So what and what now? The Cross, Atonement, and the Easter Event
Tuesday, post Holy Week.
The ham is finding new incarnations, the decorated eggs are being tossed, the chocolate and the jelly beans secretly nibbled from the containers on the coffee tables around the house, and the relatives have left.
Easter dresses are back in the closet or handed down or away, and fancy dishes washed and stored.
In the sanctuary, alleluias have been reinstated, Jesus is announced to be risen (he is risen indeed!), and….
So what and now what?
What real difference did and does the cross and resurrection make in our day-to-day lives?
Well, in a word, atonement, in theological-speak.
Some have said that meaning of the cross and resurrection, of atonement, can be remembered if you break it down this way: at-one-ment.
It’s a little too cute for me, but have at it if it works for you.
The point is, the cross and resurrection event must have something to do with the relationship between humanity and God; a relationship that is broken, and a relationship that is need of some reconciliation.
That reconciliation is called atonement.
There are several ways that people have thought through atonement. Each of them have something to offer, though some more than others.
Frankly, some theories offer up dangerous ways of thinking about God, ways that have damaged how people have viewed their relationship with God and, consequently, their relationships with others.
So, this Easter week, a blog about what all the fuss is about, and an offering about where I’ve settled in most comfortably…or uncomfortably, as the case may be.
Perhaps the most familiar way to look at the cross and resurrection is to think of God sacrificing His [sic] son. Officially, it’s called the substitutionary theory: Jesus is our substitute.
The idea here, based largely on Anselm, is that Jesus took one for the team.
Or just as apt, consider the courtroom: something wrong happened, somebody needs to take the blame, and somebody needs to be punished, ideally by death. Because no one person can assume the guilt of all humanity, we need a stand-in guilty sufferer.
We need Jesus.
We need Jesus because Jesus is human, and Jesus is divine, and Jesus is sinless.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
Or take a look at this one, In Christ Alone. It even didn’t make it into the New Presbyterian Hymnal because of this line: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” The editors of the hymnal wanted to change it to “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified,” but the composers of this contemporary tune refused the emendation.
The creators of the hymnal bristled at the text for some good reasons, reasons that cause many (including myself) to bristle at this way of thinking about atonement. In fact, the substitutionary theory is perhaps the most troublesome atonement theory we’ve got, which is all the more troubling because it is also the one with which we (both within and outside of the Church) might be most familiar.
Feminists are particularly peeved with this approach: A father God who murders his son is a “sadist and despot,” (Julie Hopkins, Toward a Feminist Christology: Jesus of Nazareth, European Women, and the Christological Crisis); this God engages in “cosmic child abuse,” (Rita Nakishima Brock, “Losing Your Innocence But Not Your Hope,” in Reconstructing the Christ Symbol: Essays in Feminist Christology“ and those who espouse such theology engage in “theological sadism,” the obvious conclusion of which is that we are called to engage in “worshiping the executioner,” (Dorothee Sölle, Suffering, [in a section in which she harshly critiques Jürgen Moltmann, but quite possibly due to a misreading of a quote of Wiard Popkes found in his Theology of Hope.])
(So, how do you suppose they really feel?)
And, frankly, I think they’re close to being right, if not all the way there.
Step back for a moment and consider the profile of an abusive father: he tells the child–and the world–that the son/daughter is loved, but then subjects him/her to the most awful of punishments–sometimes punishments doled out for crimes and offenses never committed by the poor kid. The child becomes a kicked, harassed, mocked scapegoat for the mistakes of the father and of other members of the family and of life in general.
To boot, girls and women have been told to stay in abusive relationships as a way of imitating Jesus’ obedience and self-sacrifice to God. They are taught that this loyalty, to be laid low by the reigning power, is a worthy calling.
And in addition to the creepy power dynamics afoot here, there is very little reason for ethical action on our part: we just are to feel really, really bad for what we’ve done to Jesus.
Worse, we feel such terrible guilt that we loathe ourselves, and all creation, for causing him such pain.
In none of these, however, is the idea that Jesus was killed to placate the Father. (I’m happy to explore these and the other texts listed below; this blog is just a quick survey of different ways of considering atonement.)
Then there is the Classic Theory, also called the Christus Victor view.
Here, we’ve got ourselves a battle going on, a battle between good and evil. The devil has a claim on humanity, and there’s a duel to the death between Satan and God. Each are desiring humanity’s allegiance, and will fight each other and humanity for it.
Jesus is our knight in shining armor, come to vanquish the evil powers, and does.
This one has a bit more of redemptive worth (if you’ll pardon the pun) to it than the substitutionary theory; think of the control that addictions, mobs, depression (for example) have over us. It can indeed feel as if we are powerless and utterly under their control. Here, something from the outside does have to break into the cycle of death to bring us to life. Who hasn’t experienced despair and, with luck and grace, “salvation” of this sort?
