As I work on my reflections for tomorrow’s sermon, I’ve become all the more aware of how much I miss William Placher’s brilliant scholarship. He had a knack for wrestling with theological problems with great humility, integrity and accessibility, not to mention incredible depth. While he wasn’t afraid to embrace fairly orthodox perspectives, he never did so in a pretentious way. In a field so full of arrogant certitudes, presuppositions and rigidities, Placher was a breath of fresh air.
Today, I re-read the intriguing article Placher published in the Christian Century just six months before he died in which he revisited a question that has long fallen out of favor in most liberal circles, yet is becoming increasingly apropos: “How Does Jesus Save?” With the usual breadth of analysis that is customary to his work, he walked readers through most of the prominent atonement theories that have been put forth in the history of Christendom. From Anselm and Abelard to contemporary theorists like Brock and Girard, he highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, yet he kept coming back to the same fundamental problem: Namely, regardless of whichever approach to atonement theology one views as most helpful, why is it so difficult for human beings to change? Whether it be through the moral influence theory (Abelard) or the exposure of the scapegoat (Girard), human beings still run into the same problems that human beings have struggled with throughout the ages:
My problem–and I suspect it is also the problem of many others–is the one described by Paul so long ago: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:18b-19). Helping me to realize my faults is therefore in itself no cure. I understand that when despised outsiders are over there, and people over here are speaking of them hurtfully and with contempt, then I ought to move from here to there. But it is much more comfortable over here, and the people here are often better looking and rather consistently more successful. Many days, I would rather stay put.
Tomorrow, on the eve of Holy Week, I will preach a sermon that talks about the importance of following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, which includes following Jesus all the way to the cross. I will say that as disciples of Jesus, we too should take up our own crosses, confront the powers that be, and refuse to compromise no matter the cost. It is the call of discipleship, and it is to be taken with utmost sobriety.
Yet at the same time, in the back of my mind, I also know that, as a human being, I am quite frail and flawed, as all of us are. Despite all of my best intentions, I will find a way to shout Hosanna as Jesus enters Jerusalem, laud him as the Son of David, and proclaim that he is a much more suitable Son of God than his rival, the Roman emperor (who was also called Son of God), and then, just like Peter did a few days later, I too will deny Jesus time and again. I don’t mean I’ll deny him in the trivial sense of not cognitively affirming that he is the messiah, but in the very real sense of denying him each time I turn my back on the poor, each time I refuse to give voice to the voiceless, each time I choose the safety of my comfort zone as opposed to the demands of the cross. All of which tells me that, somehow someway, I need saved: not so much for a heaven light years away (which I suppose I’m not necessarily against), but rather I need saved here and now, in the midst of my relationships with others and my relationships with the systems and structures of this world that deny life to others.
Despite all of my progressive ‘sensibilities’ and education, I’ve come to terms with the fact that following Jesus only as a moral exemplar isn’t the full meal deal. At some level, I need saved. Not so much for the sake of myself (though I’m not opposed to that either) but for the sake of the way I treat others and the way I treat the world. I’m not sure how it might happen — even though plenty of theologians and well-intentioned friends have tried to tell me — and I’m certainly not advocating a return to horrific forms of redemptive violence that still make me cringe. Not at all. But I do find myself hoping and praying and sighing and weeping for that which is beyond my best doing, my best efforts, and my best intentions. In other words, I am crying out for God. I need saved.