A Sermon for Remembrance Day; The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Hebrews 9:24 – end

 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

 

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There is a Babylonian creation myth where the cosmos is created by the god Marduk, from the corpse of his mother that he has slaughtered.  In this story, human beings are created from the blood of another executed god.

 

The Babylonian creation story is the myth of redemptive violence, in which violence can be redeeming. Its themes are retold throughout history and into the present day.  In the final scenes of a Spiderman film, he is beaten to a pulp and is about to die but somehow, he manages to survive and his opponent is killed.  In the 2012 Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft is beaten but survives and then is a warrior that kills others.  John McClane, Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard, is beaten and then goes on a rampage to resolve the situation (though perhaps the most contentious thing about Die Hard is whether or not it is a Christmas film).  In the cartoon, Bluto beats Popeye and essential sexually assaults Olive Oyl, but at the last minute Popeye finds some spinach, is revived and beats Bluto.  In eight seasons and 2 films, Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, an American agent who endures horrific trauma and beatings, always escaping and then torturing the enemy to save America from terrorism.  The myth of redemptive violence is very much alive.

 

However, that is not a myth that underpins the Christian tradition.  It was during the Jewish captivity in Babylon that Genesis 1 was developed as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth.[1]  In the Jewish (and Christian) tradition, creation is not an act of violence, but a good God creating a good world that is ordered and not chaotic.  It is only later that evil slithers in.

 

One of the other readings for today was from Jonah 3.  In verse 5 we hear that “The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.”  What we don’t hear in today’s reading is Jonah’s response to this.  In Chapter 4:1-3, Jonah says to God, This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.  Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”  We often presume that Jonah ran away from God’s calling because he was scared, but that is not the case.  Jonah was committed to the myth of redemptive violence, he wanted  the Ninevites to be destroyed, he wanted to see redemptive violence enacted on them.  But God did not choose to do that.

 

Then there is today’s text from Hebrews, which is about the role of Jesus’ death in the redemption of humanity.  Last week at our vicar explained how Jesus’ death made a way for us to access the fullness of God.  The fancy name for this is “atonement”, which Google tells me is defined as, “The reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.”

 

Now, you might be under the impression that everyone has the same idea about Atonement or that generally Christians understand Jesus’ death the same way, but actually there are seven different theories for how Atonement works.  Some theories complement or build on one another, some are completely opposing. And although it might be a bit tricky, I’m going to try and talk you through these theories.

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Most of us are probably familiar with Penal Substitution.  And so, I have three questions to ask you about this:

  1. Which one came first?
  2. Which one has been most consistently held by the church?
  3. Which ones assume God demands redemptive violence:

 

The first theory of Atonement was Moral Atonement.

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The one that has been most consistently held by the church is Christus Victor:

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And the ones that assume that God demands violence are the Satisfaction theory, Penal Substitution and the Governmental theory.

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Isn’t it interesting that the ones we’re most familiar with are the ones that involve God demanding violence?

 

I know you’re wondering, what does all this have to do with Remembrance?  Well, for those of us here who hold to a view of Atonement in which God demands violence be done to Jesus in order for justice to be enacted, how do we work for peace?  How do we condemn the violence of war if we believe in a God who NEEDS violence in order for peace to be enacted?  If our creation story is utterly at odds with the myth of redemptive violence, how is it that three of our theories about Jesus’ work of atonement involve redemptive violence?  I know this is a big deal, to suggest there may be problems.  But ignoring the problems isn’t going to make them go away and we need to think about that.

 

As we seek to remember those who have died in war and the many who have survived but remain traumatised, do we as Christians have anything better to offer than more redemptive violence?

 

Let us look at the sheer scale of war.

 

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With numbers like this, we have no way of comprehending the enormity of it.  Each individual who was killed had family members whose hearts were broken by their loss.  And for all the people killed, there are many more who survived, but were or are irrevocably broken; their partners, children, other relatives and friends who have had to live with the impact of their beloved person now a shell of what they were.  Generational trauma.  People here whose parents or grandparents were damaged war, who still live with the scars of being raised in traumatised families.  War ruins lives, even as it enables freedom (in some, but not all cases), but how high a price that freedom is.

