The Grinch of Atonement steals Christmas
As Advent wanes and Christmas approaches, I always feel a growing sense of relief. I have long observed that the behaviors of my fellow Americans become noticeably more aggressive in the frenzied media-driven run-up to what is probably best described as Consumermas. Negotiating the local roads or the parking lot of any big box store or even a strip mall in these days leading up to Christmas can mean taking your life in your hands.
With a mere two days to go, the hype will near the point of hysteria tomorrow, take a day off for our corporate media to remind us how happy our material goods are supposed to make us on Christmas Day, and then resume fever pitch for the day after Christmas clearances. For those of us who have long ago opted out of the guilt-driven buying without which desperate merchants believe they cannot end the year in the black, this misery simply cannot end soon enough.
The Gospel According to Cici
This year, however, I find my discomfort with Christmas centered on things more theological. For some reason I had a hankering for pizza last week in the midst of grading finals and so I engaged in willful amnesia about why I never visit Cici’s all-you-can-eat pizza bar and drove down to the strip mall where the last remaining Cici’s in town is located. As usual, there was lots of mediocre-at-best food and lots of obese working class folks chowing down on it. It would have been a decidedly forgettable dining experience (except to remember why I initially had made the rule of never eating at Cici’s) had it not been for the radio station being used for background noise.
Upon opening the door of the restaurant the blaring sound of yet another night club version of a Christmas carol assaulted my ears. With all the incredibly beautiful music that has been composed for Christmas over the centuries, it is a mystery to me why public spaces must be filled with the purgatorial sounds of Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. But it was only when I had already begun my own chowing down on pizza that I realized it was not a satellite muzak system but rather the local fundamentalist radio station to which the customers were being subjected.
What gave it away was this assertion: “Today we have good news. A baby will be born. He will be called Jesus. And he will die for our sins so that all who believe in him can go to heaven.” I nearly spewed half chewed pizza across the restaurant.
But this kind of misguided theology is hardly relegated to a fundamentalist radio station whose motto “Safe for the little ears” is probably best completed with the words “and the little, teeny, tiny brains below them.” Even theologically well educated priests of my own Episcopal tradition can lapse into this absolutely dreadful theology.
About a decade ago I embarrassed myself and the family of the parish rector with whom I was sitting at a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass when I exploded in exasperation in reaction to his Christmas homily. In the homily he declared “Jesus had to be born so he could die for our sins.” I’m guessing that the stage-whispered utterance of “What a crock of shit!” was probably not the response he was expecting that night, particularly from a fellow priest in clerical collar. Of course, it didn’t help that we had all indulged in more than a little Christmas cheer prior to midnight mass. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.
An Instrumentalist Vision of Jesus
But he’s hardly alone in this thinking. The priest of the local parish where I attend services - when I can convince myself to actually go to church - is a graduate of my seminary in Berkeley. She is a terrific person. I love her and often go simply because she has implored me to be there. She is a good pastor and officiant and I often smile as I recognize the influence of our common seminary training in her liturgical celebration.
I also admire her theology of transformation: At St. Richard’s we are on a mission to change our lives and to change the world, an assertion made at the announcements each Sunday eucharist. I have long since recognized that any religion that fails to transcend the socially constructed world and transform the lives of its people individually and collectively is not a religion worth engaging.
But I found myself disturbed today as I read the Christmas email missive from the pastor. In part it states:
The meditation on the collects appointed for Christmas Day reflects on the beauty of the prayers and their message that God is with us and God is for us. We believe as Christians that Jesus died for our sins because we do not have power within ourselves to help ourselves. We need Jesus to save us, to take away our sins for us. That is a huge gift! We call this the atonement of Jesus, the crucifixion makes us at-one with God.
Frankly, I am always disturbed by the presumptuousness of any assertion about what “we believe as Christians.” The reality is that the followers of Jesus have held a wide variety of understandings about him, his life and teachings from the very beginning. Frankly, I do not recognize myself in this description of what “we believe as Christians” and I know many beside myself who would be similarly puzzled at being included in such a confession.
The first part of my concern with all of these no doubt well-intentioned people is that they buy into what I see as ultimately an egocentric religious construct. This vision of religion generally and the person of Jesus specifically is cast in instrumentalist terms – Jesus’ primary function is to save us (stage 3, tribal moral reasoning) from sin – but only so long as we buy into the right (defined by the tribe) belief system - so that each of us (stage 2, egocentric moral reasoning) can go to heaven. In other words, Jesus is a means to our ends. Ultimately, it’s all about me/us when it comes to Jesus.
The second part of my concern has to do with the atonement itself. I’ve never found that concept particularly compelling from the first time I heard it in the local Southern Baptist Church in my hometown. At the ripe old age of 8 years old, I came home from that service deeply disturbed and flew to my saintly mother to ask her if it was really true that G-d had to kill his only son so that all of us could go to heaven - but only if we agree with the Baptist understandings of religion. “Honey, that’s just what the Baptists think,” she said.
