Back when I was 16, and the Catholics traded me to the Quakers for two draft picks yet to be announced, I had to learn a whole new way of doing church. Out went the male-only leadership and obeying them always, in came Quaker women on a mission from God and staying the heck out of their way. Out went the soaring cathedrals, in came the plain meetinghouses. Out went the bells and whistles, in came simplicity. Out went the incense, in came the fragrance of Murphy’s Oil Soap. Out went the Father and the Most Reverend and His Holiness, in came the pastor who was called many things, but never Reverend. Out went the robes and vestments, in came the leisure suits and Hush Puppies. (This was the 1970s, after all.) Out went the readings, in came the silence. Out went the communion bread and wine, in came the open worship.
It took a while to remember what I was giving up and what I was getting, and sometimes I still struggle. Whenever I’m with Protestants and they ask me to say the Lord’s Prayer, I always forget to add the words “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.” The Protestants stare at me, their mouths agape, suspicious that I have not surrendered all my Catholic ways.
What remained the same, with both the Indiana Catholics and Indiana Quakers, was their insistence that Jesus died to save us from God’s wrath. Their theology went like this: Because of Adam and Eve’s sin, we were born into sin, possessing an inherently sinful nature. The disobedience of two people was charged against all of us. Nevertheless, God desired relationship with us, but because God was holy, God could not stand to look upon us in our sin. So God took on human form and came to Earth in the person of Jesus, who was without sin and thus the perfect blood atonement, the unblemished sacrifice, on our behalf. This Jesus died a gruesome death, which was the will of God, giving himself as a ransom for many. When we acknowledge our debt to Jesus, our sins are forgiven, Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to us, we become sinless in the eyes of God, and can therefore be in God’s eternal presence. This theology is known as substitutionary atonement, and was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the 1100s, the same century the Catholics forbid their priests from marrying, which is to say the 1100s were a bad century for theology.
At one time, I believed this with all my heart. I accepted Jesus as my Savior, acknowledging my debt to him. I did this not once, but countless times, on the off-chance God hadn’t heard me. I don’t remember the exact moment I stopped believing this, only that I began to doubt it and began to ask questions like, “If God asks us to forgive our enemies seventy times seven, completely and without limit, why couldn’t God forgive us unless blood was shed?”
I thought it especially odd that a pacifist tradition like Quakerism would believe in the redemptive value of violence, and even said so at a Quaker conference where nearly 400 Quakers were gathered and was hounded from the podium by a mob of people singing Nothing but the Blood of Jesus. Have you ever noticed that once some folks get a taste of blood, they never lose their thirst for it?
Can I tell you what I believe about the blood of Jesus. I believe it was just like my blood and just like yours, perhaps different in type, but equal in substance. It possesses no magical power, no ability to absolve us of sin, imagined or real. It was not spilled to satisfy the wrath of God, nor by divine insistence or mandate, nor as a prerequisite to forgiveness. It spilled because some people, most often those holding cultural or political power, cannot bear to be challenged, cannot bear the light of scrutiny when their deeds were dark, cannot bear to hear truth spoken clearly and directly when they have invested their lives in Big Lies. And so Jesus was murdered, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. Just like Oscar Romero was murdered. Just like Medgar Evers was murdered. Just like Marielle Franco, a Brazilian woman and critic of police brutality and extrajudicial killings, who was murdered in 2018 by two police officers with connections to then-President Bolsonaro, now living safe and free in Florida, a guest of our government.
Now some would have us add the name of God to the list of tyrants who’ve demanded, out of some warped and wanton sense of privilege, that blood be shed. If the fundamentalists are right, God has killed billions of people, making Stalin, Hitler, and Putin look like pikers. Their God is a monster, the epitome of violence and wrath. And beware, friends, violent gods create violent disciples. Always, always, always. This is why our theology, our understanding of God, has real and serious consequences.
So does Jesus save us? Well, yes, in a way. But let it never let it be said Jesus saved us from the wrath of God, for that implies dreadful things about God, and makes God no better than a cosmic bully with an axe to grind.
If we say Jesus saves us, let us say his compassion for the beaten down and beaten up saves us from lording our privilege over others. How can we lounge on thrones of advantage and power when we know Jesus huddles with the dispossessed and lowly in heart? Jesus saves us from arrogance.
If we say Jesus saves us, let us say he saves us from the easy lies we tell ourselves and others. How can we glibly, smoothly deceive ourselves and others when we know Jesus spoke the truth, even unto death? Jesus saves us from duplicity.
If we say Jesus saves us, let us say he saves us from greed. How can we devote ourselves to the accumulation of more and more and more, when we know Jesus had no where to lay his head? Jesus saves us from raw and grasping excess.
If we say Jesus saves us, let us say he saves from racism and sexism and every other “ism” that diminishes those not exactly like ourselves. How can we reject others, when we know Jesus cherished the leper, the Samaritan, and the woman at the well? Jesus saves from us smallness of mind and spirit.
When I began to study theology, I kept hearing people talk about Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I would nod my head knowingly, as if I had read it too, though I never had.
Then a few months ago, Jeff Gabbard read from it as a centering thought for a Ministry and Counsel meeting and I thought, “That’s it. I’m reading that book.”
So I ordered it from Amazon, it arrived at my house, and I set it aside to read, but still haven’t. I’m like John LaBan, who when he retired told me, “I’m going to finish my book.”
I said, “John, are you writing a book?”
He said, “Nope, reading one.”
So when I retire, I’m going to finish reading Viktor Frank’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
But this week, I dipped into it and happened upon this quote about salvation, and I thought, “Yes, that’s it.” And what Frankl said was this: “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
There you have it. You want to be saved? Do you want to be saved? Learn to love.