|detail from ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. Salvador Dali, [Glasgow]|
When hell freezes over. Forgiveness may, perhaps, be the last thing on the minds of the bereaved parents and families of Newtown, Connecticut today, as back-to back funerals consign the victims of Adam Lanza to their final resting places.
My thoughts today have turned towards an attempt to understand reconciliation and forgiveness, as I feebly attempted to put myself in the shoes of the devastated residents of a small Connecticut town asking myself ‘what did I really know or understand about these things, supposedly at the core of my faith?’
“The Shack” is an unlikely candidate for runaway success. William P Young, who wrote the story for his children, an unlikely author for international fame. It tells the allegory of a man who on a camping trip realises that his youngest daughter is missing, later discovering that she has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer, her bloodstained dress having been found in a remote shack.
He receives a note in his mailbox from God, asking for a meeting at, of all places, the Shack. He goes, and in so doing, learns about redemption and forgiveness.
The book has been heavily criticised by the Christian press for its ‘unbiblical’ content – some going as far as to suggest that it contains ‘undiluted heresy’. I myself dislike the word ‘Christian’, small c or large. It was once a pejorative, derisory epithet – I would prefer that my integrity is defined by something more substantial than a label. Over the years, from evangelical, uncomplicated beginnings to liberal theological college, I have come to the conclusion that God is able to and often does reveal himself – or herself – in ways that are outside of either my experience or my own preconception and often in fresh and culturally relevant contexts. In a moment or two of uncharacteristically transparent self-disclosure, I have come to realise that unless the Church has a clear unvarnished grasp of atonement and redemption – in other words, the work of the Cross, we could spend millennia chasing our theological tails. Furthermore, to embed our belief system into the concrete of received dogma deals it a death blow from which only the explosive power of grace can dislodge it.
A few years ago Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister from the UK, wrote a book which set a few people’s ears on fire. In ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’ he asks, amongst other things, how we came to the belief that at the cross a God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. He argues that we have historically propounded an individualistic Pauline penal substitution gospel which Ben Myers describes as ‘a theologically repugnant model with potentially vicious and disastrous social and political implications’. The idea that Jesus died in order to appease a morally outraged God, secure a change in his attitude towards us or to somehow settle a score, balance the books or whatever, is fundamentally flawed. Protestants have usually looked to Calvin for doctrinal leadership in this area and in its classical expression it is the lynch pin of “sound” conservative evangelical theology. In essence it says that divine justice demands that humanity must “pay the price of sin,” and that the sentence is death; but that on the cross, Jesus identified himself with our sinful condition and died in our place, taking our sins to the grave with him. We shouldn’t forget that Calvin was first a lawyer so it’s not unsurprising that his doctrine requires the additional idea of the transfer of penalty, and this theory requires the addition of Anselm’s feudal view of debt repayment and a Roman view of criminal law. I have come to the conclusion that vengeance can never be rebranded as reconciliation, otherwise how could the Man from Nazareth ever be ‘one in being’ with such a vengeful Father? I can hear the outraged intakes of breath from here from any friends I might have left who are still reading this, but it’s not my purpose here to melt down golden calves. Instead, what if we look at the events of Newtown and ask its residents – but not today – about reconciliation? The truth is, I think, that whether we like it, understand it, or not, reconciliation in the cosmic sense has already taken place, the wrongs done accounted for. Substitution, the liberating initiative, has already begun to pour grace into the bleeding lacerations of those most in need of it.