Satisfaction, exchange, and our natural indebtedness to God

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Anselm equates the impossibility of our satisfying God’s honor with our infinite guilt deriving from infinite offense. I hinted at a different take on this in the immediately preceding post, and here I’d like to expand upon that thought for a moment.

Anselm is surely right to say we are absolutely incapable of satisfying God’s honor and so obtaining the happiness we are created for. But Anselm grounds this inability in our having infinitely offended God. I’d like to suggest that this overlooks the truth that we are naturally unable to yield God the honor he is due and that our need for grace is absolute irrespective of offense and guilt. We are not infinitely indebted to God on account of our sin; we are infinitely indebted to him on account of our finitude. Our absolute ontological poverty and our infinite indebtedness to God (for grace to achieve our end in him) are one and the same reality. It is to our createdness or finitude, not to the dynamics of guilt, offense and punishment, where we must go to answer Anselm’s question ‘Cur Deus Home?’ (Why did God become man?). God becomes a man not primarily to save sinners but to perfect human beings as such. That we are fallen adds a dimension to the job-description of the Incarnate One, yes. His career must address human enslavement to sin and violence. But that is a contingent aspect of humanity’s natural infinite indebtedness to God.

Making this adjustment makes it possible to understand satisfaction in terms of the peaceful order of creation rather than in terms of guilt, punishment and violence. What “needs to be seen” regarding justice (to pick up Anselm’s concern) is thus not that the deserved punishment is seen to be borne. Even if it’s born by an innocent person who freely offers to bear the consequences for the guilty (as one Christian model has it), how many victims would feel justice was “seen to be done”? None that I can imagine.

Rutledge (in a passage that I want to believe doesn’t reflect the general aim of her overall argument) insists that ‘something is owed the victims’ of human violence and atrocity. But what notion of justice would be satisfied by an innocent person’s suffering what the guilty deserve even if the innocent person freely offered to suffer what the guilty deserve? Even Anselm admits that ‘it is not just for God to inflict misery upon the innocent’. So this can’t be what the Cross is about. But that Anselm construes the Incarnation in terms of satisfying an infinite indebtedness deriving from guilt and offense and not in terms of nature and finitude per se may subvert some of his own points; for though he grants that God does not inflict misery upon the innocent, he does suggest that satisfaction is met if an innocent person freely offers himself to suffer the misery deserved by the guilty. But does this really suffice? I don’t see that it does. Would the parents of a murdered child be satisfied that “justice was seen to be done” were they to see an innocent person freely take the electric chair in the place of their child’s murderer? I can’t imagine so. I fear that some insist on our natural moral intuitions (or ‘common human expectations’) about justice when it comes to establishing guilt and merit, but then abandon those intuitions when it comes to suffering the consequences.

What to do? Ground the infinite indebtedness of human beings to God in humanity’s natural state as created. We’re unable to honor God as he deserves, not on account of our sin as Anselm supposed, but on account of creaturely finitude as such. Sin will explain why we require Christ’s violent death (viz., because in our enslavement to violence we would not have it any other way), and it will enlighten us regarding the depths to which the Incarnate One is willing to humble himself in order to bear his (and our) humanity to God on our behalf (‘on our behalf’ reflecting the peaceful economy of creation’s natural need for God met by God, not a special dispensation called into being by our guilt) in a demonstration of love which violence killed but could destroy and which is thus capable of “putting right” (that is, “putting into right relationship”) victims and victimizers. But the bearing of our humanity by the grace of Incarnation to satisfy our indebtedness to God is entirely antecedent to any of the violent complications our sin introduces into an otherwise peaceful economy of exchange. There is indeed a real satisfaction and exchange to affirm, but it is not reducible to redemption from sin. Satisfaction and exchange are called into being peacefully by a good creation naturally indebted to God. They occur quite in spite of sin, not on account of it. What saves us from our enslavement to sin, then, is what God was always planning on doing for us regardless of sin.

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The Crucifixion—Part 3

prodigal

I’m still thinking through whether or not I understanding Rutledge (or Anselm for that matter). When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed, but I don’t think this equates to an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime. I’m sure I’m going against the mainstream.

Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in much of the world, certainly the Middle East I lived in for many years. Steal from me, do public service. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely.

I think this is wrong-headed. I agree all value is God’s, diversely reflected in created things and that, ultimately, it is God against whom we sin. But it seems as clear to me that the severity and magnitude of an offense is judged based on the understanding and context of the offending party. The magnitude of my offense against God derives (at least in part) from the depth of my understanding. It is not simply convertible with the value of God. And since no finite perspective could possibly comprehend the infinitude of God’s value, no offense against God can be as great as God.

This is important to Anselm, because he understands our inability to make satisfaction as derived from the infinitude of our offense. But it isn’t obvious to me that only infinitely offensive failures render us helpless before God. The view I’ve propounded here for some time is that we’re helpless by nature. Sin doesn’t render us unable to satisfy our calling to “honor” God (to go with Anselm’s word), we are by nature absolutely in need of grace to participate in the happiness God created us for. We are poverty stricken as such. That we are also fallen and wrecked certainly complicates our predicament, and it does call for a just and proportional moral order that links consequence to choice, but it is not our sinning that marks the point at which we begin requiring the grace of God to satisfy our destiny. It is our finitude that constitutes that need.

I suppose one could argue that the only offense against God that approaches being infinite would be the utter rejection of God by one in possession of the beatific vision, for only here could one be thought of as sinning “with eyes wide open” so to speak. But it’s also true that the beatific vision makes offending God inconceivable, for in order to misrelate to God responsibly one has to be able to construct some reason for doing so. The beatific vision, however, is epistemic closure regarding the ends and values of things. So, I take it that infinitely offending God is in fact impossible. But there’s no need to think this a Pelagian mistake. We are by nature absolutely destitute of the ability to secure our truest happiness apart from the undeserved grace of God.

That said, what’s it then mean to say that in “setting things right” (“rectifying” the fallen world, to go with Rutledge’s translation) justice “must be seen to be done”? Rutledge writes:

Forgiveness is too weak a word to embrace the full scope of what Christ has done and what he calls us too. How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave over by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too…

Something is owed to the victims of such atrocity. No one needs to have it explained to them what is meant by the language. It is common human expectation that there should be justice, and that justice should be in some way related to the magnitude of the loss…

If when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God.