 

It is 100 years since the end of World War 1, where there were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. This included 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.  HG Wells famously said that this was the war to end all wars, but with the wisdom of hindsight we know this was a ludicrous statement.  Perhaps he too was caught up believing the myth of redemptive violence; that war can be ended through war.  George Orwell described such sentiments as “doublethink” in his novel 1984; war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.

 

Even though the cost of war is so high, we find that historians are suggesting that our current global politics suggests we are only years away from a repeat of World War II, with increasing nationalism across the globe, the breakdown of relations in Europe, and the rise of fascism in America, Brazil, Hungary, Ukraine, India, Poland and elsewhere.[2]  In Yemen, the civil war has causing a brutal famine, and the UK continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, who are one of the main drivers of the war.  Even the church of England is not immune from accusations of contributing to war; in recent years Church House in London has hosted the RUSI land warfare conference.[3]

 

Are we as Christians interested in these political developments?  Or do we think they are irrelevant to us?  You may be thinking that I should be focussed on those who died and not on things like politics.  However, does remembrance simply mean that we pause for a few moments in November to remember death, or does it also mean actively working to prevent war? Protesting unjust systems, voting in ways that will increase peace and not sow discord and division.  How do we work to support those impacted by war? Both the soldiers, and civilians, whose lives are destroyed and whose families live for generations with the impact. It is a huge issue, and we can feel utterly discouraged and disabled by the enormity of it.  But thankfully, regardless of how we understand atonement, as Christians we do not do this alone.  Jesus’ death and resurrection transformed our relationship to God, and through the Holy Spirit, we can not only be transformed, but also work to transform the world.  We can ask for God’s wisdom and discernment to know how to be part of healing the world. And often that will be as much about how we bring peace to our friends, neighbours, families, and communities, as it is about bringing peace to the world.  And no matter how often we despair at the world, we must remember Jesus’ words:

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33

 

 

[1]https://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99.pdf

[2]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-45902454

[3]https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/arms-trade-out/church-of-england

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One in Christ Jesus – A Sermon

After tweeting earlier today about my sermon I thought I’d post it online in case anyone is interested in reading it…

 

This week has been a difficult week.  Though it may not have been reported as such, the death of Jo Cox was a political assassination.  And her death is directly linked with some of the rhetoric within the EU referendum.  Yesterday I was on local authorised preacher training and someone said that we shouldn’t make preaching political and that voting is a personal thing.  And the choice of who we vote for is personal, but the impact certainly is not.

I wrote this sermon before Jo Cox was murdered, so I will speak further about that later on.  When I saw that this passage was to be preached on today, I told our vicar I would love to preach on it, as one verse in particular has great significance to me.  Galatians 3:28..

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I love this verse so much that it is the name of a project I am involved in, Project 3:28, which is all about addressing the lack of representation of women in Christian culture.

Last month I participated in a debate at Oxford University “This house believes religious practice hinders gender equality”.  I was on the opposition with a Hindu woman and a Muslim woman.  The proposition included an atheist woman, a cultural Muslim man and a “post Christian theologian”.  Her name is Daphne Hampson and she is a post Christian theologian because she used to be a Christian and she rejected the Christian faith because of how it oppresses women.

She’s not wrong…

Though it may not have happened in our church, the experiences of many in Christian culture and in churches is…

  • Women told by church leaders to stay with an abusive husband
  • Women told they cannot lead, teach, fulfil their calling
  • The failings of male leaders often colluded with.  “Restoration plans”
  • Real work seen as male, intellectual.
  • Model of spirituality often aligns with men who often have less caring responsibilities
  • Assumptions women will do childcare in church
  • Men often encouraged into leadership roles

Women’s full inclusion can be perceived as a “secondary issue”…

Yet for Daphne Hampson and many other’s it is the reason they have rejected the Christian faith.

In today’s post-modern world, it is ethics and not reason or proof that is standing in the way of many people accepting Jesus into their lives.

How do we declare Jesus as liberation when so many who bear His name are contributing to the oppression of women?

Today is Father’s Day.  Both Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day can be amazing, positive days for those of us with loving parents.  But for many they are complex days.  For better or worse, our parents are usually the biggest influence on our lives.

And for those of us who are parents what a great responsibility it is to recognise that is also the case for our children.

