Sunday, March 3, 2013


Saved/Liberated/Redeemed from what? and How?
What might it mean to say "Jesus paid for our sins?"

Donald Schell

We were talking about “atonement,” wondering about ancient and twenty-first century alternatives to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the theory that God the Father needed Jesus to die to pay the infinite debt of our sin and propitiate divine justice (or honor).   Our conversation was online on the AP-Members listserv, and as it approached forty exchanges, some of us observed that it was one of the liveliest and most engaged conversations we’d ever experienced on the frequently lively forum. 

Associated Parishes Council member Juan Oliver pointed out several times along that the way our fresh responses to the question of how Jesus’ life and death bring us into communion with God will shape or deform 21st century liturgy.  I love that observation and challenge.

Juan was challenging the normative status that conventional Christian discourse has given to the image of payment and debt.  He suggested (and I like this very much) that the real question was, “Saved/Liberated/Redeemed from what? and How?”
But I was also curious about what scriptural and traditional warrant there was for the payment language, and what we might learn from looking at that language outside the familiar, deadening formulas of conservative evangelical preaching.  So, I went looking and offered the following line of thought (along with my appreciative “AMEN!” to Juan’s question):

Along with my Amen to Juan's question, I’m noticing that “redemption” or “liberation” both in the Moses story (and I expect in the New Testament) has its specific, experiential context in being bought out of slavery or delivered from slavery.  

The pervasive institution of slavery in the Roman Empire is a context we often miss in reading the New Testament.  Paul's letter to Philemon is an obvious witness to the presence of slaves in the church - as is our beloved Galatians passage insisting that in Christ there is neither slave nor free.  And we could find plenty of other passages that refer to slavery or use the image of slavery in different ways to evoke a feeling or emphasize an aspect of Christian life.  We don’t see how slavery is part of our experience, and if we push on it, we’re apt to find ourselves thinking about how the institution of slavery in the pre-Civil War South was different from slavery in the Roman Empire without looking at what it would have been like in the old South or in the Roman marketplace to see people bought and sold and to have members of our worshipping community who were themselves slaves. 
            - What did it mean in early church practice to vest the newly baptized in the new garments of a free person?  
            - Even as late as Nicaea, there are canons ruling on whether slaves can be ordained presbyter.  They're free in Christ, but does that give them the freedom to do their work...or is a residual question of dignity creeping in?
            - How does St. Paul’s deep awareness of his status as a free Roman citizen shape his theology and understanding of the work of God in Christ?

Contemporary preachers of substitutionary atonement miss First Century people's real experience of the slave market and some Christian communities' experience of freed and not-freed slaves among them.  
I went looking. What I found was that pretty much anytime Paul wants to talk about freedom, he makes a contrast with what used to enslave us, or exhorts us not to consent to giving up our freedom to become slaves again, or he ventures to call us “slaves in Christ” or “slaves for Christ’s sake.”  When Paul talks about freedom and obedience, slavery and a real experience of enslaved peoples seems to be very present in his thinking.  Try this - look for where Paul talks about freedom; in nearby verses you'll likely to find a reference to slavery.   

Thinking of his writing in a social context where slavery was an every day institution, it becomes much more startling for Paul to suggest that we who were once slaves of sin are now slaves of Christ or of God.  

I’m guessing that for first century people in the Roman Empire, people who could regularly see slaves bought and sold, that a teacher saying something about the purchase price of a human being or of us having our freedom because a price had been paid would resonate with a variety of everyday experiences of prices paid for people.  So the question of who is paying and to whom would be the question of context.  The fundamentalist preacher’s fixation on the amount paid misses an important part of the point.

Here are some of the texts I found -

I Corinthians 6:19-20
. . .do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. 

1 Corinthians 7:23 
You were bought with a price; do not become the slaves of human masters.

2 Peter 2:1 
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 

Revelation 5:9
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. . ." 

There’s familiar language in these texts because they’re the raw material from which Anselm (and much worse, today’s Anselmian fundamentalists) craft horror stories about the price paid to a wrathful god to redeem us from his killing rage.  

But what catches my attention in them is the question the social and economic context of the first hearers of Paul’s epistles would ask from experience.  If we were slaves who had our freedom purchased for us, who is the seller?  The image is of a transactional purchase, and if we're being bought from slavery, who was the slave owner -  death? sin?

Another intriguing echo of the first century Roman world in the theological language, the atonement language of the New Testament is adoption.  So somehow Jesus’ death buys us our freedom and then we’re adopted as God’s children.  It’s Paul again.  And the literature of the Roman Empire has plenty of stories of adoption including the man who would become the Emperor Augustus being adopted by Julius Caesar.  The stories we hear of important people adopting someone in the Empire are stories of a freed person being made an heir.  It seems unlikely to the point of bizarre that any New Testament listener could even follow a story in which the son of the house paid the price of a slave’s freedom in order to get the father/owner who wanted to punish the slave severely to make that slave his heir.  The seller in the story has got to be someone else. 

