Discovering Atonement Theory

I was well into adulthood before I discovered that there was such a thing as “atonement theory” and I only stumbled across it by chance. I was preparing to lead a discussion in Elders Quorum on the Atonement of Jesus, and (like most people, I think) decided to do a quick internet search for “atonement” to see what came up. I ended up on a Wikipedia entry that outlined multiple ways to understand Jesus’s atoning work. I was flabbergasted. Like, jaw-on-the-floor stunned.

Up until then, Jesus’s atonement seemed like a pretty simple concept: I was mortal; that meant I was going to die. Because of Jesus’s atonement I would be resurrected. Being mortal also meant I was going to sin, and punishment was required for my sins. But because Jesus took upon himself my punishment for my specific sins I could (if I went through the proper steps) be forgiven and eventually exalted.[1] That was how the atonement worked.[2] Full stop. That was how it was taught to me, and how I taught it on a mission.[3] Until I landed on that Wikipedia page, I had no idea that thinking about it differently was even an option.

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Reflections on Unity and Righteousness

Unity. Righteousness. As much as these words are an invitation to Godly action, they can also be, in my view at least, fraught with difficulty. Let me explain.

It has been my experience that the word ‘unity,’ is too often used to sow divisiveness. Throughout history, the call for ‘unity’ has sometimes been used to push out those who do not agree with a prevailing sentiment.  Too often, the language of ‘unity’ is not a challenge to reach out to others, but rather an excuse to sink inward. It is sometimes synonymous with ‘see things like me,’ ‘believe like me,’ or ‘act like me,’ leaving those who see, believe, and act differently branded as unfaithful and pushed to the edges.  I have occasionally seen the call for unity as the very thing which breeds division.

And it has been my experience that the word ‘righteousness’ is too often used to reinforce the status quo. ‘Righteousness’—maybe especially when used by those who benefit most from a contemporaneous cultural arrangement—has sometimes been transformed to become a description of social power, not a statement about spiritual power. Those who support and outwardly align with cultural expectations are labeled as ‘righteous’ and those who do not are dismissed as wicked, impure, unworthy.  Too often I have witnessed the word ‘righteousness’ used to justify the unfair treatment of others and as a basis to relish in the downfall of those we dislike or who are not like us.

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A Focus on Zacchaeus

The story of Zacchaeus, found only in Luke 19:1-10, is a pericope that does not get much discussion in LDS circles (in my experience at least).  In fact, this story has only been referenced in seven General Conference talks…ever.[1] More personally, I do not believe I have ever had a lesson about this story in Church, even though it has been highlighted in past lesson manuals (and is again in this week’s Come, Follow Me materials). So, consistent with what Jesus does in the Gospel of Luke’s narrative, I thought it was important to stop for a moment and pay attention to Zacchaeus.

In this story, Jesus is passing through Jericho when the narrative pauses to introduce Zacchaeus by name. On the surface, Zacchaeus may seem an unlikely individual to merit such focused attention. First, Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a group which scholars note is “portrayed negatively in almost all Greco-Roman literature” including the New Testament.[2] What’s more, Zacchaeus is the “chief tax collector” (19:2), a title which does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament (quite a distinction!). Though Luke sometimes complicates the stereotypical image of tax collectors—e.g. Luke notes that Levi, a tax collector, left his post to follow Jesus (5:28), and just one chapter earlier Jesus relays a parable contrasting a tax collector and a Pharisee in which the tax collector’s humility is held up as superior to the Pharisee’s self-righteousness (18:9-14)—it is still the case that, generally, in the Gospel of Luke tax collectors are regularly lumped in with the “sinners.”

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Gospel Tools

Once a traveler happened upon a great field filled with people toiling away in the soil. Approaching the those in the field, the traveler asked aloud, to no one in particular, “What are you all doing?”

A voice replied with obvious enthusiasm. “We are building foundations!”

Upon turning to face the person who replied, the traveler saw someone covered in sweat and dirt from days and days of hard labor. The individual was surrounded by holes of various shapes, sizes, and depths. “I don’t understand?” the traveler questioned.