That’s pretty much where it’s remained for me most of my life. I have always found the obsession with sinfulness and salvation in the Christian tradition to be incredibly egocentric. My Jesus. My faith. My salvation. That may be compelling for those whose moral reasoning hovers in Kohlberg’s pre-conventional range (Stage 1: What must I do to avoid punishment ? or Stage 2: What’s in it for me?) but while childlike reasoning may be charming in children, it’s not so charming when it persists in adults.
When it comes to spiritual lives, it’s simply not all or even predominately about me. Spirituality speaks to transcending self and recognizing our connections to all of Creation and the Creator G-d whom encounter at every turn. This spiritual understanding is simply not reflected in atonement theology. A god who is so weak or so stubborn that he cannot forgive sinners without human sacrifice is a tribal tyrant and ultimately not a god worthy of worship.
Forget Waldo – Where’s Jesus?
But the gravamen of my case against the misplacement of atonement theology at the Christmas season is that it seems to completely miss the point of the nativity. The good news is Immanuel, G-d is with us. While the image of G-d surrounds us every waking moment on the faces of every sentient being and in the beauty of the very good creation, we are often oblivious to that divine presence. Instead we allow ourselves to become obsessed with Black Friday sales and the latest scandals in Hollywood or Washington, the marks of lives defined by the shallowness of consumerism.
But the Good News of Jesus is that G-d actually comes to dwell among us. My Franciscan professor of Christology expressed it very well: “Jesus was so open to G-d’s calling to him that he became transparent. Thus, in Jesus we saw G-d.” It's a beautiful statement of Franciscan theology I have long cherished. Indeed, at Christmas we see G-d as a fragile, newborn child, a new life entrusted to human parents, amidst a living nativity scene originally envisioned by St. Francis.
Sadly, Christmas is often symbolically misrepresented by crosses and those who adorn them with Christmas lights to place in their outdoor decorations evidence both a profound confusion of liturgical seasons as well as a lack of a theology of incarnation. The symbols of Christmas are not instruments of torture and death emblazoned with electric lights. Rather, Christmas is manifest in a humble stable full of barnyard animals, amidst them a manger holding a fragile, newborn baby, a brilliant star shining overhead.
Christmas is also not the celebration of theologies featuring contrived resolutions of our existential anxieties surrounding death and hoped-for lives to come. Those belong more to the syncretic feast of Easter in the spring - if at all. Rather, Christmas is about the joy and blessings of this life. It is the celebration of yet another turning point in the natural cycle of our world. The baby, coming into our world at the end of the darkness of Advent, embodies our hopes for new lives and new directions. Life begins once more.
It is no accident that the Church chose Saturnalia, the feast of the Winter Solstice, for its celebration of Jesus’ birth. After a four week period of Advent’s somber waiting and watching, the light begins to return to the world – for Christians in the form of a newborn child. There is a reason most world religions dating back to prehistory have celebrated the winter solstice. Jesus is but one of many reasons for the season, albeit an important reason for those of us who endeavor to follow his Way.
What is most troubling in the instrumentalism of casting the Christmas joy of Jesus’ birth in terms of self-serving atonement theologies is that it commits the great sin common to so many Christian faith understandings. Jesus Seminar founder Bob Funk was wont to point to its evidence in our creeds: the entirety of Jesus’ life is reduced to a punctuation mark: He was born of a virgin [comma] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. So what’s missing here?
No muss, no fuss, no Jesus.
In my view, what’s missing is anything actually worth knowing about Jesus. There is no Kingdom of G-d when the Grinch of Atonement steals Christmas. There is no Sermon on the Mount. The poor remain without blessings, the multitudes remain unfed, the sick remain unhealed. Worse yet, the people of G-d remain unmoved by Jesus’ call to them to live into their duties to their fellow children of G-d, to not only love them as ourselves but to incarnate that love in the way we live our daily lives. Perhaps more importantly, we also avoid his calling to construct a world where that love becomes incarnate in societies based in shalom – a peace rooted in justice for all and marked by right relation.
It’s precisely the life of Jesus which flows from his birth on Christmas that makes his Way worthy of being followed. A theology that leaps from the manger to the cross misses that Way entirely enroute to contrived reassurances about life after death.
Indeed, in my darker moments in Cici’s Pizza last week, I had a troubling image of a band of church officials in liturgical vestments storming the stable, yanking the baby Jesus from Mary’s arms. They haul the child off to the Amalgamated Salvation Factory with its over-sized grinder where he is immediately ground into sausage. His very life essence is then filtered from that pureed sausage, distilled to an essence of salvation and then mass produced into countless vaccinations poised to immunize otherwise depraved human beings against original sin. These could then be sold off to willing consumers but only at the price of buying into one of many dreadful theologies of atonement.
No muss, no fuss, no Jesus.
Tonight I will light all four candles of my Advent wreath surrounded by the nascimientos, nativity scenes, I have collected from around the world. I am waiting for Jesus, a newborn baby, who will bring light to a darkened world. I am hopeful for yet another year and what it will bring. I am not focused on death or what – if anything – happens thereafter. Rather, I quietly await another year in which I will strive to live into the Way of Jesus as best I can know it and live accordingly. And I am thankful to an ever generous G-d for giving to us this gift of a new year, a new start, a new child, allowing Christmas to come once more.
Oh come, oh come, Immanuel.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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