Penal Substitution Dies on the Reservation

Penal Substitution Dies on the Reservation June 1, 2013

I’ve been to Taizé twice, in France. Occasionally, Taizé goes on the road, as it did last weekend, to South Dakota. More specifically, the gathering was on Red Shirt Table, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, just miles from where I lived the summers of 1994, 95, and 96, in Manderson. I would have loved to participate, being that the gathering was a marriage of two of my favorite places in the world. But, alas, Taizé is not for me. It’s specifically for people under 35 — which I’m not — or faith leaders who were leading groups of people under 35 — which I’m also not.

Jason Micheli (subscribe to his blog!), however, is. He led a group of folks from his church in Virginia to SoDak last week, and, at my request, he sent this report:

Photo by Sydney Foster

Over the Memorial Day Weekend a few of us from my congregation joined between 1,000-1,500 pilgrims from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to participate in the rhythms of their communal life, and once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota nation to welcome pilgrims to Red Shirt.

Just as pilgrims do at Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge in worship (sung chants, sung prayers and a whole lot of silence) 3 times a day. 

We shared simple meals of buffalo meat straight off the rez, and we shared our faith stories in small groups.

We listened to each other; in fact, listening was the primary reason we’d gathered. We camped in tents in a horse pasture and went, uncomplaining, without running water. For those few days at least, we did our best to approximate the simplicity and joy of what the New Testament refers to as the oikos: the ‘economy’ or household of God.

Our ‘sanctuary’ was a hollow carved out by the wind in the middle of the badlands. We sat in the prairie grass under the sun and stars. 

Sunday night’s worship concluded with Taize’s traditional Prayer around the Cross. The cross is an icon of the Crucified Christ with water rushing out from his pierced side. For the prayer around the cross, the icon is taken out of its stand and laid on top of 4 cinder blocks so that it’s about a foot off of the floor and perpendicular to it. As the gathered sing, one by one, pilgrims approach the cross on their knees. Once they make their way to the cross, they place their forehead on the cross and pray.

The Prayer around the Cross is powerful to experience.

It’s just as powerful to watch so many approach the cross with devotion and seriousness. But it’s even more powerful to notice the patience and hospitality everyone affords one another during the prayer, for it can take a good long while for that many people to crawl to the cross and then pray on it.

Before the Prayer around the Cross on Sunday night, Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, invited us to place our burdens upon the cross, the burdens we suffer both personally and collectively ‘because,’ Brother Alois said in his simple yet incisive way, ‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’ 

His words hit me with converting clarity.

The prairie wind I felt blow across me could very well have been the Holy Spirit.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

Sitting all around us were Lakota Christians, young and old, whose families had been herded like cattle onto a patch of land aptly named the badlands. Promise after promise made to them and treaty after treaty made with them had been broken- because why do you need to keep your word to cattle? There on the reservation unemployment is over 80% (just think what the average suburban street would be like with unemployment that high). As a result, alcoholism and hopelessness are nearly as high, and I can’t remember the last time I read a news story or heard a politician mention an Indian issue other than the name of a f&^*%$# football team.

We prayed that night just a stone’s throw from Wounded Knee, the site of massacre where a mass grave of over 300 innocents slaughtered by the U.S. Army little more than a hundred years ago. Afterwards the soldiers took gleeful pictures next to heaps of bodies of children and their mothers. Wounded Knee remains a festering wound of memory for the Lakota.

When Brother Alois mentioned the cross and collective suffering, we all knew what he meant. 

And in one sense, nothing he said was revelatory or profound.

Yet here’s what hit me about what he said and from where he said it: the ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Lakota, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me. 

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin.

Jesus is your substitute.

He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had a problem with penal substitution. Quickly: penal substitution seems to make God’s wrath more determinative an attribute than God’s loving mercy. It easily devolves into a hyper individualistic account of the faith (me and God). God the Father comes out, at best, seeming like a petulant prick who bears little to no resemblance to the Son, and, at worse, the Father seems captive to his own ‘laws’ of righteousness, honor, wrath and expiation.

Forgiveness, it’s always seemed to me, shouldn’t be so hard.

And shouldn’t require someone to die.

I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when I heard Brother Alois introduce the Prayer around the Cross the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about the millions of others whom those wretches, who’ve been found by this amazing grace, treated like chattel?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.  We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us. 

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brother Alois’ words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering. 

