Redeeming Redemption



road-to-redemptionIt’s an interesting time for progressive Christianity. Recently, I’ve been tracking a thread that was started in Australia by a hymn that was posted. Some found the language too traditional. Some found it actually offensive. Overall, it was a respectful conversation. It was also a useful thread in the way it revealed the state of the nation when it comes to progressive Christianity.  I have to admit that I was surprised by the number of these good folks who were ready to give up on the central metaphors, symbols, and narratives of their lineage. Quite a few were reading to give up on the scriptures. Even Jesus wasn’t safe.   I’m no defender of worn out creeds and dogmas. In fact, I don’t feel like an apologist for the defence of Christianity at all.

But I’m baffled. Sometimes I feel like I must be missing something. It seems as though many of my colleagues do exactly what a few militant atheists do with religion.  That is, toss it. It’s all pre-modern myth and superstition, and we perpetuate it by using the same words that our ancestors used—even as we’re doing mental gymnastics in our own minds to make it tolerable. I understand the heave-ho impulse. But the approach that I seem to naturally take involves honouring the tradition, the core symbols, metaphors, and narratives, while realizing that they need to be interpreted through a modern, post-modern, and post-postmodern lens. What I find is that there is still plenty of wisdom buried there, but it requires a different set of tools to get at.

Many of my colleagues and friends just don’t think that it’s worth the effort. Maybe they are right. On the other hand, when you strip a religion of its core metaphors and doctrines, what you are left with is secular humanism. In my opinion, it’s not progress. It’s modernism. Nothing wrong with secular humanism or modernism—at all. But let’s not pretend it’s an update of Christianity. It’s the end of Christianity.

Take the metaphor of redemption. I suspect that any hymn that referred to Christ as “redeemer” would be a non-starter for most of my friends. I doubt that the word has been uttered inside a liberal congregation for many decades now. Yet when my secular friends go to a film they use the language openly. “There was nothing “redemptive” in the ending, or they are relieved (typically) to find an element of redemption. Because  liberal Christians reject any association of redemption with the “atoning” death of Christ, we’ve stopped using it altogether. But when I read the gospels I interpret what Jesus was doing as obviously redemptive.

Etymologically, the word is a conjunction of re(d)-, an extremely common Latin prefix meaning “again” or “back to the original place” and emere. Emere is a Latin verb meaning “to buy,” itself consisting of the prefix e(x)-, meaning “out of,” and merere, “to deserve” (cf. English “merit”).  In the context of the gospel story, the human condition has been hijacked by foolishness. Ignorance of our true nature leads to violence and an unconscious perpetuation of language, social systems, and modes of community life that perpetuate the trauma of inhumanity. Jesus is portrayed as one who lived with wisdom, one in whom others experienced the full dignity of the human condition. He takes the whole traumatic history of our forgetfulness into his own body/mind/heart. With his life and death, he “buys back”/redeems the lost divinity or the image of G_d in the human species.

The problem is that in the traditional interpretation of redemption he did it for us. We’re off the hook.  Been taken care of, thank you very much. All we need to do is believe it and be saved. Except it obviously hasn’t been all tidied up and believing something doesn’t make it so. We’re at an stage of history now when we can take all that was written about Jesus of Nazareth, as the exclusive bearer of “salvation”, and realize that it’s now on us. It requires each person and each community to be involved co-redemptively in allowing ourselves to unflinchingly see and feel the trauma of history, and choose, not capitulation, not collusion, not denial, but rather the path that Jesus exemplified in his willingness to suffer that trauma. . We have evolved sufficiently to internalize the story of Jesus, and become ourselves redeemers of the world. Yup, it’s terrifying, and not many of us are willing to truly “take up the cross”. But that’s what we’re being called to do.

This work of redemption is primarily past-focused—on liberating the human condition from the trauma of the past, both personal and collective. Personal healing of family trauma is redemptive work. The current truth and reconciliation which is happening right now with our indigenous communities in Canada is an example of redemptive work on a collective level.

But to be “in Christ” is to also be involved in the emergence of a new future that is not determined wholly by the violence and indignities of the past. This future realization (ever-present in our most courageous gestures and ways of relating to self, neighbour, Earth, and Spirit) Jesus called the Kin(g)dom of G_d. The problem is that too many of us who feel this creative urge want to build a brand new future without ever dealing with the past trauma. But there really aren’t any short cuts to heaven. As Bruce Cockburn put it “Let’s have a laugh for the men of the world who thought they could make things work. Tried to build a new Jerusalem, and end up with New York…ha, ha, ha…” The future is built upon a redeemed past, or at least a past that is always in the process of being redeemed. To follow in the way of Jesus is to be willing to take this redemptive and creative   Okay, I admit, redemption is relatively easy. My next post is going to try to “redeem” the “wrath of G_d”.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.


  1. hilary says

    Thanks for this Bruce. You know the more I think about the ‘redemption’ thing the more I dislike it and especially the gore that goes with it and the substitution thing argh!!!!!!!!!!!! I also think that the Jewish Bible is full of G-D telling humans how s/he deplored sacrifice – all that was necessary for relationship with G-D was to do justice and walk humbly with G-D (Micah) – ie it was about one’s everyday behaviour – taking up one’s cross in New Testament terms – so what’s changed? We have Jesus doing just that – being responsible for his own behaviour in relationship with G-D ( his/our ground of our being/no-thing/Abba ) and enduring the consequences of his behavioural applications – speaking truth to power. The early writings were attempts to understand this mystery in the light of traditional practice. It’s actually easier to practice asceticism or sacrifice something/one else than it is to accept that love, freedom and acceptance from G-D which requires nothing of us except ourselves as open and listening. Enter the Roman Empire and the beauty of Jesus gets turned into a socio-political control system – preying on human weakness, grinding believers into inadequacy and offering a solution, through special agents, ignoring NT insights about the priesthood of all believers, the dance of community ………The kin-dom of heaven is among us as we minster to each other and we don’t even have to be aligned to a system. If humans were doing what Jesus was doing without overt allegiance to him, that was OK and still is. There is so much goodness in people and too many need permission to behave well at times other than disasters – ie go beyond self-centredness………Jesus taught …’forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’……..So who is responsible for our forgiveness? We are, in our everyday doings.