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I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer on my behalf what I deserve to suffer, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to question our common human expectations.

What about justice for all the innocent babies abused and monstrous evils done to the poor, the weak and the defenseless? How is that “put right”? How’s it accounted for? It gets accounted for by Christ who is the only truly Innocent One suffering torture and rejection, not as a substitute for the punishment perpetrators of violence deserve, but as the consummate instance of the violence they perpetrate – consummate on account of Christ’s unique innocence – being forgiven in this case by the victim. As David Hart says, it is Christ’s innocence that saves us. Let us consider saying in addition that this would remain true had we, hypothetically, never fallen. It’s not only sinful human beings who are united by grace and faith to God through Incarnation. We don’t need God more as sinners than we needed him in any imagined, originally righteous state. Christ’s humanity was perfected by grace too. Let that sink in.

Moreover, it is what Christ does as innocent victim that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims, he is in a place to offer us a means of both receiving and extending forgiveness through participation in his suffering. Only Christ as the Innocent One can offer victims a mode of identification with him that can contextualize their victimization within his own (rather than, as typically understood, by contextualizing his victimization within theirs) and thus empower victims in the forgiveness of others. At the same time, only Christ as the “forgiving victim” (thank you James Alison) offers victimizers a mode of identification in his suffering which identifies and exposes both their guilt and forgiveness. But the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return. So to answer Rutledge’s passionate call to the “boiling of blood” over evil and to the call for a suffering that is “owed” victims – which sounds very like retribution to me – I don’t know how analogously to conceive of the boiling of the blood of the impassible God of delight, and if God’s blood isn’t boiling, why should ours boil? Right here I suspect that if we consider this to be a pitiless disregard for the suffering of victims, it may be due to lack of our own participation in God’s impassible delight.

So does Jesus suffer what is “owed” the victims? God forbid. I rather suspect he suffers in a manner that is able to free us from such equations. Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I may be missing Rutledge’s point here. My apologizes. But if not her, there are others who do adopt such a view of things.

If we construe forgiveness as Christ’s suffering the ultimate consequence we deserve, then our indebtedness is not in fact “canceled” or “erased” (Col. 2.14). Rather, it is stamped “paid,” which is not what Paul says. Nor was it true (2Cor 5.19) that “God was in Christ…not counting our sins against us.” Rather, God was counting those sins, prosecuting the case against us, making sure justice was seen to be done. That an innocent man suffered rather than us creates a drama that hides the fact that nothing is actually forgiven. Is not the point of Paul’s language here to subvert the very economy of indebtedness under which Christ dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological and not of divine origin. I think this post is entirely lost on Rutledge.

Let me offer this as carefully as I can – the innocent victims of injustice are not “owed” anything (in terms of proportionate justice), they are infinitely loved which is much better, and they are called to free themselves from proportional economics by participating in Christ’s gratuitous suffering and forgiving response. What of the victimizers? They too are infinitely loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, who calls them also to the same participation in an infinite impassibility that suffers without being harmed and forgives without needing compensation for the wrong done. Both victim and victimizer escape the violent math of proportional justice through the same Cross – approaching Christ either as his victimizer (which we all are on some level), or as a victim alongside him.

Is justice pure fiction, then? Are we not longing for the good and the true when we cry out to see justice done? We are indeed! But the reality we long for is not what we get when we possess our desire in terms of proportional suffering. When the parents of a murdered child see the perpetrator die in the electric chair, the relief they feel is not the satisfaction of justice God intends (not if the gospel is true). This is not to say that the renewed grief we experience when the guilty are acquitted is not a genuine longing for that justice which leaves nothing unreconciled. It is simply to say that justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.

Let me suggest that justice be thought, then, simply as being brought to acknowledge the truth about one’s choices. The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. But there’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).

(Prodigal Son by Oleg Korolev)

A sacrifice to end all sacrifice

sac1I’ve tapped into Mark Heim’s wonderful book Saved from Sacrifice previously (here, here, here, here, and here) as an example of a nonviolent, nonsacrificial reading of the Cross. I appreciate Heim’s appropriation of Girard more than other Girardians doing theology because Heim doesn’t pretend that Girard is right about everything:

I do not think that Girard’s thought gives us the global truth about mythology, ancient religion, human psychology, and community that its more extreme devotees maintain. Likewise, I agree that if taken as an exclusive account of Christian theology or even as an exhaustive account of the cross, Girard’s writing can be faulted for tending toward the impression that all that is needed in Christ’s work is a particularly dramatic demonstration of a truth we need to learn, as opposed to a divine act by whose power we are transformed.

Heim notes George Hunsinger’s criticism that Girard offers an “essentially ‘Pelagian’ solution to an inherently ‘Augustinian’ problem.” It’s a mistake to think that if we just had more “information” we can right ourselves. But this criticism doesn’t stick to Girard. When Girard talks about the necessity of Christ as a “model” to follow, he doesn’t deny that transforming one’s life requires the presence of divine grace, the actual presence of the model, in this case Christ, within one’s life as the animating power of his example. Heim notes that Girard’s latter work especially avoids Hunsinger’s criticism, recalling Girard’s own statement:

There is an anthropological dimension to the text of the Gospels. I have never claimed that it constituted the whole of Christian revelation. But without it, Christianity could scarcely be truly itself, and would be incoherent in areas where it need not be. To lose this dimension is to lose an essential aspect of the very humanity of Christ, of the incarnation. We would not see clearly in Christ a victim of people such as we all are, and we would be in danger of relapsing into the religion of persecution.

My own sense is that the transformation we require is about ‘information’, but only in the sense that “the truth shall set you free” itself involves information. When the ‘information’ is the ‘truth’ about God, ourselves, the lies that enslave us, etc., then it’s a mistake to divorce grace from the freedom that truth brings. What’s the information in this case? That God is in reality incarnate, that he suffers on our behalf, that the risen Christ dwells in the human heart and makes Christ present, etc. The information relays the truth of saving events undertaken by God himself. Recall that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.”

