Speaking Christian: Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg signing books

“Salvation.” “Sacrifice.” “Redemption.” “Righteousness.” Where do these words take you?  I, like many in today’s culture I believe, have some negative and specific connotations to what might be preached or assumed in the rest of sentences that contain these terms.  In modern culture these words often are associated with a strand of Christian thought that is founded on the core belief that all are damned to everlasting hell, save those who profess that Jesus died for our sins and believe in him. The term salvation becomes a marking point, are you in the club of the “saved” or are you outside it?  Jesus’ sacrifice becomes one of substitution, him instead of us, at the hands of an angry “Father-God”.  Redemption takes on the form of litmus test for our eternal passport and fails to connect to the possibility of a life-giving transformation starting now. And righteousness, well righteousness is something we seem to know Christians are going for, but most will walk around the block to avoid, having most commonly experienced the word with the term “self” before it.

Marcus Borg in his book, “Speaking Christian: Redeeming Christian Language” examines these words and a few others, going back to the original language, time and context and then moving forward into today’s language and context and shedding light on the language of Christian theology and life.  I had the opportunity to spend last Saturday at Christian Theological Seminary, engaging in these ideas as Dr. Borg spoke on this topic.  I was challenged and inspired by his reflections and prophetic message of redemption and hope. Redemption and hope not merely for individuals, but for the Christian movement and message, for the country we live in and for the world as a whole.

I’ll share here a summery of my notes for the day on each of these words and their implications. These notes reflect my hearing of Marcus Borg’s ideas. Where I give a direct quote, these are from the printed notes that he handed out, the rest has gone though the filter of my hearing and writing. At some point there’s a blog post in me that will share my personal and theological thoughts and reactions from these ideas. But for today, I’ll focus on attempting to share a glimpse through sharing some of my rough notes from the talks. If these ideas pique your interest, I recommend getting his book, Speaking Christian.

The term “salvation” and the concept afterlife have been linked in Christian and religious conversation. Salvation has been made to be about gaining a “positive” afterlife.  It has become a normative thought that this is the point of all religions—to ensure a happy eternal resting place.  Borg would argue that the goal of the Christian life is salvation—but not primarily about before or after death.

The words “savior” and “salvation” is not one that is found exclusively in the New Testament, and certainly not only in reference to Jesus Christ. The term is used extensively in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and we see it particularly around the story of the Exodus and the stories of the Babylonian Captivity.  In these instances the term “savior” has nothing to do with the after-life. It refers to liberation from oppression. “The Lord has become our salvation” “God is the savior who brought us out of Egypt.” Nothing to do with the afterlife, nothing to do with sin.  The word “savior” appears in stories of the exile more than most any other place. For the most part refers to deliverance from enemies and illness. Liberation from bondage, escape from exile, etc. In the New Testament these uses continue. Deliverance from enemies, liberation from bondage, etc. Sometimes they look at forgiveness of sins and the afterlife, but these are not their primary biblical meanings.

The best single English synonym for “salvation”—“transformation”. Transformation of ourselves and the world. It’s about personal transformation and transformation of society as a whole. Salvation can be experienced as healing—a salve. Salvation is a healing ointment. Giving the transformation from blindness to seeing. In Eastern orthodoxy—primary definition of salvation is enlightenment. Jesus came as a light in our darkness, etc.

This speaks to the idea of living people who are dead inside—salvation being the transformation from death to life. Moving people from pre-occupation and anxiety to presence and compassion. Salvation is about the individual transforming and also the transformation of the world, transformation from a world justice to a world of justice. Transformation from a world of war to a world of peace.

Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life
“Kingdom of heaven” appears only in Matthew’s gospel—not in the others.

Culturally we’ve thought this is about an image of the after-life.  Borg claims that Matthew is not talking about this—this is revelation around the name of God.  This is out of the Jewish tradition of not writing the most sacred name. “Heaven” is the substitute for “God”. “Your kingdom come on earth, AS it already is in heaven.”

“Heaven is in great shape, EARTH is where the problems are.”—John Dominic Crossen

1st words of Jesus—Mark (earliest gospel)—about the coming to the kingdom of God. Transformation of this world.

“Ask any 100 NT scholars around the world, what was most central to the message of Jesus, all would say ‘the kingdom of God’”–John Royman

Borg claims that “the Kingdom of God” is about the transformation of this world. “This world” refers to the humanly created world of societies and cultures, not referring to the natural world. “This world” when referred to in the Bible was referring to the cultural system at the time.

Four Features of the Ancient Domination System (empires, kingdoms, etc)
(Note: there are modern and post-modern domination systems as well.)