  2. Jackson says

    Hi Bruce – I’ve been missing your smiling face of lately. Glad you are back. Your new post is a very good one. I am with you in seeking new meanings for traditional symbols, yet shifting those gears is not easy. As to the traditional meaning of redemption, I think it was Howard Thurman, the Christian mystic, who wrote that the solution which Jesus found for himself, and Israel, as they faced the hostility of the Graeco-Roman world, became “the word and work of redemption for all the cast-down people in every generation and every age”. Jesus apparently saw this movement as a “technique of survival for the oppressed”…not what later historically occurred when Christianity became a religion of the powerful and the dominant. This meaning of redemption does indeed give us new courage to face whatever oppresses and takes dominion over us, be it fear, hatred or you name it. I suppose much of this discussion hinges on who/what one believes Jesus of Nazareth to have been, which is a major topic not only within the Christian tradition, but also within the Progressive movement itself. I am not sure if even the Jesus Seminar came down very evenly on that! Peace. Jackson

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Well put Jackson. Many changes in my life which are cramping my style. Plan to get more regular again. Nice to hear from you.

  3. Meg says

    I am very, very grateful for the work you are doing Bruce. Whatever the word “redemption” meant for those who engaged in the meaning-making that resulted in the writings we wrestle with in church, it is clear that there was a feeling and an experience of being released/redeemed from something that was tying down, burdening or otherwise oppressing peoples hearts and minds and bodies and souls. We just need to get in touch with what oppresses us in our own lives to catch a glimpse of the meaning of the redemption they experienced. For me it is all tied up with the interconnectedness of everything. Of course Jesus and the way he died has a huge impact upon us, as do our own actions. Its all the stuff about atoning sacrifice that makes it all so messy and, yes, the idea that Jesus is the only redeemer.. Sigh!!! Perhaps he is a revealer to us of the redemptive possibilities in every moment of our lives!

  4. Di Shearer says

    Thanks, Bruce. You clean cut the metaphor and the word ‘redemption’ in your usual clearly thought out and experientially integrated way. I’ve missed you too. And wonder whether you are doing more in Australia than the Canberra conference.

  5. Laura M says

    “… when you strip a religion of its core metaphors and doctrines, what you are left with is secular humanism. In my opinion, it’s not progress. It’s modernism. Nothing wrong with secular humanism or modernism—at all. But let’s not pretend it’s an update of Christianity. It’s the end of Christianity.”
    You are a blessed Voice in the Wilderness here Bruce. Thank you — and I miss you at CMUC.
    The full brilliance of the Christian lineage and faith comes through an ongoing surrender to the Christ Consciousness within the awakened heart — which the constant reactivity of the post-modern mind has no way of accessing.
    “Be Still and Know that I am God.”

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Not sure Allan. What did you end up preaching about? In this post what I’m trying to say is that we’re now participating with Christ in the redemption of the world, that is, helping to make humans fit for this Earth community, each other, and divine friendship.

  6. Laurie says

    Bruce I am so thankful that you do not see the need to throw out the traditions, core symbols,etc. I agree with you in in reexamining them with wear we are. I believe this is part of our “evolution” . For me it reminds me of how a biblical passage can speak to me differently now than it did 20 years ago. Missing your wisdom

  7. Kim Baird says

    Hi Bruce, Yesterday I joined in conversation with new friends about some of these insights. One of the friends was part of the Common Dreams conference and your sharing in that context has had a deep impact on him. I’m a Pastor in a small Uniting Church congregation. The faith community is open to change around many things and at the same time very traditional. So far my own faith journey, excellent Lay Preacher training and ongoing theological exploration has enabled me to genuinely respond to the needs of the congregation. I agree with your counsel to tread gently and respectfully as we visit, re-visit, critique and re-frame some of the theological understandings of our ancestors. One of my priorities in ‘teaching’ is to be alongside people as we deepen our biblical fluency which is to move beyond any fear of what we might find to a willingness to engage lovingly with the complexities we encounter there. Thanks for this great blog and I look forward to visiting again soon!

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Kim, I appreciate the wisdom you’ve discovered in finding a way to include, yet expand, some of the more traditional aspects of the faith, so that they can be relevant and enlivening in the 21st century. Thanks for dropping in!

  8. Jasmine Hoansen says

    Get over it Bruce, you are just making a millstone to hang around your neck and those that sheepishly follow you, and by the way, if you can’t bring yourself to spell GOD then use Jehovah or something similar. We will be praying for you, I am very glad they don’t burn heretics these days, too many have fallen for this “progressive” nonsense.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Jasmine, My intuition tells me that in fact there is a little part of you who wishes that the righteous still burned heretics. Or performed ritual drownings? “Millstone around my neck?” Not very Christ-like. But it does match the nasty side of the writer of Matthew’s gospel, who, in my opinion, projected his own nastiness on to Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *