Reciprocity and Atonement

The principle of reciprocity is a powerful tool in our culture.  It is the principle of the quid pro quo: I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me.  As Robert Cialdini pointed out over twenty-five years ago in his little book “Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion.,”  it is a principle constantly at work in our daily lives.  In its best guise it is simply an exchange of more or less equal things.  For instance, when good friends invite us to their house for dinner, we make a mental note of our obligation to reciprocate at an early date.  We like to keep things even.  We feel uncomfortable when things get too far out of balance, as when a well meaning person always pays for our coffee and never let’s us do the same in return.  It puts us in a subordinate position.  It makes us wonder what he or she wants or will ask for at another time.  Obviously some kind of exchange is required, and we dislike not knowing what it will be.
Oddly enough it is not a principle in which equality of exchange is required.  The reciprocal act is essential, but it can satisfy social expectations and our consciences without being an equal exchange.  That’s what makes it so easy for it to become a principle in which significant advantage of one over the other is sought.  Accomplished sales people use it to full advantage.  They may well have a very find product or service to sell, and it may be one that you or I want or need.  But the deal can be closed solid by employing the principle of reciprocity.  In exchange for lunch at a fine restaurant, we give our life savings into the hands of a broker.  In exchange for feigned friendship and manufactured personal connections, we fork over thousands of dollars for a new car.  At its worst, it is the underlying principle of every con and scam.  We live in a culture driven by the principle of reciprocity, both fair and unfair.
We even try to work that principle into our religious faith, and we have since the beginning of time.  The psalmists are constantly imploring God to punish their enemies and in return receive unending praise.  The disciples compete for who will get the most in God’s kingdom in exchange for the quality of their discipleship.  On television a few nights ago, a well known cleric said that in exchange for being a Christian you get eternal life.  Prayers are constantly offered to God asking “What did I do to deserve this?” and “If you will do me this favor, I will do thus and so for the Church.”  It’s all about reciprocity.  Even the theories of atonement are based on some aspect of reciprocity.
My friend Tom, who teaches philosophy at a local college, wonders what it would be like to understand God in Christ as the one who refuses to live by the principle of reciprocity and invites his followers to do the same.  He suggests that through Jesus we are able to see something of what the superabundance of God’s generosity looks like when it is poured out as gift with no quid pro quo attached.  Those upon whom the gift is poured, and who are willing to receive it, find themselves impelled to respond with praise and thanksgiving, yet not in the context of reciprocity.  They may become followers of Jesus, true disciples, not as a way of paying back, but more in the sense of being swept along in God’s superabundant river of generosity.  
How would that play out in the events of Holy Week, the Cross, the grave and the Resurrection?   How would that make sense as a foundational argument for a theory of atonement?  To continue the metaphor, what if one chooses not to be swept along by that river of generosity?  What if one is content to sit on the bank and just watch?  What if one denies that there even is such a river?  Where does judgment fit in with that?  Scripture offers a tantalizing clue in Peter’s first letter where it is said that Jesus preached to the spirits who had perished in Noah’s flood (1 Peter 3.19, 4.6).  Were all those spirits now swept along in a new flood of redeeming, superabundant generosity?  Was Jesus “harrowing hell” to raise up the good and leave the bad behind?  In the 5th chapter of John’s gospel, will all the evil dead who are raised to the resurrection of judgment discover that as condemnation, or an invitation to be swept along in the new flood of superabundant generosity?
What would a theory of atonement founded on the idea of an outpouring of God’s superabundant generosity in which there is no place for reciprocity do to our usual ways of thinking about what it means to be Christian?

Get Christ back into Christianity

It saddens me that the Hutaree militia group has prominently identified itself as a Christian militia, that the media has gone along with that in almost every headline on air and in print, and that there are many other militia groups that also adopt the name of Christian.  There is nothing Christian about any of them.
At best they have taken a few passages of scripture, stripped them of their context and distorted their meaning beyond all recognition.  A case in point: apparently the Hutaree group took sentences from Matthew 16:34 where Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and Luke 22:36 where he advised the disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords, as a literal call to arms to combat the antichrist, whoever that might be in their twisted minds.  The context of these passages speaks more of Jesus’ great sadness that his message of peace and reconciliation would be met with violence, and his bitterness that his disciples did not understand the irony of taking up the sword.  Indeed, his response to its use in the Garden of Olives was to heal the injury caused.  
One problem is that militia groups like these are egged on by some Christians who obsess about the last days, Armageddon, and other heavenly battles described in the Revelation to John, anticipating them soon to be literally experienced in earthly time.  Apparently there are apocalyptic fundamentalists who believe that we are yet to experience the final battle between God and the devil, that the outcome is not at all certain, and that unless good Christians enlist as warriors in God’s army, he may well lose.  Such thinking does a terrible disservice to Holy Scripture, and in the face of Holy Week it simply crumbles into dust as utter nonsense.  Just the same, it has captured the imagination of more than a few.
Militia groups who dare to take the name Christian teeter on the brink of fanatical Jihadism as it is.  It doesn’t take much to push them over, and, in my opinion, the apocalyptic fundamentalists do just that.
Every year we hear a few nuts demanding to get Christ back into Christmas.  Maybe what we need more is to get Christ back into Christianity.

