Sacrifice, giving and kingdom

The church I attend most regularly at the moment is quite keen on personal testimonies. I rather like that.

However, quite a few of these relate to giving while trusting in God to provide for our needs, i.e. giving when we don’t actually have enough to safeguard our own future. Again, in principle I have no problem with that, aside the fact that I see a significant chance of throwing people onto charity where they might not have needed that, and I tend to see charity as better directed to those who have no hope of providing for themselves from their own means than those who have themselves given wastefully, given the state of the world as it actually is.

The issue I do have, however, is that consistently these stories end with the giver receiving out of the blue sufficient for their needs. Again, I am delighted that they have been provided for. I might like to hear more testimony from people who haven’t “got it together”, as in twelve step, which I think is a template which people should want to qualify for. Granted there are now twelve step programs catering for so many things that it takes a really well-adjusted person to avoid qualifying for at least one of them! I might like to see something like twelve-step openness tried in a church setting, however.

However, there is another problem, in that the impression is given (and sometimes underlined by preaching what seems to me close to a “prosperity gospel” that those who give profligately will inevitably receive sufficient for their needs. If you give a lot, the message is, you can be confident that you will be provided for. There is some scriptural support for this concept, too.

Much as I might wish this to be the case in reality, it isn’t in line with my experience, either following my own actions or those of others. Nor, to my mind, should it be a hard and fast rule; that message removes the possibility of truly sacrificial giving, as giving is then done in the expectation of return. At that point it becomes not a gift but a transaction.

It is argued, of course, that faith demands that we should trust the divine promise that we will be taken care of and should not think to store up things in anticipation of times of dearth. Matt. 6:25-34 is one example, though there are others. Faith also, arguably, demands that we should do as Jesus advises the rich young man in (inter alia) Matt. 19:16-22, and sell all that we have and give it to the poor, but I do see very few people actually doing this within Christianity. I certainly haven’t done it myself, and part of my thinking chalks this up as one of the ways in which I am a bad Christian, or not-quite-yet a Christian. Granted, six years ago I was worth a negative amount, but I hadn’t got there by giving things away except in a very inventive interpretation.

Another part of my thinking reports that the evidence of history is that the very early Church actually did practice these principles, and this very probably resulted in the need for Paul to go round taking a subscription for the support of the Jerusalem Church. A reasonable guess from general economic principles suggests that they were doing this, taking their possessions, selling them and giving away the proceeds (or, to some extent, holding them in common), and that they had run out of people prepared to do this in support of their community and had fallen on hard times. A few people or a small community can get away with this in a world which doesn’t operate that way, a large group can’t.

I see this principle operating as well in one conception of the crucifixion, that which is principally drawn from the Fourth Gospel. In the synoptics, Jesus is seen as agonising over his future in the Garden of Gethsemane (“let this cup pass from me”) and as experiencing complete abandonment on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). In the Fourth Gospel, however, it is all seen as being part of the divine plan, and Jesus is completely aware of this and approaches his impending death with complete equanimity. Then, of course, on the third day he rises and a little later ascends in glory. What we have is a very temporary death, not a full blown extinction of the self.

To my mind, the Fourth Gospel somewhat torpedoes the concept that the cross can function as a valid sacrifice to the extent which is clearly desired by many atonement theories. In the synoptics, at least Jesus is seen as agonised by the prospect, and although there are hints that a resurrection is anticipated, this agony indicates to me that Jesus sees this as a hope rather than as a certainty. This is removed in the Fourth Gospel; there, Jesus knows throughout that his death will be very temporary and suffers no agonies of mind or spirit (as opposed to agonies of body).

I would contrast the situation in W.B. Yeats’ verse drama “The Countess Cathleen”, in which the Countess sells her soul to the Devil in order to save her tenants from starvation and to redeem their souls from him, having previously been sold by them. As this act is altruistic, the Countess is redeemed anyhow on her death. While the actual result there is also that she is not lost, she thinks she will be. Not so Jesus for the authors of the Fourth Gospel; he has no doubt of his resurrection and ascent. Of course, Yeats is there referencing a ransom theory of atonement in which Jesus ransoms humanity from the Devil, but cannot be held by him (this was one of the two early theories of atonement). I liken this to God buying humanity back with a dud cheque (three days to clear…) but will probably get flak for this. It is, incidentally, partly because it looks like God using a dud cheque that I don’t resonate with that theory.

This, however, doesn’t seem to me to work as well for the satisfaction theory (God is owed a debt in consequence of humanity’s sin, only a sacrifice of the magnitude of Jesus’ death will suffice, God accepts that as payment) because it’s not a lasting death. Granted, it can be argued that the death of God the Son, even if temporary, is of incalculable value, but that still doesn’t seem to me adequate. It works even less well for the penal substitution theory (God exacts the death penalty for sin on one life of incalculable value instead of myriad low value lives) if it’s temporary, but I suppose could be regarded as a real death and then a restoration.

I still think that a real sacrifice needs to entail a real loss, not just a temporary one.

So I return to sacrificial giving. Of course, I don’t in theory consider this a bad thing (“in theory” because I’m not very good at actually doing it), and there are two preeminent reasons for this. Firstly, it clears the decks for single minded trust in God and love of humanity, removing the obstructions of clinging to existing possessions and trying to get more. It represents, perhaps, a self-chosen equivalent of the twelve step “rock bottom”, from which there is no way but up and no valid action but trust in others. My own “rock bottom” involved loss of rather more than just economic self-sufficiency, but giving away all you have is likely to make those around you doubt your sanity and will probably damage your social standing as well, so there are other “benefits”.

The other is that it affirms that the Kingdom of God is already here. I may be somewhat unusual among liberal theologians in that I take Jesus’ pronouncement that the Kingdom was already present among his followers (Luke 17:21 is one of several relevant texts) as being accurate. I don’t think he was talking about some apocalypse to come, I think he was talking of an apocalypse within some of those who followed him, a personal transformation, a metanoia. I see the analogies of the Kingdom with the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31) and with leaven (Matt. 13:33) as indicating that this new way of living, which involved love of neighbour as yourself, and sometimes to the exclusion of yourself in sacrificial giving, even to following his path to the cross, had already started inasmuch as it was practiced (I also see the Kingdom statements as indicating another new form of consciousness, that of the mystical entering into the Kingdom; the two seem to me to go hand in hand).

Of course, as I indicated earlier in this post, significant numbers of the early church seem to have practiced this and to have ended up in a parlous economic position, needing to be “bailed out” by Paul’s collections. I don’t know whether, had the movement continued to grow apace and fill the earth with this practice, whether that could have been sustained economically; it hasn’t been tried in any sizeable society, and in smaller ones has consistently got into difficulty. In practice, I’ve regarded this as “counsel of excellence” and tried to balance it with the need to stay able to meet my obligations to my family and to society (and in the past my employees), and worked on the basis that I would keep only enough for myself and the rest could be given away; that has chiefly been my time as I was in a position to use my time to work for justice and equity for individuals and for the community.

And I still wonder whether my not taking the extra step was due to pragmatism or to fear.


Falling further…