August 22, 2006

The Seriousness of the Cross

There is some truth in the argument which says that we Jesus Christians have not given enough attention to the Old Testament. Although there is a lot of wisdom in many Old Testament writings, things occasionally happened amongst the Children of Israel which go strongly against our natural understanding of love and fair play, and so we have chosen to just sort of avoid them, on the basis that we are not Jews, but rather, we are Christians.

It is difficult to explain some of the apparently unnecessary violence in the Old Testament. We are inclined to think that it represents a primitive (and possibly inaccurate) understanding of God and of his nature. This, of course, is bordering on heresy to those who teach that the Old Testament is equal to the New Testament in terms of infallibility.

But let's leave those differences aside for a moment, and ask ourselves whether there is a fundamental truth being revealed through the Old Testament (whether it is being revealed in an infallible way or not). If so, what is that truth?

The lesson I get from the Old Testament is that our Creator is our Creator. He made us and we did not make him. Ultimately, he makes the rules and He has the final say. Many of our liberal friends may not feel comfortable with that, but certainly it ought to be something that the more conservative evangelicals could agree with.

So perhaps even the bits that seem hard to understand in the Old Testament are there to test us, or to further impress on us that God doesn't have to fit into our own ideas about what is right and about what is wrong.

There is a strong argument for this which comes from the New Testament. It is the cross of Christ. The cross is widely accepted as a symbol of God's love, so much so that we often forget that it actually symbolised a cruel torturous death, reserved for the worst criminals.

I will explain in a moment how the Old Testament concept of justice is inextricably linked to the symbolism of the cross.

Jesus said, "I did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it." All the various festivals and rituals of the Hebrew children seem to have disappeared from Christianity, and yet the cross of Christ (ironically, a Roman form of execution, and not a Jewish practice) remains as the ultimate symbol of Old Testament laws about religious sacrifices. Paul said that his greatest boast as a follower of Christ was not the miracles of Jesus or even his great wisdom, but rather his cross. Whereas it seems that something representing an empty grave would be a better symbol of the triumph of Christianity, it is still the cross that is proclaimed and exhibited all over the world.

Why is this so, and what is the mass appeal of such a symbol? After all, the cross represents Christianity at its lowest point, with its Hero shamed and dying as a common criminal. Isn't that something better left out of our boasts?

We have been told by church leaders, of course, that the cross is so wonderful because it symbolises the love of God, and the forgiveness of sins, and that this love and forgiveness were somehow made available to the human race because of the death that Jesus suffered on it. But why couldn't we just have a love heart as our symbol? And what is so loving about a God who allows the most perfect Man in history to suffer so cruelly and so unjustly? If God is so all-powerful, why couldn't he just say, "I forgive you all, now and forever, Amen" and leave it at that?

The answer may have been back there in the Old Testament when God was trying to teach us to shut up and listen. Many people think that the Apostle Paul was rubbishing the Old Testament law as evil and unchristian when he contrasted it with the cross of Christ, and yet Paul actually said that the law was 'holy' and that it was our "schoolmaster", leading us to Christ. In fact, the law was so holy that it was actually being HONOURED through the terrible death of Christ. We are told that Jesus died as he did because the law said that sin MUST be punished. It was actually part of God's plan. Jesus could have avoided it, but he chose to accept it.

All over the world, people talk about "the rule of law", the need for "law and order", and about "obeying the laws of the land". Such talk echoes the message of the cross, which is that sin needs to be punished in order to maintain order in society and in order to teach people about justice and fair play.

Those countries which have a legal system which is largely free of corruption, and which is enforced fairly for all, are, on the whole, most prosperous and most pleasant to live in. People risk their lives to escape corrupt governments just so that they can live in such countries... countries where the rule of law prevails.

I believe that the cross of Christ is official recognition, even by God himself, of the need for law and order. In the midst of his great love for the human race, God also knew that we need rules and discipline. Even the harsh Roman system was preferable to anarchy. And so, for someone to be forgiven, someone else needed to suffer... not for God's sadistic pleasure, but to act as an example to the human race. Only the most perfect individual, suffering the most cruel death, could pay the price for the sins of the entire world. And that is why Jesus died.

The shocking horror of this apparent injustice (the crucifixion of Christ, the innocent Lamb of God) was meant to impress on us the awfulness of our own sins, which caused that injustice, and to shame us into not sinning.

For centuries it had been the suffering and death of a lamb or a goat or even just an innocent dove that God had used in an effort to shock people into seeing the awfulness of their sins. But people had become callous to that. They had come to take it for granted and to almost delight in what had become to them a fairly meaningless religious ritual.

