So, if you haven’t heard (perhaps your head had been disconnected from your shoulders or your internet connection was down), President Obama yesterday came out in support of legalizing gay marriage. What is interesting to me is not Obama’s support for gay marriage (or as I like to call it, “marriage,” since, as one viral post puts it, I didn’t have “gay lunch” today, I had lunch) but his reference to his Christian faith as informing this decision.
This, of course, is not going to be a huge news item, although many news agencies are running it as a secondary story. However, as a practicing and committed Christian, it is very interesting to me to look at what the President said and at the reaction it garnered from religious leaders.
Obama made reference to two Christian theological topics, soteriology and the Golden Rule. First, soteriology, the study of Christ’s sacrificial action in his life, death and resurrection, then in another post, the Golden Rule, and finally an assessment of the President’s theology.
Traditional Christian soteriology focuses on what has been termed “atonement.” The classic statement on atonement is Anselm of Canterbury’s treatise Cur deus homo (“Why God became human”). In this treatise, Anselm, writing at the end of the 11th century summarized the theology of his day; God was offended by Adam’s sin and required a blood sacrifice to appease God’s honor. The only acceptable sacrifice was the death of God’s own son, Jesus, who was sinless but willingly died for the sins of the world.
Most of us will be familiar with this idea. It is enshrined in our liturgies: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” It even appears at sporting events: we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs. John 3:16 is the portion of scripture that reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” It has become such a commonplace idea that we don’t really think about it. We just repeat it: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven….was crucified, suffered death….”
When you think about it, this idea is horrific. God was angry and required blood? Is this the God who is love or is it some Pacific island volcano god demanding the sacrifice of a virgin?
To Anselm’s contemporaries, this idea would have made complete and total sense. They knew about honor and blood-debts. Medieval society essentially revolved around these concepts. Our contemporary culture find them abhorrent.
So, how do we understand and formulate a modern soteriology? It’s not easy, but it is possible.
The first path is to believe and proclaim that “Jesus Saves” without explaining how. The second path is to try and forge a new understanding of sin and redemption.
The first outlines, a tenuous start, might be to recognize that our society, collectively, is sinful. Our society, due to the individual sins of each person and due to corporate sins, attempts to remove itself from God’s grace. Jesus bridges this gap by becoming human and giving us a way to repent and live the kingdom.
The difference is somewhat subtle, but it is important. In the medieval iteration, God is bloodthirsty. In the second iteration, God is compassionate and wants to show us a new way.
So, what does this mean for the President’s statement. He said, “when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf.” So, soteriology is at the root of Christianity for Obama.
He probably has not thought about it beyond the John 3:16 signs, but the President is tapping into centuries of Christian thought (I haven’t even examined the biblical roots of this theology).
So, to interpret Obama’s comments, the President is say that while Christ’s sacrifice is important, the entirety of Christianity involves more than that. It means that we must move beyond the Cross to the Resurrection.
And that is where the gay community can connect. We have been living with the Cross (discrimination, violence, inequality and more) for many years. Now is our time of resurrected life.
Too often soteriology focuses on the Cross, but forgets that all of Jesus’ life, including the Cross and especially the Resurrection, is redemptive.
The President, perhaps unwittingly, has pointed to the way forward for Christians. We must focus on the Cross, but Jesus’ life and Resurrection are equally important. This type of theology is the way Christian life can be reinvigorated and renewed, and the way in which Christian values can be helpful in politics; not by legislating morality, but by setting people free to live full and whole lives.