How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence

WEST-WING-ZIEGLER_458In Season 4 of the West Wing, White House communication director Toby Ziegler is rehashing the circumstances that led to the defeat – and subsequent unconfirmability – of a Democratic ally in Congress, Karen Kroft. In his conversation with the former congresswoman, he admits he knew a gas-tax bill she championed was doomed to fail, making her unpopular both with her constituents and the Republicans who would block her potential nomination to a parks service position.

“It was a loser,” he tells Kroft, “and I pushed to have you introduce it anyway.”

Kroft smiles at him warmly and reassures him: “That doesn’t make any difference.”

“I came out for the gas tax because someone from Michigan had to,” she goes on to explain. “Gas prices are too low. It’s why the air is polluted. It’s why no one wants alternative fuels.”

Toby gives that little smirk of his and retorts: “And clearly that argument took the nation by storm.”

And here’s where the conversation gets interesting:

“In my religion,” Kroft says, “the whole symbol of the religion ended in crucifixion and condemnation. That wasn’t the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

“But I’m the Romans,” Toby remarks.

“It’s in the living, Kroft replies. “It’s in the campaigning that you make your mark.”

It’s a fascinating exchange, filled with deep theological meaning – perhaps deeper than even writer Aaron Sorkin intended. Setting aside the notion that the Jesus experience ended with the crucifixion and not the resurrection, what is perhaps most striking about this conversation is how Kroft, a Christian, de-emphasizes the cross in favor of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion is “just the way it ended,” she says. “It’s in the living … that you make your mark.”

deceiving-the-devilThe statement struck me because the night before I saw this episode I had just finished tearing through Darby Kathleen Ray’s amazing Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse and Ransom (1998). In it, Ray argues the crucifixion has been misrepresented, misappropriated and misused for too long. The violence-filled atonement theories accepted by the church as “traditional” have been used to perpetrate, justify and ignore abuse and exploitation of women, children, the poor and the environment; their fruits are so toxic, these theories must be jettisoned for Christianity to recover its mission in the world, and a new one must be formed if the cross is to retain any meaning not just for the holders of power but for the oppressed and powerless, as well.

In a way, Ray is addressing the same questions that have been circling in my mind for several months: If a given doctrine contributes substantially to a toxic view of God, don’t we as Christians have a duty to renounce and remove that doctrine? If so, how do we determine which of these doctrines should be eliminated and which should be reworked? And who determines whether a given view of God is toxic anyway?

I’m not sure there are any good answers to these questions. Nevertheless, Ray’s approach is a challenging one to this white male who is surely oblivious of many of the issues Ray raises in her book. Some of these atonement doctrines are entrenched, and many – including myself – see them as crucial to the notions of redemption and salvation. Yet, as Ray hammers home again and again, the point is not that those of us western white males do not find certain passages or theories abusive; the point is that the abusive fruit is there for women, children, minorities, the developing world, indigenous cultures and the nonhuman creation.

This doctrine is based on assumptions about the nature of sin, God and salvation that together actually create and sustain what many today recognize as evil. Ironically, the very doctrine whose job it is to attempt to understand and articulate God’s response to evil perpetuates evil in the lives of many women, men and children. … This revered discourse on evil has come to mirror its subject matter and hence should be rejected.

So what is considered a traditional atonement theory? Ray argues the church has largely accepted a hybrid theory combining the opposing emphases proposed in the Middle Ages by Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard.

Anselm formulated the satisfaction theory of atonement in the 1000s. Human sin robbed God of his honor, Anselm argued, and since God’s honor is infinite, no amount of human repayment could satisfy the debt we now owed. As a result, Jesus, the perfect human, paid the debt for us through the crucifixion.

Anselm’s notion of atonement through satisfaction, not necessarily troublesome to my mind, was given a much darker twist by John Calvin, who replaced God’s honor in need of satisfaction with God’s wrath in need of a punishment. “God in his character of Judge is hostile to us,” Calvin wrote, and Jesus took “the curse and wrath of God” on the cross in place of humanity. As reformulated by Calvin, this is penal substitutionary atonement, blithely accepted by much of western Christianity to the extent it appears in our most popular worship music (“In Christ Alone” being a particularly notable example).

