Atonement as Political Theology and Theodicy

Moving closer to good Friday, and in light of Tony Jones’ recent request for sharing more posts on the subject, I’ve adapted this passage from a section in a final paper I wrote for a class called, “Theology of Globalization” with Anselm Min.  By drawing on the work of a few other figures, it expounds upon the solidarity idea in Moltmann that was highlighted in my previous post on Jones’ book, A Better Atonement. 

The Salvadorian Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino contends that “the New Testament does not insist that the pain of the cross, in itself, produces salvation . . . What we must not do is to theoretically equate love and sacrifice . . . The cross, as a historically necessary component of love, is part of its historical fullness, and what God was pleased by was this fullness of love.  This means that what is pleasing to God is not just one event.”[i] It is Jesus’s whole life combined with his faithfulness to the point of death that pleases God.  Sobrino adds:

“In the Greek philosophical outlook, the incarnation can be understood as a “participation” in human nature, from which we get its famous maxim: “What has not been accepted cannot be redeemed.”  In this way the cross is sacrifice, death, and the supreme expression of negativity – the acceptance of which, in Latin theology, is the condition that alone makes it possible to overcome the negativity, though the specific models used to explain this have an excessively legalistic and formal ring to them.”[ii]

Sobrino is clearly struggling with the tension between an unwillingness to relinquish the function of and need for atonement on the one hand and the inability for any metaphor or human language to fully capture and do justice to Christ’s saving death on the other hand – a death that has so often been misunderstood and manipulated, distorting the image of God that Christ reveals.  There is ever present in the cross a dialectic of mercy and justice, grace and judgment, forgiveness and condemnation.  The cross expresses and embodies each aspect at once.  As Sobrino further elucidates, Jesus is both the Suffering Servant and the one who establishes righteousness and law.

There is a tendency even in Sobrino, however – no doubt in light of his context and immediate concerns for victims, and in fear of making God out to be an oppressor – to err on the side of reading the crucifixion in terms of mere symbolic causality rather than efficient causality.  While one must exercise extraordinary caution so as not to anthropomorphize God’s judgment, there is a very understandable preoccupation with whether one can praise and consistently envisage a God who allegedly reviles violence but also atones for sin through violence.

But even if the cross is conceived as necessary for many other reasons already mentioned (criticism, solidarity, etc.), to completely eradicate atonement and reduce Jesus’s death to a demonstration or to symbolism – however powerful – is for Christians to risk depriving the tradition of its soteriological depth.  S. Mark Heim makes a critical distinction in a reflection on Isaiah 52-53: “When we inflict iniquities on a victim, it is not same event as when God lays those same iniquities on him.”[iii]  The imperative is to guard well the distance between our human notions of jurisprudence and that which we imperfectly attribute to God for the purposes of reaching finite intuition about God’s nature, activity and relationship to the world.  It is easy to forget that one can only speak analogously about the manor in which the cross is a mechanism of God’s redeeming action.

This is not to say that one cannot construct new models and theories of atonement necessarily.  Nor is it to reify traditional concepts.  Jurgen Moltmann in turn provides what I think is a helpful additive with regard to the problem of violent, unjust sacrifice.  In “seeking to retrieve some aspects of the traditional theological reading of the cross while remaining faithful to the liberationist thrust of his earlier work,” Moltmann compliments the theme of solidarity with the theme of atonement for the perpetrators.[iv]  Christ’s death on the cross is only properly understood as atonement for the sins of perpetrators if God is present in Christ.  This death is endured by God vicariously for all who have fallen victim to death. It is atonement for the purpose of reconciling a hostile, sinful world:

“The love of God wounded by human injustice and violence becomes the love of God which endures pain; God’s ‘wrath’ becomes his compassion.”[v] Indeed, “God suffers injustice and violence as an injury to his love because and in so far as, he holds fast to his love for the unjust and the person who commits violence.  So his love must overcome his anger by ‘reconciling itself’ to the pain it has been caused.  This is what happens when God ‘carries’ or ‘bears’ the sins of his people.”[vi]

This “carrying” or “bearing” is described in Scripture in terms of expiation as well as propitiation.  In the former instance, the people’s sins are ritually transferred to a scapegoat and it takes them away to the wilderness.  In the latter, it is the prophetic vision of God’s Suffering Servant who “carries” the sins of the people in his vicarious suffering. In a similar vein, Miroslav Volf has developed the theme of “divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God.”[vii]  Elsewhere even Sobrino seems to agree: “As historical violence come from injustice, we [too] have to bear injustice, which means taking the side of the victims of injustice and its violence, the poor majority, and bearing their fate: violence cannot be redeemed unless it is borne in some way.”[viii] It seems that with this language, and with a return to a more thoroughly Trinitarian vision, Christians might be able to assuage the uneasiness with talk of substitution.

What is more though, as others like Hans Urs von Balthasar and more recently Adam Kotsko have shown, for example, discussion about atonement does not end with Christ.  Without meaning to imply that human beings in any way contribute to their salvation in eschatological terms, there is nevertheless an important sense in which we must speak of the church’s participation and sanctification in the process of being made at-one with Christ (as in, at-one-ment) on behalf of the world.

Kotsko prefers the word “redemption” to “atonement” because the substitutionary connotation of the latter stands in the way and can perhaps delimit human involvement – not in the soteriological and initial divine action, but in the response and on-going sanctification that is also part of the “politics of redemption.”[ix]  The notion of Christ as representative (Dorothee Soelle) can also be an improvement on substitution language. In either case, the shift is to a more relational and even social conception of divine-human interaction.  Hence, Jesus models how to live without fear, without [causing suffering and shame], and without the lustful domination of others.

God desires that human beings have free enjoyment, not dominance by possessive relations.  Christ represents this possibility.  Christ “transcends the dialectic of [suffering] and sin….[with an] authority [that] is based in his radical openness to others.”[x] According to Kotsko, Christ restores connections that have been cut off, and he does not try to control the outcome of his interventions.[xi]  Kotsko stresses the responsibility human beings have to take up and repeat Christ’s self-effacing actions as opposed to the tendencies to reach for control.

In order to close and return to God’s agency, however, one can borrow a bit from the process perspective defended by Majorie Suchocki, as Austin Roberts explains – and this is where a theodicy is made explicit: “Precisely because God in the consequent nature feels every sin and knows our situations in full, God can then graciously offer us redemptive possibilities in the next moment of our existence. Suchocki concludes, ‘Through God’s crucifixion, God provides us with a resurrection fitted to us in a love that demands our well-being. Who would think of a God whose love involves God in our pain?'”


[i] Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 229.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 23.

[iv] Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 135.

[vi] Ibid., 134.

[vii] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 23.

[viii] Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 217.

[ix] Adam Kotsko, Politics of Redemption, 181.

[x] Ibid., 199.

[xi] Ibid., 200.

5 Responses to Atonement as Political Theology and Theodicy

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