Thanks to a discussion on a French-language Quaker site, I feel like reposting these thoughts that I wrote for a previous version of my blog.
...More recent thoughts on the subject to come.
The Nonviolent Atonement
--and its shorter form: "Violence in Christian Theology," both by J. Denny Weaver
About a year ago I came across a collection of essays entitled Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). One of the essays, "Violence in Christian Theology," was contributed by J. Denny Weaver, who also co-edits the book with Gerald Biesecker-Mast. The essay, as it turns out, is based on Weaver's longer work, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
Weaver is a professor at Bluffton University, which is affiliated with the Mennonite Church, USA. I presume that his writing is grounded in nonviolent Anabaptist theological thought (something I don't know much about). In "Violence in Christian Theology," Weaver "outlines the way that a presumed standard Christian theology has accommodated violence." He does this by "focusing especially on on the central Christian doctrine of atonement" and he finishes up "by sketching a specifically nonviolent understanding of atonement."
Words like "error" and "heresy" constantly rang in my head as I read this essay. My grade school religion teachers took great pains, especially during Holy Week, to describe the sufferings of Jesus to us in excruciating detail. I can remember a particularly graphic retelling of how the soldiers fashioned the thorny crown and pressed it oh so slowly and sadistically into Jesus' forehead until blood spurted out. (The blood-drenched stills I saw in the "souvenir" book to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ --which I did not go see-- were only slightly more vivid than my gradeschool memories. Maybe Mel attended the same gradeschool?)
Explanations of Why Jesus Died for Us
Weaver first summarizes the interpretations of the passion and death of Jesus that form the basis for traditional Christian atonement theology. They are as follows:
a) Christus Victor: According to this explanation, Jesus was the ransom paid to Satan, who held the souls of sinful humanity hostage. This was "the predominant image of the early church." In a variation on this theme, a "cosmic battle" is described as having been waged between God and Satan. "God's son was killed, but the resurrection then constituted the victory of God over the forces of evil and definitively identified God as the ruler of the universe."
b) Satisfaction atonement: "the predominant atonement image for much of the past millenium," developed by St. Anselm in 1098 in is book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). "Human sin had offended God's honor and thus upset divine order in the universe. The death of Jesus as the God-man was necessary in order to satisfy God's honor and restore the order of the universe." The Protestant Reformers devised a variation on this theme. "For them, Jesus' death satisfied the divine law's requirement that sin be punished. With his death Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that was really due to us --humankind-- as sinners." I think this is also sometimes referred to as the "substitution theory" of atonement, an innocent Jesus substituting himself as victim and paying the price that we sinners should pay.
c) The "moral influence" atonement image, developed by Abelard (1079-1142): "God the Father shows love to us sinners by giving us his most precious possession, his Son, to die for us." According to this interpretation, Jesus' death is not so much an act that placates a vengeful God but "a loving act of God designed to get the attention of sinners and reveal the love of God for sinners while they were yet sinners."
Another succinct explanation of these interpretations of the atonement can be found at http://www.quakerinfo.com/atonement.shtml.
Who Needed Jesus to be Killed and Who Killed Him?
Weaver proceeds to the inescapable question of "who needed the death of Jesus?" The answer (in multiple choice fashion, using the letters assigned to each theory) is a )the devil, b) God's honor, or c) we sinners. This leads the author to the jackpot question: "Who arranges for or is responsible for the death of Jesus? Or put most crassly, Who ultimately killed Jesus?"
Historical scapegoats (an honor accorded traditionally to the Jews) and exquisitely finessed theological arguments (again provided in abundance by my teachers) notwithstanding, I have to agree with Weaver that the traditional atonement theories, particularly the doctrine of satisfaction, turn God into a "divine avenger or punisher ... one who arranges the death of one child for the benefit of others." The author eventually concludes: "Any and all versions of satisfaction atonement, regardless of their packaging, assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment and depend on God-induced and God-directed violence."
The Unpinnings of a Violent Christian Theology
I was thunderstuck by Weaver's essay. To me it meant that the traditional doctrines of the atonement constitute the very underpinnings justifying violence of all sorts in the names of God and of Jesus. After all, here was God himself not only authorizing the violent death of his son but absolutely requiring it. How can such a God, I wondered, then turn around and urge us to heed the words of his son:
"Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword "(Mt. 26:52)?
Or "Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you" (The translation given in The Message of "You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48)?
And what effect does the dying Jesus' plea have: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 22:34)?
God the Father seemed to be claiming some sort of retributive exception for himself, thus making him the Grudgebearer of the Ages.