On the other hand, Peter Abelard came along a century after Anselm and put forward the “moral exemplar” theory of atonement, which argued that the important part of Jesus’ time on earth was his life, which was so perfect and inspiring that it cannot help but turn us toward God, emulating Christ’s obedience as we are transformed by the “limitless depths of the love of God.”

Christian tradition in the centuries since has largely combined these theories, Ray argues – the cross-based, wrath-filled Anselmian-Calvinist model and the life-based, love-filled Abelardian model. “While the Anselmian model expresses the necessity and significance of Jesus’ death, freely and actively willed so as to bear the consequences of our evil for us, the Abelardian model interprets the meaning of his life – embracing suffering and humiliation as expressions of love for humanity and obedience to God,” Ray writes.

The problem with both of these theories, and consequently with the hybrid notion underlying most popular theological assumptions today, is that they have propagated abuse and oppression for a millennium, she argues. That is no accident, according to Ray, because something as vital as the atonement cannot be confined to theoretical discourse; it is necessarily, vitally relevant.

At issue in discourse about atonement … are not abstract theological formulations or an innocuous play of ideas. …Theory and practice, feminist scholars agree, are inseparable. Atonement theories should be evaluated not solely on the basis of their noble intentions or conformity to standards of orthodoxy, but also in light of their experienced effects. (21)

Ray devotes the first part of her book to the way feminist and liberation critics view these theories – as unquestionably toxic.

The traditional morality of Western culture has idealized precisely those qualities – obedience, passivity, meekness, humility – which its leaders eschew but which they extol for the oppressed masses. Christianity has preached submission but practiced domination. (23)

Those qualities are exemplified in the way Jesus has been portrayed through the popular atonement theories. He has been the obedient son, the suffering servant, the passive lamb led to slaughter. Conversely, sin is characterized primarily as disobedience and rebellion. These are all biblical images, making Ray’s argument difficult to stomach at times. Criticism of the atonement theories seems quite close at times to criticizing the biblical basis for those theories.

Yet she provides hard evidence in the form of sociological studies of abuse victims, who often felt trapped in their situations because they felt theologically constrained from rebelling and required to submit passively, as Jesus did.

Ray splits the problem with traditional atonement theories into three parts: The definition of sin they promote, the characteristics of God they portray and the image of Jesus they emphasize.

Defining Sin Down

Anselm’s definition of sin as an affront to God’s honor has warped our relationships, Ray argues. Instead of concentrating on the effects of sin on our fellow humans and created beings, we become wrapped into an upward-facing system that focuses on compliance, submission and obedience – without thought for whether such obedience is appropriate.

Such a theology of quiescence has worked to the advantage of ruling elites, abusive parents, partners and elders, and all those whose violence depends in part on the passivity and pliability of another. … By defining sin and evil in terms of disobedience, willfulness and rebellion, traditional construals have offered divine legitimacy to social, political and economic systems of inequality and injustice, as well as to individuals who seek justification for their abuse. (24-25)

Sin needs to be redefined, Ray argues, not so that disobedience and rebellion are justified – they can still be sinful, of course – but so that sin is more properly contextualized, as violence against the self as well as others, as something that occurs to hurt others, not just as a violation of God’s honor. Because if sin is nothing more than crossing the commands of God, the system that develops “not only mirrors situations of systemic violence and personal abuse, but also offers them divine sanction” (35). The self-appointed mouthpiece of God can demand obedience and submission from a nation, a group, a spouse or a child while safely ignoring the sin of interpersonal violence.

Rather, if divine authority is understood to be rooted in compassion rather than domination, Ray argues, we can see sin against creation – human and non-human – as “rebellion against God’s care for the world, against the world as God’s manifestation of creative love, against the world as God’s body” (34).

