, especially the revelatory verses 53-63, for a mind-blowing example of this.) We should call Jesus’ story the “myth of redemptive suffering”—not as in “paying a price” but as in offering the self for the other. “At-one-ment” instead of atonement!
Restorative justice, of course, comes to its full demonstration in the constant healing ministry of Jesus. Jesus represents the real and deeper level of teaching of the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus never punished anybody! Yes, he challenged people, but always for the sake of insight, healing, and restoration of people and situations to their divine origin and source. Once a person recognizes that Jesus’ mission (obvious in all four Gospels) was to heal people, not punish them, the dominant theories of retributive justice begin to lose their appeal and authority.
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.
Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.
In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.
Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?
Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.
A Bigger God
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Our predestination to glory is prior by nature to any notion of sin. —John Duns Scotus 
The Franciscan School, led by such teachers as Duns Scotus, refused to see the Incarnation and its finale on the cross as a mere reaction to human failure. God was much more than a problem solver. Instead, Franciscans claimed that the cross was a freely chosen revelation of Love on God’s part. In so doing, they reversed the engines of almost all world religion up to that point, which assumed humans had to spill blood to get to a distant and demanding God. On the cross, Franciscans believed, God was “spilling blood” to reach out to us!  This is a sea change in consciousness. Instead of being a theological transaction, the crucifixion was a dramatic demonstration of God’s outpouring love, meant to utterly shock the heart and mind and turn it back toward trust and love of the Creator.
In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some “necessary sacrifice”; if it could, it would not and could not work its transformative effects. Duns Scotus and his followers were committed to protecting the absolute freedom to love in God. If forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all. Love and forgiveness must be freely given or they do not accomplish their deeply transformative healing. Self-serving love does not change the heart. It must be free and undeserved love or transformation does not happen. (Think about that and you will know it is true!)
I’m not sure many Christians recognize the dangers of penal substitutionary atonement theory. Perhaps the underlying assumptions were never made clear, even though thinking people throughout the ages were often repelled by such a crass notion of God. This theory has become a nail in the coffin of belief for many sincere, thoughtful individuals today. Some Christians just repress their misgiving because they think it implies a complete loss of faith. But I would wager that for every person who voices doubt, many more quietly walk away from a religion that has come to seem irrational, mythological, and deeply unsatisfying to the heart and soul. And these are usually not “bad” people!
Christianity can do so much better, and doing so will not diminish Jesus in the least. In fact, it will allow Jesus to take on a universal and humanly appealing dimension. The cross cannot be an arbitrary and bloody sacrifice triggered by a sin that was once committed by one man and one woman under a tree between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Frankly, that idea reduces any notion of a universal or truly “catholic” revelation to one planet, at the edge of one solar system, in a universe comprised of billions of galaxies with trillions of solar systems. A religion based on required sacrifices is just not glorious or hopeful enough or even befitting the marvelous creation. To those who cling to Anselm’s understanding, I would say, as J. B. Phillips wrote many years ago, “Your God is too small.” 
Coincidence of Opposites
Thursday, February 7, 2019
The Divine Mind transforms all human suffering by identifying completely with the human predicament and standing in full solidarity with it from beginning to end. This is the real meaning of the crucifixion. The cross is not just a singular event. It’s a statement from God that reality has a cruciform pattern. Jesus was killed in a collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths, caught between the demands of an empire and the religious establishment of his day. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a “mixed” world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. He hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured—holding together all the primary opposites (see Colossians 1:15-20).
In so doing, Jesus demonstrated that Reality is not meaningless and absurd just because it isn’t perfectly logical, fair, or consistent. Reality, we know, is always filled with contradictions, what St. Bonaventure and others (such as Alan of Lille [c. 1128–1202/03] and Nicholas of Cusa [1401–1464]) called the “coincidence of opposites.” This is what we all resist and oppose much of our life.
Jesus the Christ, in his crucifixion and resurrection, “recapitulated all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
This one verse is the summary of Franciscan Christology. Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of universal suffering. He allowed it to change him (“Resurrection”) and us, too, so that we would be freed from the endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside of it.
This is the fully resurrected life, the only way to be happy, free, loving, and therefore “saved.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “If I can trust it, you can too.” We are indeed saved by the cross—more than we realize. The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.
Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth more than “those who are going to heaven.” They are the leaven who agree to share the fate of God for the life of the world now, and thus keep the whole batch of dough from falling back on itself. A Christian is invited, not required, to accept and live the cruciform shape of all reality. It is not a duty or even a requirement as much as a free vocation. Some people feel called and agree to not hide from the dark side of things or the rejected group, but in fact draw close to the pain of the world and allow it to radically change their perspective. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change them from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.
The Scapegoat Mechanism
Friday, February 8, 2019
The scapegoating ritual described in Leviticus 16 offers a helpful perspective on Jesus’ death. On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest, Aaron, was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.
The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) demonstrated that the scapegoat mechanism is foundational for the formation of most social groups and cultures. We need another group to be against to form our group! For example, many in the United States scapegoat refugees who are seeking asylum, falsely accusing them of being criminals. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives—so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29).
We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
We hate our own imperfections in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit. Yet Jesus revealed the pattern two thousand years ago. “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God,” he said (John 16:2).
The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred and killing “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit it—by exposing the lie for all to see. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. Maybe power still does not want us to see this. Much of Christianity shames individuals for private sins while lauding public figures in spite of their pride, greed, gluttony, lying, killing, or narcissism.
As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgement” (John 16:8). This is what Jesus exposes and defeats on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.