Updated: Sep 14, 2021
You know how in the introduction to my website I say I am a backstreet pilgrim and I’m changing my image of God one step at a time? (No? Go back and have a look if you like). Well right now I’m grappling with what feels like one giant leap for Eirene Palmer. Something so seismic in its enormity that I’m taking this quite slowly as I feel I’m on the edge of a glorious precipice. And if I jump off, I won’t be gnashing my teeth in outer darkness but revelling in glorious new life.
Apologies - I’m getting just a tiny bit grandiose here. I’ll calm down.
One of the things which attracts me to Francsicanism is something called the ‘Franciscan Opinion.’ Or to use technical words – the ‘non-violent theory of atonement.’ I even sound like a theologian when I say stuff like that, but I’m not, trust me. I’m just an ordinary, flawed, vulnerable, somewhat defensive human being who is trying to understand what it could all be about.
Now the Franciscan Opinion wasn’t dreamt up in the last century, or even in the centuries before that when people tended to be burnt at the stake if they didn’t sign up to the status quo. It emerged in the thirteenth century when there was a bit of a punch up between the Franciscans and the Dominicans over opposing views of belief and the Dominicans won. But the Franciscans weren’t banished to the hills to live out their lives in disgrace – a sort of medieval version of being cancelled. No – they were nicely told they were the Minority Position and just got on with it by themselves.
I was brought up with the notion that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sin and even if I had been the baddest little girl in the world, he would have done it for me because he loves me so much that he would have taken all the rap for my plentiful shortcomings. Certainly, the ones I tried to hide like surreptitiously buying sweets on a Sunday or trying a smudge of lipstick at my friend’s house, wiping it off quickly before I went home. And all the failings which were easier to hide like feeling a total party pooper when I went to church.
I was a sinner all right.
I am five years old and kneeling by the side of my bed. I have been told that I need to give my heart to Jesus or I won’t go to heaven if anything bad happens to me. I know children can get run over and killed. I know children can get sick and die because it happened to Michael across the road. I am very frightened. I ask Jesus into my heart but I’m not sure he’s there and I’m terrified that if I die, I will go to hell. This fear dogs and dogs me throughout my life and the only way I can pay it off is by a slew of rituals we call OCD. The medievals might have called it ‘scrupulosity’. Same thing really except they had less cushions to arrange.
And this was sold to me as the Good News. The Best. God - the bully boy in the playground – the one who pinches your arm leaving a big purple bruise and threatens all sorts of nasties if you tell. Hmm… For a bright little spark, that immediately set up a mountain of contradictions which, even with a fair wind behind me, I could never climb.
But then – could anyone?
I know I’m teaching some of you to suck eggs but bear with. There are people out there like me who will feel as though they have just discovered the earth isn’t flat.
If you are coming to this as a complete atonement-theory virgin (as I was not that long ago), here is a 101 introduction. Basically, the non-violent theory of atonement says that the idea we are all so bad that God was so angry he had to sacrifice Jesus to pay him a price and get us back in favour again, isn’t how it is. God doesn’t get things wrong.
Or as Richard Rohr says, salvation wasn’t God’s Plan B because we basically screwed up Plan A.
And, says the non-violent theory of atonement, if God can be so angry that he has to torture someone to be appeased – how is that Good News? If God is Love – how does that fit in with chucking most of his creation in the bin because they haven’t accepted the Good News? Rotten luck if they’ve never even heard it. Sounds like pretty Bad News to me.
Richard Rohr says,
Franciscan John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) said that Jesus wasn’t solving any problems by coming to earth and dying. God did not need Jesus to die on the cross to decide to love humanity. God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was Love’s dramatic portrayal in space and time.
And I say…
So God loves me and always has and always will. I don’t have to get it right. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to convince God of my worthiness and my suitability to be part of his kingdom.
I just am and that’s enough.
Now that’s Good News.