  1. Ruled by a few—monarchy, aristocracy, etc. 1-2%
  2. Economically unjust—ruling class commonly acquired most of the wealth. Acquired through taxation, slavery, etc. from the agricultural production of the peasant class.
  3. Chronically violent—wars—primarily started from one ruling class to another ruling class for the wealth.
  4. The wars were religiously legitimated. Kings ruled by divine right.

Core tension in scripture—the Lordship of Domination of Lordship of Christ?God’s dream—What are you passionate about? God’s dream is the kingdom of God, the transformation of this world.

Everlasting Life

“Everlasting life” (used primarily in John). John 3:16

Greek phrase “everlasting life”  = “the life of the age to come”.  Sounds a little bit different from heaven.  In John, “eternal life” is already present.  John 17:3 “This IS eternal life: to know God.” To know God is to already participate in the life of the age to come. Is it more that to know God in the present? Yes, but it starts now. The life of the age to come is not about an after-life, it’s about now. This does not deny that it may continue into the after-life. But it’s primary meaning is now. Salvation is now. And salvation is not yet. Experience of God in the present and the transformation of the world. “Know God and change the world’

Mercy & Righteousness
We hear these words a lot in church settings, in our prayers, scripture, etc.

The problem, the most common meaning of these words in modern English is not the biblical context or intention.

Mercy/merciful—presuppose a situation of wrong-doing, where a person of power has the power to punish or not to punish.

Clemency. Parent give mercy on child punishment, etc.

Situation of wrongdoing here someone is entitled to punish.

Note how this understanding fits the common understanding of the heaven and hell Christianity. Presupposes that we’ve done wrong, God will punish, Jesus will intercede for our forgiveness.

Borg suggests we exchange the word “mercy” for the word “compassion”: this word does not pre-suppose a situation of wrongdoing.

Which word to use? Compassion or mercy?  Depends on the context. If there’s a situation where there is a broken agreement, wrong-doing, etc. then yes, use the word “mercy”.  But in many contexts, this word gives us the idea that there has been wrongdoing and that there is a punitive God who is ready to punish.

Compassion—feeling with, feeling the suffering of others, acting in accord with these feelings.  In both Hebrew and Aramaic—associated with the word for womb, and the feelings a mother has for the children in the womb.  God is a God of mercy/compassion –WOMB-LIKE: creative, nourishing, encompassing, love for children, willing your children’s well-being, caring for them, willing to let them go, fierce dimension—compassion can become like a Mama Bear. Compassion is not a soft, woosy virtue.

We are called to this to others as well. Called to be compassionate of others.

Blind beggar—Bartamaus—“have mercy on me”.  Bartamas was not a sinner needing forgiveness, he’s not calling out for mercy, he’s calling out for compassion.

Story of the Good Samaritan—“which of these three proved to be a neighbor?”  (note, the story starts out with the question, who is my neighbor?, never answers the question, ends with how to be a neighbor). Ends with “the one who shows mercy”.  Not a sinner, but a victim. Better translation—“the one who shows compassion”.

Sermon on the Mount—“blessed are the merciful”.  Gives a very narrow meaning to that passage. “Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion”.

“Be merciful, as God is merciful”.  “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”. Some newer translations are using this.  See how it broadens the meaning immensely? This verse is the most compact version of Jesus’ theology in the NT. “God is compassionate (who God is), be compassionate (our response and we are defined by). What a contrast to the view of a punitive God—God’s gonna getcha unless you get it right. God of wrath. God who must be appeased, offering an adequate sacrifice.

This set up creates two very different forms of religion.

  1. If we see God as punitive and we can appeal to Him as mercy.
  2. If God is compassionate and therefore we can be compassionate.

Actions have consequences. Don’t confuse these consequences with “God punished that person”.

Does God ever punish anyone? OR Do we live in a world of consequences? And is God all loving?

Righteous and Righteousness

These words occur 100’s of times in the Bible.

The problem, again, is their most common, modern English meaning.

When you hear someone called “righteous”, what do you think?  Self-righteous, etc. If we hear someone is righteous, we probably want to stay away from them.

Very few positive associations. What do people hear when they hear this word in the context of scripture.

Now to redeem the words “righteous” and “righteousness”.

In the Bible, these words very often refer to “justice”.

Amos, “Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness flow like an everlasting stream.”  Hebrew poetry—synonymous lines. The general rule that this passage illustrates that “justice” would be a better translation than righteousness.”

