This past week I attended a conference in Chicago.
The title and theme of the conference was “Theology and Peace,” a pairing of themes that seems slightly self-explanatory. It’s akin to seeing those bumper stickers on the back of cars that say “Torture is Wrong.” I suppose it needs to be said, but despite your faith tradition or lack thereof, the idea that torture is wrong seems to be a given. So it goes with Theology and Peace. Implicit in Christian theology should be the subtext of peace and any other Christian theology that is manipulative or involves violence doesn’t seem to very Christian at all.
The real reason I went was to hear one of the presenters, James Alison, who is a bit of a theological hero of mine. He’s written these heart-rending and smart books like Raising Abel and The Joy of Being Wrong. He is a Girardian theologian, and the point of all his brilliant work and writing is that the Christian God is absolutely void of any violence at all. If we believe God is a violent god, that is, in fact, our projection of our own violence onto God. We know this because of Christ who is God. Christ, who enters human violence and becomes the victim of schemes and betrayers and violence and then returns as the risen victim, offering forgiveness and reconciliation and real hope.
And now, because of the risen Christ, we don’t have to play those old violent, mean games anymore. There is a new way of being in town. It is Jesus’ and we are invited to enter into the vivacity and absolute love of who God is in the world. Not that we don’t go back to our old ways now and again, but the risen victim, Christ, refuses to give up on us. We are forgiven and reconciled again and again and again.
And so I went to this conference because I love what James writes and says. I went to listen because he articulates a theory of atonement in a way that makes the Christian faith one of joy and life and love and peace and hope.
But the thing about the Christian story is we often find ourselves surprised that the strength of the story lies not in its power but in its vulnerability. Or, as Paul writes, in its weakness, its foolishness. So, as I sat there listening to James, I found the content of what he was saying absolutely compelling. But that’s not what got me. It was that this great, beautiful, genius of a man had his heart broken by this story of Christ and he needed to tell us about it. That somehow, somewhere God didn’t become an idea for him but God became for him the One that absolutely loved him. And also, really liked him, just as he is. With his boyish, beautiful smile and his introversion and loafers and athletic socks. And what he was trying to tell too was exactly that: God, in Christ, loves and likes us just as we are. It’s that simple. We don’t have a god. We have God. And God has chosen to have us.
At the end of the conference, as we were all closing up shop and setting up rides to the airport, I looked around at the room of people. There was maybe a good fifty of us. And none of us were particularly beautiful by the world’s standards. None of us were successful or powerful or stunning. In fact, most of us were sweet and quirky and wore our vulnerabilities on our sleeves.
What kind of God would choose this group to go and tell the world, our culture, this message of peace? What kind of God would call a bunch like us to tell about this love of God for the world, revealed through Christ, the risen victim, whose Spirit is with us, even now?
But then, what kind of God would become flesh, enter through a woman’s womb, and then hang around with well-intentioned but lost and broken-hearted disciples? What kind of God would be so foolish to enter our human violence so deeply that now God knows betrayal and death? What kind of God would return, the forgiving victim, to tell us that God will never let us go, that there is nothing that can separate us from this love?
Maybe we have broken God’s heart. Maybe God is not so bad to have around, so much better than a god. Maybe we are loved more than we can ever imagine. And maybe we can relax, because God likes us a whole lot.