Article

Richard J. Mouw


Violence and the Atonement

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With this essay we begin a series devoted to the atonement. Perhaps no doctrine has been more central to evangelical theology, yet today among evangelicals, as among orthodox Christians more generally, one often hears that the classical understanding of this doctrine is deeply flawed, that we must "rethink the atonement." Is that really so? The essays in this series will consider such questions.

It has become a fairly common practice in recent years for scholars to criticize traditional Christian doctrines for the ways in which they purportedly promote and reinforce unhealthy human practices. This mode of critique is especially attractive to those thinkers who like to probe beneath the surface of what to many of us are the obvious meanings of theories and stories, for what they insist are the "subtexts" in which the operating motives and projects are made plain. Marxism has long thrived on this kind of analysis. Its adherents have insisted, for example, that while oppressed people who sing hymns about the afterlife may sincerely believe in a glorious future heavenly existence, what is "really" going on is that they have internalized a story that is designed to make them passively accept the political-economic status quo. The Freudians employ a parallel strategy for understanding religious belief, insisting that, for example, the desire for divine forgiveness is a conscious effort to resolve an unconscious Oedipal conflict. And it is not unusual these days to encounter folks who reject, say, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, not on the grounds that it is "unscientific" to believe in a miracle of that sort, but because it promotes an image of passive and servile femininity. Or the idea of divine transcendence will be attacked for the way in which it reinforces "hierarchicalism" in human relationships and in the way we treat other species.

The classical Christian formulations concerning the atoning work of Christ have come in for special attention in this regard. Specifically, the suggestion is made that the story of a divine Father punishing his Son on the Cross features imagery that promotes violent relationships among human beings. Obviously, such a critique is directed toward what many of us see as a central theme in biblical orthodoxy. It is important, then, to think carefully about this way of analyzing theological motifs.

There are at least two good reasons for doing so. First, we need to be clear about the fact that the things that the critics of Christian orthodoxy claim to find in the "subtexts" of Christian teachings are often very bad things. We ought to be genuinely disturbed if, for example, we really are encouraging the poor to remain in their squalor, or promoting the subjugation of women by reinforcing models of passive femininity. The same goes for the exploitation of nature. It is a bad thing to encourage such patterns, and we ought to be willing—even eager—to check out any possible connection between Christian belief and such programs of unrighteousness.

And, second, there can be no denying that the actual record of the Christian community is not pure with regard to such programs. Christians have in fact often been on the wrong side of important moral issues. We owe it to our critics to admit our sins and to explore seriously any ways in which we have misused Christian teachings. As Jose Miguez Bonino once observed about the need for Christians to take the accusations of Latin American revolutionaries seriously: we are not ultimately accountable to our secular critics—only the Lord is our Judge. But while our critics cannot sit in judgment over us, we do need to allow them, in the presence of that Lord, to take the witness stand and to present their evidence against us.[1]

Just War Spirituality

The need to listen carefully to our critics is nowhere more obvious to me than in our Christian dealings with the topic of violence. That subject has consistently been high on my own agenda during my career as an ethicist. My entry level concerns on this subject were shaped by my very personal struggles during the Vietnam War era. And while I have always found a thoroughgoing pacifism to have some moral attraction, my basic convictions on the subject have been consistently formed and expressed within a Just War perspective. I have never been happy, though, with the way many Just War theorists have concentrated almost exclusively on the patterns and processes of military strategy, to the neglect of the more general patterns of violence and abuse in human relations. My own sense is that it is especially important to pay close attention to is sues of moral character, a focus that clearly comes to the fore as we think about the very urgent question of what it means for us to address the crisis of our increasingly violent culture.

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