Does Paul care about and move us toward justice?
Question: A thought I gleaned from someone else: Remember for a moment the prophets, critiquing Israel’s priests: it’s not animals and blood upon the altar that God desires, it’s a broken and contrite heart, righteousness in our hearts and in our relationships. (Gross oversimplification, I know – but I think mostly accurate.) Fast-forward to Paul, who often interprets Christ’s death and resurrection in terms of God’s demand for some sort of satisfaction for our sins. Hence, our ideas about substitutionary atonement, with lots of emphasis on Jesus blood as payment for our sins. Question: Does this move that Paul makes make it a little harder for Christians to hear the call of those prophets, and God’s desire for hearts broken by injustice and cruelty? From the perspective of one who has a tough time ‘sticking’ to substitutionary atonement, I’d be curious to hear your reflections on other ways to interpret the meaning of the cross. (That’s your field, right?)
Response: O.K. To bring everyone up to speed, ‘atonement’ has to do with how God reconciles humanity to God. A cheesy way to remember it is at-one-ment. How can we be one with God?
You’d think that after 2,000 years Christians would have a handle on this one, some consensus, but it just isn’t there.
While the whole atonement thing in general would be a worthy blog entry (remind me to do that ’round about Passion Week) your question is whether Paul’s thinking about it shapes the way that Christians, maybe even Protestants in general, think about it, to the detriment of prophetic calls to “do justice.”
Most scholars think it is awfully difficult to pin Paul down on atonement. He, like Luther, wasn’t a systematic theologian.
However, if pressed, many scholars think that Paul was most interested in “participatory atonement,” meaning that Jesus’ death free us to participate in Jesus’ life. (1 Cor 15:22, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”)
Add to that that Paul seems to see Jesus’ death primarily as a result of being faithful to God (and as a result then of the consequences of that), rather than being ordained by God, then you get the suggestion that faithfulness suggests suffering (you try and stand up to gossip in a coffee group and see if you don’t feel crucified), and yet doesn’t end there, but moves to life. Like I said in a post, now we know that there is more to do with our lives than preserve them.
In short, I think you can find powerful witness in Paul for social action, solidarity with the suffering, and hope in the midst of despair.
What do you think?