No, Jesus Does Not Pay Our Debt

The story is preached from the street corner to pulpits around the world: Humans are sinners all sin demands repayment (justice), but the "good news" is Jesus paid the debt. It is a fine story. But it is not Gospel. 

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

When framed this way, Christ does not forgive the debt of sin but only pays it off. Meaning that God is still a God who demands a tit-for-tat. Every sin requires a payment. Every debt is due. At the end of time, all accounts will balance. This sense of balance is often described as justice, which makes us feel good, but it is not Gospel. 

Rather than paying the debt, Jesus forgives the debt. To forgive a debt means that the debt that was owed is erased. To pay the debt means the debt is still there but now it is balanced. God who demands the debt to be paid is not the God of the radical grace and love that Jesus points us to. This pay-the-debt god is a false idol that we place our trust in because it "makes sense" that every debt is to be paid. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that does not "make sense" in so many ways. The Gospel is one that proclaims that there is no debt to pay off. It is, and you are, forgiven. If you have to have a ledger page to show it, the debt line has been erased - as though it was never owed to begin with. 

It is a nice story, Jesus pays our debt, but this story maintains a social order built upon score keeping, grudge holding, and gracelessness. It is not Good News. 

Indispensable: What Leaders (or Pastors) Really Matter

Gautam Mukunda's 2012 book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter explores the "filtering" process to identify leaders within an organization. Specifically Mukunda argues that those who make it through the filtering process could be called "modal" leaders - the variance of decisions made within modal leaders is very small, thus modal leaders are interchangeable. That is if a pool of people make it through the filtering process then that pool of people (no modal leaders) will make very similar decisions even if there is only one job to contend for. Modal leaders are consistently on the spectrum between "bad" and "good". This mans they are rarely horrible, conversely it also means they are rarely game changing excellent leaders.

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

In my way of thinking, modal leaders are leaders who will consistently give you a single base hit. Every now and again, the modal leader will do something flashy to get to the base, but they are only getting to first base. Even rarer, the modal leader may hit a double but conditions really have to be right.

However, Babe Ruth was not a modal baseball player. He was a high risk/high reward player: hitting home runs or striking out. Mukunda identifies these high risk/high reward leaders as "extreme" leaders. Because of their risk, extreme leaders in an organization often are people who for various reasons skit the filtering process. Mukunda says there are many ways you can skirt the process: money, celebrity, legacy, etc. Often we hear of successful extreme leaders, but extreme leaders are risky and most organizations are interested in mitigating risk not amplifying it. 

The United Methodist Church is an organization that has a very stringent filtering process. Most clergy have a high school degree, a four year bachelors degree, a four year graduate degree and then a two (or more) years of residency. Put another way, the youngest someone can be an elder in full connection in the UMC is 28 years old (do keep that in mind when thinking about how few clergy are under 35 years old, you can only be in that category for seven years.)

This stringent filtering process means that the UMC is full of modal leaders. I am a modal leader. Modal leaders are solid but of course we have our limits and when an organization asks modal leaders to function as non-modal (aka: extreme) it is an uphill climb. Truthfully, if modal clergy were extreme clergy then they, more than likely, would not have been ordained to begin with. 

Crushing Life is Crushing Your Life

Anthropology is the study of humans and society and when the Church is "doing theology", it is informed by anthropology. There are some theologians who have a high anthropology which is a shorthand way to describe the idea that humans and human society are very capable. Americans, in large part, hold a high anthropology. Americans believe humans can "pull themselves up." There is a multi-million industry dedicated to self-help, self-improvement and "life hacks." Even Christian churches teach that if you do things you will get rewards such as growth and joy. A high anthropology gives us the impression that through human creativity and ingenuity the world will be better.

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

If a high anthropology is one that puts a lot of faith and hope in the work of humanity, a low anthropology has much less faith and hope in humanity. This does not mean humans are worms and that we are worthless, rather a low anthropology takes seriously the fact that humans are capable of doing great destruction and evil. Even the most educated person can participate in evil acts, even the most loving person is capable of horrendous actions. Having a low anthropology means that one has hope and faith somewhere else. 

For the most part, non-religious people have a much higher anthropology than religious people, but this is not always the case. As mentioned above, many American Christians have a very high anthropology and it is not limited to liberal or conservative expressions of the faith. As such, those with a high anthropology (including but not limited to non-religious) have no idea what to do with Ash Wednesday.

Specifically, Ash Wednesday is a day where the Church stands up to say, "give up." Not give up chocolate or social media, but give up in a more foundation sense. Give up the value of a high anthropology. Give up idea that there will always be success with hard work. Remember that none of your self-improvement will actually work. Hear that the expectations we believe are driving us to be people who "crush life" are the very expectations that are crushing our lives. 

Shifting the Marginalized

Recently I was in a conversation with a church member who shared their concern about shifting who we marginalize. This member said that they have been marginalized in their life and it was a terrible place to be. This member said that they have a concern that the conversations in the UMC around LGBTQI+ inclusion has been dominated by voices that are willing to shift who we marginalize rather than attempting to eradicate the very idea of having marginalized groups! 

Photo by Ryan Searle on Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Searle on Unsplash

I heard this member express concerns that it will be the traditionalists who will be marginalized in the conversation. This was unsettling to this member even as they disagree with the traditionalist position. They could not imagine being a part of a church that would be willing to shift who we marginalize.

It is conversations like this that I have time and time again with members of the local church I am a part of that I offer as evidence to why I support the efforts of the Uniting Methodists. 

If we believe that the faithful way to eradicate angry racism toward people of color is to fight with angry racism toward whites then we truly are lost. Replacing one evil/Sin with the very same evil/Sin with different pronouns then the cycle of violence and scapegoating is alive and well. It is this cycle that Rene Girard identifies at Satan.

Satan, like Christ, is a title not a proper name. While Christ means "Anointed", Satan mean "Accuser." The more we accuse, blame, marginalize and scapegoat others the tighter grip the Satan has on us all. And so you may begin to see that to use tactics that divide people is the very first step to acting as the Satan (Accuser). 

If it is true that you just cannot abide with a community that you believe is doing things that are outside the Grace of God, then perhaps the most faithful response is to move closer to them rather than divide. For division is the second act of the Satan. The final act of the Satan is to move toward eradication of another. And when the other is eradicated, guess what, the Satan will desire another victim. 

Shifting who we marginalize is not the work of the Anointed. It is the work of the Satan. May we not shift the marginalized but rather remove the act of marginalizing.