Now, “justice” has some issues too. In the Bible, “justice” rarely has the connotation of punitive punishment. God’s justice—one part—is about the fair distribution of God’s earth. We are but tenants and sojourners on the earth. Economic justice—everyone will have enough. This is not about charity, charity is good (the giving of our surplus to those in need). Charity is about individuals giving out of abundance. Justice is about the way the system is put together, justice is about how everyone should have enough of the material basis of life. Everyone should have enough. This should not be depending on the generosity of individual charity. Doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same.  God’s passion for justice in the bible—everyone have the basic needs of life.  Daily bread. Food for the day. This is what the kingdom of God is for.

Consider the layers of meaning when “justice” is substituted for “righteousness”.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and they will be filled.”

Hunger and thirsting for righteousness—sounds like individuals trying to live up to a higher moral standard. Now justice…!
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice sake” This happens a lot. Being persecuted for being “righteous”? We don’t see this so much.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s justice. God’s kingdom IS (amongst other things) about distributive justice.

Give us this day our daily bread. (Enough food)

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. (Debt-forgiveness. To avoid starvation. These where the two biggest daily issues for people in Jesus’ time.)

Righteousness—as the word is used in individual moral rectitude.

Justice—about individuals, societies, nations are just and fair.

The heart of justice in compassion. Justice is the social form of compassion.  Or the social form of love is justice. Love is the heart of justice.

Think of the differences between a Christianity shaped by righteousness and mercy compared to compassion and justice.  Righteousness & Mercy—about measuring up to God’s requirements.  Compassion & Justice—it’s about loving what God loves, the WHOLE of creation.  “For God so loved THE WORLD.”  What would it look like to have a Christianity that sees the primary purpose of engaging in the world with justice and compassion.

What does it mean to be Christian and American?  Claims to be a Christian nation. What does this look like?

The US has extreme income inequality:

Recommends the book: “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett on income inequality.
Some highlights: US has by far the greatest inequality. Also, the: highest rate of prison inmates, lowest life expectancy for a developed nation, highest rates of mental illness. We not only have the greatest rate of income inequality and it’s growing. In 1974 the top wealthiest 1%  make 7% of the annual income. 35 years later in 2009 the top 1% is making 24% of the annual income.

Between 2002-2007 60% of the total income growth of wealth went to the wealthiest 1%. 50% of the total $$ involved in the federal tax-cuts of the last decade (missed this number—it was disturbingly high though) went to the wealthiest 1%, not spread across the middle class. AND we borrowed the money to do that. Borrowed a trillion $$ to give it to the wealthiest 1%?  Why aren’t the other 99% outraged?  Median (half above/half above) household income in the US has basically been constant for 30 years. People in the middle, not any better off. $50,000 a year (adjusted for inflation).

All of this to help us to see—this is a very difficult country to be in the bottom 40% of the income range. And yet, we are the largest Christian country in the world. Why? Because we’ve been focused on a Christianity that’s been focused on individualism, focus on salvation being about after death, punitive God, etc. and not focused on justice and compassion.

War. 5% of the population. We have ½ of the world military spending. It seems that we as a country are determined to be as powerful as the rest of the world put together. The US navy is as powerful as the next 13 navies combined. $161 billion navy budget (double what it would cost to have national health-care, which apparently we can’t afford). US air force, most powerful air force in the world. Know who’s second? The US navy air force. We’re the most Christian nation in the world, and yet we, have declared the right to pre-emptive war. It’s pretty clear that we’ve been doing this for years, but now we’re open about it. WHY in the most Christian country in the world, weren’t there thousands of people in the streets saying “THIS IS WRONG”. There is a brand of Christianity that endorses these war-based theology. “What I’m hoping is that Christians who don’t see things this way will become as noisy and vocal as the people who do. Start at the local level and have this ongoing conversation. Conversation. Adult education. Not the pulpit, but in conversation. Settings where people are able to talk about this, etc.”

Language about the death of Jesus and Easter
The death of Jesus—in “common Christianity” or “heaven and hell Christianity”, dying for our sins, satisfying the debt we owe to God, etc. Substitution atonement. This is what was portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”.  So many hold substitution atonement as the underlying truth and underpinning of Christianity—throughout Christianity (evangelical and protestant) even if people don’t like it, we still hold it as a underpinning. The word “sacrifice” brings up these images and concepts.