So to complain that the “particularly dramatic demonstration of truth” is just information and not grace is to fail to appreciate how revealed truth is welcomed by the human heart and appropriated in relational and transformational ways. That’s a work of grace, and it’s no denial of grace, Heim notes, to point out that there is an “empirical level on which the cross illuminates and affects human history, a level that can be grasped rationally and is not a matter of subjective belief.” That Christ is innocent and that he exposes the mythology behind sacred violence is indeed a bit of ‘information’ one can perceive without the regenerating work of grace in one’s life. However, to perceive that ‘God’ is the victim in this case, and that he suffers in love, and that this victim rose from the dead and extends forgiveness to all – these are not obviously perceivable on an empirical level. They represent an objective work of grace that transforms the human heart. There’s no denial of grace inherent to the application of Girard’s insights to our reading of the gospel.

sac5Each time I return to Heim’s book I leave it thinking that it’s the best reading of Scripture in light of Girard’s insights that there is. In this post I’d like to share a portion of it where Heim summarizes a nonsacrificial reading of the Cross as we find it expounded upon by the author of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews, after all, is the real testing ground for Girardian apprpriations. Girard himself admitted to having mistakenly dismissed Hebrews as a sacrificial reading of the Cross that essentially betrays the gospel by reducing it to being an instance of sacred violence. He confessed this was a mistake and that Hebrews (and sacrificial language itself) can in fact be read as compatible with his views. It’s a challenge to do with Hebrews. Here’s what Heim has to say about it.

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Sacrifice to End Sacrifice
We will take one more example. If there is one book in the New Testament that appears to prove our approach wrong, it is the Letter to the Hebrews. The book’s single overpowering theme is the importance of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering. The writer understands that death through detailed parallels with the practice of temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. The benefits of Christ’s death are exalted. His blood establishes a new covenant and is the foundation of our salvation. The whole history of sacrifice is reinforced in the cross, and the importance of the cross is that it is a supersacrifice.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tend (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb. 9:11-14)

This seems clear enough. Killing birds and goats and bulls may get you some benefits. Killing the Son of God will get you infinitely greater benefits. There is nothing antisacrificial about this. Rather than attacking the history of such rituals in Israel, the writer accepts it. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22)

Stephen and Paul look back through Israel’s history and draw a line to Jesus through the voices of scapegoats and victims, through the persecuted prophets and their words against sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews draws a line to Jesus through all of Israel’s prior sacrificial practices. These are quite different approaches. It is striking, then, that they reach the same conclusion: Christ has ended sacrifice. The one approach emphasizes that the cross has revealed what was always wrong with sacred violence. The other emphasizes that Christ’s sacrifice is better than all the others. It is the only truly effective offering and accomplishes what all the other never could. But these are not really opposed to each other. They are more like two sides of the same thing.

This is reflected in the ways the writer in Hebrews puts a finger on the particular things that were imperfect in prior sacrifice. “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he wold have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age ot remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:24-26, emphasis mine).

These verses make a very explicit contrast between Christ’s death and a pattern that is not being followed. That pattern is illustrated in the action of the high priest who offers victims again and again. This offering, the text underlines, is made with blood that is not his own. If Jesus’ sacrifice were to be like that, he would have had to suffer again and again, since the foundation of the world. And, presumably, Jesus and other victims would have to go on suffering. What we have here is a capsule summary of the nature of sacrificial violence, presented as exactly what Jesus’ death is not about. Christ’s sacrifice is presented as the opposite and in fact the end of that dynamic. His sacrifice is meant to stop it. Christ, our high priest, has offered the one needful sacrifice and makes intercession in heaven for us. No further earthly sacrifice is expected, accepted, or even possible. Jesus, on the cross, speaks the one word that otherwise can never be said of sacrifice: “It is finished.” What sacrifice is always being repeated to achieve has actually been accomplished.

The writer accepts the past history of sacrifice in a highly qualified way. It was an imperfect response to an insoluble problem. “Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.” (9:23) They could never succeed; “otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year” (10:2-3).

So the writer of Hebrews, this advocate of a sacrificial understanding of the cross, adopts some of the strongest antisacrificial language from the tradition.

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, / but a body you have prepared for me; / in burnt offers and sin offerings / you have taken no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ / (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:4-10, quoting Ps. 40).

These quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah are placed in Christ’s mouth. Christ has come to do God’s will, a will that does not take pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings. He has come to establish God’s will by abolishing such sacrifices, through the offering of his body, once for all.

sac4Christ’s death is completely unique. Strictly speaking, it cannot be imitated, and any purposeful repetition of it would go directly counter to the entire logic of the book of Hebrews. To think of doing it again would be certain proof you had no idea what you were talking about. The mythic pattern is an implicit formula that programs us to repeat the sacrifice with each new act of sacrifice generating the effective power. The New Testament, even in its most sacrificial terminology, reverses this relation by calling believers to constant recollection of Jesus as the one unjustly sacrificed, the one vindicated by God, the one who takes no retribution. The victim is remembered, and the explicit representation of his suffering is a caution against any repetition.

The writer of Hebrews declares that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant, based in “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice. Christ’s death speaks a different, better word than this. In the final chapter we are given one last extended image from the practice of sacrifice.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (13:11-16)

If there is abuse to be suffered for standing with Jesus, it should be borne. But there is to be no more sacrifice…or only sacrifice of a different type, the sacrifice of praise, of doing good, and sharing what you have.

The book of Hebrews turns sacrifice inside out. Rather than deny ritual sacrifice any effect (for it has a very real effect) or reject all its practices in the past, this writer presses a koan-like conclusion. If you believe in sacrifice, then you can’t practice it anymore, because it has been done completely, perfectly, once for all. This was the sacrifice to end sacrifice. Hebrews is rife with the language of liturgy and ritual, but its premise is the very opposite of what ritual presumes: not repetition but finality.

Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews use sacrificial language as their primary medium to interpret Jesus’ death. In Hebrews this death is seen as a “perfect” sacrifice. While some validity is implicitly presumed for the sacrificial models that provide this analogy to apply to the cross, those models are rendered inoperative by the finality and completeness of this event. Sacrifice is ended by a culmination, we might say. For Paul the death of Christ is case also in sacrificial language but not so much as a culmination of past models. Instead Paul stresses the different mechanism operative in this event – the appropriation of God’s mercy through faith in the one unjustly sacrificed. That is, Paul casts the event against similarities in Jewish tradition, emphasizing that this takes place “apart from the law.” Although these two texts have contrasting tenors, then point to the same reality.

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I’m suspicious of Heim’s final paragraph there – of the notion that the use of sacrificial language implies a certain validity to the sacrificial models which are the source of the language. I understand Heim to argue the inherent invalidity of sacred violence, so I’m unsure what he means here. It’s not enough simply to say Israel’s sacrificial economy “culminates” in the Cross, for this is consistent with contradictory claims about the very nature of that economy and the nature of God. On the one view, this economy culminates in Christ in the sense that it finally succeeds because it finds ‘the right victim’ – Jesus. On the other view, it culminates by finally failing when Jesus submits himself to its terms and logic. In the former sense, sacrificial logic is fundamentally valid. In the latter sense it is proved fatally flawed because Jesus will not conform to its economy. Even if one takes the former view that Israel’s sacrificial economy is valid in the sense of being ordained by God to model spiritual truths that Jesus finally perfects, one still concedes that economy has passed away, and this is not enough. This kind of culmination is what we’re arguing against, for it matters a great deal if such fulfillment represents the truth about the kind of God we go on worshiping after the fact.

Heim’s suggestion that we have two different lines of approach or perspective (Paul and Hebrews) within which the Passion is narrated and which both end up at the same place (Christ ends all sacrificial economies) is fine so long as one perspective is recognized as true and one as false. That is, contrasting lines of approach can come together in a single person, Christ, such that we have not, as David Hart says, “a” sacrifice with Jesus but “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” So Paul may represent the failure of Israel’s sacrificial economy “apart from the law,” from God’s perspective one might say. Hebrews, on the other hand, views the failure of that same sacrificial economy from within that economy, presenting its abolishing within the language of its own terms and expectations. In Hebrews readers are led on a tour of sacred violence from within that sacrificial order. Sometimes the author re-presents this opposing order so matter-of-factly one might conclude he approves of it as something God requires and ordains. But as the tour proceeds, one sees that the very order one is viewing from the inside is contrary to God’s will and pleasure (Heb 10.4-10).

In my own tradition (Evangelical), Hebrews was (mis)read as making God out to be the patron and proprietor of Israel’s sacrificial economy and Jesus its finest and supreme instantiation. So the OT sacrificial system was entirely “valid.” It passed away because in Jesus it finally found ‘just the right sacrifice’ and so finally worked. Heim (and behind him Girard) argues a contrary view, namely, that Israel’s sacrificial economy passed away because in sacrificing Jesus it finally makes explicit its inherent failure. Heim writes:

Christ died for us. He did so first in the mythic, sacrificial sense that all scapegoated victims do, discharging the community’s conflicts in collective violence. Jesus also dies in our place, because it is literally true that any one of us, in the right circumstances, can be the scapegoat. That we know these things is already a sign that he died for us in a second sense, to save us from that very sin. As the letter to the Hebrews argues, Christ is a sacrifice to end sacrifice, who has died once for all. By mapping the crucifixion against the yearly sacrificial ritual of atonement for sin at the temple, Hebrews makes the stereoscopic view as plain as possible. With the parallel in view, it emphasizes what is different about Jesus’ death. It is not to take place year after year. It is not to conform to the pattern of suffering “from the foundation of the world.” The writer underlines the fact that the former reconciling ritual was always performed by one with “blood that is not his own.” But Jesus has offered his own, so that there should be no more of others’.

He will put those wretches to a miserable death!

51FQZ2wZv+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Re-reading Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice, I ran across this passage. I love how he reads Jesus’ response to the crowd’s answer to his question regarding how the owner will treat the tenants who murdered his son.

Anselm begins with the universal extent and profound depth of human sinfulness. Both are realities. But this general truth is not an adequate departure point for understanding the specific import of the cross. Rather it should be the other way around. We must start with the concrete nature of the sin in Jesus’ death in order to articulate its connection to our wider human condition. Treating guilt and sin as a single undifferentiated quantitative value was one of Anselm’s mistakes. After all, Jesus confronted the realities of sinfulness at every step in his prepassion life. And in every case he encountered those realities in concrete shapes, like greed or envy or deceit or pride. The general truth has a particular face in the case of the crucifixion as well. Specific understanding of the cross must begin not with the question of how God can be justified in forgiving the guilty. That is a second-level question. The beginning point is provided by the biblical context for the cross, the thread that runs through Abel and Joseph and Jonah and Job and Susanna and Daniel and the Psalms and the Prophets. Its question is, how can God be justified unless God sides with the unanimous victim, unless God vindicates and redeems the scapegoat?

Only the extraordinary conviction that God does in fact redeem the victim, coupled with the Gospel revelation that God has actually shared the place of the scapegoat, can lead to a further question. If God vindicates the sacrificed, if God has even been the object of our sacred persecution, then how can God be justified inn saving the guilty, i.e., the victimizers? And the guilty are all of us, because, Christ excepted, there is no one who is a scapegoat who would not or has not belonged to the crowd. Now the issue of guilt arises dramatically, for if God is to do justice for victims, how can God fail to do justice against their persecutors?

In seeing Christ on the cross, in the light of the resurrection, believers see what has happened…and not just to Jesus. What is revealed is not only the enormity of such violence against God, but the evil of our longstanding scapegoating against each other. We can no longer saw we know not what we do. And when this abyss opens before us, the order or magnitude of this sin appears virtually unlimited. It is the dimensions of grace that bring home to us the real nature of wrong. We see that Jesus does not deserve to be on the cross. That allows us to see that those we put on the cross in the same place Jesus occupied, for the same socially unifying purpose, do not deserve their scapegoating at our hands (whatever their real sins may be). And when this awareness comes to us, a third link falls into place. We are the ones who deserve the punishment we have readily meted out to others. We are the ones who deserve to be in Jesus’ place, but he has taken ours.