Some Practical Ways to Limit Government and Get It Out of Our Lives

I’ve been thinking about friends who want a very limited federal government that gets out of their personal lives, and I have some suggestions.
First, very few want to get rid of Social Security but it needs more financial support, so I suggest eliminating the current $106,800 limit to income subject to FICA taxes.  But that would accomplish nothing to limit government and get it out of personal lives.  So let’s go forth.
  • Eliminate Medicare and Medicaid altogether
  • Eliminate all federal regulation of food processing and distribution 
  • Eliminate all federal regulation of pharmacology
  • Eliminate all agriculture support programs and payments
  • Eliminate all scientific and cultural support programs
  • Privatize crop insurance
  • Privatize air traffic control and eliminate all airport and rural air service subsidies and grants
  • Eliminate federal gas taxes and return all road and highway responsibilities to the states
  • Eliminate all consumer protection and transportation safety programs
  • Eliminate environmental protection agencies
  • Eliminate OSHA
  • Auction off national parks to the states or reliable theme park companies
  • Eliminate national forests and the BLM.  Auction off the land
  • Eliminate the SEC
  • Contract with Morgan-Chase to assume basic Federal Reserve functions
  • Eliminate the Department of Commerce and all of it’s programs
  • Eliminate all programs of the Corps of Engineers not directly related to combat missions of the Army
  • Eliminate NASA
I realize that this is not nearly enough, but it’s a reasonable start.

Bending Spoons, Waiting for Summer, Doing Work

Anyone around my age watched Uri Geller use the power of his mind to bend a spoon right on television, probably the Ed Sullivan Show.  Then we spent hours, or a few brief moments, holding our own spoons intently staring at them, mentally willing them to bend.  They never did.  
The same feeling comes over me in the spring.  Many of the fruit trees are in full bloom.  The willows are showing some green, and other trees are heavy with buds.  Tired of bare branches and gloomy weather, I find myself intently staring at them, mentally willing them to leaf out NOW!  They never do.  
The only thing that works is to patiently wait for what will happen to happen.  Something like that is what Lent and Holy Week are all about.  They provide a short lesson in life, and it raises an important question.  If we cannot hurry up the opening of our own lives to the life in Christ that is already ours in the faint budding of green, but not yet fully here, what are we to do in the meantime.  I suppose we could just sit and wait in fearful self-complacency like the steward who buried his talents.  But Lent and Holy Week call us to something different.  To continue mixing metaphors, they call us to a life of spring cleaning and yard work to prepare the way.  They call us to a life of getting out of the house and into the world to continue the ministry of Christ, which is the ministry of preparation.    

Sealing the Covenant with Sacrificial Blood

I’m not sure whether we are sneaking up to Holy Week or it is thundering toward us.  In either case, many of us will hear the reading of the passion narrative on Palm Sunday.  In it is one very brief sentence from which we take a significant part of our understanding of Holy Communion: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  At least that’s Luke’s version. 
I imagine that the disciples had an almost instantaneous, instinctive grasp of what Jesus meant because they were familiar with scripture’s promise of a new covenant and the importance of sealing it with a blood sacrifice.  That is not to say that they would have been able to formulate a sophisticated theological argument, but only that, in the context of their religious lives and beliefs, it made perfect sense. 
That is not true for most contemporary Christians.  They hear it, or something like it, every time Holy Communion is celebrated.  Some believe it.  Others accept it without much thought.  Others never pay the slightest bit of attention, and still others reject it as barbaric.  Almost none of them connect it with the promise in Jeremiah 31 of a new covenant, nor to the explanation in Leviticus 17 that the (God given) life of the flesh is in the blood, nor, and this is important, to the description in Exodus 24 of the sealing of God’s covenant with the Israelites by sprinkling sacrificial blood on them.
The disciples knew all of that.  The symbolism of the post dinner cup of wine would have been very clear.  If Jesus really is who he says he is, then the life of the flesh that flows within him is not simply God given but God’s actual presence in a way that cannot be replicated in any other creature.  If the sprinkling of sacrificial blood on the people of Israel sealed their covenant with God, how much more would the holy blood of Christ seal the new covenant, especially when it is not sprinkled on but taken in.  No longer was God’s seal on them, it was in them.   They would not fully understand that for days, and perhaps years, to come, but the significance of it would become an essential piece of what it meant to be a Christian. 
No doubt someone will observe that the wine is not sacrificial blood, it’s just wine, and besides, Jesus had not yet been crucified when he uttered those words.  My only response is to cite what was once attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:
“Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the Bread and brake it:
And what the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.”
That aside, I believe that we who are called to teach must be more diligent in helping today’s followers of Christ understand these kinds of connections because, without them, we loose too much of what is essential.  Finally, and for what it’s worth, I have tried to teach these connections for many years with only marginal success.

Miscellaneous Qestions on a Monday

Whatever happened to Moses’ wife and sons?  They disappear from the narrative, but their presence is implied by the visit of Jethro to Moses after the exodus.  It can’t be just because they are not wholly descendants of Israel.  Neither are the two sons of Joseph who go on to become half tribes of Israel, nor are several of Jesus’ ancestors.
Has anyone ever done a study of the Midianites and their role as a catalyst (inspired by God?) in the history of Israel?
Scripture and our own daily prayers often offer blessings to God.  How can God’s creatures bless the one who is the source of all blessings?
As human beings we are able to offer blessings of a limited nature to one another through gifts of substance, encouragement, special honors and wishes for good fortune.  Do we sometimes, perhaps too often, confuse our limited human blessings for Godly blessings and then take unwarranted credit as if we were agents of God?  When we are authentic conduits of God’s blessings into the life of another, how do we know that or do we need to know that?
Jesus told his disciples that whoever is not against us is for us.  But he also said that whoever is not with me is against me.  What an interesting set of statements.  Logically it reduces Jesus’ true opponents to a very limited number.  Consider, for instance, the Dali Lama, a non-Christian who has gone out of his way to encourage Christians in their faith.  Where do you think he fits in from the point of view of Jesus?