The Tyranny of God

One could argue that all of the problems with traditional atonement theories, particularly penal substitutionary atonement, boil down to the toxic views of God they require; nevertheless, when referring directly to God, they tend to turn him into a proponent of power and the status quo when the Bible makes clear he is anything but. We need to be careful, Ray writes, because all portrayals of God are necessarily limited, and we almost inevitably tend to prioritize one limited view of God, “granting it unlimited, universal and exclusive relevance and authority.” When we do so as members of the religious, cultural and political elite – as western Christians assuredly are – then we tend to emphasize those images of God that reinforce our power and, conversely, reinforce our oppression of the powerless. When that happens, “God-talk becomes demonic” (37).

So when advocates of PSA focus intensely on God’s sovereignty, they use language that assumes power can only be exercised through domination, Ray writes. Not only does that “offer sacred sanction” to systems that propagate injustice, but it “feeds a sense of despair, fatalism and passivity among those who assume that because God has all the power, we humans should abdicate responsibility for the world” (38).

To predicate the divine-human relationship on this model is to sacralize inequality, to ordain exploitation. It is also to posit a terrifying, immoral deity whose greatness depends on the abasement of others. … In their glorification of God’s absolute power, traditional Christian theologies wield a dangerous weapon whose easy accommodation to human violence renders it morally reprehensible (40).

On a social level, this can be tragic; on an interpersonal level, it can be catastrophic. Abuse victims learn that God is the all-seeing, angry and jealous father who “can extend the normative male gaze into realms where no human eye can see. …This ‘big brother’ God empowers abusers and confuses, terrifies and terrorizes their victims” (45).

Ray then embarks on a lengthy description of the honor-shame culture in which Anselm formulated the notion of humans attempting to rob God of his honor. In such cultures, the person who inappropriately attempts to claim the status of his betters is not only shamed, but is feminized. The toxic fruits of applying such a system to the relationship between God and humanity have become quite apparent, Ray argues:

All portray God as a status-paranoid power-monger who deliberately humiliates and infantilizes human beings under the guise of justice. … In relation to a God whose sovereignty and power ascribe unto him infinite honor, the disobedient human being is dishonored, shamed, feminized.To challenge God, then, is to sin; and to sin is to become female, which, in a patriarchal society, is to be rendered powerless. (51)

The suffering servant

A final criticism Ray levels against traditional atonement theories regards their emphasis on Jesus’ death. Such an emphasis leads to two problems, she contends.

First, it risks exalting and glorifying death, which “is to domesticate it, to soften its tragedy, to render it acceptable, which in a world characterized by wrongful deaths in the millions is simply unacceptable” (56). Second, it leads to a portrayal of Jesus that, like the portrayals of sin and God, tend to ensconce the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Both tendencies lead to an unwarranted acceptance of death and suffering, especially noxious when so much of it is perpetrated by those who claim to follow Jesus.

The traditional atonement theories argue that the suffering of the cross produces joy and wholeness. This is not just dangerous, but cruel, Ray argues, because suffering in many case is not redemptive; it is destructive and evil. The romanticization of suffering promoted by these theories not only eases the consciences of those who perpetrate suffering on others but “supports victims’ internalization of their oppression” (61).

Meanwhile, the portrayal of Jesus himself is problematic for many liberation theologians, who interpret the Bible through the lens of populations subjugated for centuries by colonialism and imperialism, both military and economic. Christianity has been used to justify the occupation, forced conversion and slaughter of native populations, and the physical and economic enslavement of minority groups. And the basis for much of this is found in the portrayal of Jesus in traditional atonement theories.

Ironic enough, two views of Jesus have emerged from these theories, Ray writes, and they both have the same effect. On the one hand, colonizers marched under the banner of Christ the Conquerer, for whom suffering was a minor, preplanned inconvenience en route to laying some smackdown on the devil. With such a view, Christians in power have long been able to justify their own violence as theologically sanctioned, with a wide variety of minority groups standing in for Satan depending on the circumstances.

On the other hand, the colonized took solace in Christ the Conquered, who suffered acutely and unjustly before his death. Jesus died meekly and passively, without resistance; so, too, should they:

The former Christology ignores the suffering and death of Jesus as unpalatable or inconvenient, while the latter embraces it so closely that suffocation seems inevitable. Together, these two sides of the same Christological coin feed the violence of the few and the passivity of the many. … Both embrace a Christ in their own image – opposites but inextricably interwoven. (78-79)

What to Do?