And today much of the Western world has become equally indifferent to the sufferings of the 'Lamb of God'. The cross has become a meaningless trinket, and we have made a law out of the grace that was purchased by that cross.

One of the most widely taught doctrines in the church today is the doctrine of 'eternal security'. It says, briefly, that if you say a little prayer asking Jesus into your heart, then it obligates God to forgive you for anything you ever do wrong. You can cheat on your wife, rob banks, curse God, worship the Antichrist, massacre innocent civilians, and plunder the world, and it matters not one iota as far as your personal salvation is concerned, because 'Jesus did it all for you.'

The doctrine, strangely enough, is named after a man (John Calvin) who started a religious community in which laws governed everything that was done, and in which many people were executed for breaking those laws. Calvin believed that any doctrine about the grace of God needed to also include punishment on a temporal level. It may be that he believed the people he executed went to heaven; but, according to Calvin, it did not exempt them from paying the ultimate price here in this life for their disobedience to the laws of God.

Interestingly, even today, those who preach most strongly about the grace of God allowing them to do whatever they like, also seem to be some of the most strident voices in a campaign for the 'laws of the land'. So they too believe in temporal discipline, even if they are not prepared to discipline themselves.

Far from destroying the law (or the human race's need for it) the cross of Christ symbolises God's eternal respect for the law. You sin, you die... or in some other way you suffer punishment for those sins. Yes, Jesus paid the price so that we can live forever in heaven. But here on this earth there are still hard lessons to be learned, and punishment is part of teaching them.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews says, "No chastening for the moment seems pleasant, but rather it is quite painful. But whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and he whips everyone whom he receives." (Hebrews 12:6 & 11) Any teaching that punishment and pain are inherently evil is a contradiction of the cross. Although the victim was innocent, the cross itself represents punishment and pain that he took on himself on your behalf and on my behalf. As the Bible says, "Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins."

What the cross adds to the concept of pain and punishment, however, is the hope that, at least for some people, seeing someone else suffer for their sins may have a stronger impact on them, and may motivate them more strongly to change their ways than just being thrashed or imprisoned.

Research has shown that imprisonment and other forms of punishment have only a limited effect in changing the hearts of hardened criminals. People deeply involved in the reform of criminals usually express a desire for a better system. But at the same time there are concerns that doing away with punishment altogether (or even drastically softening it, as is happening in many places today) is not eliminating lawlessness either.

The widespread sexual abuses that have occured amongst the clergy in some Christian denominations have represented the dilemma that exists when church leaders assumed that God's grace should exempt everyone who says, "I'm sorry; please forgive me," from any further punitive action in relation to their sins. Church authorities have become complicit in a shocking cover-up, and now the truth is coming out.

Forgiveness in heaven is fine, but what about here on earth, where others are likely to suffer as a result of the cheap grace that this attitude has represented? Here on earth offenders may need to be handed over to the authorities and locked up, or in some other way punished.

Yet we have just said that the system authorities are not having much luck in changing people, whether through their use of the hard line or through their use of the soft line. Perhaps there needs to be a whole new approach... one that recognises the seriousness of sin (and the need for punishment as a result), and one that also recognises the transforming power of forgiving love.

We detest the perverted 'cheap grace' teaching of the churches, that goes around justifying their members for anything they do, without due regard for the depth of repentance that is really needed for someone to truly change their behaviour. So-called Calvinism says that it doesn't matter if they change or not, just that they have a free pass to heaven. All of society should be horrified at such a teaching!

Charles Finney, a 19th Century revivalist, used to say that in his preaching he dangled people over hell for twenty minutes before he offered them the grace of God. It is that message of the awfulness of sin which has the power to bring about true conversion; and yet it has been taken out of the gospel by today's church.

Jesus said to his disciples that he was giving them authority to either 'remit' (punish?) or forgive sins, as they chose. This sounds strange to our ears today on two counts. First, we cannot imagine anyone withholding forgiveness from anyone, and second, we cannot imagine how imperfect Christians could (or would even need to) forgive sins, if Jesus has already done it all for us.

But what if Jesus' forgiveness is ultimately limited to the afterlife and to a relationship with God that operates largely in another dimension? What if he has left it to his followers to judge, execute, and even PAY FOR any forgiveness that we are to offer in this life? It's one interpretation which makes sense of us being given the option of forgiving or not forgiving certain sins.

Don't forget that Jesus himself had to pay the ultimate price in order to buy forgiveness for us in heaven. And he told us, his followers, to take up our crosses and follow his example. So how do we do that?

What if we can choose to both administer judgment and to take the punishment as well? Kind of a mini version and constant reminder of what the cross of Christ symbolises on a grand scale. Would that be one way for us to forgive sins? And would it, at the same time, be one way for us to take up our cross and imitate the example set by Jesus?

