Reflections · Social Justice

Salvation, Atonement, and Shalom Justice

Wooden-Cross-weatheredIn his book Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, & Peace, Perry Yoder traces the concept of salvation throughout the Bible. In so doing, he states:

“… we found a view quite different from our usual understanding of salvation. We often regard salvation as a spiritual, internal, and otherworldly transaction which has to do with God and the person’s relation with God. It has little to do with the actual physical life and circumstances of the individual. This contrasts sharply with what we found stressed in the Bible: salvation as material and political deliverance — salvation as liberation.”

Over the centuries, the church has developed several theories to try to interpret what happened through Jesus’s life, death and resurrection to bring about atonement, or reconciliation to God. It is in these theories that Yoder suggests we have ended up too often dismissing the deeper ramifications of Jesus’s history on Earth.

After reviewing the three most common theories of atonement, Yoder proposes a traditional view of salvation, one that follows from the first major act of salvation when God liberated the Israelites from the Egyptians and the intervening lessons from the kings and prophets. This traditional view does not replace the other theories of atonement but supplements them, emphasizing the messianic view of Jesus.

Salvation is a continuing story of liberation from bondage. Sin was but one bondage. Physical ailments, physical poverty, and oppression were other forms of bondage, and indeed, ones that consistently were especially emphasized in the old testament and also in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was how he regularly indicated others would know he was the messiah.

“As a result, what Jesus, as the messiah, taught and did was not just a filler to take up the time from his birth to his death.”

“[I]n living out this good news as well as proclaiming it, Jesus clashed with the dominant values of the elite.”

“In this clash, Jesus struggles from the beginning to the end of his ministry with the question of means.”

“Jesus submits, suffers, and dies on a cross rather than try to impose the messianic order by military or political means.”

“God, however, raised him from the dead as a sign that Jesus’ way of suffering love resulted in victory over the powers of evil and oppression.”

“Furthermore, since, in his death, Jesus absorbed evil, God’s power is shown in the absorption of evil.”

Ultimately, Jesus’ death on the cross was the closing act of a work of salvation, liberation from bondage, that began in Egypt. But in His final words, “It is finished,” He was not sighing in defeat but stating that the act was completed positively and appropriately. Through His choices in the desert and at the cross to forego military or political means to bring into existence God’s new kingdom, He changed everything.

Yesterday was Good Friday. For those who witnessed Jesus’ death, that day and the day following were the darkest days in His disciples lives. Last night at our tenebrae service, we left very somberly as symbolism and staging were used to help us feel some of that darkness ourselves. But we know the ending of the story. On Sunday, Jesus arose. We know that in his life, death, and resurrection not only do we have the closing of one act, a completion of atonement, but we also have the start of a second act, the start of God’s new kingdom. Today we live in a time when the old kingdom, one of ongoing sin, of rejection and imperfect understanding of God’s perfect plan, continues. But we also have the hope that one day Jesus will return to end this second act, and usher in the final act in which we live with full understanding.

Still, in this second act we are able and called upon to be shalom makers. Yoder emphasizes that this is about liberation now, a liberation that follows the historical tradition of physical salvation. We are charged to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. We are charged to fight on behalf of the oppressed. We are charged to look after the alien among us. We do this through gleaning laws and through the year of jubilee. We do this by not charging interest on loans, and by giving to anyone who asks of us. That is, we do this by redistributing from those who have an abundance to those who have need. Nor are these acts to be based on merit. We are to live and forgive as Jesus lived and forgave. Never merit, always grace.

Jesus’ life was an ongoing example of these principles and laws. His first words in the temple were along these lines. His every action was consistent with this. His death occurred precisely because these acts challenged the values of the elite. And His call for us to go and make disciples is a call for ourselves and others to follow His example in all these things!

As I reflect on this Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, I wonder how my neighborhood would be different if I consistently went beyond simply professing belief in Jesus, and instead lived as His disciple.

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