Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (24) modern objections to self-sacrifice

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we finish Chapter 6, ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. Again, there is far more here than I am commenting on, this simply gives a flavour of the discussion.

Some of the themes unpacked are:

  • Sacrifice in the book of Hebrews
  • The lamb of God
  • The story of Abraham and Isaac – a theological interpretation of sacrifice and substitution
  • The temple veil and the mercy seat
  • The Greek word hilasterion – does it mean ‘propitiation’ (the barrier lies within God himself, hence a sense of somehow satisfying God’s wrath) or ‘expiation’ (an action aimed at removing the barrier of sin that lies between us and God). Rutledge denies neither, coming down on expiation as the primary cause of the atonement and propitiation as a secondary result.

The idea of self-sacrifice today

But the topic we are going to zone in on is Rutledge’s discussion of modern attitudes to self-sacrifice.

This blog has had regular discussions of contemporary consumerism as a theological issue and form of modern idolatry. Rutledge is spot on in her description of our Western consumer society as unheralded in human history, ‘it is like nothing the world has ever seen before’ (271).

The fragmenting of social ties and a culture of instant everything, has, she argues, resulted in an emptying out of ‘any sense of the value of sacrifice in ordinary life’ (271)

So you agree with this? Is it too strong? Are not many millennials searching for significance and a worthwhile cause precisely because of the emptiness of our all-embracing consumer culture?

Women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment

But Rutledge’s main discussion is on women’s objections to sacrifice as empowerment. By this she refers to a reaction by many women thinkers, arising out of women’s experience, that they have been the sex expected to bear a disproportionate burden of sacrifice.

“Many women have been conditioned to think that they have no choice except to be ignored, patronised, exploited, and abused. This has been disabling for women, profoundly so in many cases, and it is part of the work of the church in our time to rethink this whole matter. (272)

My comment – there is some echo of Nietzsche here and his critique of Christianity as weakness, representing life-denying death and nothingness.

The central objection, Rutledge says, is that sacrifice has functioned, and been valued, as a means of denying fulfilment to women. It has resulted in women being subordinated and disempowered. This is religion of repression and is far from the authentic teaching and life of Jesus (273).

We will never get past this hurdle if sacrifice is thought to be a form of weakness and abject self-suppression. (273)

Sacrifice as an alternative mode of power

The alternative Rutledge proposes sounds surprising

The way to rethink sacrifice is in terms of power (273)

But she means by this a ‘good’ sense of power, rather than ‘bad’ (suppression). Jesus lived a self-sacrificial life that embodied ‘an alternative mode of power’ (274)

Here we get to the paradox of the cross. It is in apparent ‘weakness’ and sacrificial self-giving that the powers of Sin and Death are confronted and overcome.

Paul particularly, sees Jesus’ death as an ‘apocalyptic confrontation with the forces of the enemy’ (274). Jesus’ giving of himself is the ultimate ‘weapon’ in the war.

If I can bring in love here – the same paradox is in play. I have a section discussing this same point. The battle is not won by taking on Sin and the powers on their own terms – it is won by ‘the alternative mode of power’. Love is God’s weapon in the war.

And I wonder how different the history of Christianity would be if those who bear Christ’s name really believed this rather than trust in the weapons of the world to effect ‘peace’?

Rutledge quotes Hebrews 2:14-15 to make a similar point – it is in death of the Messiah that the battle is won. This is the upside down model of power in God’s economy

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

‘True power is best seen in a life willingly offered as sacrifice for the sake of others’ (275)

And where Rutledge is so good is in preaching mode where she sets out a vision for this alternative way of being in the world for the people of God today. It is worth repeating what she says in full;

Such a life, rightly understood, is uniquely empowering because it is aligned with the self-giving God in Jesus Christ. Wherever there are gracious acts of unselfishness, there are the signs of God’s kingdom of remade relationships based on mutual self-offering. Even in this old world ruled by Sin and Death, who would want to live a life of utter selfishness? To show any kind of care for others at all, some sort of sacrifice is necessary every day – to be magnanimous instead of vindictive, to stand back and let someone else share the limelight, to absorb the anger of a teenager in order to show firm guidance, to be patient with a parent who has Alzheimer’s, to refrain from undermining a colleague, to give away money one would like to spend on luxuries, to give up smoking, to bear with those who can’t give up smoking – all such things, large and small, require sacrifice. What would life be without it? (275)

Sacrifice for the ungodly

Yet, even this is not the last word. The paradox of the cross goes further … summarised in these two texts:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  1 Peter 3:18

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

The deepest paradox of the cross is that the righteous dies for the unrighteous.

It marked Jesus’ life and this means ‘constant identification with death on the part of his followers’ (277).

This is what C S Lewis called ‘deep magic’.  It is the most revolutionary idea imaginable. It is the way God does things.

What does ‘identification with death’ mean today? What really ‘costs’ you to follow Jesus? And how is this sacrifice, paradoxically, life-giving?

Next we move to chapter 7 on ‘Ransom and Redemption’.

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