Sure, every single, last Lakota gathered with us was, on an individual level, a ‘sinner.’ Just as surely to focus so singularly misses the larger issues, for the Indians praying with us at Red Shirt have been sinned against by us actively for centuries and they are now sinned against by our cynical indifference.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Pine Ridge. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

On my knees in the hollow that was our sanctuary and hearing Brother Alois’ words as they struck the ears of Indians along with mine, I realized that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies as one of us. With us.

In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location. Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears — that’s what I realized at Pine Ridge.

The cross, I realized at Pine Ridge, is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord. 

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, Pine Ridge has left me believing that the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

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  • Sharla Hulsey

    Who says Taize is only for under 35? I don’t remember hearing anything about that.

    • It was very clearly in the literature.

      • Sharla Hulsey

        Lovely. So first I age out of the “young clergy” and “young professional” groups, and now Taize shuts the door in my face, too?

        • Luke Allison

          I do find it somewhat ironic that those who tend to be the most concerned about “cultural myopia” seem to be so myopic on this issue. Have you ever been to a 35 and under mosque? Not I. Fawning over youth is a distinctly Western affliction. Too bad.

  • toddh

    Great post, his blog has a new subscriber.

  • mvh

    I suspect you mean Isaac Watts rather than Newton?

    • Larry Barber

      Actually, I think he meant John Newton, who wrote the lyrics for “Amazing Grace”.

      • Argh, yes I did. That’s what I get for typing on my iPhone and not double checking.

        • Larry Barber

          No, no, no, you’re supposed to blame it on auto-correct.

      • Ryon Price

        I wonder if Tony knows that before Newton was a slave ship captain he was himself enslaved in Africa. He then went on to testify before parliament about his experiences in the effort to abolish the slave trade. In that sense Newton was all in one oppressed, oppressor and finally liberator. That’s the Gospel hope for us all.

  • Craig

    Jason, these are insightful and provocative reflections.

    I wonder, however, if there might be a deeper explanation for Christians’ peculiar blindspot for their moral responsibility for the evils that result from collective behavior and institutions. I say the blindspot is peculiar insofar as Christians are so ostensibly earnest about moral responsibility.

    Here’s the deeper problem, as I see it. Christianity is tied to moral codes formulated in a context in which there wasn’t any pressing need to evaluate, in moral terms, democratic states, modern corporations, and seemingly innocuous individual behavior, which, when multiplied by the contemporary population, leads to global disasters. Even Jesus’ two greatest commandments (which are quite progressive by biblical standards) are overly individualistic and overly interpersonal. So, while these commandments might inspire one to avoid mugging a passerby or to care for a particular orphan, they are less likely to influence a devotee to reduce her carbon footprint, or to seek broader institutional changes whereby she only affects others in a highly indirect ways. And, insofar as evils are thought to result from violations of such simply commandments, this will obstruct awareness of problems more complexly rooted in collective behavior and institutions.

    • matybigfro

      I don’t buy it, I think there were as many complex moral situations in times of the bible as there were now. Jesus said give unto ceaser what is ceasers (he must have known that money and taxes of empire funded both it’s expansion and it’s murder).

      Early Christians will have wrestled with the same trials as we do now hences legends like that of the Theban Legion

  • “To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.”

    Tony, I keep getting hung up on this sentence. Doesn’t Christ die equally for oppressor AND oppressed? I have read this post over and over. I am not sure I’m picking up what your putting down.

  • S_i_m_o_n

    I think Jason completely under sells penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). He acknowledges in his post that the Lakota are both sinned against and sinners themselves while at the same time claiming that PSA has no good news for them.
    Perhaps the fact that Jason only gives one off the cuff sentence about their own sin means that he thinks it is not a big deal. He seems quite intent to focus only on the oppression aspect of their woundedness. But even if we focus just on this, Jason’s assumptions about PSA seem all wrong to me. His assertion that ‘To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.’ is never fleshed out and I really don’t see it. Perhaps it is partly because I disagree with the first part of the sentence. I don’t think PSA suggests that Christ’s death was primarily for any one particular group of sinners. I think Jason would be hard pressed to find any evangelical that would teach that. But I would like to know why he thinks Christ’s death for the sins of any oppressor perpetuates the oppressed’s suffering. Surely it would only do that if bitterness and not forgiveness was in the heart of the oppressed. And Jason’s thought that forgiveness should be easy really points out the place of privilege he has that he so disdains. Forgiveness may be easy for him but he didn’t have hundreds of his friends and family massacred. I would say that for the Lakota forgiveness would be a difficult thing both for those in the past and the present. Was there ever any justice for the Lakota? Did the Colonel in charge get demoted or jailed … or shot? No! In fact he eventually was promoted. So Jason, how easy is it to forgive an oppressor when justice is not served? PSA speaks directly to this. Out of love, justice was served at the cross.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I believe Jason was pointing to the relationship between the hyper-individualism that PSA promotes (I’m a sinner in the spokewheels of the fallen world, but Jesus died for me anyway so I can go to heaven when I die) is not helpful, and I’d agree.

