Last weekend, Ken Overberg, S.J., one of the resident heretics (a word I don’t use loosely) at Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel flatly denied the doctrine of the Atonement for about the umpteenth time from the lectern:

Lent is an especially difficult time for those who try to believe in a nonviolent God. Scriptures and prayers, songs and sermons praise suffering and the cross. They speak of a wondrous love that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadfulcurse. God sends Jesus to suffer and die for our sins.

The Law of Retribution and the ancient religion of “violence saves” seem to have trumped Jesus’ teaching about a God of compassion and healing, of life and love. So throughout Lent we hear of ransom and sacrifice, expiation and atonement. Jesus did indeed die a violent death of crucifixion. That was an historical event. But the interpretation of the event is an act of theology and faith.

And there are different interpretations in our Christian tradition.

We do not have to believe in a violent and abusive God who sends Jesus to suffer for us. No, God so loved the world that God gave the only Son––not to die but to live, to be the light to show us the way: the way of forgiveness and compassion, the way trust and nonviolence, the way of intimacy and loving service. Jesus reveals God’s desire and gift for the full flourishing of humanity, in other words, eternal life. As some Scriptures and some great theologians (e.g., Duns Scotus, Edward Schillebeeckx, Catherine LaCugna) through the centuries teach, Jesus is not an afterthought to original sin, Jesus is not sent to make up for sin. Jesus is God’s first thought of sharing life and love in a definitive and unique way. As the opening of John’s gospel proclaims: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…. All things came to be through him….” (John1:1–3)

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John does not speak of ransom and atonement. Jesus’ being lifted up is part of his hour of glorification, an epiphany. Yes, Jesus dies by crucifixion, but by human decree not by divine decree. God did not want Jesus’ suffering and does not want ours.

It is so hard for us to accept this and to let go of a god of retribution. Perhaps this is so because this is what we have been taught and still hear and sing and say. Or perhaps it is because we subtly realize that to let go of a violent god also means we can no longer justify our own violence.

This Lent, will you risk giving up the god of ransom and atonement and embrace the God of compassion and nonviolence––that is, the God of Jesus?

And also for the umpteenth time, here is the pertinent section in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which teaches the direct opposite:

118. Why was the death of Jesus part of God’s plan?

599-605
619

To reconcile to himself all who were destined to die because of sin God took the loving initiative of sending his Son that he might give himself up for sinners. Proclaimed in the Old Testament, especially as the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, the death of Jesus came about “in accordance with the Scriptures”.

Any day now the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s fearless shepherd will challenge XU’s Jesuits to repent and be faithful to the Gospel.

Just you wait and see.

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