David R. Weiss, April 10, 2017
“Well, how would you like getting poked in both eyes and then whacked repeatedly upside the head while you can’t see?”
Go, ahead, ask me again how church was today. See, it was Palm Sunday, and I know how this story ends. Not well. Every damn year.
I’ll get right to the point, because if I’m going to piss you off, I might as well not also waste your time. When I say, “not well,” I don’t mean the crucifixion. In fact, I almost mean the resurrection. But really it’s the whole damn week. Holy Week is the church’s “wag the dog” moment.*
We spend more time at church, we put on our fanciest services, we pull out all the liturgical stops . . . in one frenzied (and mostly successful) attempt to shift the focus from the miraculous compassion of Jesus’ life to the all too mundane and cruel nature of his death. We rehearse, year after year after year after year, a story that says THIS week—these last six days of his life, culminating in his death, with Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday used for punctuation—is where our attention belongs.
I disagree. And “profoundly” is an understatement. It’s to the point I can barely worship this week. Here’s some black humor: about the only way I can make it through Holy Week (and we’ll see if I can—it’s still early) is to tell myself I’m there to keep a dear friend company. To make sure Jesus doesn’t have to endure this annual shit show on his own.
Here’s what I think. Hell, it’s what I know. In my bones. With every fiber of my being. And there’s not much at all that I’d be this strident about: Jesus did NOT die for my sins or your sins or anyone’s sins. And so, when we focus on his death and resurrection and talk about it as though THAT’S where atonement happens, we miss the point. But worse than that, we wag the dog—we make it that much harder to see what we’re supposed to be seeing.
Atonement—literally “at-one-ment,” restoring to unity that which was fractured—is God’s great work. But it happens through the sharing of life, not the taking of it. It happens across human history in many ways—of which Jesus’ life is (merely and profoundly) one especially vivid instance. But what is atoning in Jesus’ life IS his life. It’s his capacity to reflect a mystic’s awareness and a prophet’s conviction that no one is outside the love of God. Period.
Before the cross. Apart from the cross. Having nothing to do with the cross.
Jesus’ parables, his healings, his table fellowship, and his community-building—these hallmark actions of his ministry are where atoning energy explodes from his person into history. And that’s where our attention belongs.
Holy Week? Compared to Jesus’ life, it’s a fucking footnote (pardon my French). It recounts the world’s—the powers that be, both religious and political—rejection of Jesus’ atoning energy. Far from any display of God’s love, what transpires at the end of this week is the world’s sadistic attempt to call every parable a lie, every healing a sham, every meal-sharing an abomination, and to reduce every community to a group of cowards. That’s what the cross is.
Sure, it’s worth remembering—but not at the expense of misplacing the atonement into Jesus’ blood. That’s a betrayal far greater than what Judas did. It links God to violence. It keeps us from looking foremost to Jesus’ life. And it ends up subtly doing the work of the cross ever after—by keeping us from tapping into the atoning energy of Jesus’ life.
But what about Easter? What about the resurrection? Doesn’t that “prove” that the point of Jesus’ life was his death? No. Resurrection as a biological description is supra-historical: one-of-a kind, without precedent or subsequent, beyond history. We can’t access its objective reality—or even know if there is one. But resurrection as a theological declaration, as a faith description of Jesus’ destiny, means exactly this: he lives in you, and his (that is, God’s!) atoning energy longs to echo in your life and in your community. That’s resurrection.
Anything else is wagging the dog.
* To “wag the dog” means to purposely divert attention from what would otherwise be of greater importance, to something else of lesser significance. By doing so, the lesser-significant event is catapulted into the limelight, drowning proper attention to what was originally the more important issue. (www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms)
David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”