This week’s episode of the Saving Jesus DVD series at my church attacked the doctrine of the Atonement, a risky thing to do before Palm Sunday, especially when you’ve just installed an expensive cell phone tower in the belfry.
Debate and disagreement about Christian doctrine are essential for the health of the church, not to mention the world. My complaint is with the intellectual sloppiness and spiritual dishonesty of this series, which habitually misrepresents opposing views and portrays controversial positions as proven beyond doubt. The speakers pose as Christian theologians while forcing religion through the strainer of a secular-rationalist worldview that is never acknowledged as merely one epistemology among many. As far as I’m concerned, every episode should begin with the “South Park” disclaimer that “All characters and events in this show – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional…and due to its content it should not be viewed by anyone.”
Episode 10 begins with Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, co-authors of Proverbs of Ashes, challenging the notion of redemptive suffering. They discuss the story of a woman who was told by her priest to remain in an abusive relationship because Jesus bore suffering patiently and so should we. Meanwhile, the violence against her and her children escalated. Brock and Parker rightly name this as bad theology: Jesus resisted evil, though nonviolently. He did not model helplessness in the face of oppression.
But then they leap from this story to rejecting the entire idea of Christ dying for our sins. According to Brock, “one version” of Jesus’ death is that he went willingly to the cross, his death being a supreme act of love. (Did I miss the “Angels with Dirty Faces” remix where he goes kicking and screaming?) But that model, she says, tells us that the way to imitate Christ is by passively accepting abuse. We should model ourselves on his life, not his death.
It’s never mentioned that this priest’s counsel is not even consistent with the orthodox views he presumably held. Precisely because Christ died for the abuser’s sins, his wife doesn’t have to. Recognizing that we are not the superhuman rescuer, letting go of our fear of being less than saintly, is often the only way to free ourselves from the enabler’s role.
Considering that more than a third of the video was spent on this story, it’s inexcusable that Brock and Parker allow this priest’s advice to stand as the only definition of “the atonement” before they throw the doctrine out the window. Christianity has recognized many theories of how the atonement “worked”, including some that leave it largely a mystery.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan highlights a single explanation, which sounds like a distortion to me. He notes that in the ancient world, it was taken for granted that blood sacrifice was the way to establish or repair our relationship with God or the gods. Crossan says this arose by analogy to human social rituals. When a guest came, you would kill an animal to make a meal for him, or give him an animal as a gift. Similarly, to show “hospitality” to God, a religious community would burn an animal on the altar (the gift) or slaughter it and symbolically share a “meal” with Him. Crossan notes that the suffering of the animal was not the point. Nor did it occur to people that the animal in some way substituted for a human who deserved to die instead. (He’s forgetting the ritual of the scapegoat.) So why extend these concepts to Jesus? Why claim that God wanted us to suffer but made His Son suffer instead?
Some Christian writers may have dwelt on Christ’s suffering in order to move people’s hearts and remind us of the seriousness of judgment for sin. I don’t find that sort of guilt-trip appealing myself, most of the time, but I’ve always assumed it was more of a rhetorical tactic than a belief that God values pain for its own sake.
Perhaps we err in trying to find timeless metaphysical arguments for the necessity of Christ’s blood sacrifice, when the form that the atonement took was simply determined by the historical moment. If Jesus understood himself to be the messiah (see N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus), he would enact his redemptive role in terms that the ancient Hebrews would understand: as the culmination of the Temple sacrifices that they had been performing to expiate the sins of Israel. Had the Son of God come to earth instead in contemporary America, when we have a much more individualistic understanding of how guilt is acquired and transferred, the atonement might have looked very different.
The basic question that separates Christian from non-Christian beliefs about the death of Christ is simply this: Is reconciliation between God and sinful humanity brought about by our good works, or by God’s unselfish act of love?
The speakers on this DVD would opt for the first answer, to the extent that they believe there is a moral gap between God and humanity at all. New Testament professor Stephen Patterson speaks derisively of the atonement as running up a debt on your credit card and believing Daddy will pay it. It’s called grace, people. There might be a parable or two about it, if you look really hard.
Crossan says Jesus’ death was no different from that of Martin Luther King Jr., or a firefighter who dies rescuing a child. It is a sacrifice not because God wanted somebody dead and you stepped in, but because all life is sacred and giving up your life for others makes it particularly holy. You lived in a heroic way, knowing it could cost you everything.
Bishop John Shelby Spong offers a surprisingly moving gloss on this theme, but unfortunately undermines it a moment later. The cross, he says, is the story of someone who reaches out to those in pain, even when being tortured himself (“father, forgive them”). Dying, Jesus was more alive than those around him, because he was still taking care of others. “You live to the degree that you possess yourself sufficiently to give yourself away.” Of course, Spong then adds, most of these stories aren’t literally true…. So instead of God dying for love of us, we have the largely imaginary story of a human role model. Pretty thin gruel, you ask me.
During the discussion period, my minister (though I have vowed not to darken this church’s doorstep till he leaves next year, I don’t know what else to call him, and I’m too much of a lady to name names) made a very revealing comment about the agenda behind this class. Countering a participant who professed belief that Christ’s sacrifice reconciled us to God in a way that no other human martyrdom could, the minister said that insisting on the uniqueness of the atonement was a path to religious intolerance.
Now, there are many Christians, myself included, who distinguish between “salvation through Christ alone” and “salvation through belief in Christianity alone”. No less an authority than the Catholic Church has come around to some version of this “inclusivist” position. C.S. Lewis could also be found in this camp.
But what I found most telling was that my minister was judging theological values in terms of political ones. He is deeply attached to the liberal creed of civility and compromise, and shapes his spirituality to fit it. The political realm is the one that for him is truly real; these religious ideas are epiphenomena at best, and at worst, threats to a pluralistic society where peace depends on a spiritual version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
This is why it’s such a travesty to be showing this DVD series under the auspices of a church. Its whole agenda and methodology are about subordinating Christianity to modernism, treating the faith as a wholly human creation to be reshaped for our changing purposes, not as a revelation from God that also reshapes us. If the church can’t make the case for God’s sovereignty, who will?