Our father may not have been present in our lives or perhaps he made choices which have deeply wounded us.  Perhaps we were adopted or do not know who our father is.  Or there may be men here who hoped to be fathers and it never happened.  Or fathers whose children are no longer with us, or perhaps who are estranged.

Often the church can be a difficult place to be if our family doesn’t fit the 2.4 nuclear family that is often idolised by Christian culture.  We can feel alienated and isolated if we are single, it we do not have children, or if our family background is complicated and messy.  Just as women (and men) can be alienated from the church because it seems oppressive to women, so can those who don’t fit the nice, happy smiley family structure.  How often when we’re asked how we are at church on a Sunday do we put on our church smile and say we’re fine, even though life is actually deeply painful?

Can we be confident that the non-Christians we know with messy family situation will not put the church off them because of the mess?  Do they feel the church is a place of inclusion or of judgement?  Do they know that us people in the church have messy lives too?  Are we willing to be honest about our pain?  Be vulnerable?  Or do we want to present ourselves as a model person, as a model family?

In 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  I imagine myself as a broken jar of clay, with a light inside.  It is through the cracks that the light of God can get out.  It is not my strength or competence that most clearly reveals God to the world, it is instead my brokenness.

In the past week we have witnessed the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.  49 people were killed and 53 people injured when a man claiming to represent Islamic State opened fire in a Gay Nightclub in Orlando.  I have gay and lesbian friends who have been horrified and left deeply scared by this homophobic terror attack.  It can be easy to look at this terrible atrocity and condemn Islamic State, without examining how Christianity has often been deeply homophobic.

We can look at the murderer’s religion and consider Islam as the problem.  Fear of ISIS has fuelled hate crime to those who don’t have white skin.  Earlier this week we may have looked at Orlando and assumed it happened “over there in America, where everyone has guns”.  Yet, what happened later in the week?  An MP, shot dead.

Just as women and those with complex families can feel the church and Jesus is incompatible with their lives, so can lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  Do we have friends who are gay or lesbian?  Do we have work colleagues or family members?  Are there people in our congregation?  People here today?  Do they know that we care about them?  Or is their assumption that we are homophobic because we are Christian?

As we consider how to vote on Thursday (and there will be people here who vote both ways) as Christians, our vote must not be based on how the referendum will affect the price of our house.  As Christians we must prioritise firstly loving God and then loving our neighbour.  And who is our neighbour?  WHO is our neighbour?  If Jesus was here today, the story of the Good Samaritan would perhaps be about our neighbour being Muslim people or refugees.  As Christians we must vote based on how that vote will affect the last, the least and the lost.

The passage from Galatians includes a statement of equality that was unheard of in that time.  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  We must always be careful not to elevate one passage above others when discussing theology, however this passage has special significance for us today.

In Jesus, the prejudices that separate us from each other dissipate.  Those people unable to accept the Christian message because it is sexist or misogynistic have a place to come in the Bible which suggests a difference truth is possible.  Maybe our differences are not as important as the love Christ came to bring to us?

Though there are many stories of how the Christian faith can be oppressive to women, we must also acknowledge that the reason women can vote today is because of the pioneering work of the suffragettes, many of whom were driven by their Christian faith.  So however the Christian faith can be a force of oppression for women, it can also be greatly liberating.

When we delve into the Bible further we find that far from 2.4 cereal box families, the Bible story is full of messy families.  Cain killed Abel, Abraham impregnated Hagar his wife’s servant, King David refused to deal with his son raping his daughter,  Joseph’s brother’s sold him into slavery, Rahab was a prostitute, Jesus was raised by a step-father.  We have a faith founded in the messiness of real life and people’s bad choices.

We don’t have to be ashamed of our messy families.  Though we may need support and help to overcome the challenges, the church should be a place we can be honest and know that messy families are in our faith’s DNA.  Let me challenge you today, if anyone asks you how you are after the service, to be honest rather than offering the default church smile and the very British “I’m fine thank you.”

As for the Orlando massacre and the many people who have been affected by it.  The church has a complex, theologically difficult road to walk with issues of sexuality and gender identity.  However, we are called first to love.  And may we represent the Jesus of love and life-in-all-its-fullness to those who currently find the Gospel to be oppressive.  May we be people who love deeply and live honestly, even when it hurts.  And may we know the God who binds our broken hearts; the God who is truly the greatest Father and Mother each of us can ever have.