Redemption tales from the launderette


The laundromat is a great place to talk theology. This weekend, my son and I were talking about redemption.

I wouldn't be the Cranky Catholic if I didn't have a different take on things, and redemption is no different. Whats does redemption mean, and how do I get one?

Redemption means to buy back. In the old days, people received S&H Green stamps when they made a purchase. Buy ten bucks worth of groceries, and you got (say) 10 green stamps. When they got home, people would stick the green stamps into books. When the book was full, you'd start another one. When you had a stack of them, you could redeem the stamps for an item from the S&H catalog. 10 books might get you a desk lamp. 20 might get you a decorative plate.

But the idea was that you had to give something up to get something.

Redemption in the religious sense has  been likened to this kind of buy-back scenario. It was put into easy-to-understand by some Christians when they taught that God had to buy back the human race from the Devil. Through some cosmic catastrophe, the Devil had captured us and was holding us hostage. I guess in his Fortress of Evil Solitude. Instead of the Devil getting to kill us all spiritually, God sent Jesus in a kind of prisoner exchange. Thinking that he now had God in his power, the Devil got Jesus crucified and buried. But old Scratch was outwitted when Jesus was raised from the dead, wrecking the Fortress of Evil Solitude on the ways out and freeing pious souls who had already been trapped in Hell.

It would make for a terrific Hollywood blockbuster.

If that scenario is too literal for your taste, there's Saint Anselm's theory of redemption, written in the 11th century, during the feudal era, lords-and-serfs times, which goes like this. God is divine. His creations, including humans, are mortal. There is an enormous difference in cosmic value between infinite divinity and finite creation. When God created Adam and Eve, all was well until they ate the apple. Their disobedience was not just another mid-afternoon lark, easily forgiven. It was a crime of cosmic proportions, committed by a mortal against divinity. In the same way that a crime of a feudal serf against his lord would merit disproportional punishment, so would the outrage of humanity's act of  lèse majesté have out-of-this-world consequences. God's honor, like that of a serf against his lord, could not be repaid in kind, because God's honor was beyond the ability of humanity to repay.

There was only one way that a slight against a divinity could be assuaged. And that was by an act of another divinity. This might be complicated in a strictly monotheistic universe, but Christianity worshiped a triune God. So, in his mercy and goodness, God sent his own son to Earth, to repay the hurt done to his honor. Jesus stood in for us, and took the executioner's bullet that we deserved. His death, because he was God, satisfied the injury done to God's honor, and restored the relationship that had been broken between God and humanity.

And so, things have stood for the last thousand years.

But is this still a tenable explanation for the purpose of Jesus's life? Was God really so mad at us that our relationship was broken and needed fixing? Are there ways to understand Jesus's death and resurrection that don't rely on hostage taking or obsolete feudal honor codes for their explanation?

How about this.

The human relationship with God has been troubled from the start by humanity's warped carnal and moral instincts. We eat too much, steal too much, don't care for each other, set up power structures that exclude, rob and punish. We are good to our friends and vile to our enemies. We fight, cheat, hurt, maim and rape. God has been working with us from the beginning to straighten us out. He sent a flood to wipe out the worst offenders; used his power to free his enslaved people from oppression; chastised them with 70 years of exile; sent prophets to kvetch about the lack of justice and righteousness. Nothing much worked over the long term.

Worse still, humans built social structures that concentrated power in the hands of the most brutal and venal among them. They used fear and pain to cause humans to worship the right gods and to honor the most powerful and ruthless. God needed to demonstrate in a definite way that he did not approve of the situation; that the gods being worshipped contained none of his holy and merciful self.

So he sent Jesus, begotten of his own substance, to live an exemplary life. The life that God would live if he were human. The life that all humans should yearn to live. He was born poor, so that he would have no pedigree that other humans could admire. He was born powerless, so that others might not love him for his great might. He was born ordinary, so that the ordinary might see in him a fellow and a brother. This Jesus lived our lives, sanctifying our ordinary lives by experiencing them. He sanctified meals and weddings by being present at them. He sanctified ordinary food--bread, wine and fish--by multiplying them. Plain old bread and wine, he made into his own essence. He spoke about hope, love, truth, forgiveness and peace. He sanctified and called blessed those that society deprived of value and livelihood and honor and hope. And when he was finally caught and stopped  by those who deal out pain and dying, he sanctified fear, pain, shame and death, taking away their power to coerce and control human lives.

He found a way to destroy death, not by running away from it, but by running toward it. The way he found, the trapdoor in the edifice of empire, led to his resurrection. And it will lead to ours. Our embrace of what others call shameful and foolish will lead to eternal life. Why? Because God, when he had the chance to live our lives, lived it that way.

It's sad that this example of divine goodness and mercy has been turned into an exclusive club. The way that Christ showed us is not limited to those who belong to a formal church or to those who proclaim magic words about him. It is open to all of good will who stand for truth, love and hope, and who leave the world a more peaceful and loving place than they found it.

Will this story wash? Maye you need to let it run through another cycle.