We are called to live out Christ’s defeat — and thus become his co-redeemers, writes Steven Shakespeare
“YOU KNOW you’ll always be on the losing side. . . ” I remember the conversation even today. I was 18 years old, still at school. I had decided to go away and do theology at university, much against the wishes of some members of my Christian Union, who felt I would be forced to ask too many questions. It was a nervous, exciting time, and I was feeling the first stirrings of a vocation to ordination.
I shared this with a friend who was not a Christian. He obviously thought I was crazy. Why would anyone want to front a declining, discredited insti- tution? Why put yourself in the position of “always being on the losing side”? I can’t remember what I said at the time. I doubt it was very profound. But the question has stayed with me, slumbering.
IT WAS recently prodded into wakefulness again. I took a visiting theology professor to meet church and community activists in Everton, near where Liverpool Hope University has a campus, to discuss justice and empower- ment. The local parish priest, who has been involved in community action for many years, was talking about the contribution Christians can make. He said: “We have to learn to fight losing battles.”
It made me sit up and take notice. Here we were, talking about how people could overcome the dead hand of fatalism and learn to act for them- selves, to speak with confidence. And suddenly we were talking a different language, about loss and failure. What was going on?
I ADMIT to being allergic to the rhetoric of failure that some Christians seem to be in love with. “All pain, no gain” is a version of the gospel that is envious of success, dismissive of achievement, and self-indulgent in its pessimism. When self-sacrifice is made the beginning and end of religion, all God’s delight in creation is snuffed out.
If we develop a martyr complex, it becomes easy to believe that suffering is good in itself. It’s a seductive idea, but also a dangerous one. It feeds the attitude that if the poor put up with their lot, if women accept a beating from their partner, if gays force themselves to be celibate, then they will all be more Christ-like. The pain will purge them, make them holier.
But Christ didn’t come to nail us to a cross and leave us there. His Passion is also a protest. It exposes the machinery of sadism for what it is: power at the service of fear.
Our conversation in that inner-city community centre was about a different kind of power. Christians had no monopoly on struggles for dignity and justice, for decent housing and healthcare. What they brought to the table was an imagination shaped by the cross and resurrection. They were willing to fight losing battles, not because they loved failure, but simply because it was the right thing to do. It was the process of struggle that gave them a new heart, a new identity — and a glimpse of what real victory meant.
IT IS no secret that the theology of atonement — of how Jesus’s death recon- ciles us to God — is in a tangle. The Reformers sought to free Christians from the idea that they could earn or buy salvation, and emphasised the free initiative of God. The Son takes the punishment for our sins on himself, and we do nothing to deserve that offer of grace.
The problem is: what comes next? How do we live? Unfortunately, a new religion of puritanical, obsessive moralism can rush in to fill the vacuum. I have seen how vulnerable students join intense Christian groups that try to police their behaviour, and warn them that, if they are not good and pure, God will abandon them to the devil.
It is a sad irony that the most extreme forms of belief in election and predestination can lead to the most anxiety-fuelled attempts constantly to “please” God and prove oneself worthy of God’s love.
Arguably, this is a by-product of the lingering idea that God always demands a price for forgiving us. God’s justice demands blood, sacrifice, and pain. And even when we are told that Jesus has paid the price, fear and guilt can still set the agenda for our faith.
WHAT IF we started from a different place? What if we did atonement theology from the streets surrounding that community centre? How would it look?
We would have to begin by listening to the real lives of people, before imposing our theological theories. And we’d have to understand that one of the problems is that, too often, people in such situations feel that things are “done to” them. Decisions are taken without consultation; stereotypes are peddled without knowledge. A theology that makes people simply passive, and then anxious to please, will not be a theology of liberation.
Paradoxically, it’s the idea of fighting a losing battle that helps us here. For that is what Jesus did: he lost. But in the process, he fought and struggled, so that a new freedom from violence and oppression came into being. He fought, not through force, but through refusing to submit to and be defined by the political and religious establishment. He would not become a pale reflection of their fear and domination.
SO, Jesus resisted. And his strange victory called a new kind of community into being. That community is called to a new way of life, which is not simply about being good, or desperately trying to recruit people to shore up its power. It is first and foremost called to be a community that knows it is accepted, and which ultimately, therefore, has nothing to fear.
Think of the imagery used in the New Testament for this new community. It is God’s family, no longer slaves but free men and women, children and heirs of God. It is Christ’s body, intimately linked to him. It is a place of gifts, where the Spirit dwells.
The Church is an empowered community, which does not need to be anxious about its identity.
PERHAPS the most radical dimension of the Christian faith is that God calls us to share in the work of salvation and healing. God places the divine image within our shared humanity. Men and women are called to be fruitful not only by producing offspring but by creating places to live, tending the earth, telling stories, and making art.
If we are co-creators with God, we must also be co-redeemers. That may sound like a dangerous lapse into “salvation by works”, but we need to be freed from the limitations placed on our imagination by past disputes. The Bible clearly gives the people of God a key role in being a light to the nations, ministers of reconciliation, stewards of the mystery of grace.
Sometimes we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe that God is revealed in the way that Christianity affirms. We’re quick to summon again the God who controls everything and leaves nothing to chance. The Bible suggests something different: a God who takes risks, a reckless and passionate lover who wants us as partners, not pawns.
Atonement cannot happen without us. It cannot happen without commu- nities who live out the power of Christ’s defeat, and the victory of his servant- hood. In a world obsessed with targets, numbers, and the outward trappings of success, that is the astonishing gift the Church can still name, and celebrate, and live.
Steven Shakespeare features in 'The Print of Nails - the Church Times Holy Week and Easter Collection' available late January 2022 here.