A Way, Not a Status

by Berry Friesen (August 25, 2015)

When religious people in North America describe themselves as “saved,” they generally mean they have acquired a special metaphysical status:  God regards them as righteous and thus entitled to live eternally, just as God does.

In my previous post, I suggested this status-based understanding of salvation has similarities to the view of Jesus’ contemporaries.  According to Second Temple Judaism, God had shown favor to the Jewish people by saving them from certain death and extinction in Babylon.  So long as the Jewish people maintained their ritualized purity and symbolic separation from the pagan world, their eternal existence as God’s chosen would be ensured.

In contrast, Jesus regarded salvation as a way, not a status.  It is a life of compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil.  What makes it special is that it is the way by which the ever gracious and forgiving YHWH is saving the world.

To which most Christians respond, “Well, that can’t be right.  The world doesn’t operate by compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil; it operates by calculated selfishness, retribution and the threat of violence.  But I do want God’s favor—I do want to live forever like God—so there must be a metaphysical way to understand who Jesus was and the status he confers.  That’s the kind of salvation I’m interested in.”

Salvation-as-a-way has additional vulnerabilities (beyond being radically out-of-step with conventional wisdom).  It has an attention-drawing quality that almost ensures people will notice.  And insofar as the exercise of compassion, forgiveness and resistance to evil draws public attention, one’s life takes on political overtones that suggest a marching to a different drummer.

Of course, Jesus often spoke of “taking up the cross” and a salvation that is demanding is clearly what he had in mind.  But the proponents of salvation-as-a-status have found ways to incorporate this aspect.    Second Temple Judaism did it with its emphasis on purity and separation and some modern Christians still follow that approach.  Others achieve a demanding religion by emphasizing detailed theological constructs.

Turning YHWH’s salvation into something metaphysical, invisible and private has a long history.  Nearly everyone rejected the message of the Hebrew prophets, for example.  It wasn’t that people hated caring for the widows and the orphans.  What angered them was the vulnerability that the prophets demanded, the living without the protection of wealth, hierarchy and the favor of a king.

So is salvation–as-a-way largely a matter of ethics?  No, not in a moralistic way; it’s not about winning YHWH’s favor, nor about acquiring any special status.  It’s all about being part of YHWH’s way of saving the world from the destructive path it’s on, a path defined by predatory capitalism, accelerating climate change and endless war.  It’s a path leading toward the massive depopulation of the Earth and a political order in which the elite carry on through a toxic mix of religion, surveillance, deception and violence.

During the last year of his life in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, repeatedly wrote about a religionless Christianity.   I think he was writing about this difference between salvation-as-a-status and salvation-as-a-way.  Here is an excerpt from one of his reflections.

“To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”