Today we celebrate the life and legacy of civil right leader Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes on the memorial wall at the King Memorial in Washington DC states, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” A related quote on the wall states, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We will want to reflect on these remarkable quotes here in the heart of our national capital right in the midst of the many war memorials glorifying our nation’s wars.
How do these quotes relate to the language of sacrificial love in the Bible? Even as a child I had feelings of revulsion about the sacrificial imagery of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God. And it isn’t that I was that squeamish or over-sensitive kid. I was a farm boy who saw lots of the raw stuff of life, including butchering animals. My doubts are more intellectual. There are ancient traditions of human cultures sacrificing animals and even other humans to placate the anger of their gods. There’s often a magical quality to belief in such sacrifices.
How does such stuff fit into the religious sensibilities of a caring faith community? Does God really demand blood to free us from our sins? What kind of God is that? Many find such images and words repulsive and unbelievable. The idea that God demanded the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God, as a payment for sin is to believe in divine child abuse.
How do we begin to unravel this tangled ball of yarn? There certainly is sacrificial language in the Bible. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This title for Jesus appears to be directly related to the Jewish religious practice of sacrificing a spotless lamb during Passover. Jesus becomes that spotless lamb.
However, the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross placated God’s anger or need for justice because of our sins came centuries later. The so-called “substitutionary atonement theory” was developed by the theologian Anselm in 1097. He claimed that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side. However, it required a perfect human to make that sacrifice. That’s why Jesus became human to pay the price for our sins.
But we don’t read that in the Bible. Biblical scholar Marcos Borg states, “Implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to ‘save’ us, completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. . . Jesus didn’t just die—he was killed. And not killed by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority” (Speaking Christian, 99). He was killed by the powers that ruled this world because they saw him as a threat.
Furthermore, Borg explains, “Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution—as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. More basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God . . . An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process”(102). In this religious ritual, participants commune with God and each other through eating the “made sacred” animal, vegetable, or fruit around a common table.
The biblical and early Christian understanding was that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed the power of God’s love and achieved a victory over the forces of evil. It demonstrated that sacrificial love is more powerful than anything the imperial power of Rome or any other destructive power could do to stop Jesus.
In John’s Gospel, according to biblical scholar Robert Kysar, “The Lamb of God is the liberating revealer of God. His freeing function occurs not strictly through his suffering and death but through his very person. To know him is to be freed.” (John: The Maverick Gospel, 37). It’s the victory of the Lamb who reveals God’s powerful, unconditional love. It was this superior power of love that King used so effectively in the civil rights struggle.