Many feminist theologians, Ray writes, look at the violence and abuse wrought by traditional theories of atonement and argue against the notion of atonement altogether. The idea that death can lead to life is too fraught with theologically sanctioned violence to accept.

Ray disagrees with this. She notes that liberation theologians, no strangers to abuse perpetrated in the name of God, continue to find meaning in the death of Christ. So Ray moves into the second part of Deceiving the Devil trying to rehabilitate the atonement, to come up with a workable alternative to the abusive notions inherent in penal substitutionary atonement (Ray rarely, if ever, uses this name, but it’s clear this is the theory behind much of her work).

Ray begins by rejecting the dichotomy of Conquered versus Conquering Christ and pushing atonement away from the emphasis on Jesus’ death to include the rest of his life.

Jesus is neither the Conquering Christ nor the Conquered Christ but the One who liberates through resistance to evil and compassion for the suffering. … Jesus’ death was the consequence of the life he lived, not the result of a death wish, of some cosmic deal between God and Satan, or of God’s demand for bloody satisfaction. Atonement … cannot be narrowed to the moment of Jesus’ death or even the passion, for it is a process that includes life, death and resurrection. (87)

It’s not that Jesus and God worked out a grand plan in which Jesus would die for the sins of the world. Rather, salvation from the evil of this world took place in part because of his death, but only insofar as his death was the result of his life. How? Because Jesus throughout his life refused “to give up on an ethic of compassion” and so suffered “at the hands of an ethic of control” (93). In other words, “Jesus’ suffering and death are moments of truth – they reveal for all to see the brutality and moral bankruptcy of abusive power” (99).

This leads directly to the climax of Ray’s argument. She opens it with a truly stirring statement about how we’ve gotten where we are, with an overriding yet toxic set of assumptions governing our view of sin, God and Jesus:

I have become convinced that a primary source of misery and oppression in our world today is the inability or unwillingness of people … to accept complexity and ambiguity. We want so desperately to know how to live and whom to love that we are willing to force ourselves and those around us into false categories and moralities. We want so fervently to be right, to be certain, to be safe, that we assume that those who differ from us are wrong or dangerous or abnormal. Of course, those of us with relative social, political, economic and theological power have been able to enforce our categories and moralities on others, and so we bear the weight of responsibility for the systems of scapegoating and sacrifice we have erected. … We need theologies that embrace and articulate the empowering power of love and life without denying the multiple and often strange ways in which such love and life are manifest. … The courageous acceptance of complexity and ambiguity, then, does not mitigate the need to identify and resist human evil; it does, however, warn us against oversimplifying and reifying our conceptions of that evil. (103)

So Ray argues that we need a new way of understanding the atonement. Not a new hegemonic atonement theory that answers all questions; that’s a recipe for abuse and domination, as we have seen over the past 1,000 years. The Bible, no less complex than the world that spawned it, uses many different images and metaphors for what happened in the atonement, and the early church spent a millennium with different, often competing, notions of the atonement.

Ray turns to one of those, the ransom model, advanced most notably by Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa, in Satan holds humanity captive, and God uses the atonement to ransom us. Why ransom? Because, as Irenaeus argues, “God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires” – a statement that says much about the inherent goodness of God driving his view. For Ray, the strength of the model is that it’s not a theory; it does not attempt to answer every question. Rather, it provides a framework for dealing with those questions, one based not on the wrath, sovereignty and violence of God, but on his justice, goodness and mercy.

Gregory’s description of the ransom atonement is perhaps the most complete, as he describes a process by which God deceived Satan into offering humanity in exchange for Jesus, not knowing this remarkable human before him was in fact divine. Because he had no right to the life of the divine, Satan’s blunder costs him everything (well, not quite, as Gregory appears to believe that the deception was justified because it also provides the mechanism by which the devil himself will be saved, but that’s a different post). In a famous line, Gregory calls Jesus’ humanity the bait by which Satan swallows the “fishhook” of divinity.

