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.

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