Jesus tells a parable in which the landlord of a vineyard sends messengers to collect his rent, only to have the tenants beat his messengers. When he finally sends his son, the tenants kill him and throw him out of the vineyard. At the conclusion of this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the crowd: When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’” (Matt. 21:41).

…Jesus allows his listeners to draw their own conclusion about the wrath that should fall on the collective sin of the tenants. And then Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected / has become the cornerstone; / this was the Lord’s doing, / and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matt. 21:41).

When his listeners emphatically render a sentence of death against the tenants, they are condemning their own practice, and the practice that will claim Jesus. What does it mean for Jesus to respond to their outburst by quoting this passage from a psalm of deliverance? And particularly, why does Jesus introduce it as though it contradicts the judgment of wrath they have just pronounced: “Have you never read…?”

Jesus is the murdered son of the owner of the vineyard, and when he returns in the resurrection he does not do what the crowd who heard the parable expected and demanded. He does not put anyone to death. He brings mercy to the tenants and intends for the management of the vineyard, the kingdom of God, to be under a new lease, one without sacrifice…

Anselm is not wrong to link the scope of the wrong done to Christ with the scope of the fault among us. But he is wrong to suppose that God’s whole purpose was to somehow balance these out. We have rightly understood the wrong of the cross only when we realize it is the same as the wrong done to others. Like someone writing in ever larger letters, God has met our congenital blindness to our own sacrificial practice with an extreme demonstration. IF we can begin to see the truth here, then we can see it elsewhere.

I discuss this parable to illustrate that when we connect the story of Jesus’ death with a practice in which we participate, the reflexive response is a sense of our own guilt. As Girard puts it, “Christianity refers back to humanity the violence that humanity has always projected onto its gods. That is why we accuse Christianity of being so judgmental about our guilt…because in order to defend our victims the gospels are obliged to condemn their persecutors, that is to say, us.” The cross reveals the evil of scapegoating sacrifice so plainly that we spontaneously condemn it. And when we then see that this practice is our practice, our own judgment falls back upon us. The acute sense of responsibility for Jesus’ death is, then, one of the signs that one has been savingly affected by it. We do not clearly see our sin until we see how God has acted to save us from it. (emphasis mine)

Jesus re-creates humanity with a Cry

the-view-from-the-crossWatching the sunrise this morning on this Good Friday, I had a thought inspired by recent discussions of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Here’s the thought I had.

God creates ex nihilo or out of nothing. This ‘nothing’ isn’t a certain sort of something out of which God creates; we are not assembled into being from other more fundamental parts or created events. From the finite perspective of our conscious experience, this nothingness represents the Void whose absolute closure threatens to consume our present existence with final meaninglessness. The Void represents the nothingness from which God calls us to be. But it occasions a necessary and fundamental choice to relate to existence in one of two ways – either peacefully, giving our finitude to God in trust, or despairingly, anxiously, in the fragmenting narratives of self-assertion and fear.

I want to suggest that on the Cross, in Jesus’ Cry (“My God, My God, why?”), God is recreating humanity ex nihilo, that God, via Christ’s humanity (God’s own humanity), takes creation to the very edge of that nothingness from which we are called into being, and there humanity finally relates to the Void truthfully and peacefully.

Christ takes the essential question at the heart of the Cry (Ps 22) and submits himself to the Father as its answer. The Cry of Ps 22 is there not because Christ believes himself abandoned by God (the Psalm and gospels prevent such a conclusion) but because the humanity he is re-creating believes itself to be abandoned by God. The Cry becomes the point of departure, the basis upon which we can locate ourselves within the event of the Cross. It becomes the doorway through which we experience ourselves being re-created ex nihilo. There is a question in the Cry that is, after all, just the question that finitude must ask: Why this? Where is God in this? The Cry tells us that Jesus is standing at the very place before the Void which marks the spot of humanity’s despairing failure to trust God (before the truth of its finitude and mortality), but also that where we universally misrelate to this truth, Jesus surrenders himself peacefully and benevolently in trust to God.

Jesus asks our question (Why?), yes, and he asks it from the regions of our worst suffering, but he answers it differently. And the answer he gives is how and where he re-creates humanity ex nihilo. Why ex nihilo? Because the answer Jesus gives (that answer being “I am not alone, for my Father is with me” John 16.32-33) exceeds the resources of finitude. Its truth is not derived from any created resource. Since creation is asking the question about itself, it cannot itself be the answer. The answer “I am not alone, my Father is with me” comes from the other side of the Void, i.e., from a transcendent and uncreated source.

The Crucifixion—Part 2

rutledgeI’m not going to attempt a review of Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion. I’m not capable of that. It’s not that one can’t summarize the heart of her project in a few paragraphs or a single post, but that would be like naming the peaks of a mountain range without mapping its descents and paths upwards. Rutledge’s book is a mountain range, captivating and inspiring (and, at times, concerning), and as thick a text of 600 pages of sincere, thoughtful reflection on the Cross as you will find anywhere. Even though I will describe points of disagreement, my disagreements in no way mean I’m finished reading and pondering this text. It’s the sort of work you return to over and over.

I hesitated to post disagreements when I attended more closely to the endorsements her book enjoys. Hauerwas, Fr Barron, Marilyn Adams, David Hart, and Robert Jenson, to name of few, all praise and endorse her work. So criticizing it, I thought, only runs the risk of turning out to be an embarrassing display of stupidity on my part. But since I write this blog as much for myself as for anyone else, perhaps it will help me clarify the issues and hopefully learn something in the process.

The Crucifixion divides into two parts. Part 1 describes the Crucifixion – its place of primacy at the center of the Christian story, the special nature of its suffering in Christ’s case (shame, ridicule, rejection, but more importantly godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction), and how the magnitude of this suffering corresponds to the gravity of sin and the depth of humanity’s spiritual predicament which Christ heals and puts right. Indeed, it is one of the several significant achievements of this book that it will not permit you to let go the relationship between these two: the magnitude of the sacrifice (nothing less than God estranged from God) on the one hand, and the severity of the predicament this sacrifice sets right on the other. Thus the key question for Rutledge: What does the method by which Jesus suffered tell us about the nature of our predicament? If God must suffer to heal and free us, how grave must be our sickness and enslavement? This question motivates Rutledge’s reflections from start to finish.

