Book Group #1:
Chesterfield, New Hampshire, Sunday October 17, 2010
This is a small private group who meet regularly to talk about life and family and children and often also discuss books they have selected to read. I was invited to introduce The Primacy of Stewardship before they had definitely agreed to read my book as a group. At least one member had read the book and one or two others had looked at the book and my website.
The first comment from the group that comes to mind is the observation that the subtitle: "The Handbook for Christians Who Believe in Democracy" is probably a hindrance because it suggests that the book will be of interest to a readership of strict Christians, when in fact the content of the book is of far greater interest to independent thinkers and free thinkers who already have established a pattern of exploring many religious ideas rather than restricting themselves to "Christian" ideas. I stick by the subtitle because I emphasize in my book the important difference between Christians who believe in democracy and fundamentalists (Christian or Muslim) who do not believe in democracy or in freedom of religion.
The group consisted of highly educated persons who were each aware of having their own spiritual journey or struggles with religion and religious ideas. I will cite three responses to the premise of the book (before having read it) that I find most memorable and helpful. One of the most fascinating comments that imprinted itself deeply on my mind is #3 below:
1) I looked at your website and I saw that you ask "Who taught evolution first?" -- Jesus or Darwin… So I think that you just have a different interpretation [to add to the many other interpretations we have.]
2) I have considered many religious viewpoints and have found that the message of Jesus is the most important to me -- my relationship with Jesus is my voluntary choice after a long and diverse search. However, I have always had difficulty with the Bible because whenever I opened it I felt "convicted."
3) If a person believes that Jesus died for their sins, stewardship will seem trivial. I accepted this terse but powerful comment without an elaborate reply at the meeting, but I did say that my book was written by a person who takes Jesus very seriously. This comment, however, struck me like a bolt of lightning in that it is probably a statement of fact, and a reality I must face in my efforts to build readership. It also identifies the precise reality that I endeavor to address effectively with my book: possibly most Christians do believe that good stewardship is trivial, whereas I deviate dramatically with my viewpoint that good stewardship is the core message of the Gospels.
Let's take a look at what it means to say that "Jesus died for my (our) sins." This is usually referred to as "expiation." The online Merriam Webster dictionary and Britannica websites provide the following:
Expiation: the act of making atonement; the means by which atonement is made.
Atonement: the process by which a person removes obstacles to his [or her] reconciliation with God. It is a recurring theme in the history of religion and theology. Atonement is often attached to "sacrifice," both of which often connect ritual cleanness with moral purity and religious acceptability.
Sacrifice: Act of offering objects to a divinity, thereby making them holy. The motivation for sacrifice is to perpetuate, intensify, or reestablish a connection between the human and the divine. It is often intended to gain the favor of the god or to placate divine wrath. The term has come to be applied specifically to blood sacrifice, which entails the death or destruction of the thing sacrificed. The sacrifice of fruits, flowers, or crops (bloodless sacrifice) is more often referred to as an "offering."
What does it means to say "Jesus died for our sins"?
With these definitions in mind, we can return to examination of the concept that Jesus' sacrificed his life -- or his life was sacrificed by his Father "God The Father," for our sins. This is a fascinating concept for at least two reasons. First, could three hours of excruciating pain while hanging from a cross really atone for all of the sins committed by all humans for the past 50,000 years? Or even for the past 10,000 years? Could three hours of pain serve as penance for all of the crimes committed by combatants during World War II? Could the whipping and crucifixion and humiliation that Christ endured atone for all of the heretics burned, hanged, tortured, ripped apart on the rack, impaled on pikes? Could this short period of suffering atone for all of the children and adult females raped and murdered by serial killers, and by unsuspected neighbors? What about the sins of kings, nobles, elected officials? The wars fought over nothing? The unnumbered innocent victims of civil wars? What about all of the lies and deceptions, frauds and thefts in the world of business and the industrial marketplace? Yes, Christ was an innocent person, but how many other innocent persons have been tortured and killed for crimes they did not commit? So, I will end here what must be obvious as my sincere doubt that so little suffering could atone for millennia of human atrocities.
Here is a good place to bring up what I believe is the essence of the problem, what does the word "for" mean in the statement "Jesus died for our sins."? Could it not mean that Jesus died because of our sins? Why do we have this concept that Jesus somehow atoned for all human sin by being convicted and sentenced by the religious authorities of his time and place? I suspect this is so because the ancient culture where Jesus delivered the Gospel message was still primitive in that people "appeased the gods" by making sacrifices of domestic animals. In this way Jesus is assigned the role of sacrificial being who is accepted by God as atonement for human sins. I cannot accept the argument that his sacrifice atoned for human sins as sins that can be quantified, but I do believe instead that Jesus died because of our authoritarian pattern of behavior and because we are -- in terms of our errors and negligence and carelessness -- "sinful" if we use the traditional vocabulary of religion.
Why I believe good stewardship is far from trivial:
I point out in The Primacy of Stewardship (Chapter Four), that Jesus repeats many parables about good servants and bad servants, and that when I asked myself "What is the main theme of the Gospels?" I concluded that the main theme is The Primacy of Stewardship. Several parables begin with "The kingdom of heaven is like…" or "It is like…" and in a few memorable parables the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a vineyard. I am certain that the "vineyard" is our planet Earth, also referred to by Christ as "a pearl of great price." In the parable labeled as "Parable of the Vine-dressers," (Matthew 21: 33-41) we meet a group of people who are hired to take care of a vineyard, which would have involved agricultural tasks that would be immediately recognizable to anyone with agricultural experience (which was everyone in Jesus' time). But this group of hired workers, presumably including a "manager" or managers or foreman, turns out to be especially rebellious and violent. They kill servants sent by the vineyard owner to receive the fruits of the vineyard. They even kill the son of the vineyard owner when he is sent for the same purpose. At the end, the parable is completed when Jesus asks his listeners,
"40. When, therefore, the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-dressers? 41. They said to him, 'They will utterly destroy those evil men, and will let out the vineyard to other vine-dressers, who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.'"
If one is able to consider how my mind hears the Gospel message, it will be clear that this parable means that if we do not take proper care of the planet entrusted to us, it will be taken away from us and given to someone else. That is most emphatically not a trivial concept. It is as serious an interpretation of the Gospels as one could possibly hear. The challenge to any reader is one that I have always understood -- the reader has to cross a dark and scary bridge from the world in which the Gospel message is about one's childhood reward of "heaven" to the world in which the Gospel message is about Earth, dirt, blood and guts and us and the real physical universe in which we live. If you want to really experience the "vineyard" and the "household" and the "farm" that Jesus likens to the kingdom of heaven, look down. You're standing on it.
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