On Monday, I gave the Mission and Peace lecture at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Prof. Damayanthi Niles whom I've known from our young days, invited me. On campus also were colleagues Prof. Michael Kinnamon, a leader in the ecumenical movement and the National Council of Churches, and Rev. Patrice Rosner, former colleague at the NCC, who now is director of Churches Uniting in Christ. It was a delight to meet many other colleagues who are professors and students at the Seminary.
My lecture entitled "A Theological Self-Critique: Prelude to Interfaith Dialogue" follows.
A month ago, I participated in a delegation of Christian leaders to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Organized by the Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee, the delegation spent 5 days in Tehran and one in the sacred city of Qom. We met Ayatollahs, academics, political leaders, former president Khatami and President Ahmadinejad. That two and a half hour meeting signaled the first time in 28 years that any US delegation met with an Iranian president in Iran.
Our primary task, the delegation felt, was to cut through the confrontational rhetoric coming out of both Washington and Tehran, deepen the dialogue and create a safe space in which each can listen and begin to grasp the other’s expressions of pain embedded in tightly held narratives. We sought the partnership of religious leaders in Iran, so that we might together “stand in the gap” on behalf of our peoples.
When US Americans think about Iran, the first images that come to mind are those from the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis. Those images flashed on our television screens each of the 444 days the hostages were held. We did not take kindly to Ayatollah Khomeni who called America “the great Satan” and we looked upon their religious fervor with fear and disdain. Most Americans have had an adversarial relationship with Iran ever since.
When Iranians think about the United States, the first images that come to their mind are from 1953, when the CIA collaborating with the British intelligence agency overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. His sin, nationalizing the oil industry! He argued that Iran should benefit from its oil industry rather than the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum. In his stead, they placed the Shah. Iranians recall how this US backed dictator oppressed them for 25 years, until in a popular rebellion inspired by religious fervor; the people overthrew the Shah and instituted an Islamic Republic.
How do you negotiate between such competing narratives? This is where skills of interfaith dialogue can play a helpful role, for in interfaith dialogue we are constantly confronted not only with competing narratives, but also with competing truth claims and alternative centers of power and life’s allegiance. Some years ago, New York Rabbi Leon Klenicki famously said that interfaith dialogue is often about “Tea and Sympathy.” That time is now long gone. Interfaith dialogue today is often a complex negotiation between religious identities which are an entangled dynamic of not only culture and ethnicity but also of political ideology. So, for instance, the American military and economic involvement in the Middle East is perceived by some to be a Christian intrusion into the heart of the Muslim world. Threats by the Iranian president against Israel are seen as a Muslim war against Jews. And Jews as a religious people are seen as intricately involved with the modern state of Israel and its violence against Palestinians. Events such as the war in Iraq, the Israel-Hezbollah war, the cartoon controversy and the comments by the Pope have created an added level of complexity. Yet, among the religious leaders of Iran, we found partners willing to engage in such a dialogue. I can speak for hours on this, but I won’t, since that will take away from my main topic. Let me encourage you to visit my blog: www.nccinterfaith.blogspot.com. I look forward to your comments there.
Interfaith dialogue within the US too, is often a complex negotiation. Before the trip I called my Jewish colleagues to give them a “heads up” to help them understand my theological convictions that made this trip necessary. To some of my Christian colleagues who expressed reservations about this trip to Iran because they worried about what it would do to my relationships with Jews, I insisted that we never go to the dialogue table compromising the convictions of our faith or the practice of our ministry. None of our dialogue partners want that from us. I expected and did receive strong criticism from some in the Jewish community and I have responded with similar energy. Energetic engagement I believe will result in deepened dialogue and stronger relationships.
For three years now, I co-convene for the Christian denominations, a Jewish Christian leaders’ dialogue table. We have explored at some depth, questions like the theology of land and covenant, because we’ve come to believe that at the heart of the political crisis in the Middle East are such theological convictions. This table faced a crisis last year when the Israel-Hizbollah war erupted. We discovered to our utter dismay that we as Jewish organizations and Christian denominations could not together issue a call to our congregations to pray for peace – or more precisely, for ceasefire and dialogue. If Christians were to call for a ceasefire, one Jewish colleague told me, there would be no conversation. And of course, many of our churches, and the National Council of Churches vigorously called for a ceasefire. After the war, I asked my Jewish colleagues to help us understand how their theological convictions were able to justify that violence, if indeed they did. That conversation is still pending.