If we reason in this direction, Rutledge explains, we will be better guided to conclusions about what is actually happening on the Cross, and why it must happen as it did. The recurring refrain throughout is that ‘something truly is wrong with the world which must be put right’ (or “rectified”). The solution has to come on the level of the problem, on the stage of concrete material human existence and relations, and must as well be equal to the problem in magnitude. Thus, the godforsaken innocent Jesus on behalf of godforsaken guilty humanity. In conversation with Anselm, Rutledge awakens the sense of divine justice at work in the blessed exchange that occurs in and through the Cross on our behalf and at Christ’s expense. She’s concerned that too many Christians (I’m not sure who these are, she never identifies their representative voices) have effectively reduced Christianity to “forgiveness” or “repentance.” There is no appreciation for the depth and gravity of sin and its effects and no recognition of the cost justice requires to put things right. Her chapter on “The Question of Justice” explores why such reductions to forgiveness are completely inadequate. They’re inadequate because something is objectively wrong. Acquittal won’t do, Rutledge argues. That which is objectively wrong with the world must be rectified or put right. This involves a “proportionate justice.” Something of sufficient value is required to address the magnitude of our offense so that “justice can be seen to be done.” For Rutledge, justice is seen to be done in the descent of the Son of God into the utter dereliction of godforsakenness (which is the ‘just’ wrath of God as the natural consequence of our sin).

Part 2 unpacks this basic understanding of the Cross through a discussion of eight biblical motifs or themes, each motif shedding light on an aspect of the Cross as God’s putting right what is wrong. They are: Passover & Exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom & redemption, the Great Assize [Trial], apocalyptic war (or Christus Victor), the descent into Hell, substitution, and recapitulation. Each motif could comprise a volume of its own, and you best put your exercise attitude on when you read Rutledge because each of these discussions is a serious work-out. What I appreciate about Rutledge is that she exercises not just the speculative, philosophical side of Christian thought (even if she often stops short of pursuing such questions), but also the practical, lived, socially dynamic dimensions of faith. She brings a preacher’s passion with her and there are gems throughout.

Rutledge has no intention of producing a defense of penal-substitution (at least not in any of its cruder, objectionable forms). When she discusses “substitution,” for example, it’s primarily to establish the presence of that motif in Scripture. The idea is present, so there’s no dismissing it. Something more than mere forgiveness is at work in securing our healing and freedom. But though she doesn’t interpret substitution in terms of Jesus inserting himself between us and an angry God to save us from a cosmic tantrum, she does see Jesus (indeed, the Trinity) as inserting Jesus between a loving Father’s wrath and us who deserve that wrath. Be ready for a host of very fine distinctions, lots of appeals to mystery, and repeated dismissals of philosophical and metaphysical objections on the grounds that, as Rutledge reminds readers, she’s a preacher and pastor, not a metaphysician. Some of this is fair. Some of it you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Nor does Rutledge suppose the Cross changes God’s attitude toward us. God’s attitude is unchanging in its favor and love. She (rightly) argues the nonviolent, loving, freely offered — and where you might be inclined to supply the word forgiveness next, Rutledge finishes it with — rectifying what’s wrong. What talk of “wrath” is present is interpreted in terms of the just and natural consequences of our sin. The wrath we suffer is just our sin itself, its existential dimension as the anxiety and despair which guilt produces in us. She recalls Anselm’s definition of final wrath as “inconsolable need” (a definition I like very much), a state of spiritual dereliction or godforsakenness. This is the “curse” we are under. On Rutledge’s account, Christ redeems us by substituting himself on our behalf and in our place under this curse, experiencing the spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness we deserve. The problem here, as we’ll see, is that there is no natural means by which the innocent Jesus may be brought into an experience of wrath as such. So one ends up, despite assurances to the contrary, grounding Jesus godforsakenness and spiritual dereliction in a positive decree of the Father.

All the margins of my copy are marked up with a range of responses, from “Amen!” “Yes!” and “Preach it!” (chiefly at those places she disavows aspects of the penal-substitutionary understanding of Christ’s suffering) to “I don’t think so” and “This doesn’t work” scribbled beside passages that portray salvation in terms that reduce the Cross to essentially the same sacrificial economy behind the cruder, more objectionable models of the penal-substitutionary positions she rejects. She offers an essentially penal, substitutionary view of the work of Christ without the especially unsavory claims that the Cross effects a change in God’s attitude toward us, makes it possible for God to forgive us, or that Christ satisfies an angry God bent on extracting his pound of flesh.

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What I’d like to do here is describe a few of Rutledge’s positions which I struggle with and why I believe they undermine her claim to have secured a truly nonviolent view of the Cross.

First—the hermeneutical primacy of the Cross
This comes first in the book so I’ll begin here. At the end of Ch 1 (“The Primacy of the Cross”), Rutledge summarizes:

“…the crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance.”

This seems obviously mistaken. We have no access to the Cross apart from the resurrection, no pre-resurrection accounts of the Cross that establish its meaning and significance (apart from Jesus’ own statements about his cross, and they incline against Rutledge’s view, as we’ll see below). The gospels themselves are written after the fact and reflect a post-resurrection perspective on the significance of the Cross. There is simply no way conceptually to set the resurrection aside while one construes the meaning and significance of the Cross on other grounds which then become the basis for giving the resurrection its true significance. All the descriptions and motifs employed to proclaim the Cross are by definition already shaped by the resurrection. In the end, only the resurrected Jesus can tell us what his cross means.

I do not mean to suggest that the Resurrection ‘makes it all better’, or wipes away the gravity of the violence, or lessens the pain endured, or reduces the Cross effectively to the status of an existential speed-bump Christ cruises over happily on the way to resurrection. After all, there is also no resurrection without crucifixion. The resurrected one is the crucified Christ. (Thank you James Alison.) There’s no celebrating the life of the Risen One without entering into his suffering. However, the whole attempt to establish the primacy of the Cross by determining its meaning and then establishing the significance of other events, like the resurrection, relative to this meaning is a failed project from the start. Allow me to recall something from a previous post:

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically and one.

vanghohWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth), but to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood…There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross independent of all other contributions…There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives. But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the lens of the resurrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus.

