Over the past couple of weeks, four things I’ve recently read have continued to stick in my mind: Nate’s post on the power (or lack thereof) of prayer, Kaimi’s post–and the ensuing long thread–on his daughter’s desire to wear a cross, an extremely thoughtful FARMS review of an apparently equally thoughtful book about Mormonism by an Anglican priest…and finally, Matthew 5. Taken together, they make me wonder why we Mormons think about Christ’s atonement the way that we do.
The Sermon on the Mount is so deeply embedded in nearly everyone’s intuitive understanding of Christianity–love your enemies, turn the other cheek, etc.–that I think sometimes (certainly for me), the radicalness of its message gets lost. Here is the Savior, telling his disciples not to turn to the courts, not to attempt to turn conflicts to their own advantage, not to expect or seek praise, not to limit one’s charity or forgiveness or love to those who are decent and kind, but to extend it to every person. At every point throughout this chapter, and throughout the whole Sermon, Jesus is telling us to submit to authority, to refrain from judgment, to embrace every burden and confess every sin. The overwhelming message is one of humility–or indeed, passivity. That is, Christ is calling upon those who follow Him to allow the world to act upon them, rather than to arrogate to themselves the authority and power to act upon the world.
Obviously, the Sermon on the Mount is not the totality of Jesus’s teachings. But the notion that Christ preached passivity is not some completely incongruous doctrine that somehow sneaked into the tradition through the back door. “Passivity” and “passion” are, at their roots, talking about the same thing–allowing oneself to be used, to be filled, to be moved by and subject to others and their needs. Hence the traditional description of Christ’s suffering and death as His “Passion”: He made himself powerless and weak before the mobs, the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the devil, the sins of all human history, He let it all act upon Him, and in that passivity, He transcended the logic of death and hell itself, and thus triumphed. From the ultimate weakness, from submission, comes the power to remake the world.
Nate, in his post on prayer, talked about the odd kind of comfort that comes from acknowledging his own powerlessness in regards to the things he prays for and about. As I read his post–I suppose reading at least some of my own experience into it–I found myself nodding in agreement: I have prayed and begged and pleaded for certain outcomes many times in my life, especially in recent years, and my every attempt to make myself into the sort of person who had some sort of control or claim over God or the fates that would ultimately answer (or not answer) my prayer only made me more unhappy. And yet, to not pray and beg and plead felt not just irresponsible, but also ungrateful. And so I tried to learn–and am still trying to learn–how to pray with the kind of powerlessness that Jesus’s example and teachings seem to suggest: to confess God’s hand in all things, to abase oneself before Him, and yet also implore Him for certain outcomes. Not out of a wish to control certain ends, but out of a love and hope for better ends than the world presently enjoys. In short, to not be afraid of one’s own dependence.
This is not an easy perspective to maintain, especially in 21st-century America, the land of instant gratification and complaint. And that is where, I think, I find the cross most useful. When I wrote on Kaimi’s thread that I’m something of a “closet Lutheran,” I was thinking primarily of Luther’s fundamental description of humankind–simul justus et peccator, simultaneously sinner and saved–and how that line comes closer to capturing my own intuitions about my own condition than any other work of Christian commentary I have ever read. There’s a lot that Luther was wrong about, but he was right about this: we all (as individuals, as the human race) stand in the shadow of the cross. The command to be “perfect” which Christ issues at the end of Matthew 5 is bound up with the notion of being able to express love not only despite but through abasement, powerlessness, weakness, submission. The cross is where the Savior was defeated; where they killed Him. No other could ever descend so low; consequently, no other could ever provide such grace, such service, to all the rest of us who still, as fallen mortals, pray selfishly and stand defiantly and insist on maintaining our (ridiculously pathetic) power and pride. So taking up the cross–symbolically and otherwise–becomes a way to make oneself beholden to one’s indebtedness, to acknowledge the weak and humiliating end which made and sill makes a new beginning for us all.
Of course, talking this way isn’t typical at all for Mormons. Many of the comments on Kaimi’s thread argued (appealing to various statements by various general authorities at various levels of “officialness”) that a cross focuses too much on death, and not enough on Christ’s life. And we are, it cannot be denied, a church that likes to think of itself as life-centered, affirmative, building Zion and doing good works. (Consider our rhetoric of “activity” for those who are committed to the church.) This, of course, is what lays at the heart of the common evangelical critique of Mormonism as a religion with only a minimal concern for grace. Douglas Davies, the Anglican priest who authored the book mentioned above, doesn’t bring up that lazy and easily disprovable accusation, but he does dig deep into the assumptions which make it plausible in the first place. He acknowledges that Mormons do indeed have a sense of grace, but also observes how our doctrines of the temple and covenant-making tend to lead us to see our rituals as more “pro-active” than passive, and we pass that ritual understanding all the way up to Christ–as Davies sees it, we Mormons see Jesus’s suffering as primarily operating through His active agency (He volunteered in the pre-existence, He made the world in which He would be sacrificed, He chose the time and place of His atonement, etc.). This is why, in part, we have tended to emphasize Gethsemane rather than the Cross–the atonement was primary a function of Jesus’s brave choice (look at Him, sweating blood there in the garden, going at it alone while His disciples slept…) to take on the sins of the world, and not of the actual suffering and death which Jesus passively embraced following that choice.
I suspect many of us, to the extent we think about these things, would say that Davies has a point; that he’s gotten at something deep and correct in Mormon thought. But David Paulsen and Cory Walker, in their FARMS review, disagree. They acknowledge that Davies’s treatment of Mormon thinking about Christ–and thus also the way we often depict Him in art and symbols–is profound, but they argue that he reads too much into all our future-oriented covenant-making, and thus misses the equal soteriological importance we attach to the sacrament, which can only be understood as a reminder of Christ’s brokenness on our behalf. (They also argue that there is no real doctrinal basis for the lack of cross imagery in Mormonism, and that perhaps the only reason we don’t use crosses in our worship is that, by the time evangelical influences trumped Puritan ones and American Protestants started using the cross widely in the late 1800s, we Mormons were too geographically isolated to follow suit.) The insight of Mormon revelations about Christ, they say, is not to affirm a proactive rather than a graceful, passive Christ, but rather to show that both were always present in His ministry, and that being perfect means, among other things, not being distracted by ancient theological categories, and recognizing instead that Christ’s redemption and our human (and thus flawed, but still worthy) responses to that redemption are equally necessary.
I like this conclusion, though I suspect in some ways it is too pat. It is one thing to say that submissive weakness and responsible affirmation go hand-in-hand in salvation; it is another thing entirely to understand how to live that way. Which, perhaps, is itself simply another way of pointing out that only Christ knew how to act perfectly, while yet being acted upon. For the rest of us…well, as we make our way through the world, in the shadow of Christ’s saving work, I suppose we have to just self-correct as necessary–and as we are guided to do so, by prophets and the Spirit. Certainly our religion gives us more than enough resources to be able to grasp both aspects of salvation. Still, it is perhaps worth reflecting upon just how much the church has done over the last 20 years to make certain that grace, and the love of Jesus, and His suffering, are on our minds and in our curricula and thus hopefully in our hearts. In today’s work-hard-and-play-hard-to-get-ahead world, reminders of powerlessness–or, rather, the power of powerlessness, of passivity, the power manifest by a Savior who, once He made His choice, truly did give Himself over to be acted upon by His Father as well as His enemies–are probably much needed. And if a cross can serve as such a reminder…well, let’s just say, it works for me.