As we prepare for Christmas, we are nearing the end of the most contentious political year in recent memory. Most of the world is astonished that American Evangelicals have voted in such large numbers for men like Donald Trump (thrice divorced, proud philanderer, alleged child molester and sexual predator), Roy Moore (alleged child molester) and, more locally to me here in Louisville, Ky., the recently deceased Dan Johnson (alleged child molester).
Evangelical Christians that I know and love cast their votes for these men, calling them “God’s choice,” because they earnestly believe that if these morally corrupt men say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” then they are absolved of all transgressions, in heaven and on earth. Any destruction they have caused in the lives of other human beings is irrelevant, and mentioning it undermines the redeeming grace of God.
Some observers label this a departure from Evangelical values. But it is my belief that this degradation of Christian morality is intrinsic to American Evangelicals’ theology of Jesus’ work on the cross. The theology of penal substitutionary atonement allows well meaning Christians to support evil people with a clear conscience, because according to this theology, sinners are accountable only to God, and the sinned against who cry out in protest are ancillary, inconvenient impediments to grace.
In Christianity, atonement is understood to mean the reconciling work of God to humanity through Jesus’ death on the cross. Penal substitutionary atonement’s basic tenets are that Christ chose to make himself the only acceptable sacrifice that could take on the punishment that was rightfully meant for humanity, and satisfy God’s demands of justice. It is the main atonement theory that has taken root in the American Evangelical movement. The Southern Baptist Convention recently released a statement asserting that penal substitutionary atonement is the exclusive orthodox theology of Jesus’ crucifixion. In actuality, it is only one of many theories of the cross that theologians have pondered, and it is decidedly not the theology of the earliest Christians.
As a small town Texas girl I attended a wonderful Methodist church that emphasized the love and goodness of God. But it was hard to not be steeped in Texas’ particular brand of gritty Evangelicalism. When I began to follow Jesus into service to the poor and marginalized, I began to feel uneasy about the one dimensional crucifixion theology with which I was familiar. My discomfort continued to increase as I realized that the popular gospel of substitutionary atonement often played out in ways that were diametrically opposed to Jesus’ life and teaching.
When my husband and I moved to Philadelphia for a short time to work with children in a high-poverty neighborhood, I was faced with long-term systemic poverty in a way that I had not experienced before. The children I met there lived lives that were much harder than mine. I could not accept that Jesus was only concerned about these children’s personal sin. The promise of salvation from hell seems far off and impotent when compared to the hellish circumstances some of God’s children face here on earth.
These children did not deserve to have to wait an entire lifetime for an end to their suffering. These children needed food, safe housing and stability now, not in the future. And it seemed to me that the sin that needed forgiving was not theirs, but the people who continued to keep these oppressive systems in place, making the children’s lives more difficult. They were sinned against more than they were sinners.
While in divinity school, I was privileged to read the works of theologians like Howard Thurman and Andrew Sung Park, who write theology from the “bottom up instead of the top down.” I began to realize that the feeling in my gut all along was not un-Christian. On the contrary, it was part of a long, rich stream of thoughtful, deeply devoted Christian theologians who saw a very different significance to the crucifixion. I discovered that a better way of talking about the crucifixion is not “Jesus died for our sins,” but instead “Jesus died because of our sins.”
A theology that is only for the powerful and those who feel guilty (that comforts the child trafficker but not the child, the exploiter but not the exploited, the sexual predator but not the victim, the rapist but not the raped, the con artist but not the conned), is harmful to a world full of trafficked children, exploited people, and victims of assault and abuse. It allows sinners to alleviate their feelings of guilt without acknowledging the pain they have caused in other people’s lives, because the only forgiveness that matters comes from God. This theology allows devoted Christians to vote monsters into office without a guilty conscience — because “God has forgiven him, so who am I to judge? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This theology presents the mask of humility while completely removing the human victim of sinful behavior from the spiritual conversation. In fact, victims of sinful behavior are often admonished to “forgive as God forgives.” Once a sinner asks for forgiveness, the onus falls completely on the sinned against to forgive, lest they become a sinner themselves for refusing to forgive. Thus, real suffering is ignored, glossed over and justified.
Penal substitutionary atonement theology has allowed power-hungry oligarchs to hijack American Christianity for their own gain. This theology continues to short circuit Christians’ abilities to think clearly about morality in our culture. Most importantly, it does not have anything to do with the claims that we as Christians make about Jesus’ identity and significance.
As Christmas approaches, Christians all around the world will herald the incarnation of our own Creator into the smallest, most vulnerable human there is: a newborn baby. And a pretty pitiful baby, too — born in a barn to a mother with a bad reputation. If we take the incarnation seriously, it has to inform our understanding of Jesus’ death. Jesus lived on earth as a poor, homeless carpenter with questionable parentage. He lived among the poor, inviting outcasts into his circle of closest friends. Did he die on the cross only so that King Herod wouldn’t have to feel guilty about being so cruel and oppressive? Did God take on flesh and live among us so that Christians can justify voting for people that abuse children and assault women? Did Jesus live and die so that we can tolerate voting for people who take money and services away from the poor to line billionaires’ pockets? Does Jesus’ sacrifice only mean that people who do such egregious evil are forgiven by God and therefore cannot be judged by man?
I hope not. Because that is not good news. In fact it’s terrible news. And this is wildly apparent to everyone outside of American Evangelical churches. American Christians need to take a more holistic approach to the atonement that accounts for the message of the incarnation. Otherwise, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, we are settling for a cheap grace that “amounts to … a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.” Jesus did not die simply to save Donald Trump from his sins. Jesus lived and died to save the whole world from the sins of Donald Trump and all “powers and principalities” like him. Only an atonement that includes Jesus’ birth as well his death will give us the theological resources we need to deal with the great problems facing our world today.