Even though I am not Muslim anymore, I still believe there is a lot of wisdom in the Qur’an. And there is something of an encounter with God in the words of the Qur’an. I especially love the Quranic accounts of the creation and fall of Man.
But there is a sentiment expressed very profoundly in the words of the Qur’an that I can no longer accede to. And it’s such awn important thing that the Qur’an says it four times. (All quotes are modified from the Khan and Al-Hilali translation.)
Say: “Shall I seek a lord other than God while He is the Lord of all things? No person earns anything except against himself, and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return, so He will tell you that wherein you have been differing. (6:164)
And no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden, and if one heavily laden calls another to his load, nothing of it will be lifted even though he be near of kin. You [singular] can warn only those who fear their Lord unseen, and establish prayer. And he who purifies himself, the he purifies only for the benefit of his ownself. And to God is the final return. (35:18)
If you disbelieve, then verily, God is not in need of you [plural], He likes not disbelief for His slaves. And if you are grateful, He is pleased therewith for you. No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you what you used to do. Verily, He is the All-Knower of that is in your hearts. (39:7)
37 And of Ibrahim who fulfilled all he was given, 38 That no burdened person shall bear the burden of another. 39 And that man can have nothing be what he does. (53:37-39)
This sentiment — no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another (وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى) — was once something I believed very deeply. Christian concepts of the atonement, that Christ bore the sins of the world, that he carried my sins to the cross, made no sense to me. I still think it’s an unreasonable confession, something that still makes little sense. The confession the Qur’an makes — that each of us goes to God alone with our deeds, makes more sense.
And it’s an idea even supported by bits of the New Testament — Matthew 25, for example, or Revelation 20 and 21.
But this is one of my beliefs that perished on 9/11. As I stood in lower Manhattan that morning and stared up at the burning towers of the World Trade Center, watching the flame and the smoke, watching helplessly while others died, I understood atonement. I understood our essential sinfulness in a way I had not prior to that day. Not in any way I can explain it.
I certainly cannot explain it any better than Paul does in Romans 5, where he writes:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 ESV)
I remember not believing this. I also now know it is true. Perhaps it is the truest thing in the world.
I don’t think atonement is a thing we explain. It’s something we confess. I don’t like penal substitution language — Christ took the wrath of God so we don’t have to — because it strikes me as so profoundly untrue. Rather, Christ takes the wrath of God with us, so that we may rise with him in his defeat of sin and death.
But that is neither here nor there. The church has never agreed on the mechanics of the atonement. It is one of the few things the church has never felt the need to officially explain (in large part, I suspect, because there were no arguments over the fact of the atoning work of Christ). Any language we attempt to use will fall short, will somewhere become unreasonable and illogical. And that’s okay.
Because we still confess it to be true. We know Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. He bears our burden — whatever that means — and in doing so, we are freed from the consequences of sin and death.
Which brings me to real point of this musing, a passage by Paul in Galatians 6 which, while it seems to say what the Qur’an says about burden, it doesn’t. Not really.
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1-5 ESV)
Bear one another’s burdens. I’ve thought a lot about this in the last few years, especially since my first disastrous pastoral internship, about what it means that carried our burdens and what it means that we are called to bear each other’s burdens.
I don’t say much in my book about what happened on my first internship, mostly because I was embarrassed, but also because I did not want to hurt any of the other people involved. (The only person I really felt I had license to malign, to call an asshole, to say was at fault, was me.) But I think what happened during that time in Wisconsin was a good exampled of how we compel each other, whether we want to or not, to bear our sins.
And it’s also a good example of how not to bear each other’s burden.
For those who haven’t read the book (pages 208-210 for those of you who have but need a refresher), Jennifer and I found ourselves in the midst of a community that welcomed and accepted us with wide open arms — something neither of us really expected. Jennifer and I, to different degrees, experienced both family and community as hostile, violent, and brutally and profoundly unwelcoming. I had been searching for acceptance, for belonging for much of my life, and I thought I’d finally found it — really found it — among the Lutherans.
But I had no idea how to live in the midst of people who really love and care for each other, certainly not as a pastor.
They hadn’t sinned against me. They welcomed me and loved me. By not knowing how to respond to their profound love in a pastoral way, but rather responding to that love as an excited 10-year-old looking for a mom and a dad might, I made them bear my burden. No one in that community was responsible for the violence done to me 30 years prior, but through my actions, I made them bear my burden.
Now, no one knew how to respond , and in that, I bore their burden.
It was not a good bearing of burdens. Indeed, the church as it is constituted right now does a very poor job of what Paul calls us to do. The institutional response defaults to our trust in the tools of modernity — go get counseling and we’ll see if you’re fixed. It was a little like being trapped in C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in which no one could speak of sin and wrong, but only about health and safety.
And if you cannot speak of sin and wrong, there can be no repentance and no penance. There can be no redemption. Just an indefinite sentence until the “experts” are satisfied you aren’t sick anymore.
I know, when I speak of this, that I am being a lot more vague than I would like, if only because the examples I could best talk about are ones I cannot. They are too personal, too close.
But I know something of the bearing of burdens. I have carried Jennifer’s. She has carried mine. And in following Paul’s edict here, fulfilling the law of Christ to love as we are loved, to live as Christ lived for us, we have both learned what love can really accomplish. We’ve seen how it is changed us.
I’ve long thought that the institutional church, especially the politically and theologically liberal church, no longer really believes in love anymore. (Jennifer goes farther in her sentiments.) The church believes in effectiveness, in programs and policy, in systems and structures, and the ache to accomplish or be part of something important in the world. It looks to the wrong history and tells itself the wrong story. In this story of power and progress, love is small thing, a grubby thing, and it doesn’t feed, serve, or save millions. It is ineffective.
The church has, at least since the late middle ages, been plagued by a beguiling but horrific dream — the desire to create a world in which burdens are lessened or even eliminated rather than borne together.
This bearing of each others burdens isn’t easy. And Paul knows that. He’s dealing with how to handle transgressions within the church here, and he’s counseling both caution and compassion. When a sister or brother sins, we should be gentle and bear their burden with them, but we should not get caught up in their burden. And he reminds us, that we aren’t made righteous because our sins our borne by those around us. Our work is our own, even as we carry — and are carried by — others.
But this love that Paul writes about is the most powerful thing in the cosmos. It meets us in our mess and doesn’t flinch. It conquers sin and death. It sweeps us up into itself, makes us one with each other and with God.