Modernizing the model, Ray sees Satan as representing the totality of evil in the world. To the extent this evil holds humanity hostage, it is an abuse of power – and is therefore both individual and corporate. “To be liberated from bondage to evil means that evil no longer determines one’s being and actions, that one is free to resist evil and to try to reduce it. … Redemption, then, is a profoundly this-worldly affair” (132).

Rather than the domineering omnipotence of the traditional atonement theories, the “patristic model,” as Ray calls it, sees God as closely engaged in a battle of wits with evil (not entirely unlike the glimpses of Yahweh’s battle with preexistent chaos of which we catch glimpses in the Old Testament), which “is depicted as expansive and insidious.” Humanity therefore has a responsibility to continue this struggle against evil – yet we are powerless to effect its ultimate destruction, which is where the power of Jesus comes in. His life of compassion provides the ultimate model for how evil ultimately meets its end. “In the life and teaching of Jesus, this power was manifest as compassion – a caring so profound it threatened to undo the world” (134).

To understand resistance to evil as a theological imperative is to wager that God is a God of life; that God is the ground of being, the power of being itself; and that God is on the side of life and its fulfillment. … This model depicts God not as a triumphant superhero who squashes evil in one fell swoop but as One who circumvents convention in surprising ways. (137)

This is a challenging idea. It requires us to step away from classic western notions of God that are deeply ingrained in our theological vocabulary. We are more comfortable with the superhero, the decisive battle, the black-and-white verdict. This was not the understanding of the early church. Yes, evil’s eventual defeat was certain, but in the meantime, the struggle continued. And the way the defeat was secured? Well, it might have required some creative maneuvering on the part of the divine.

Because here’s what we miss in our modern western world: The life of Jesus completely refutes our idea of God as the violent quencher of evil. Jesus’ was a life of nonviolent resistance to the oppressive powers surrounding him. He subverted political and religious norms through his radical compassion, and when the people who used those norms to entrench their power rightly perceived him as a deep threat to their systems of oppression, they killed him.

In and through Jesus, God is understood to struggle against evil, but not with the tools of evil itself – not with coercive power, nor with unjust force – but unconventionally, indirectly, immanently, incarnationally, using “weakness” to confront and confound “dominance.” … Human evil always takes the form of violence, against self or other, and … the one hope for resisting it is to eschew its means, to choose not coercion but nonviolence, not power-as-control but power-as-compassion.This was God’s choice; this was Jesus’ choice; this is the only choice that can circumvent the cycle of violence. (138)

Which is why the patristic model makes so much sense, Ray argues. It portrays God acting in a way consistent with how Jesus – God incarnate – acted. In Gregory of Nyssa’s view, God surprises the devil by acting differently than he expects, undertaking “voluntary poverty, table fellowship with undesirables and concern for the outcast.” Satan, overcome by pride and a sense of entitlement, overreaches to gain control over this remarkable human being. Just as campaigns of nonviolent action have a surprising track record of success because of the way they publicly discredit regimes of oppressive violence, Jesus’ life and death publicly exposed once and for all the greedy nature of evil and discredited it.

The execution of Jesus brings to a head the moral battle to which his life had been dedicated; it reveals for all to see the misuse of power, the tyranny of human evil, the avarice of authority, the ugliness of violence. And it presents the public with a choice – power-as-control or power-as-compassion. To choose the latter is to choose the hard path, the unorthodox way; it is to give up the certainty of social norms, the comfort of conformity, the dream of being number one, but it offers the only possibility for mutual love and respect, for the creation of relationships, communities and institutions that enhance the survival and flourishing of all life, for the continuation of life itself. (141)

As I said at the beginning of the post, this is a challenging book. Darby Ray calls those of us who enjoy positions of privilege to reexamine whether our theological assumptions are cherished not because they’re right but because they maintain our comfort. And she asks whether we can handle the ambiguity that comes with foregoing the violence entailed by certainty in a world of disagreement.