“Look here,” said the laborer pointing to a set of tools neatly arrayed, carefully placed on the ground nearby. The traveler’s eyes fell upon a vast array of tools: pickaxes, trowels, shovels, hoes, rakes, spades, and many more such implements. The tools were well used and well cared for. The various blades, tangs, and edges were sharp and clean; the handles were oiled and polished. The tools glisten in the hot sun.

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Relationality and Reconciliation

In the LDS Church’s Gospel Essays section it notes, “Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, everyone will be redeemed from the effects of the Fall. We will be resurrected…In addition to redeeming us from the universal effects of the Fall, the Savior can redeem us from our own sins. In our fallen state, we sin and distance ourselves from the Lord, bringing spiritual death upon ourselves.”[1] Language like this, which feels emblematic of the majority of the Church’s language about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, centers (nearly exclusively, it seems to me) on how the Atonement helps individuals, you and me, overcome spiritual and physical death: that is to say, it focuses on how to reconcile schisms in humankind’s relationship with God.[2]

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An Alternative Reading of Luke 15: Counting in the Gospel of Luke and The Parable of the Lost Sons

Luke 15 contains three parables, stacked one on top of the other: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a man and his two sons. I think, given their proximity in the text, it is reasonable to believe that the Gospel’s author intended them to be read together and to inform each’s interpretation of the other. I will admit to having never done this previously; and when I did I was surprised to discover how the parables work together to reinforce the importance of making individualized accounting for each sheep/coin/individual over whom we have charge.

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Avoiding Antisemitism in Our Discussion of the New Testament

In my experience there is a deep respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters that permeates LDS culture. But it is also my experience that occasionally LDS members unknowingly fall into antisemitic patterns of language and perspective which have, unfortunately, been connected with Christianity since its earliest times. This year, the LDS church’s course of study has moved out of the Hebrew Bible and is approaching the halfway mark in its study of the New Testament. As we continue to engage the New Testament, it is exceptionally important that we are attentive to, studiously avoid, and actively resist any perpetuation of antisemitic scripts in our worship communities and during our Sunday School discussions.

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Be A Neighbor

I was taken aback in a recent re-reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan by the way in which Jesus reframes a tricky question to deliver a stunning message.

Recall that the parable is prompted when a lawyer asks Jesus a series of very lawyerly questions (apologies to all my lawyer friends… but you know I’m right). The exchange goes like this:

The lawyer asks Jesus, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” The lawyer thinks for a moment and says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus says, approvingly, “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” And then the lawyer retorts, “And who is my neighbour?”

At this point Jesus tells the parable (Luke 10:30-35) which is ubiquitous enough that it does not need recounting here. And upon conclusion of the narrative, Jesus reengages the lawyer directly. Here is the exchange:

Jesus asks, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The lawyer responds (with the only right answer), “He that shewed mercy on him.” Then said Jesus, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

Here is what I find really remarkable: By asking the question, “who is my neighbor” the lawyer tries to get Jesus to categorize and classify others, so that the lawyer can then say, “that group is my neighbor, and that group is not.” Jesus does not take the bait.

Instead, in his response Jesus recasts the issue entirely. “Neighbor” is not a group outside of ourselves. Instead of categorizing others, Jesus responds by clarifying you are to be a neighbor. “Neighbor” is something we are to others. Thus neighborliness, Jesus seems to say, should be our polestar when we engage with our fellow brothers and sisters on Earth. Jesus reinforces this by the command “Go, and do thou likewise.”

Imagine what life would be like if, instead of asking “which one of these people is my neighbor and which isn’t?” everyone started asking “how can I be a neighbor to the people around me?” I think the Gospel of Jesus requires nothing less.

Singing A New Song

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for Square Two Journal in which I advocated for a move away from military/war imagery in LDS religious discourse. I suggested that even though the Abrahamic tradition has always included such language, the LDS church’s contemporary message is one of “healing for all of creation that is grounded in God’s love” and that “military/war language detracts from what we are actually called to do as Christians generally and as the ‘true and living church’ specifically.” I continue to believe that.

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