By Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

My previous article highlighted and critiqued the “payment” understanding of Jesus’s death, the notion that he died to pay for our sins. Some responses defended that understanding by referring to the role of animal sacrifice in Judaism prior to and in the time of Jesus. And at least one represented that practice accurately. 

Yes, animals were sacrificed in the temple. But sacrifice in Judaism was not about payment for sin. Its root meaning is “a gift to God,” and it almost always involved a meal as well. Some of the sacrificed animal as gift to God went up to God in smoke. The rest was most often eaten by those offering the sacrifice. Sacrifice was about gift to God and sharing a meal with God.
 
Sacrifices served a number of purposes: thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation. But they were not about “payment.” Even sacrifices of reconciliation when there was a sense of having wronged God were not about payment — as if God demanded the death of the human wrong-doers, but was willing to punish a lamb or goat or calf or ox instead. Rather, sacrifices of reconciliation were about restoring the relationship. So it is with us to this day: when we have offended somebody, we often “make up” with a gift and meal, flowers and dinner. But none of this is about payment or substitution or satisfaction.
 
I grant that there are multiple understandings of the significance of Jesus’s death, beginning with the New Testament itself. One respondent referred to eight. I do not disagree. But I think it is pedagogically helpful to reduce them to three.

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This is the third of a three-part series that examines a pressing example of the use of religion for violent purposes. This is a problem that exists within the dynamic of religion itself — the desire to defeat evil as the believer sees it. AtT, as an organization dedicated to reform of the Christian Church, has two purposes in offering this three-part series: first, to recognize the danger inherent in religion as something terribly good that can become unspeakably bad when it goes wrong; second: to understand ISIL and thus to expose the difference between an aberrant religious view within Islam and the greatness inherent in the orthodox Muslim faith.

By Joe Morris Doss

The questions become (a) What has been changed in the history we have been examining? (b) What does history tell us about facing the new threat? (c) What should be changed, especially in terms of the need for religious reform? 

By the turn into the 19th century the Ottomans were fed up and began to overpower the first Saudi state. In 1818 they succeeded in finishing the job. The few remaining Wahhabis withdrew into the desert to regroup, and there they remained for most of the 19th century. 

Then, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed amongst the chaos of World War I, wahhabism roared back into life. By this time, the Saudi King, Abd-al Aziz, realized that the new state had to fit within the newly formed community of nations. He channeled the original wahhabist impulses away from revolutionary violence, and began to spread a different sort of revolution throughout the Muslim world: wahhabist doctrine and the cultural realities demanded by it. If this form of revolution lacked violence its radical and oppressive doctrines remain unacceptable to westerners, religious and humanitarian.
 
Even so, the west has largely turned their eyes away from humanitarian violations within Saudi Arabia because of the cooperation these nations have received in matters considered more pressing. By way of important examples, we may begin with the way vast oil resources have been employed to sufficiently satisfy the west, the cold war help against the Soviet Union, communism, and socialism, the enmity with Iran since the mid 70s, and the way to neutralize some opposition to Israel. Such cooperation has driven the United States to rely on Saudi Arabia as a helpful, if complicated, ally within the Arabic world. Read More…


This is the second of a three-part series that examines a pressing example of the use of religion for violent purposes. This is a problem that exists within the dynamic of religion itself — the desire to defeat evil as the believer sees it. AtT, as an organization dedicated to reform of the Christian Church, has two purposes in offering this three-part series: first, to recognize the danger inherent in religion as something terribly good that can become unspeakably bad when it goes wrong; second: to understand ISIL and thus to expose the difference between an aberrant religious view within Islam and the greatness inherent in the orthodox Muslim faith. 

By Joe Morris Doss
 
Muhammad bin Saud was a minor leader among the continually sparring and raiding Bedouin tribes of the poverty stricken and baking Nejd deserts. But in 1744 he and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab formed an alliance that emerged to become the first Saudi state. By offering a clearly defined religious mission, the alliance provided the ideological impetus for Saudi expansion. In short order, the combination was successful in conquering large sections of the Arabian Peninsula and establishing an absolutist rule. Then, the forces of the Saud soon expanded and conquered the entire area, becoming Saudi Arabia — largely as it is geographically defined today. They eradicated various popular Sunni practices; the Shia disappeared. Read More…


By Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

American Christians are deeply divided by the cross of Jesus — namely, by how they see the meanings of his death.   At the risk of labels and broad generalizations, “conservative” Christians generally believe a “payment” understanding of the cross: Jesus died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven.
 
Most “progressive” Christians (at least a majority) have difficulty with the “payment” understanding. Many reject it. Some insist that rather than focusing on Jesus’s death, we should instead focus on his life and teachings. They are right about what they affirm, even as they also risk impoverishing the meaning of Jesus by de-emphasizing the cross.
 
It is the central Christian symbol. And ubiquitous. Perhaps even the most widely-worn piece of jewelry. Its centrality goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. In one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul in the early 50s summarized “the gospel” he had taught to his community in Corinth as “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1-2). In the New Testament gospels beginning with Mark around 70, the story of Jesus’s final week and its climax in crucifixion and resurrection dominates their narratives. All four devote more than a fourth of their gospels to Jesus’s final week. And all anticipate the end of Jesus’s life earlier in their narratives. It is as if they are saying: You can’t tell the story of Jesus unless you tell the story of the cross.
 
Thus for Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: What does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?

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