Second—the Cry of Dereliction
The next few points of this post describe perhaps the most fundamental disagreement I have with Rutledge’s book, assuming I’m understanding her on what actually constitutes Christ’s suffering. Rutledge’s understanding of the Cry is part and parcel of her understanding of 2Cor 5.21 (God make the innocent Jesus “to become sin”) and Gal. 3.13 (Jesus “became a curse”). Her view appears to be that Christ must suffer, not just “as a consequence of” our sin, but actually suffer “the consequence of” our sin, and this consequence is the wrath of God (understood as inconsolable need, viz., the anxiety and existential despair of estrangement from God). She has profound things to say about the deconstructing, dehumanizing design of Roman crucifixion and about the abiding gracious and loving disposition God always has for us. But, she notes (“Rejection and Dereliction”), the Cry demonstrates “the complete identification of Jesus with our compromised, indeed absurd, human condition,” that Jesus “embodies in his own tormented struggle all the fruitlessness of human attempts to befriend the indifferent mocking silence of space.” Christ “is suffering the curse and the defilement that would have fallen upon them—that is, upon us.” “God was separated from God—while still remaining God.” Jesus was “utterly cut off from his powers, from his Father, from any hope of redemption or victory” and therefore “suffered what the book of Revelation calls the ‘second death’…as our substitute.” This is an “interposition of the Son between human beings as the curse of God upon sin” where Jesus “exchanged God for Godlessness” and was made to be sin. “Does this mean that Jesus became his own Enemy?,” she asks “It would seem so.” Jesus entered into our condition as having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2).

I should add that Rutledge does say that “for Paul, it is not God, but the curse of the law that condemned Jesus.” But I’m unable to do the math. Exactly how does “the Law” bring Jesus into an experience of spiritual dereliction and estrangement from God? But that the Law and “not God” condemns may be irrelevant. Rutledge adds:

There is considerable disagreement among theologians as to whether God actually forsook Jesus or not. Moltmann says yes, God forsook God – though he goes to great lengths to avoid splitting the Trinity or implying that God denies his own nature.

Rutledge appears to agree, “Moltmann’s argument is subtle and seeks to avoid the obvious pitfalls.” The point, she adds, is that “in the Godforsakeness of Jesus, God was involved.”

Readers here may have grown tired of my preoccupation with the Cry of Dereliction, but it really does get at the heart of what for many of us separates violent from nonviolent understandings of the Cross. I’ve argued at some length elsewhere that this narrative of godforsakenness is in fact part of the mythology of sacred violence God redeems us from.

cross

It is of more than academic interest whether or not creation is “set right” by God surrendering the innocent Jesus to a state of spiritual dereliction and absurdity or by God’s allowing us, in the absurdity of our spiritual dereliction, to exhaust every resource of religious violence against Jesus.

Recall Jesus’ instructions the night before he died. He knows he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples. He does not believe, however, that his Father will leave him alone – on any level. Jn 16.31-33 is explicit:

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Besides declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus intends his disciples to understand from his suffering that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

If one wonders where the violence is in the claim that Jesus “dies the second death” and suffers the despair of godforsakenness, one can approach an answer by asking how an absolutely innocent person can be brought into such an experience. More specifically, by what means is the innocent Jesus brought into an experience of the spiritual dereliction of being estranged from God? Who brings him into this experience? It can’t be any human being. Rutledge suggests that it is simply the Law, not God, that condemns. But how is ‘the Law’ to accomplish the sentence? It should be clear that only God can accomplish such a thing, perhaps by “giving Jesus over” to dereliction, or perhaps the Father “withdraws” himself from Jesus, removing from him that filial affection and affirmation of the Spirit that grounded Jesus very identity. But by whatever means, we’re describing a state of dereliction that only God can effectively accomplish. Jesus cannot bring it upon himself as each of does by sinful misrelation. It is only by an act of violence that an absolutely innocent man can be brought by God into the experience of godforsakenness which is God’s wrath.

Does it help to say that Father, Son and Spirit are in agreement that Jesus should suffer this particular form of abandonment? Does this suffice to establish the nonviolence of such a view? I don’t see how. What would a trinitarian agreement to plunge Jesus into into true spiritual dereliction even look like, and would it be sufficient at this point to appeal to mystery? Perhaps one only means that Father and Spirit relate to Jesus as if he was guilty while knowing him to be innocent. But that would reduce the very means by which we are saved to God’s relating to Jesus outside the truth of his innocence. We’d be saved by a kind of falsehood, and surely it is the truth (and God’s relating to Jesus within the truth of his innocence) that saves us.

We want instead to say (as Rutledge herself occasionally says) God stands on the side of the victim. We already noted Jesus’ belief that though all would leave and forsaken him, his Father would be with him. Consider also Jesus’ explicit denial (Jn 14.28-31, esp. 30b-31) that the prince of this world had any hold over him. “He comes,” Jesus assured his disciples, “so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” Are we disagreeing with Jesus over the question of whether he suffered estrangement and godforsakenness? Jesus assures us no such thing would occur and in fact offers what and how he suffers as a model of hope and confident for his disciples to participate in. To the extent we describe Christ’s sufferings as imparticipable by us, we make the Cross of Christ to be something it’s not.

What of 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13? Must these not be read as describing just such a state of accursed godforsakenness? As we said earlier:

We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). How can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that divine justice doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes [our] curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God; not because we’re right in believing God curses the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

Regarding 2Cor 5.21, note the entire passage. If Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place. And notice too that it is God (not the Law) who “makes Jesus to become sin.” This can only refer to God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences.

Part 3 to come, hopefully.

Caught in the act of atonement

fordgeMy thanks to Fr Aidan for sharing a wonderful article by Gerhard Forde (d. 2005) of Lutheran Seminary (St. Paul) with me this morning. The article, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ” (World in World 3/1 1983), is a short but very helpful meditation on the Cross, certainly relevant to my reading through Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. I’m reluctant to confess it, but ten minutes of Forde was more refreshing, freeing, and enlightening than the whole mountain of atonement monographs I’ve been sifting through for weeks. Parts of Forde’s piece were so simply helpful and clarifying, I wanted to share some of it. For those of you familiar with Girard, you’ll see the compatibility.

After summarizing the ‘objective’ vs ‘subjective’ views of the atonement, along with the insights of the Christus Victor model, he recommends that we sidestep these theories and deal with the “brute facts” as we observe them “bottom up.” He writes:

If we are to get anywhere with these questions today, we shall have to begin by paying closer attention to the “brute facts” of the case, looking at the actual events as they have been mediated to us in the narrative itself to see what we can make of them. Perhaps this is to say, to use a distinction employed for the person of Christ, we should begin our consideration of the work of Christ “from below” (from our point of view) as much as possible before we proceed to discuss it “from above” (from “God’s point of view”) – realizing the problematic nature of such distinctions. The reason for insisting on such a beginning is not to invest theological capital in the distinctions as such, but simply to suggest that we have tended in the past to hurry by what actually happened here “below,” with us and to us, to get to the theory, the perspective “from above.” The theory has overrun the event. If we begin “from below” perhaps the impact of the work of Christ will emerge more naturally and directly from the narrative itself and we will find ourselves “caught in the act” in more ways than one: caught at it and at the same time caught by it. If we can begin in this fashion we might be better prepared, I think, to get some glimpses “from above,” some indications (a posteriori, of course!) of why God could not or at least would not do it any other way.

Why could not God just up and forgive? Let us start there. If we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual events themselves, the “brute facts” as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty and mercy of his “Father.” The problem, however, is that we could not buy that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our complaint against God is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that…

Why was Jesus killed? It would seem from the actual narrative that we should be much more careful about saying that Jesus had to die because God, at the outset, was angry with us. There is indeed a sense in which we must say that Christ’s work is to “satisfy” the divine wrath. But it is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God’s honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be “satisfied” before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37) We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the “drama” in favor of the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, “We has met the enemy and they is us!” We did it…

But why did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of “self-defense.” Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. It is an act, not an idea. That is his “work.” That is the New Testament. He came to do “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his “heaven,” but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter—especially if it is the absolutely free and unconditional having mercy and forgiving of the sovereign God who ups and has mercy on whom he will have mercy! How can one actually do that here? How can this world survive, how can we survive if mercy and forgiveness are just given unconditionally? The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riff-raff of every sort and just blows away our protests by saying, “They that are whole need not a physician. But they that are sick”? Actually doing it, giving it unconditionally just seems to us terribly reckless and dangerous. It shatters the “order” by which we must run things here.

We should make no mistake about it. One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God’s name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here. So either Jesus must go or we must. But how can we—mere dying beings—surrender all our plans and gains to him? So Jesus is “wasted” as an intruder. He is crucified between two other rebels against the order of the age, a thief and an insurrectionist. But Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness. He has the crazy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his “Kingdom” are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make them new and pure and whole and won’t ultimately hurt them at all. He seems to think that there actually is “a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God”! In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us. To consent to that would mean (just as he said) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded. So he must go. It is a matter of self-defense.

If we can approach the work of Christ in some such fashion “from below,” perhaps we can begin to see that it is a matter of being caught in the act—caught, in the first place, in the act of being ourselves, our “old” selves. God is not the obstacle to reconciliation, we are. Those who advocated the “subjective” view of the atonement were at least right in that, I expect. God is, indeed, sheer unconditional love. They were wrong, however, in thinking that we would in any way be open to one who actually came to do that among us. Consequently, the idea that Christ’s work is to effect a mere alteration in the “subject” by the example of his dedication is just another defense mechanism against the act, the doing of the divine love. It is translated into an idea or an ideal which serves ultimately just to reinforce the way we run things. The fact that we had to kill the Jesus who came to forgive exposes us for who we are. No mere subjective alteration will do for the likes of us. If we are to be saved by him, we must somehow be ready to receive what it is he comes to give. But that will take some dying. And that is the point. Not only are we caught in the act; we will have to be caught by the act.

But why then must Jesus die? Bearing in mind that this “must” is always a posteriori, not a priori, not an abstract, logical “must” determined beforehand but one which flows out of what the act itself accomplishes, perhaps we can say something about how it might look “from God’s point of view.” If what we have been saying about the murder of Jesus by us is at all the case, then God’s “problem” comes more immediately into view. God’s “problem” is not that he can’t be merciful until he has been satisfied but rather that he won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won’t be satisfied until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he intends. As we can see from Jesus, God’s problem is how actually to have mercy on a world which will not have it. The question for God is whether he can really succeed in getting through to a people which likes the idea of forgiveness but doesn’t want an actual forgiver, a world which turns everything God purposes to do into a theory with which to protect itself from him. God’s problem is just how actually to have mercy, how to get through to us.

If that is the case, then at least a couple of considerations follow. As long as God is not “satisfied,” we exist under his “wrath.” But he is not satisfied because we will not let him be who he wants to be: the one who actually forgives, does it unconditionally, has mercy on whom he will have mercy. His wrath is therefore his “jealousy,” the obverse side of his intention to have mercy, to be who he will be. We are under his wrath not because of something so abstract as his “honor” or his “justice” to which “payment” must be made, but because we will not let him be who he will be for us: unconditional love and mercy.

The second consideration is that if this is the problem, God can do nothing about it in the abstract. Here is at least the beginning of the answer, it would seem, to why God could not do it in any other way. He cannot have mercy on us in the abstract. As abstraction he is always a terror to us, hidden, wrathful. The idea that he has mercy on whom he will have mercy is, as idea, the most frightening thing of all. We may twist and turn to change the idea, but all we will come up with then is that he has mercy on those who fulfill the necessary requirements. We just go out of the frying pan into the fire. The problem is simply that as abstraction God is absent from us and we are inexorably “under wrath.” Even God can do nothing about that—except to come to us. If the problem is absence, the only solution is presence. The only solution to the terror of the idea of one who has mercy on whom he will have mercy is actually to come and have mercy. The act must actually be done. The only solution to the problem of the absolute, we might say, is actual absolution!…

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. Or we can put it another way. Jesus came to forgive sin unconditionally for God. Our sin, our unbelief, consists precisely in the fact that we cannot and will not tolerate such forgiveness.