I don’t know whether I agree with everything in Deceiving the Devil. And I’m certainly not saying you should. But this book is incredibly valuable because of its willingness to tackle the toxic, tyrannical views that arise from the doctrines we view as traditional and foundational but are in fact neither. And it provides immense value because of the alternate model of atonement it provides – one with an opportunity to heal the wounds we have caused rather than continue to open new ones.

This is an atonement in which God cares about relationships. Our relationship with him, yes, but also our relationships with each other – relationships broken by evil and restored through modeling the life and teachings of Jesus.

This is an atonement in which God renounces violence – both as the incarnate deity facing the evil power structures of his physical environment and as the transcendent creator surprising and deceiving the devil to work his will.

This is an atonement in which God is good. Not just powerful. Not just sovereign. Not just just. But really and truly good.

One thing that has struck me as I’ve studied Gregory of Nyssa over the past year – a study that led me to Ray’s book – is how central God’s goodness is to everything Gregory writes. The goodness of God is the paramount assumption for Gregory, and any other doctrine must show evidence of it. When Gregory lays out his view of atonement in the Catechetical Oration, he takes great pains to show how, at various stages, it falls in line with God’s love, his justice, his power – but above all his goodness. It’s why, I’ve concluded, Gregory believed even Satan and the demons would find salvation – because God’s goodness demands that it happen. Any other outcome would mean evil was stronger than good.

I appreciate Ray’s efforts here because she obviously has taken great care to empathize with the oppressed and abused, the people God tells us are closest to his own heart. And she’s constructed an atonement model that speaks to their experiences and provides a way for us to refocus on God’s goodness, which produces life and freedom, not subjugation and death.

Indeed, what would Christianity look like today if we took similar care with our own doctrines and practices, ensuring they first and foremost reflected the incomparable goodness of God? What would it look like if, from this moment forward, we focused not on the death of Jesus but on his remarkable, atoning life?

4 thoughts on “How a Little Deceit Could Rescue the Atonement from Christian Violence”

  1. Thanks for the review of this book! It’s going on my list.

    You might also be interested in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, which explores a number of approaches to non-violent atonement; and in a recent post in which I wrote about a mimetic, or Girardian, understanding of the atonement.

    I was quite taken by the “fishhook” theory when I learned about it in my intro to systematics course, and I was unconvinced by the textbook narrative that the theory was inherently flawed because it required God to be deceptive. (My marginal notes on that paragraph say, Really? No more deceptive than Jesus not walking around saying “O Hai, I’m God” — you know you’re unconvinced when the critique comes out in LOLspeak! 😉 )

    More generally, it’s interesting that many of us contemporary Christians are having the same kind of problem with PSA that the early medieval writers had with the fishhook theory: it requires that God exhibit a characteristic (deception for them, violence for us) that we find unacceptable in God.

    1. Hey GT,

      Yeah, it’s a great book. I saw your post on the Girardian atonement. Ray mentions mimesis a bit in the final chapters of her book, so she’s definitely treading some of that ground (although I confess I’m fuzzy on what exactly the word means, and whether there isn’t an easier-to-understand way of describing it).

      A good defense of Gregory’s fishhook metaphor is in Nicholas P. Constas, “The Last Temptation of Satan: Divine Deception in Greek Patristic Interpretations of the Passion Narrative,” Harvard Theological Review 97, no. 2 (2004): 145-46. Constas argues the metaphor is in fact an anti-Arian apologetic, in which Satan’s mistake is the same as the Arians: looking at Jesus’ life and failing to see his divinity. Worth a look if you’re interested. I’m a big fan of Gregory and will be posting my paper about his view of Satan’s salvation once I get the grade back from the professor in the coming weeks.

  2. I agree with much that you say but your blanket statements such as “members of the elite, as Western Christians surely are” lose my sympathy. In the UK there are plenty of homeless white males, some presumably Christians, are they part of the elite? Who is more privileged, a rich black woman or a homeless white man shivering in the winter cold? I’m not denying colour prejudice misogyny etc I’m merely pointing out that not everyone is part of your privileged “we” and you model of oppression (which leaves out class, inter alia) is crudely simplistic. “For every complex question there is a simple answer, and it’s usually wrong”

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