Last week I had the blessing of attending Peace Among the Peoples, an ecumenical peace conference which gathered together peacemakers from around the United States, and also a few from Canada. There was a lot of focus on preparing for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica next summer, as well as visioning for the future of peace work together as the Decade to Overcome Violence of the World Council of Churches comes to a close. A lot of good conversations were started.

But one that fascinates me was one that began with the first two set of presentations, and became an underlying theological conversation for the entire conference. It is one I would love to hear from this community on. The question was one of our atonement theology – and whether we can move toward a more peaceful future, and claim to be a peace church (in the case of the conference, churches) if we endorse a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. The debate for the week was set up by Rita Nakashima Brock and Stanley Hauerwas, two theological giants of the peace community. Rita’s argument is best summed up by this quote from a Lenten season post on the Huffington Post:

Many Christians today refuse a faith that asks us to be thankful for the torture and murder of Jesus Christ […] The earliest images of the cross — dating back to the mid fourth century — symbolize resurrection, the tree of life, paradise in this world, and the transfiguration of the world by the Spirit. These crosses are not about sacrifice or debt repayment. Christianity that is true to the life of Jesus Christ tells his death as the story of resistance to the Roman Empire, not as the story of how the Empire enacted God’s will. Rome used crucifixion against non-citizens, the poor, and slaves […] The gospels constructed an innovative strategy to resist crucifixion. They rejected the terror that crucifixion instilled and told the story another way, against the grain of historical fact and with the grain of love and resistance. They reported that Jesus had no broken bones and died quickly. His friends removed him intact the day he died and buried him properly. They found him again in the garden, along the shore, breaking bread, and telling them to carry on his ministry. They experienced him as many people and cultures experience those they love who have died, as present still in visions, dreams, and rituals. These loving details said that Rome was impotent to erase Jesus from memory, to deny his humanity, or to end his work for justice, healing, and peace.

Stanley, on the other hand, went the route of sacrificial atonement, arguing:

But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war. Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. If the Civil War teaches us anything it makes clear what happens when Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world. As a result, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

This is a sacrificial atonement theology based out of one posited by Anslem which Rita outlines in her post:

In 1098 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury summarized the evangelical idea of salvation: he claimed the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world. His idea, now called “substitutionary atonement theology,” claimed that humanity’s sinfulness had dishonored God and carried a magnitude of debt from sin that was impossible to pay. God had to send Jesus to substitute for us as the only sinless sacrifice qualified to atone for sin.

This has been a lot of words to pose the question to all of you: what is your theology of atonement? If the church exists as an alternative to the world of violence, to work to bring about the peace found in Christ, do we need to radically revision our traditional conception of sacrificial atonement? Or not?

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