Last week, I wrote about the declining numbers of those who align with organized religion. Perhaps one reason for the rush to the exit is that we never really understood the purpose of religion in the first place.
Just for fun, let’s say “religion” is the beautifully decorated present under the tree on Christmas morning. We have lots of words for what’s under the wrapping and ribbons and inside the box: salvation, redemption, justification, deliverance, and more. Although most of these words are used synonymously with each other, I think there’s an important distinction to be made between some.
Specifically, I would argue that being “redeemed” is very different from being “rescued.” I think good religion offers one but not the other.
Do you remember the Top Value and S&H Green Stamps? I’m barely old enough to recall them myself, but my mother was a devotee of the art and science of saving money through stamp collection. This type of incentive program began in the 1950s to encourage consumers to make purchases in cash rather than on credit. Shoppers at grocery stores or gas stations would earn various denominations of stamps. Then they would hustle them home to their kitchen tables, where they’d lick ‘em and stick ‘em into stamp books designated for this purpose. Once you had enough books filled with stamps, you could exchange them for merchandise from the Top Value or S&H catalog. In the 60s and 70s, it’s estimated that nearly 80% of Americans used such trading stamps.
In other words, consumers would redeem their thick, sticky stamp books for items in the Top Value or S&H rewards catalogs they had their eyes on.
Look in any thesaurus, and you’ll find that the verbs “redeem” and “rescue” are synonyms. You’ll find “save,” “deliver,” “liberate,” and others along with them. That’s fine to a point, but when it comes to the language of religion, I take issue with understanding “redemption” to be the same thing as a “successful rescue mission.”
To redeem something requires an exchange, a transfer of value. If my S&H Green Stamp books are filled to the brim, I can “purchase a 1964 Hoover 800 vacuum cleaner without parting with even a dime! In my mind, “redemption” is an exchange in which value has been transferred in unexpected ways.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about being “rescued,” Snow White and Cinderella’s need for a prince on a white horse notwithstanding. If my house is on fire, then by gosh, the number one thing I need and want is to be rescued. I don’t need to learn anything from the experience. I don’t want to become a stronger person because of the fear. I don’t give a lick about evolving spiritually or emotionally as a result. I just want someone to get me the hell out of my burning house. Rescue has its place.
But if I’m in a different kind of metaphorical “burning house,” it might be different. Say, for instance, that I just lost my job. Sure, on some level, I would love the easy way out. I’d love to be rescued by a new, even better, job landing right in my lap without ever having to update my resume or go on an interview. I’m not gonna lie—I’m a fan of the Easy Button.
The real world, though, has no Easy Button. There are no princes on white horses ready to whisk us off to safety and adventure. But when we really stop to think about it, we have to admit that this is a good thing. If someone gets me a new job without having to work at it myself, then I miss out on the growth and self-discovery I might have experienced.
I think that “redemption” in the religious sense is also an exchange of sorts. It’s also a transfer of value. We get something that we wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to realize on our own. But not because Jesus or anyone else swoops in to rescue us. Jesus was not a Marvel or DC Comics character.
A Sacred Exchange
We are redeemed because Jesus’ life and ministry transferred a new, previously unknown yet amazing value to suffering and even death. In that exchange, we learned that what appears to be the end is really just a new beginning in disguise. We learned that love is all there is and all we need to do.
To be clear, I don’t think our challenges and pain are the “required reading” on the Getting to Heaven 101 syllabus. I think our challenges and pain are simply part of life. They aren’t “given” to us by a grandfatherly spirit being in the sky for the purpose of testing our faith or making us stronger or teaching us a lesson. Life involves suffering. That’s just the way it is.
In a sense, Jesus gave us the ultimate completed stamp books and dared us to continue the same kind of redemption in his name. Just as we are “stamped” by the cross with oil at our baptism, we are invited into a life in which suffering and even death are transformed in value to something beyond our imaginings.
Jesus Doesn’t Mince Words
Yesterday’s gospel reading depicts Jesus taking Peter to task. Jesus is telling his disciples that he will soon need to go to Jerusalem, where he will be persecuted and killed. Yet Peter wants none of it: “’God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you,’” (Matthew 16: 22). Jesus isn’t just miffed. He is enraged and responds to Peter in a way that leaves no doubt about where he stands on this issue: “‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do,’” (23).
I think Jesus was trying to tell Peter that there is no Easy Button, no simple “rescue mission.” It didn’t exist for him, and it doesn’t exist for us. Suffering is a part of life. Period. We can either be pissed off about it, or we can be redeemed through it. I think many people who leave the Church have done all the right things…but still suffered. Those who see religion as “rescue” sometimes end up heading for the doors when that which we feel we need to be rescued from remains our captor.
But those who see religion as “redemption,” the kind that is more than just the superhero swooping in and whisking us out, but the kind in which value has been transferred to even the darkest, most difficult of experiences, are on to something. It’s not a passive wait-for-someone-to-save-me gig. It’s a lick em’ and stick ‘em endeavor that involves lots of work at the kitchen table too.
The word “religion” itself comes from the Latin religare, which means “to bind.” I think good religion does just that. Like the ligaments in our bodies that also share this same rot, good religion connects the dots. It links us to the sacred value in everything, even the worst parts of our lives…if only we have the eyes to see.