In pursuing his argument, Weaver shows how the traditional atonement doctrines lead to a warped interpretation of the person of Jesus himself. The Jesus of the gospels becomes "a passive victim, whose purpose was to get himself killed in order to satisfy a big cosmic legal requirement." He counters:
"Rather, Jesus was an activist, whose mission was to make the rule of God visible. And his acts demostrated what the reign of God looked like -- defending poor people, raising the status of women, raising the status of Samaritans, performing healings and exorcisms, preaching the reign of God, and more. His mission was to make the reign of God present in the world in his person and in his teaching and to invite people to experience the liberation it presented...."
What happened to Jesus was what we have seen happen in our own time to people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: "When Jesus made the reign of God visible and present in that way, it was so threatening that the assembled array of evil forces killed him."
Weaver calls this explanation of the atonement "narrative Christus Victor." To sum it up:
"Narrative Christus Victor... is grounded in assumptions of nonviolence-- the nonviolence of Jesus-- rather than violence. In particular, it does not assume retribution or that injustice is balanced by the violence of punishment.
"It does not put God in the role of chief avenger nor picture God as child abuser. And it is abundantly obvious that God did not kill Jesus nor need the death of Jesus in any way. Jesus does suffer, but it is not as an act of passive submission to undeserved suffering. Jesus carries out a mission to make the rule of God present and visible, a mission to bring and to give life. When this mission threatens the forces of evil, they retaliate with violence, killing Jesus. This suffering is not something willed by nor needed by God, and it is not directed Godward. To the contrary, the killing of Jesus us the ultimate contrast between the nonviolent reign of God and the rule of evil....
"God does not need the death [of Jesus] because [narrative Christus Victor] does not make use of the idea of retribution...If anything or anyone 'needs' the death, it is the forces of evil who kill Jesus. They 'need' the death as part of the futile effort to annihiliate the reign of God. The death of Jesus is very pointedly not something needed by God or God's honor. It is rather what the forces of evil --the devil-- do to Jesus. Rather than being a divine requirement, the death of Jesus is the ultimate indication of the difference between the reign of God and the reign of evil. The reign of the devil attempts to rule by violence and death, whereas the reign of God rules and ultimately conquers through nonviolence."
If God Didn't (Doesn't) Need Jesus' Death
If I understand Weaver correctly, he is saying that Jesus suffered death at the hands of those whose power was threatened by his message of unconditional acceptance and love. I found this theory nothing short of revolutionary as it seems to remove many of the underpinnings of Christian theology.
For one thing, it restores the importance of the actions and words of Jesus before he died. His healings and acts of forgiveness become deeds that we can strive to emulate in an active, life-affirming way.
Of course, narrative Christus Victor creates a few problems of its own. I've raised one already by alluding to Gandhi and King. How was the death of Jesus more "special", more "significant" than theirs? And if it wasn't ... well, then why all the roadside billboards proclaiming "Jesus Died for Your Sins"?
-- The "narrative Christus Victor" explanation ultimately calls into question the divinity of Jesus, I think. Weaver himself does not seem to take his argument to that length and seems to still treat Jesus as, if not the divine son of God, then at least the one to whom God gave a name above every name. But if God didn't require Jesus' death ... then he did not require that infinite act of satisfaction that only the divine son could perform, the very reason the Word became flesh.
Walter Wink, building upon the writings of René Girard and Raymund Schwager, does a bit of foundational unpinning himself by saying that "Jesus never succumbed to the perspective of the persecutors by seeking revenge. He totally rejected complicity in violence....His arraignment, trial, crucifixion, and death also stripped the scapegoating mechanism of its sacred aura and exposed it for what it was: legalized murder." (The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998).
On he plus side again, the "narrative Christus Victor" explanation encourages us to dwell quite a bit less on the verses in both the Old and New Testaments that show God wreaking vengeance and certainly to cease using them as justifications for visiting violence upon others in the name of God's justice. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer does a more than adequate job of listing and expounding upon these verses in his book Is Religion Killing Us?
Finally, I suspect that there are more than a few theologians out there who would say that Weaver, Wink, Nelson-Pallmeyer, et al., are guilty of projecting onto God and Jesus their own twenty-first century, politically correct notions of divine justice and pacifism. And I'm sure the theologians can muster countless passages from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to refute these newfangled ideas.
I find narrative Christus Victor a very powerful and even empowering explanation of Jesus' life and death. It gives me the courage to follow the example set by Jesus in his lifetime and to do what I can to help those in need -- not for the sake of saving my soul by doing "good works" but because "This is what the kingdom of God is like" (Mk 4:26).