    Notwithstanding all of the other historical/theological holes larger than Swiss cheese in the PSA theory (an idea completely foreign to the pre-Augustinian Church and then not even articulated until hundreds of years after Augustine), it’s not surprising it’s incredibly popular with people of the Reformed tradition and who promote a “sola fide” theology. It forces recognition of sin and repentment but doesn’t truly demand responsibility and accountability (or the actions that accompany responsibility), b/c the magic cosmological event already happened for YOU.

    • S_i_m_o_n

      How so? Doesn’t PSA state that YOU are responsible for the bad deeds done and good deeds left undone, harsh words spoken and kind words left unspoken, impure thinking and the failure to think on good things that God in his love put on his own Son at the cross.

      Or are you arguing more that PSA Christians get saved and that’s where there Christian life ends? I think there are some that think that way but I’ve never heard it from evangelical pulpits. I’ve always heard that this is where life starts, not ends. Take Ephesians and Galatians for example. Ephesians 2 contains the dreaded sin problem and “sola fide” but it finishes with the works to be done by the Christian saved through faith. And on to the next chapter and we see reconciliation by the Gospel of jews and gentiles. Or Galatians where Paul states Christ was cursed for us so that through faith we may receive the blessings promised to Abraham. And flowing from that is liberation. Tony says reconciliation and liberation are two key pillars of the gospel and I believe he is in a sense correct in that they stand as results of PSA. What Tony has not yet explained in a comprehensible way is how he thinks Christ’s death achieves these two things. Guess I’ll have to wade through his book when it comes out.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Heartfelt compassion is all I read, so I had to re-read. And re-read again. And one more time to get grounded. A wonder of mercy: my initial view. Then the brain sort of stretched and yawned, very slowly gaining critical thought.

    I, too, have always been bothered by “penal substitution,” for the reasons you mentioned and others, such any fireman, police officer, soldier, or parent that met horrific deaths for the sake of others. Crucifixation is truly terrible, yet many others have suffered as much out of love.

    We side with the victims and despise the oppressors or perpetrators. On that subject, the Irish suffered far, far more than Native Americans; the most oppressed and abused people in history, Jews and Blacks included. Yet the gospels offer a door out of victimhood. To perpetually “suffer” from past harm done is not Christian, or what Christ offered: it is worldly and at enmity with God.

    But this is a Process. We are not to blame those who have yet to find the freedom of Christ in their life: we are to enter into, as you did, genuine and caring relationship. Jesus seems to offer a come as you are open arms. I received the same at AA. Yet in AA there is a spiritual axiom: “Whenver I am distrubed, the problem is in me.” This realization (“to find and bring into being”) takes time and for some is never known.

    In spirit and truth, we can never be harmed. We are given the means to come to that point, by spirit and grace…if we submit. And that is part of putting away childish things to become as a little child.

    Wiped clean by the blood of Christ means the complementary metanoia (reprentance, change of heart) and not a pass to continue as is for the slave-holder. We are meant to be salve-holders. The trap of resentment and being a victim is no less cruel or oppressive; co-conspirators, if you will. I do not think Paul was ignorant or approved of slavery; his advice pointed to the fact that reality, our circumstance and condition, is only in the heart. Love of our enemies is our permenant condition and circumstance.

    To conclude, I read “whitewashed tombs” far, far differently than you do here. His reproach of the Pharisees had nothing whatsoever or even remotely to do with Rome but a simple metaphor for image versus heart. Jesus had nothing directly to say against Rome, to suggest such is, to me, an ugly corruption of his message. “Render unto Caesar…”: a truly scandalous view, given the annihilating taxes imposed on the Jews in Jerusalem; enough for an impromptu hanging.

  • I don’t have anything to add to this post, just a thank you to Tony for hosting it and to Jason for writing it. This has enriched my understanding of what Jesus did and what he calls us to do tremendously.