My backstory, in a word, is religious. My father was a pastor. Both grandfathers were pastors. I grew up, almost literally, in a church building. I was at church so much I actually recall, with great detail, what the wooden pews in our sanctuary tasted like. That’s right, the word pairing of the previous sentence was correct. Apparently boredom drove me to bite wood. Ha, how bored does a little boy have to be before he starts taste testing wooden pews? So, yes I come from religious stock. Which is to say I’ve just had further to go than most because you realize it’s the religious people who’ve always had the furthest to go, right?
Religious people love order. We love quid pro quo. We love systems of rewards, and punishment (particularly if enforced by a small sacrifice). We believe in doing A so B can happen. If, for example, B is escaping hell, you can be sure we’ll figure out the formula for A. We’ll tell everyone else the formula as well, because yes, we have good intentions, but also, yes, because we love keeping our formulaic religion of rewards and punishments working correctly. If a little punishment is good for us, then a lot of punishment must be really good for us. And if someone steps outside of our religious structure, well, there’s gonna be hell to pay. This is how we think. It’s the religious way.
It’s what drove us to kill Jesus. He wouldn’t stay within the boundary lines of our sacrificial system. When he offered forgiveness, we said, “Oh, no, God can’t just forgive. There’s a process. You have to go to the temple and offer a sacrifice first, then you can be forgiven.” (BTW, we still respond in similar ways. When he offers forgiveness today we say, “Oh, no, God can’t just forgive. There’s a system. You must believe Jesus was sacrificed to God first, that God needed his son’s bloodshed, then you can be forgiven.” We, in doing this, have put conditions around forgiveness, which doesn’t make much sense, because well, is there such a thing as conditional forgiveness?) So, we killed him. I mean, look, we warned him first. We scolded him. We gave him opportunity to change his behavior, but the more we observed the more obvious his rule-breaking intentions grew. We had little choice. What else were we to do? Intentionally operating outside of our methodology is an admission of guilt. And we have to get rid of the guilty; it’s the religious way.
Following the crucifixion, things returned to normal. For about three days. But, then he showed up again. Jesus. That’s right, fully alive. Resurrected. His reappearance was beyond perplexing. We had no rules or formulas for this. We had no contingency plans for this. Resurrection had never even crossed our mind. We scratched our collective heads, trying to process how Jesus could be alive. We knew we had killed him. We knew returning from the dead was a miracle. We knew miracles could only come from God. We ran the logic and asked the inevitable questions: Did this mean God was with him, and not us? Was he, as he had hinted, God’s son? Wait, did this mean he was innocent? If he was innocent, who was guilty?
Then Jesus, yes the resurrected Jesus, made things more confusing. When he returned he neither retaliated physically nor shamed us verbally. In fact, the first thing he said was, “Peace.” Peace. Why did he offer peace? If he had been innocent shouldn’t he be upset? Why didn’t he treat us according to the way we treated him? Why was he graciously handing out forgiveness? He should have given us what we deserve, right? His return from the dead along with his response turned out to be a huge problem for us. We had no answers. We had no control. Being out of control is not the religious way.
It left us with much to consider. If he was innocent, then we were the ones who were guilty, not him. This meant our sins were the reason for his condemnation. How could this be? How could our sins have influenced us to the degree that we would victimize an innocent person? Is it possible that in our zeal to punish him for his bad behavior we had participated in a worse behavior? Is it possible we had mistaken God’s method for ours?
Waves of questions, one right after the other, kept arriving.
Would we accept the peace Jesus offered? If we did accept his peace, would it not render our former way of living obsolete? How would we let go of our formulaic approach? Would we let grace redefine everything? Would we step into a new kingdom, or would we shrink back into the kingdom we had already mastered? It was incredibly difficult, not least because it was incredibly humbling. Humility isn’t our thing. That’s not the religious way.
We pondered endlessly. We met. We prayed. We read the sacred texts. We discussed. We turned all these questions over, and over. It seemed, and how can I say this other than to say, the more we turned them over, the more they turned us over. The more we opened them up, the more they opened us up. And then more profound questions, ideas, and meanings began to materialize. The deeper we went, the more appealing it became. We didn’t have all the answers, but strangely, we felt a growing sense of peace. Peace gave us strength to admit our culpability; to begin practicing confession. Confession, in turn, seemed to open us up, and how can one explain all of this, to hidden passages. We followed these passages down to caves where we labored under great conviction regarding all we had done. But, there in the darkness, we found something else as well, something unexpected, something we began to refer to as living water. We drank deeply, and there in the dark, we began to see! We finally accepted his friendship because we finally accepted the violence of our religious way.
It was a gift. It was then we remembered and understood what our beloved prophets had said: God was without need of sacrifice. It was paradigm-shifting, life-altering news. Honestly, it was just really good news, for what kind of God would punish an innocent victim anyhow? If Jesus were God’s son, as we now believed, how could we explain God abusing him? Which of us parents would abuse our own children? Why would we assign a lesser love to God than to us? If God indeed was love, a concept we were now fully committed to, what kind of love is only unlocked by the torture and death of a good person? It was refreshing to realize we no longer had to believe in a torturing-killing-sacrificing God. We finally grasped that what we thought was true of God was actually true of us. We were the ones who punished innocent people. We were the ones who killed God’s son. We were the ones who created victims. It wasn’t God’s sacrificial system Jesus stepped into; it was our system. Jesus didn’t have to be killed to make God happy; he had to be killed to make us happy. And we were. Until we weren't. We were satisfied until we realized what a mistake we had made. We were so obsessed with doing the right thing we did the worst thing. Sigh… the religious have always had the furthest to go.
Centuries have come and gone. My religious kin still struggles. I confess I struggle at times too. We are known for judgment, exclusivity, power, scapegoating, pointing fingers, killing, pride, and on, and on. We fail to see, in all of this, a real worship of security and power, which easily marginalizes the insecure and powerless. We're so obsessed with squelching what we think the tension is right in front of us that we fail to see how it cycles us right back into the oldest tension of all: living with the other. We just keep convincing ourselves others are guilty. Except, they aren’t. Jesus taught us, both then and now:
The victim is innocent.
The resurrection vindicates his innocence. His peaceful response validates the resurrection. The only thing left to do is to repent, receive his peace, and live in a new way.