(March 21, 2002)
One of the oldest human psychological traits is our necessity to make amends or reparations for whatever appears to disturb the order of nature or the relationship between persons. Native Americans, like other hunting peoples, often offered prayers and other tokens of respect to the "spirits" of the animals they had to kill in order to survive. And the ancient Hebrews, like so many other agricultural people around the world, offered sacrifices to God from their harvests as well as holocausts (burnt offerings) in reparation for their sins.
Yet all this is problematic, as it assumes that God or the "spirits" are somehow like us. True, as the Scriptures say, we are made in the "image and likeness of God". Yet as the Prophets more than once pointed out, we err grievously if we think that God has any necessity for such offerings, or that somehow we can earn God's favor in any way by such gestures except by a "broken and contrite heart".
As a result, Christianity's emphasis on the Redemption, seen as effected by death of Jesus on the Cross as being a "sacrifice" for our sins is problematic as well. That the temptation to Paul and the writers of the gospels to use such an explanation was already there, "ready-made" in the Hebrew scriptures , so to speak, for their use, is obvious enough. But the question or the problem is, do we really understand its deeper implications for us today?
Luther and the other 16th century church reformers seem to have sensed the problem when they attacked the Catholic notion of the Eucharistic rite as being a "sacrifice" -- as if the offering of many "masses" day after day could atone for sin. But in their insistence on the "once for all" character of Jesus' offering of himself on the cross, they, in a way, only compounded the problem, driving us only back further into the image of Jesus as a sacrificial victim (the "Lamb of God") who is made to suffer as a substitute for us who are otherwise (as the famous New England preachers Jonathan Edwards put it) "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". But is it helpful at all today to picture God in such primitive terms?
When people have done wrong, usually they are conscious of this and try to make amends. But if they are not so conscious, does it really do any good to threaten them with hellfire and brimstone, if the price of doing so is to have to picture God as some kind of mad tyrant or even a jilted lover? -- considering how often these latter types turn out to be murderers or even suicides! Can not a better image or likeness of God be found?
I believe so, and it can be found in a very source traditional source, which is the concept of "Atonement" -- at least in the original English language derivation of this term, which is literally, "to make as (or at) one". But we dare not attach some kind of legalistic sleight-of-hand meaning to this word. What humans have divided (by sin) cannot be magically be reunited by one man's death, even if he is also God's own Son. We can be made whole again only through the holiness of each person's own life. What Christians must do on Good Friday is not so much commemorate Jesus as a victim for humanity, but live in communion with a Jesus who lived and gave his whole life, even in his seeming abandonment by God while on the Cross, totally for and in union with God.