“I think that the Christian doctrine of redemption—this idea that we need to be “redeemed” from something—is just wrong. And it’s done all kinds of harm.” The comment came in the midst of an invigorating and wide-ranging conversation with an acquaintance over coffee recently. It was one of those delightful encounters where the person you’re talking with is much smarter than you—where you feel like you’re kind of scrambling to keep up. It was good exercise for the brain.
My initial reaction to the comment was one of mild surprise. For me, the word “redemption” is inextricably up with all kinds of other life-giving words like “forgiveness,” “hope,” and “salvation.” I associate it with the possibility (or is it a promise?) that how things have been does not need to be how they will be. It speaks to me of a God who extends mercy and offers second chances. Redemption declares that no failure is final.
The word obviously has other connotations, as well. For some, the doctrine of redemption casts human beings as inherently deficient and sinful. It represents a fundamentally destructive anthropology that has been and continues to be a tool of colonial expressions of Christian mission. It plants harmful ideas in young minds, including the notion that we need to be “saved” from something. It turns us into groveling serfs at our master’s door, pleading for his favour, apologizing for our existence, rather than confidently stepping forth to become all that we want to be in the world. For some, the central premise of redemption—that we need it—is what must be decisively rejected.
I listened to a sermon while taking my reluctant dog for a drag in the snow yesterday. In the middle, there was some kind of an interview with a guy from a homeless shelter. The story followed the script meticulously. Poverty, addiction, crime + encounter with good Christians doing nice Christian-y things at [insert Christian relief organization] = come to Jesus happy ending. Add a bit of syrupy Christian music in the background and a emotional plea from the preacher, put the whole redemptive package together and you get riotous applause and lung-bursting amens and hallelujahs! It all seemed a bit odious to me, but why? What if the guy’s life really was turned around? What if he really had come to Jesus and found meaning and hope and life? My distaste for the formulaic and the syrupy ought not to preclude these possibilities, right?
Well, with all of this redemption rattling around in my brain, I did what I often do when I’m puzzling over a word and how it has come to mean different things to different people in different times and places (geographic, cultural, discursive). I took the entirely unoriginal step of looking it up in the dictionary.
- the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil: God’s plans for the redemption of his world.
- the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt: the peasants found the terms of redemption unattractive.
- archaic the action of buying one’s freedom: soldiers who were captured had to seek redemption | [as modifier] : serfs began paying redemption dues.
So, redemption can mean being saved from sin… or regaining possession of something… or clearing a debt… or freedom. And, of course, each of those phrases and words can interpreted in different ways by different people. Which sort of brought me back to the beginning—the unremarkable conclusion that the word “redemption,” like most other important words, can be used and misused in countless ways and for all kinds of purposes.
The truth is, I can fully understand the critique of redemption that my friend in the coffee shop made. And I can fully appreciate the hunger for redemption stories represented by all the amen-ing and hallelujah-ing in the sermon. I feel both, in varying degrees at various times. But I usually end up leaning more toward the latter than the former. I don’t do this because of emotion-drenched sermons or intricate theological maneuvering and analysis. All it really takes is a cursory inspection of my own soul. I am a sinner in need of salvation. I make errors that need correction. I am a debtor who can’t make the balance sheet work. I am enslaved and thirst for freedom. I need to be redeemed, in the broadest sense of the word.
The Christmas season is almost upon us. The Incarnation—God taking on human form—is a deep mystery whose depths we will never plumb. But whatever else is going on in this most uniquely Christian of mysteries, the story of a baby born in a manger has always been seen, on some level at least, as a redemption story. God with us to save, to correct, to pay for, to liberate—to take on all that we are and transform it with all that God is. To become human for us, with us, in spite of us, and on our behalf. This, surely is the meaning of Christmas.
Every year around this time, I come across this quote from an Advent reader full of readings from the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s from a sermon preached December 2, 1928 and it is saturated with redemption themes:
Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.
Be our brother. Come close. Be human as we are and overcome what overwhelms us. Lord Jesus Christ.
The image above is called “The Nativity” and was created by “Christopher Ruane. It evokes redemption all over the place, for me. The image is taken from the 2017-18 edition of the Christian Seasons Calendar.