That said, it hardly leaves us motivated to either take accountability or make any changes, since we are passive victims. We need to wait for the dust to settle, and then we know that it will be all right.
Both hymnody and biblical texts give it root in tradition: John 8:44; Matthew 12:29; and Hebrews 2:14 all give the theory grounding. Powers resist God’s intention for life and love and wholeness, and it is precisely these powers God seeks to win over.
Then there is the Subjective Theory.
The point of the cross, here, is to teach us, to transform us, to mold us into something new.
Instead of a courtroom, here we’ve got a classroom: God teaches us how to love. The cross shows us what love is. Jesus is our shining example, and we’ve got a shot at learning how to follow him.
While of all of the theories, I have the most sympathy with this one, it’s got its own hangups. As Walt Bouman said, we humans come off as fairly dull-witted here. Moreover, there’s not a lot of indication of God being really, justifiably, ticked off by our insolence, our apathy, and our selfishness.
My dissertation was written on the theology of the cross, namely exactly this question: why the cross? (If you want to read it, you can find it on Amazon here, but recall it was written as a dissertation, which, well, has its own writing style. I like to think that there is no correlation between my writing style, the substance of the book, and the cover the editors chose which for all the world looks like an outhouse along a hiking trail in the woods).
For what it’s worth, here’s where I come out.
If you look at the biblical witness, you see that Jesus was killed as a political and social rebel and threat.
Crucifixion was not a Jewish form of killing; it was, however, Roman.
That’s an essential point, not least of all as but one way to counter anti-Semitism.
This is not to say, of course, that he didn’t run into troubles with some Jewish authorities. But they did not kill him. Jesus was killed because he was a political troublemaker.
Jesus, you see, was killed by the Roman authorities, for he was subversive, and he called others into a life of subversiveness too. No power–person or system–likes anyone who comes along and challenges their authority…most especially someone who gathers followers.
Forgiving sinners, welcoming outcasts, teaching women, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, offering hope to the poor, assuring justice to the oppressed, promising power to the disenfranchised…none of this boded well for those who had it good.
Jesus died because those in power didn’t like his message. So they did what threatened people do: they killed him.
And yet, what did Jesus do on that cross in return to them, to those who killed him?
He offered forgiveness even to them. “Father, forgive them, for they have no clue what they are doing.”
And then, say Christians, he rose from the dead.
The cross and resurrection event (for I think it is impossible to separate them, to isolate them, one from the other), then, does many things:
It speaks to those who inflict great harm, and tells them, shows them, makes them viscerally aware of and accountable to the fact that they caused pain. There is no escaping the truth that acts based out of fear, self-protection, and harm to the weak and peacemakers beget tremendous suffering.
The cross speaks to the oppressors.
It speaks to those who endure great harm, and tells them, shows them, makes them viscerally aware that they are not alone. That God knows their pain and feels it too.
The cross speaks to the oppressed.
It speaks to all of creation and says that there is nothing that is untouched by God’s unity with it: all of creation dies, and in Jesus’ death, God claims all death.
And then comes Easter.
Easter speaks to the oppressors and says that their oppression is not more powerful than God’s agenda for life.
This does not mean that oppressors (including you and me) never receive God’s justice; it means that God’s justice is inseparable from God’s desire for reconciliation.
Easter speaks to the oppressed and says that their oppression is not more powerful than God’s agenda for life.
This does not mean that the oppressed (like you and me) never suffer pain, or that the pain is meaningless; it means that God’s healing absorbs our grief, and transforms it into new beginnings.
Easter speaks to those of us still alive, and it says–God says:
So here is my agenda: life.
If death were my agenda, if pain, if grief, if judgment, if alienation were my agenda, Jesus would still be dead.
But he is not.
He is risen.
This means that you have no need to wallow in fear of me; in fact, if you do you miss the point.
This means that you have no need to be content with abuse and oppression; in fact, if you do, you miss the point.
This means that you may not sit passively on the sidelines of life because it will all work out in the end; in fact, if you do, you miss the point.
This means that you ought not be bland about your beliefs because it doesn’t really matter anyway; if you do, you miss the point.
Easter means that you will die, and knowing that, there’s more to do with your lives than preserve them.
Easter means that, if you don the name of Christian, you are also donning Christ’s agenda, and you will also find yourself crucified by the powers that be.
Easter means that, even if you don the name of Christian, you will still suffer deep grief.
Easter means that God feels your pain more deeply than do you, and is, even there and then in your pain and deaths, calling and stirring new life into being.
So what and what now?
The cross and the resurrection means that death is real, and life is real-er.
Live like it.
For further reading, check out:
The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, by Robin Meyers (You can read my review of this book in the Christian Century here.)