Poking around on the internet (such a joy for something like this), I found this in a fascinating article, “The Adoption of Roman Freedmen,” by Jane F. Gardner:
“It is a striking feature of Roman society that a slave could be made a Roman citizen by an act of manumission in due form by an individual citizen.  However, in the eyes of the law the freedman had no relatives in the ascending or collateral lines.  Although he bore the name of his former owner, he was himself the beginning of his own family line, as recognized by law.”

If we were slaves and God in Christ first bought our freedom, then our adoption as fellow heirs with Christ would not be the act of manumission that gives us name but no inheritance in the family of God.     

The next line of thought may be a bit of a stretch.  Paul isn’t writing as an abolitionist and the images of freedom from slavery and adoption that he offers us fit in an orderly way in the society, politics and economy of the first century marketplace.  But what happens to the history, the life story of the slave who is no longer a slave?  If the owner doesn’t free the slave, but consents to a sale, and sells to someone who frees the slave (let alone adopts the freed slave and makes him a citizen), what does it say about the moral legitimacy, not necessarily of the legal institution of slavery, but at least of that particular person having been a slave.  He was a person who was more person than the designation “slave” allows.  When we discover that someone enslaved has a freedman in him, what does it say about the person who imagined he owned him?

The transaction of purchase and then bestowing the dignity of sonship by adoption is a shaming, a reproach to one who “owned” the slave.  If a slave is not who he IS, is it who he WAS?  Watching a free human being emerge from the sale transaction does seems to de-legitimate the owner and claim of one-time ownership.  The seller ends up with the cash payment and a problematic statement about who he believed himself to be as “owner” of a man who has proved to be someone else. 

So, I might be pushing for something more than the New Testament saw in this theological transaction that freed a slave.

I just watched “Django Unchained” and found Tarrantino's comic book, superhero, morality play fascinating.  It’s a fantasy story and it’s set in another time and offers a different version of the institution of slavery.  But, writing about St. Paul’s purchase imagery, and wondering what sort of person (or power or force) enslaves someone and what’s involved in such a person or power or force accepting a price for them reminds me of Django and Dr. King Schultz in the moment of crisis agreeing to pay $12,000 to free Django’s wife Broomhilda who is "only worth $300" according to her evil owner, Calvin Candie.  Is that what she’s worth?  And what does it mean that the plantation owner forces a far higher payment for her?  And what do Dr. Schultz and Django say to Calvin Candie and about Calvin Candie by agreeing to an outrageous price?  First, of course, that they believe she is actually worth it.  Candie thinks he’s proving them fools.  What do they make him as the “owner” by paying such a price?

Dr. Schultz clearly believes the vain and arrogant Calvin Candie has debased himself to become less than fully human.  Candie sees that, sees the dark implication of the exchange that he himself has forced and, in addition to the deed of sale, demands a handshake from Dr. Schultz.  Schultz refuses, shoots Candie with his derringer and All Hell Breaks Loose.  It’s a terrible moment in the film, but it makes perfect sense because Dr. Schultz finds Calvin Candie so disugsting that he must refuse to shake his hand. 

The way the film transaction goes wrong emphasizes something important in the Gospel imagery. The price Jesus pays has the Trinity shaking hands with death, sin, and Satan, not just paying the huge price, but offering the handshake that legitimate the ownership of damnable destruction.  AND YET, as God “makes the sinless one into sin,” the transaction becomes a bizarre, scandalous an act of creation.  It's how St. Francis gets to giving thanks for Brother Death, our old enemy.  I do think (with a grateful nod to Quentin Tarrentino) that this is actually close to where Paul takes us. And it's far from Jesus delivering the $12,000 to his angry father.

Donald, a past president of APLM, was co-founder and rector of St. Gregory's, San Francisco, and is now President of All Saints Company,


  1. Thanks for your kind words, Donald, and your illuminating excursus on slavery. The question of HOW still remains, though. How are human beings subject to suffering and death in our world today? I am not asking an abstract theological question to be answered by a mythological abstraction like "because of Adam and Eve" but a concrete practial, question better answered by sociologists and economists. If our church communities were to do a little research about their own neighborhoods, asking "who's dying, sick, hungry, abused, and WHY?" They might bump into the local causes of structural evil and death. real, tangible evil and death, and might, just might, have the integrity and vision to organize themselves to undo these local structures. Redemption from enslavement would then not be understood as the imputation of individual guilt a priori, but as an action begun by Jesus BEFORE the cross, which in fact took him to it, and countinues today through his Body.

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