05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is God Vengeful? The Meaning Of Holy Week For Social Justice Christians

As progressive Christians enter Holy Week, we have to stop and ask, what do these days leading up to the commemoration of that cruel death mean? In this particular time in history, our understanding of why Jesus suffered doesn't always resonate. Historically, we have this notion that God the Father sent Jesus the Son to die in order to pay for our wrongs. Jesus was the last, perfect sacrifice. Ancient traditions are full of sacrificial systems and the need for a cosmic reckoning extends back for centuries. We offend people, get angry, lose patience, become unfaithful, and make mistakes, and so we yearn for the ability to compensate for the wrongs, to wipe our record clean. In this heavenly economy, there is a timeworn idea that the lifeblood of an animal needs to flow, or crops need to be burned in order to make amends with God. On Holy Week, Christians have said that Jesus Christ died in order to remunerate the final payment for our misdeeds.

But what does that say about God? Do we serve a divine being that needs blood to forgive? And, even more disturbing, would we worship a Creator who would require the sacrifice of God's son to extend mercy? That sort of reckoning may have made sense in ancient times, but now it puts into question the nature and character of God. Is God vengeful? Does God need payment for wrongs that have been committed? Is God bloodthirsty? Is God some sort of divine child abuser, a being who needs to see his own Son suffer so that our wrongs might be paid for? This idea of the divine is quite disturbing, so many progressive Christians question the nature of this reckoning, and we see the sacrificial system as something that humans needed.

I recently spoke with the neurologist Andrew Newberg, the coauthor of the book How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg explains how thinking about, meditating on, and praying to a loving God can give us internal peace and motivate us to compassion. These acts are an important part of our brain's evolution. Yet, imagining a vengeful God can yield more anger and frustration. When we ruminate on a God who needs retribution, then our minds focus on hatred and fanaticism, which can motivate us toward violence. In light of this, it's important to remember the truths of Scripture -- that God is love, that God's mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.

So what is the significance of Holy Week for progressive Christians then? If a Christian understands that people needed this divine sacrifice at one time in our history, if she recognizes this important theme in Scripture and in our tradition, but this idea no longer resonates with her, then what is the importance of this time? It is important because we set aside our days to think about suffering. Jesus was tortured and killed. As we think about the misery of Jesus, then our focus widens and we begin to realize the hardships of other humans. We take the time to remember the distress of those in Haiti who still do not have homes to live in, those who are living with the stench of dead bodies rising up around them. We reflect on those who have been bombed in their cities. We imagine what it is like to live with the threat of Malaria or AIDS.

We recognize the homeless whom we would ordinarily ignore on our streets. We listen to those who have been thrown out of their houses because they have lost their jobs, cannot make their mortgage payments, and cannot sell their homes, because their house value dropped. In our culture where we spend so much time thinking about the sex lives of celebrities, our financial portfolios, and what sort of influence and affluence we could have if we worked longer and harder and smarter, we begin to reflect upon adversity. After the headlines fade, even when the commercial break begins, we remember the suffering. There is something very powerful about that shift. It moves us to compassion, stirs our imaginations, and compels us to act. For we cannot help until we have heard, and we cannot respond to injustice unless we have seen it.

Traveling with Jesus, reading this story, and remembering that brutal assassination gives Christians the ability to see suffering not as something that happens to the weak, but something that happens in unjust societies, that can occur to the innocent, and will happen to all of us. And the act of focusing our attention on suffering, of having active compassion for those who endure it, just might save our souls.