There is a form of Christian atonement that seems to miss the mark. It’s the idea that atonement is a legal contract, and therefore since Christ has died there is no ongoing atonement lived out by the church in the world.
So, let’s have a brief look at some of the important aspects of atonement. It means to cover evil, to put evil away. We have tended to look at this as a legal penalty for sin. But the Prophets of the Old Testament saw it more along the lines of caring for one another. In Leviticus, it was said that the Jubilee was to be celebrated on the Day of Atonement. The implications are clear and directive. We atone for evil and heal our nation by restoring fallen neighbours, those on the road to Jericho.
The spiritual side of this is forgiveness. Those restored by the jubilee are forgiven for their sin. But the forgiveness means social and financial restoration. Evil, in all its forms, is dealt with together. The cross of Christ is our atonement and our jubilee. Jesus forgave us for our sin against him, for what we did to him. This was God coming in Christ and showing us the true God: the one who forgives. He sets us free in our hearts from what holds us, from the sense that God is against us.
Being forgiven, we can now also turn to our neighbour and forgive them. Have they done worse to us than people did to Jesus on the cross? If God forgave humanity, can’t we also forgive others? Jubilee then is the new life of care we share among ourselves as we continue to forgive and restore each other. The atonement (suffering to show forgiveness and love to our enemy) and jubilee work together to build a new family that literally changes the world.
Joseph de Veuser was born in Belgium in the 19th Century. His brother was to serve in Hawaii as a priest, but he fell sick. Joseph offered himself in his brother’s stead. He wanted to go to the leper colony in Hawaii and care for the dying. The people of Hawaii were not used to this new disease and many were suffering. Others who served the lepers did so from afar, but Joseph wanted to live among them.
So, the Catholic church draped him in his burial clothes and sent him out. There he cared for the sick, washing their wounds, bathing the people, feeding them and doing whatever he could to help them in their condition. Many of the people came to know Christ through the way Joseph served them. Eventually he took the disease himself and finally died.
Over the years he was accused by many of his own church. I guess his way of life was a challenge to them. When he was dying, he was accused by a Protestant clergyman of contracting the disease through sexual activity with the people. In those days they knew little about how leprosy was contracted.
This accusation shows us the terrible truth about ourselves. It means we can say the lepers have themselves to blame, and scapegoat them, banishing them to the margins of society, where we don’t need to care for them as brothers and sisters. And we claim to be holy as we do it. The Pharisees did this daily, using different reasons for different situations. We do this all the time as well, with foreigners, with people of different faiths, or different social conditions.
Such accusations are self-serving, and often it’s where our religion meets our nationalism. The Protestants of America may have been inspired by American moves to get Hawaii for its Pacific naval base. This may not have been the case, but such controversies often do have political self-interest behind them. How good we are at masking it from even ourselves.
But possibly this last accusation shows us something about our Protestant faith as well. Standing, as we often do, in our stricter forms of Evangelicalism, seeing the atonement as a legal contract that Christ has finished, we don’t see Christ’s continuing atoning life in the world through people like Joseph. Instead, we may even repeat what they did when they accused and killed Christ.
Wikipedia reports, “Gandhi was quoted in T.N. Jagadisan’s 1965 publication, Mahatma Gandhi Answers the Challenge of Leprosy, as saying,
“The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien (Joseph de Veuser) of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who after the example of Fr. Damien have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.””
“It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”
What have we learned about atonement, when we see our Lord falsely accused and forgive us without retaliation, to fill our hearts with a new compassion, and then we go on repeating the process of scapegoating with those suffering around us today? How we have missed the lessons of the cross! What we need to see in the cross is how God calls us to follow him, to reveal his love in an accusing world.
When we look at people like Joseph, we see what preserves this world from evil. Back in his day, there were so many opportunities for the people of Europe to become very rich. World trade had opened up to them. Exploitation of the weaker peoples was very common. Many Europeans embarked on ambitious carriers, building wealth and reputations for themselves and their families. To refuse to do this would have disappointed their family’s expectations.
In such a world it takes people like Joseph to pull us all up in our tracks. He will be vilified, as he shows our governments, our religions, our secure lifestyles our sin. He will be hated as he shows us the love of God for those who have nothing, for people our systems have trodden down and thrown out. He will finally challenge this evil especially after he has died and force our systems to adopt some changes.
He literally gives his life to put away evil. “Foolishness” the world cries as he gives up all to die washing the feet of “sinners.” But what foolishness is this, that has the power to change our world? Where would we be today without these people showing us our sin? Pity, that today these people are often not from the church. The church must restore itself to the cross of Christ and become a witness, not by accusing the sinner, but serving and dying for him/ her.
How would the world know that there are better ways to live than for our own ambitions, unless we had people like Joseph to show us? See how his life and sufferings washes away the evil that drives our world into its downward spiral of empire, struggle and oppression. Lives like this bring us renewal, they point us in the right direction.
This is atonement, and the reason why we often don’t like to see it is clear enough. We would naturally prefer the legal contract kind. Atonement is not satisfying an angry God in heaven, while we go on living our own lives, legally free. It is following a compassionate God into the world to love and care, to change hearts, if God be willing, to make us new people, to fill our world with a new way of looking at the weak.
Atonement is living lives that wash away the evil of the world, that point us to God’s way of living, that turns us from our own human self-centredness. It is living the life the Sermon on the Mount points us to, and the Beatitudes, as people in exile from the self-serving “empire,” weeping with the broken, opening to us all a new kingdom, a true realty that looks beyond our own welfare. This atones for our sin, does away with its evil footprint in our hearts and nations, and restores own neighbour in jubilee. The great once forever atonement of Christ that brings new creation, must be followed by those who love him.