Richard J. Mouw

Violence and the Atonement

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"Promoting" Violence?

No writer has been more straightforward in rejecting Christian atonement doctrine because of what it allegedly reinforces in human relations than the feminist theologian Joanne Carlson Brown. "Christianity," she insists, "is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering," and if the Christian faith can be transformed into a force for genuine human liberation, "it must itself be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race that can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb." The "blood-thirsty God" who presently "controls the whole Christian tradition" rules over a pervasively patriarchal system. "We do not need to be saved by Jesus' death from some original sin. We need to be liberated from this abusive patriarchy."[4]

What can we say in defense of atonement doctrine in response to this critique? How would we go about deciding whether the classical Christian formulations regarding the atonement actually "promote" violence and abuse? What would it take to test the accuracy of such a charge, or of a defense against the charge?

Well, let me begin with some rather obvious ways of answering these questions. I have a pretty good idea, I think, about how I would decide whether, for example, Mennonite views of the atonement promote violence and abuse. As I read Mennonite theologians I regularly find them formulating their understandings of the atoning work of Christ in a way that explicitly rules out any espousal of violence and abuse. Indeed, in their view, the Cross is a paradigmatic display of nonviolence. To understand the atoning work of Christ properly is to reject any Christian involvement in practices of violence and abuse.

I also think I could come up with an intelligent response to the question whether Roman Catholic theologies of the atonement promote violence and abuse. For example, I have read newspaper articles about Catholics in the Philippines who during Holy Week have themselves nailed to crosses. These seem to me clearly to be acts of self-inflicted violence and abuse. Furthermore, they also seem to be directly linked to the ways in which these Catholics think about the atoning work of Christ. Of course, I know that such practices are not advocated by Catholic academic theologians. But I do think one could make a case that there are motifs in Catholic thought that lend themselves to such acts, even if they are distortions of those motifs. Self-crucifixion, along with, say, the valuing of stigmata, certainly makes more sense in a context shaped by Catholic theology than it would in, say, a Lutheran or a Quaker setting.

Now, I do not think that many evangelical Christians connect their understanding of the atonement with issues of violence and abuse in either of these ways. Most evangelical theologians do not typically say, in the manner of Mennonite thinkers, that because of what happened on the Cross our attitudes toward violence and abuse ought to be such and such. Nor do grassroots evangelicals think that they should punish their bodies in a way that reflects the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

But I know that those rather quick observations do not prove much. Certainly my Mennonite friends will insist that my Reformed view of the Cross also deals with issues of violence and abuse in a paradigmatic manner. If it is true, as traditional Reformed theology has put it, that the transaction of the Cross necessarily required that Christ experience the wrath of the Father, then Reformed thought does indeed insist that violence is an essential feature of the atoning sacrifice of Christ—an insistence, they might go on to point out, that has clear implications for questions about the permissibility of violent activity. And any Catholic who knows the history of popular Reformed attitudes—and, more generally, popular evangelical attitudes—about violence will rightly suggest that it is not fair to contrast "high" evangelicalism with "low" Catholicism. Evangelical Christians have often been militantly violent, and in such a way that their violence has obviously been shaped by theological motifs.

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