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mean go away

While surfing the interweb the other day I happened upon yet another attempt at describing the “people you meet” in society. Apparently stereo-typing people is some sort of hobby on line. But one of these got my attention. I can’t vouch for anything on the site itself but this seemed dead on: Some people’s idea of right and wrong just boils down to “Is it mean?”

No good can come from any discussion on race, you see, because the very word “race” is “mean.” Only “mean” things can come of it. If we act like race does not exist, things will be nicer, which is always better.Seemingly all of their political beliefs stem from a “Is it mean?” type mentality. They are opposed to all war because war is a very mean thing. They hate those big corporations because big corporations are really mean. Opposing gay marriage is mean, and sealing the border is mean. Meanwhile they like poetry, because it is nice. Drugs are nice too, as are revealing clothes, since sex is very nice.

Some of you faithful readers are nodding your heads right now. Mean and Not Mean are the only categories they can handle. This goes for theological concepts as well. A dear friend of mine recently sent me a post entitled “Why Did Jesus Have to Die”  Most Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus died to atone for our sins. However, atonement implies a debt and that seems to imply a mean God:

. . . As powerful as the idea of unworthy sinners being saved by a loving Jesus may be, the corresponding idea of an angry God so unwilling to forgive that he has no choice but to murder His only son causes many of us some problems. So is it possible to push back against the atonement theory formulated by St. Anselm of Canterbury and imagine other meaningful reasons for Jesus to go to the Cross this week?

I’m sorry. I’m trying to be charitable here (i.e. not mean) but can we critique the atonement doctrine mentioned by Anselm by imagining some other reasons? Who talks like that? I’m going to “push back” against assumptions about taxes by imagining other ways we might think about taxes. I’m going to “push back” against your arguments in favor of the right to own a hand gun by imagining everyone buys guns for their artistic quality? And what sort of reasons does the author’s imagination latch on to?

First and most obviously, Jesus died because he stood up against the world-shaking power of the Roman Empire. To assert that Caesar was not Lord was treason — and to assert that there were powers beyond the temporal power of Rome was enough to get anyone killed.

Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan remind us in The Last Week about the prophetic and counter-cultural courage of Jesus. The very Palm Sunday celebration many Christians reenact was actually a prophetic demonstration against the power of Rome: Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives on his donkey, a peasant hailed by the people for his message of the Kingdom of God. Pontius Pilate rode in from the west at the head of a column of Roman legionaires, bearing the power of Rome. It was a collision between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, and as Borg and Crossan write, “The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.” (2)

Jesus staked his life on the belief that God’s power is supreme — and his resurrection proves it. The power of the Empire to torture and kill, to impose its will, is nothing compared to the power of God, which will not let sin and death have the last word.

There’s a fallacy here that, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “The All or Nothing Fallacy.” I agree with Borg and Crossan that speaking truth to power is one of the things Jesus’ death did. However, that doesn’t “push back” against the doctrine of the atonement as if its Jesus the revolutionary or nothing. The author almost implies Anselm of Canterbury formulated instead of you know, a thousand years of church history where Christians articulated the concept of God which included radical love and sacrifice for our sin. We can simply ignore those bits of evidence in favor of a less mean God that we are more comfortable with. This seems to echo the previous description of the those who reduce all ethical discussion to “Is it mean?”

What makes this so frustrating is that having a political or philosophical discussion with an adherent of the “Is it mean?” mentality is impossible. They never even bother reading thinkers that should interest them like Tom Hayden or Karl Marx. Why bother learning the nuts and bolts of a complex social issue when all you have to do is check your “mean-odometer” to know what position you hold?

Now I want to be fair to people who struggle with the morality of the fall and the atonement. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary explanations. The concept of an inherited evil and a judgment based on it is something counter our modern concept of individual responsibility. That’s fair but notice struggling with God’s reasons for something is a far cry from simply picking from the obvious symbolisms associated with the complex act of Jesus’ crucifixion those that aren’t so mean.