March 10, 2012 by J. Madson
I’ve made mistakes in my life. There are things I wish I could undo and hurtful things I wish could be unsaid. And heaven knows, I’ve rarely put the kingdom first. I have sinned or missed the mark and others have suffered for it. But I have also experienced grace.
And I’m not talking about mistakes taken away on the cheap, but the redemptive change that can come from recognizing mistakes and asking for forgiveness. And certainly not the way we humans have usually done it: by putting our sins on the back of a scapegoat and getting rid of it and feeling righteous. That may pass for religion, but a god who demands the sacrifice of another isn’t Jehovah; that’s Molech. As I see it, if we substitute others for our mistakes we don’t really believe in grace or even want to change. You would think the first step would be easy. You need to recognize your sinfulness, your complicity, that is to say, hear the cock crow and ask for forgiveness. But the thing is, you have to ask. And you can’t ask to be forgiven until you recognize your sinfulness.
So what does this have to do with Randy Bott?
It seems obvious that if you don’t recognize when you are wrong you cant really change. The more I think about what happened over a week ago, the more I fear that we have been caught up in the fever to scapegoat another victim in an effort to take away our sins. I find Randy Bott’s statements reprehensible but so is the decision of many to scapegoat Randy Bott. We can’t take away our sins by venting all the evil born of sin on one hapless victim. After all, it’s not as if he isn’t a product of the past racism and racist ban the church taught.
The church’s mistakes wont be resolved by scapegoating Bott. Gil Bailie once pointed out this all too human way of trying to cleanse sins through sacrificing others:
“They go to the killing fields, to the place of stoning, to the brow of the hill, to the gas ovens, to the lynching tree, to the show trials, to the sun god’s altar, to the firing squad, to the guillotine, to the headsman’s ax; the litany is almost endless. But the essential locale is always the same. Where does humanity go to take away the sins of the world? It goes to the Cross.”
It seems that a more Christian response would not be to throw another victim up on the cross and call it good. I don’t think the lesson of the cross was: Insert Victim – Shazam! – Out Comes Grace. Sacrificing another can’t solve your problems and it sure as hell shouldn’t ease your guilt. Part of offering an acceptable sacrifice is not being content to put others up on a cross but instead offering your own heart, broken and contrite. You don’t get to substitute someone for yourself. And at a minimum you have to recognize your mistakes and name them. You must offer your own sins regardless of the costs. Statements crafted by committees and reviewed by attorneys are not asking for grace and can’t lead to repentance. They are designed to project an image to the public while avoiding the pain and consequences that might come with an actual apology. I don’t expect the church to solve all the worlds problems, I don’t even expect it to be perfect, but I think in part what it means to follow Jesus is to have the character and dignity to admit you are wrong and ask for forgiveness. For the church to do anything less than this is to reject the atonement and the very Christianity it preaches.
And let’s assume the church undergoes that process and asks for forgiveness, what should the role of a church be moving forward?
I’m not terribly convinced that Jesus wants an organization that has political power or claims authority over other human beings and decides like little gentile kings whose in and whose out and the rules of the game. Whatever his kingdom seems to be, he makes it pretty clear that it’s not patterned after governments and political systems that exercise lordship and rule over people but instead on this radical notion of service and love even if it means you end up being a slave or giving up your life for others (See Mark 10:42-45). Where Jesus wouldn’t exercise authority, surely a church shouldn’t seek to do that in any degree. What this seems to mean is that we have to have the courage to step into that place and drink that cup. Yes, the little cup we drink from every Sunday. It’s not just about you and your issues. Supposedly we are trying to follow him. It seems to me that part of drinking that cup is:
“Simply to be the kind of person who when something begins to swirl, when the melodrama gets set in motion, when accusations are made we can, at the risk of our own reputation, our own standing in the community, our own livelihood whatever it happens to be, can we step into the breach and absorb some of that animosity and break up the little knot that is forming?”
As I see it, the atonement is an invitation to walk on the path with Jesus to Jerusalem even up to the cross if needs be. Jesus does not merely substitute himself for us but wants us to participate intimately in the atonement. The world is littered with unforgiveness and broken relationships. If we are going to have a church, it seems that part of what it should be doing is not seeking power and authority but creatively and actively identifying victims and suffering. The church won’t be able to solve everyone’s suffering but it can at least be present with them in their suffering and help them feel the mercy and grace of the gospel. And we can’t really suffer with those that suffer and teach them of grace, love, and ultimately forgiveness if we don’t believe it ourselves and are instead worried about our pride, vanity, and how we are perceived. You can project an image and try to maintain it but eventually you will be left with nothing but an image. If the church is to be more than an image then it needs to enter the Jesus story and climb up on that cross if needs be, consequences be damned. It may be you have to go through the cross to get the resurrection and perhaps its only there, in that moment, that the breath of life comes.
We are called to bring forgiveness into the world, to suffer with those that suffer and mourn with those who mourn and be an agent in the presence of whom people can begin to feel forgiveness. This includes redeeming Randy Bott and taking his mistakes and errors upon the body of the church. And ultimately this includes admitting our sinfulness, naming it, and asking for grace. And when a group is marginalized no longer creating policies and inventing doctrines that create more suffering and more unforgiveness in the world whether it be black, gays, women, or any other marginalized group.