Tag Archives: James Alison

36th day of Lent. God, the Divine Drano.

Today was a hard day. I was acutely aware of all the things in my life that I wish were different from the way they are. I have lists of things that I’m working on, and that I struggle with. Mostly that’s work that happens alone, the way it does for everyone. The weight of some of it is suffocating. I can stay there for hours, too. It’s not fun. At one point late in the day I noticed there were large swathes of blue sky above me. I’d been outside, and I hadn’t noticed. I missed the sunset, too. I know there was one. They happen every day. Catching a sunset can redeem a day.

I’ve spent parts of the last few days looking for flowers. I haven’t seen any. The shoots of the crocuses my neighbor plants around several trees have started to show, but only barely. It’s not enough. I need to be surrounded by the colors of Spring, to stand underneath any one of a number of magnolia’s and breathe in their fragrant scent. After this long winter, I’m ready for Spring, and ready for what I know it will do with me.

I want to talk about the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ, what Christians call the Atonement. I don’t intend to look at the different theories of atonement, about which there are many books. No. I want to introduce the sense of Jesus as the scapegoat who liberates us from the need for any other scapegoats. Is that two posts, or three? I’m not sure. We’ll see what happens. If I’m lucky I’ll pass along a thought or two that are helpful. As for tonight? Here’s something to chew on.

James Alison in a marvelous essay about atonement, is quick to point out that before there were theories of atonement, it was a liturgy.

“Now that doesn’t sound like too much of a contrast in our world because we tend to have an impoverished notion of liturgy. And we do not realise how much our dwelling in theory complicates our lives. That in fact having atonement as a theory means that it is an idea that can be grasped – and once it is grasped, one has got it – whereas a liturgy is something that happens at you.”

The contrast Alison offers is similar to the experience–and you’ve had this I’m sure–that it’s easier to work out in our heads all the reasons why someone is angry with us, than it is to ask them directly what is going on. When we do–or at least when I do–their responses are typically very different from the tidy theories that existed in my head. Alison, in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of the Hebrews of the First Temple–which the rite of Atonement dates back to–so that we can get past the “theories” about atonement that we already have in our heads:

“Given our modern imagination of such things, it might have seemed as though the purpose of the Temple was a place into which certain rather specially dressed people went in order to sacrifice to God, who dwelt mysteriously and invisible at the center of it all. Nevertheless that would have been a mistake. . . . The whole point of the Temple was that it was a microcosm of creation, because it was not a god who was being worshipped, but God the Creator. So the Holy of Holies [at the heart of the Temple] was taken to be the place of God “outside” of creation, and so outside of space, of matter. This was a “space” that was beyond place, prior to the foundation of the world, forever.”

The key point there is that our sense of the sacrifices at the Temple were a price that was being paid to God, owes more to our understanding of Aztec sacrifice than what’s in the Bible. The flow of that is backwards, that way of thinking says we’re trying to stop God. The rite of Atonement wasn’t a way of appeasing God, it was the opposite. It illustrated, if you will, the movement of God towards us.

“The key idea was that God. YHWH, would come into materiality, vesting himself in the flesh of the High Priest . . . who will become YHWH for the day, [and] come through the veil from the Holy Place, out into the court of the Temple and offer sacrifice on the Altar of Sacrifice–YHWH coming out of heaven towards us, as it were. And the purpose of this rite will be the happy occasion in which the Creator restores creation.”

In this way the idea of what’s happening is bigger than individual sins. People get stuck their sin. I did that tonight. Instead, the rite of Atonement is about God pulling us out of the muck, so that we can appreciate the wonder that surrounds us all of the time, if we would only notice it. Alison has a nice turn of phrase saying it’s “as though God were a divine Drano, coming in to clean out the sluice system from within and getting it all to flow open and out again.” The ancient rite isn’t fundamentally about sin, it is about God coming to us and unleashing our experience of the full potential of creation.

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34th day of Lent. God Can Only Be Reached When Our Hearts Are Broken.

What’s the issue, or attitude that pushes your buttons most? Is it abortion, and the inability of folks to see that it’s a baby’s life that’s lost, or that a woman has the right to choose? Is it poverty, and the callousness of the 1%, or the laziness of the 47% who just want handouts? Is it the sanctity of marriage being at risk, or the desire of LGBTQ couples to honor the sanctity of marriage? Is it the way “Black Lives Matter” helps us see that the Civil Rights movement needs to continue, or that saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t respect the struggles all other races endure?

Lent is about taking a chunk of time, and doing the work required to change your mind. To change an aspect of the way you live your life, or to change a behavior that you’ve lived into that you can see is wrong, or not true to your values. To do that, perhaps especially when it involves regret, you have to be willing to come face to face with your own darkness. Part of the the gift of doing that, James Alison says, is that it encourages us–since we’re people who struggle to be the people we want to be–to realize we’re “morally equivalent” to the people who are on the other side of our hot button issues. This is especially true because we’re all, Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Christians about to come together to celebrate a murder. We don’t call it that of course, but that’s what it is. A murder.