When we have discussed this amongst ourselves, many of us have expressed fears that we could be heading into a path that has repeatedly been abused in the past. Whenever the Church has become the State, atrocities have resulted. There is such a tendency for religious people to dish out punishment, making the punishments more and more cruel, and administering them for more and more minor offences, especially when we see that they are not working. Everything from the Inquisition to John Calvin's experiment has been raised as cautions against us soiling our hands with the nasty topics of judgment and punishment. "Leave the job to the system authorities," some of our members said at first.

Yet we read in II Corinthians that the saints shall judge the world. We read in The Revelation about us ruling the world "with a rod of iron", and we read of Two Witnesses who will be able to call down fire from heaven on their enemies at some time prior to the return of Jesus. Surely judgment and punishments are a part of our destiny as Christians. And judgment of fellow Christians is our lot even now.

But how do we fulfill these responsibilities at the same time that we avoid the mistakes of the past? The answer, it seems is in the cross of Christ. The cross represents the need for judgment and punishment; but it also represents the substitutionary role of the loving Son of God... a role that he calls on us to continue.

If we were to at least be willing to take the punishment on ourselves, then we would have a natural deterrent to abuse. Likewise, if we were to require that people expressing repentance actually CHOOSE to be punished, then even the punishment might have more far-reaching effect in actually changing them.

I'm not sure how this would work in practice; we may need to experiment a bit. For most things, we could probably go on (within our own communities) pretty much as we always have. Indiscretions are usually minor, and so they are dealt with through verbal reprimands. People seem, on the whole, sincere enough that they take the reprimands to heart. But if there were things that happened that were really serious... serious enough that they might lead to serious fines or imprisonment even by system rules, such as sexual assaults, serious physical assaults or robbery, maybe we could deal with them ourselves instead.

The recent attempted murder of Reinhard is a case in point. The Long Beach Police Department has talked of charging Jared and John with assault with a deadly weapon. But what if we charged them instead, and what if we conducted our own trial? We could not, of course, force them to appear before us. After all, they have so far not even said so much as 'sorry' for the assault. But we could announce a trial, and we could consider asking for a volunteer to take their place if they fail to turn up, or if they refuse to accept their punishment. Their own son, Joseph, has already expressed a willingness to take their punishment for them. So, with or without them being present, the punishment could still be carried out.

And what kind of punishment should be given? The Old Testament law says that it should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is much fairer than ten eyes for every one eye, as is presently being done by the American and Israeli administrations in their efforts to seek vengeance on the perpetrators of the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. By the Old Testament law, we could kick Jared and John in the face until we have broken a few teeth, as they did to Reinhard. We could continue kicking them in the head until it caused bleeding in the brain. We could kick them in the back until we had cracked their spine. It would not be unfair. The teaching about an eye for an eye was eminently just.

And such punishment could still be meted out, even after Jared and John had said that they were sorry. As John the Baptist said to the hypocritical Pharisees before we would baptise them, "Show me some evidence that you really have repented."

But remember that, if we are going to truly follow the pattern of the cross, then whatever punishment we are going to hand out to them, we must be willing to endure ourselves. We don't have our own prison system, and years in prison seem such a needless waste of life anyway whether it is their life or our own. In our society's total paranoia about pain, we have thrown away billions of dollars and wasted thousands of years of human life creating a complex and costly prison system when a simple administration of pain could be used as punishment instead.

Pain seems to be the most humane and speedy form of human punishment. We could whip them strongly, without doing any damage to their teeth, brain, or spine. And it would all be over in just a few minutes. Also, this is a punishment which we ourselves could take without serious disruption to other important tasks that we are involved in at the moment. We would have nothing more than a few scars to show for it after a few days of healing.

Reinhard has said that he is willing to accept such a payment for the sins of Jared and John, and for Sheilah and Josh, who acted as accessories to the assault. (Sheilah was holding a loaded gun throughout the assault, and Josh physically restrained Joe from helping Reinhard.)

It would be a bit unfair for Joe to take on the punishment for all four of them, but there have been others in our community who have said that they are willing to stand in if Joe's family is not prepared to take the punishment that they so badly deserve for their crimes.

Maybe our willingness to suffer for them will soften their hearts and cause them to repent. But whether it does or not, our actions will proclaim something to the world that is badly needed today... something about the awfulness of sin and about the seriousness of the cross of Christ... and also about the need for more Christians to take up their crosses and to follow Christ's example... hating the sin, but loving the sinner.

Far from being a contradiction of the message of the cross, such a trial and such a sentence might actually proclaim the message of the cross in a way that could spread around the world. Pray to God that it will!


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