02 August 2006

Atonement and Non-Violence

This post is probably not for the faint-hearted.

Kim Fabricus has written an excellent article entitled Ten Propositions on Penal Substitution.

He seems to be approaching the subject from a Girardian point of view, which is most certainly an approach that I am enthusiastic about. I would think that fans of the
Preaching Peace Website and blog ought to find Kim's article interesting.

Below is some text from a paper I wrote for an MA module on another subject. The paper was not trying to develop a theology of atonement per se. In this section of the paper I was simply trying to explain what I believe "non-violent atonement" to be. (Astute readers will also understand from this why I believe that it is an abomination for Christians to believe that God chooses sides in a war of violence and wants one side destroyed.)

Philosopher Robert Birt's...defines ‘bad faith’ as hiding the truth from myself that ‘I’ am not the only subject and that the other is not an object; this describes what Christians would name as sin. In Christian terms, bad faith might be defined as hiding the truth from oneself that one is not sinless and that the other person is not the only sinner. However, in a Christian construct, when one sees oneself as the only subject and all others as objects, then God also becomes an object. This is idolatry and, in denying one’s own sinfulness, one effectively pronounces that God is a sinner.

It is apparent then, that human bad faith – human sin – is an outrageous affront to God. Were God a human being, it is not hard to imagine that faced with another’s endless invalidation of God’s subjectivity and with another’s endless pronouncement of God as sinner that a lesser god might retaliate with violence. But in the face of endless humiliation, the Christian God does what no human being can do: the Christian God endlessly and peaceably offers forgiveness to those who name God ‘enemy’, thereby offering a way out of the vicious cycle of humanity’s violent objectification of God.

God in Christ breaks into this vicious cycle by offering himself on the cross of what Girard would call our violent mimetic rivalry (2004: 10); simply put, God offers himself for sacrifice on the cross of human anger. This construct effectively posits that Christ’s sacrifice propitiates our anger, not the Father’s anger. (Alison, 2004) Christ is not only crucified for my sin, but he is also crucified by my sin.

If Christ’s death were the end of the matter, then the victimiser would have won and the world would be without hope. However, Christ’s resurrection witnesses to the fact that God’s ‘yes’ is to that which gives life; were this not so, God could simply condemn all of humanity to death and be done with the whole sorry matter of sin once and for all. James Alison states that Christ went willingly to the cross because of his faith in God’s ‘complete aliveness’ (2003: 65) – i.e. his faith that God does not will death. Christ went to the cross not to tell us that we are God’s children, but to create the possibility that we be God’s children. (2003: 64) The cross was necessary, because ‘…we cannot, as we are, imagine beyond, or outside, our formation within death.’ (2003: 63)

Far from being a hopeless vicious circle of violence and retaliation based on a number of different subjective and contextual truths, the Christian ethical system begins with the idea that it is God - creator, redeemer and sustainer of all that exists – who bestows dignity and subjectivity to each human person regardless of skin colour or any other criteria that humans use to disenfranchise the other . The cross allows all human beings to step out of the vicious circle with their God-given human subjectivity intact. The consequence of God breaking into this vicious circle is that our ‘murderous rivalry’ is taken up by God in Christ on the cross and transformed into the possibility of becoming something that is life-giving.

Therefore I believe that ‘the cross’ is a way out of the sinful human cycle of violence that results from sacrificing one human being on the altar of another’s righteous anger. By making the first move toward reconciliation with us, God incarnate as the only genuinely innocent party in history, opened up the possibility of reconciliation within God’s cosmic creation.

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