What follows are a series of quotes from a sermon James Alison gave on April 10, 2006 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, in Atlanta, Georgia. In the homily they all follow each other, except for the last one which comes at the end. The reading of the Passion that folks in many churches will do on Palm Sunday is pretty powerful. If you read this post before you go to church (or read Mark’s Passion MK 14:1-15:47), you might find the perspective it offers helpful as you hear the Gospel proclaimed. The breaks between them can function to separate Alison’s thoughts a bit. If on the other hand you read this after having heard the Gospel proclaimed, the breaks might be helpful as you reflect on what you heard earlier in the day. In either case, I encourage you to place yourself in the story, using your imagination and see what it does with you. Where is your attention drawn? What are you feeling, experiencing as you read?

“[W]e’ll be asked, as the days go by, to adopt various parts in that re-enactment of a murder. Crowds shouting, “Crucify him”. Crowds saying, “Give us Barabbas”. Different voices of participation in a murder. And we do this, not so as to recite some sacred text, but so that we may be inspired by the spirit of mourning to look around and see the other murders we participate in, to look at the other parts of the world where people are killing each other in the name of God, and saying, “Yes, actually that’s our story”. Another Shiite mosque blown up. “Funny how those religious people murder each other”. And what we’re celebrating is our moral equivalence with that, what it’s like to be people undergoing a murder that’s taking us by surprise.”


“In the story, which we’ll be dwelling in, there are normally three or four positions. One position is the crowd. I don’t know whether any of you were at Palm Sunday services yesterday. In the Catholic lectionary it was Mark’s passion that was read. The interesting thing about Mark’s passion is the sense of how speedy it all is. What a muddle. What chaos. The getting excited about someone coming in. The chanting at him, the words of the great high priest, the muddle, the confusion, the murder, the lynching, the way in which crowds whip each other up and whip each other down with enthusiasms, and how it ends up in a murder. And how it’s everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault. There’s something delightfully chaotic and fast-paced about Mark’s text. We have the luxury now of dwelling in some of that slightly more slowly. Because there are other voices. There’s the crowd which is normally our voice. And it’s the crowd that we are coming to learn how not to be.”


“Then there are the voices of the disciples. And they half get it and half don’t get it. They are half sticking by Jesus, and they are half running away. And another voice of course we hear in the text is the disciples’ retrospective vision. What they got afterwards that they hadn’t got at the time. And of course that’s what most of our Gospel texts are. It’s the “Oh, so that was what it was about” of the apostolic group.”


“But then there’s the fourth and most profound and important voice, which is the one we’ll be straining hardest to listen to, which is the voice of Our Lord, the One who is undergoing this. Speaking very gently and very quietly, not “shouting or crying in the streets” as it says in the Prophet Isaiah, not bullying people, but moving towards occupying a place that only He can occupy, a quiet but deliberate voice. Our surgeon. Our anaesthetist. The one who enables us to have an open heart, to live with our scandal. . . .”


“A word about “the Jews” because they’ll appear frequently enough during this week for it to be worth getting something right here. The word, literally “Judeans”, should not, by any of us, be read as referring to the people whom we now call the Jewish people. We’re talking probably about what would have been something rather like people who now call themselves Christians, since we’re in to moral equivalence. In other words, what had previously been rather a broad term was taken over by a group who wanted it to mean something rather narrower and tighter and more excellent. You know what I mean in that use of the word Christian. Well, the Hebrew people had quite a multifarious belonging and forms of belonging. And one of the groups, the people who had come back from Babylon with quite a strong religious line, was known by others as the Judeans. They were very keen on Moses and the Law and a particular interpretation of ways of belonging. This is by no means the same as the Jewish people. This is, if you like, much more of a cultural and religious group within the Jewish people. And they were clearly interested in Jesus. They were half tempted by him, hence the Chief Priests’ concern. They’re going to be with us, they’re part of the crowd, they’re part of us: – people who want a system of goodness; for whom Jesus is not going to give a system of goodness, but open up heaven. So let’s sit with these people, with these groups, over the next few days, allowing us, allowing ourselves to be approached by one who is about to be murdered. Allowing ourselves to be approached as murderers, not being scandalised. That’s the route Our Lord is taking us, gently, quietly, establishing justice, moving to the space of being the victim, without creating enormous waves of scandal, trying to allow us access to God, who can only be reached when our hearts are broken, and we look at our sisters and brothers as people equally involved, and therefore equally able to be called into new life. That’s our task for Holy Week.”


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