Substitutionary atonement is not biblical and didn’t come up in the 1st 1000 years of the church.  In 1098 a man named Anselm wrote a book that said—“humans because of our sinfulness owe a debt to God, in order for this to be paid, the debt needs to be paid, from the human side, but humans are sinful, so humans can’t pay it, only a sinless human could, offer up as a perfect human sacrifice, so God has to become human, so God became human so that the human sin could be paid.”  Logically brilliant and deeply perverse. This is the FIRST time that we get a view of the idea of the death of Jesus is the payment of sin. 1000 years after Jesus walked on earth. This idea did NOT come from Christ’s life on earth.

Came out of a concept of peasant and master. And then the great plague, seen as Divine punishment, this idea grew and grew.  “Jesus died for the sake of our sins is less than 1000 years old.”

Yes, there is sacrifice language in the Bible BUT “Sacrifice was NEVER ABOUT PAYMENT FOR SIN”.

Animal sacrifice—gift to God and a meal.  In the NT, done in the temple in Jerusalem.  Part of the meal goes to God (up in smoke), part is eaten by the people. Now it is a meal with God.

Sacrifices of Thanksgiving.
Sacrifices of Petition—something’s wrong and you ask God for help.
Sacrifices of Purification—“impurity” could be acquired by a person in a number of ways. Impurity was not always about sin. Woman impure for 40 days after giving birth, then offer up a sacrifice of purification. Nothing sinful about giving birth. So even a sacrifices of purification isn’t sacrifice for sin. It’s a ritual of purification.
Sacrifice of Reconciliation—Community making up with God and share a meal with God.

“I don’t know if any of these tell us about the death of Jesus—but what’s important here is that NONE of these examples are about substitutionary atonement.” This idea is NOT in the bible. Nowhere do we see sacrifices being about the animal sacrifice INSTEAD of the person in the context of sin and punishment.

Sacrifice was about a sacred offering up to God. Did Jesus get killed because of his sacrifice to God? Sure in terms of offering up your life to God, but not because of sin and punishment.

Romas 12—present yourselves as living sacrifices, do not be conformed to this world (the culture of the domination system), be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Difference between dying FOR others and dying INSTEAD of others.

Firefighter rushes in, saves baby, then dies in the fire. Sacrifice. YES. Not because God lit the fire and needed at least one person to die in it.  It’s about offering up ones life, not about substitution or a payment.

Think about these people—sacrificed their lives because of their love for others. Life and death of sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoffer (executed by the Natzi’s a month before WW2, executed because his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler and his love for others). Martin Luther King—died because of his love for others. His love for his fellow African Americans, his love for what America could be. Archbishop Oscer Ramero (El Salvador in 1980). Brought radical voice against the ruling elite. Worked for the oppressed. Was shot while giving the benediction by a governmental sponsored assassin.

All examples of sacrifice—out of love and care.

Another point: Jesus didn’t just DIE—he was KILLED. Assassinated. “the son of man must go to Jerusalem….” Not to die for the sins of the people, to be mocked and killed.  His death was a result of the passion he had for the people.

Christians—only major religion who’s founder was executed by the ruling authorities. Buddha, Moses, etc. nope.  What is about Jesus? Was there something that the authorities were really not pleased by?  This is a profoundly subversive religion that challenges THIS WORLD—the way the world commonly is. The convention, the authority did not care for this. Conventionality is the antithesis of Christianity.  Crucifixion—only for one thing—systematically challenged Roman authority–subversion to the Roman authority.  You didn’t get crucified for murder, etc.   Jesus was challenging the authority.

To be born again is the point. Dying of an old way of being, being born into a new way of being.

N.T. Wright—Origin of Christianity—the tomb really was empty is his emphasis. Getting at the point that something happened to the corpse of Jesus, there was no Easter, etc. This has been the foundation of Christianity.  Arguing about whether the tomb was really empty seems like a distraction. This might be rather irrelevant to the truth of Easter.

The question is not “was the tomb empty”—we don’t know.

But we can be very clear about what Easter MEANT to the followers of Jesus.

Can we stop talking about factuality—and start talking about what the story MEANS.

The need for factual and material equaling REAL is a modern hang-up.

Meanings of Easter

  1. Jesus continued to be experienced after his death.
    1. Visions
    2. Experiences of Jesus
    3. Still happening
    4. Continues to be a figure of the present, not just the past—no longer a figure of flesh and blood—Risen Christ
    5. Jesus is Lord

They experienced him not just as alive or a ghostly figure of the past, but as present and living.  Follow Him, He is Lord, and the Lord’s of this world are not.

Much more could be said on each of these topics and I have a number of reflections coming out of the talks. Maybe these will get blogged at some point soon. But for now, I’ll get these notes up before any more time passes. I’m interested in any thoughts or conversations that they stir in you.