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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Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma_Moore_TornadoI was thinking a lot last night about this most recent tragedy to befall the innocent. We had Sandy Hook, and Boston, and West, and now Moore. And those of us “winter Christians,” who tend to struggle with the problems we see in the world around us – this is our time. The summer Christians who perhaps tend to downplay suffering and tragedy must sit up and take notice, and for once, everyone is on the same page. Our page.

But I’m also a person who in the past year has learned that not only do I love the physical world around me, but that it’s OK for me to love it. And not only that, God loves it, too. He loved it so much, he took on flesh and allowed himself to experience the physical world for himself – or at least as much as he could. He even suffered and died so that he could restore it to himself. For whatever reason, God loves the world and the people in it that much.

So I recoiled a bit as I heard some of the same old reactions to the Moore tornado that we hear after every tragedy – reactions that sound uncomfortably close to the lyrics from some classic hymns: “Just a few more weary days, and then I’ll fly away.” Or, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”

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Before the First Day of Creation

ImageIn the great debate between creationism and evolution, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the notion that God created the world in seven days with the power of his word, which would preclude a billions-year-long process of evolution.

This notion seems to come from two misunderstandings – 1, how the key text of Genesis 1 actually describes creation, and 2, how creation narratives work in ancient texts like the Old Testament. Clearing up these misunderstandings could help creationists come to grips with evolution – in fact, I would argue the creation texts of the Old Testament fit the world described by science quite well. There is, in fact, much less contradiction between the Bible and science than many assume.

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Boston

boston_public_libraryI returned from Boston yesterday; my week was mostly a business trip, but I made sure to carve out some time for sightseeing. Boston has long been my favorite city, and it did not disappoint last week.

One of my new favorite places is the Boston Public Library, with its arching ceilings and omnipresent murals – and, above all, its cavernous study room, complete with dozens upon dozens of green-shaded lamps. If ever a monument has been built to the notion of learning, expanded horizons and the acquisition and beneficial use of knowledge, this is it.

I went to the library Thursday. Across Copley Square, workers were finishing up construction of the grandstand at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And, of course, across the street from both the library and the grandstand, two bombs exploded during Monday’s marathon.

So many people I encountered in Boston, natives and tourists alike, were friendly, kind, helpful and – perhaps I was projecting a bit – seemingly thrilled to be in one of the world’s great cities. It’s hard to imagine how twisted by darkness one must be to experience what I experienced this weekend and remain committed to turning it into tragedy.

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Hell, Doubt and Easter

Well, once again I violated the cardinal rule of blogging by disappearing for a week. Sorry about that. I was out of town, and then it was a holiday weekend, and there you go.

To make it up to you, here are a couple of Easter-related things that caught my eye this week, and some comments I had on them:

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Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

bartletOne of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.

Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.

Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?

[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]

Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.

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When God Abuses

images-2Does the Old Testament portray God as abusive?

In our Old Testament Theology class, we must give two presentations about the topics covered over a given week’s reading in our textbook, Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. Dispute. Advocacy. My first presentation was on the topic of Yahweh as hidden, abusive and inconsistent. The next week’s assignment was covering the topic of Yahweh as unresponsive, unreliable and unjust.

These are Brueggemann’s categories, and they end up being pretty redundant. The same verses used for describing Yahweh has hidden are equally applicable for describing him as unresponsive, and vice versa. Further, his hiddenness and unresponsiveness clearly make him unreliable, as does his inconsistency. In which case, Brueggemann could have saved a lot of space and simply focused on Yahweh as abusive, unreliable and unjust. But to the extent Yahweh is unreliable and unjust, doesn’t this also make him abusive?

I’d argue yes. In fact, I’d argue the primary counter-testimony of Israel in the Old Testament, whether the authors intended this or not, is that Yahweh is abusive. Abuse is God’s defining action in the texts that push back against the central portrayal of God as loving, just, merciful parent and partner.

There are a number of reasons why I argue this.

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