Similarly, our conversations with Muslims in the US are complex. I’ve said to my Muslim colleagues, I will gladly accept that Islam is a religion of peace, but we must acknowledge that many terrorists go to their suicide mission quoting the Qur’an. It is critically necessary therefore, that you take a hard look at those parts of your scripture that tend to legitimize such action, and provide authoritative interpretation so that when imams preach on Fridays they know that there’s another way to read that scripture and young people will understand it differently.
But those challenges put the onus right back on me. As a Christian I have to ask, how is it possible that a self-professedly Christian US president would consider war as his first response to international relations and use his faith to legitimize his violent actions. Indeed when people in many parts of the world think about Christianity, they immediately think of it as a violent religion. We in the west don’t have strong historical memories, but people elsewhere still remember the crusades, the practice of blessing wars and the warrior popes. They think about Christians even today as endorsing capital punishment, justifying slavery and racism, engaging in world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity, empire building through pre-emptive war, systemically subjugating women -- do I need to say more? The question comes right back to us.
What follows therefore is my attempt to engage in such a self critical reflection. I seek to engage with you, the theology of Atonement, a subject that is central to Christian theology. You may feel that this is a bold, foolish or even dangerous subject to deal with. But rest assured: I am not ready to make declarative statements yet, rather a proposal and a direction for continuing theological reflection.
Before we get to the substance, I have two methodological suggestions. First, although I begin with a self-critical reflection, I suggest that we Christians cannot theologize by ourselves anymore. We are learning, painfully, that we have made serious mistakes because much of our theological reflections have occurred within the insularity of our Christian traditions. It took us a while to begin to theologize ecumenically, a practice that has greatly enhanced our theological depth. But that table must now be broadened to include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and colleagues of other religions, whose perspective and critique we must take seriously. Our theology, when it is subject to the testing, refining and sharpening that comes from such an encounter will be significantly stronger. The question of atonement – or the “search for what saves us” in particular, I think, needs broad participation.
Second, I propose that the conversation must not stay at the level of theological/ philosophical dialogue but move from there to the churches. And yes, that means messing with liturgy, hymnody and the preached theology of our churches. Now, I know, this is scary. I’ve been a local church pastor for over 20 years! But if you agree that the symbols, rituals and words that are used in worship determines our day-to-day practiced theology more than what we theologians write in books, and if you agree that given the volatility of our world, the question of Christian justification of violence must be urgently addressed, then you know that it is imperative that we think creatively and boldly about worship and how we engage people in action.
Before we go any further, let me to broaden the definition of violence. We are now in the seventh year of the World Council of Churches’ initiative Decade to Overcome Violence. Here’s how this program describes it:
[T]he ever widening gap between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, further aggravated by the processes of economic globalization; countless civil wars and violent conflicts; terrorism and the war on terrorism, now issues in the dangerous new doctrine of pre-emptive war; a revived arms race and renewed drive for military security; the proliferation of and continuing threat of a variety of weapons despite international treaties; the glorification of violence by the media and entertainment industry; the rise of religious fundamentalism and growing intolerance and the legitimization of all these implicit and explicit forms of violence against the innocent, poor and the powerless.
The document then calls the churches to repentance that as Christians “we have been among those who have inflicted or justified violence.” That confession, the document asserts, is also “a confession of faith that violence is contrary to the spirit of the gospel and that the churches are called not only to affirm life in its fullness to all people but also to overcome violence within and around.” The document goes on to “discern ways in which some theological convictions and traditional attitudes that the churches have cherished for too long have allowed or perpetrated or justified certain forms of violence.” Among several theological convictions that deserve scrutiny it lists: “the way atonement is understood and interpreted in contexts where violence and the suffering of the innocent are held inevitable for the ultimate good.”
Fundamentally atonement is about what saves us. Together with WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, I hope we can agree that violence does not save us. When I was a young seminarian I was inclined to believe that violence can sometimes be legitimized as a means towards a justifiable end. However, having seen (from afar) now for more than two decades, the devastation that violence has brought to my native Sri Lanka, having seen (from close proximity) the horrible carnage that was caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11th in New York and continuing to monitor closely the pre-emptive war in Iraq and the continuing horrible violence in Israel and Palestine – I have reinforced my opposition to that position. While I have no doubt that acts of violence are often counter-attacks on previous injustices, it seems clear to me that such responses are not bringing terrorists or governments that engage in violence any closer to their strategic objectives. Instead, I want to propose that violence takes us deeper into the abyss of despair and degradation, to the opposite end of what we hope will save us. If the theories of atonement do indeed legitimate violence we might agree that what is intended to save us may be causing us to be enslaved even further.
The Christian theology of atonement starts with violence, namely, the killing of Jesus. Our common theology is that God so loved the word that God gave God’s only begotten son, and that he was obedient unto death, even the death on a cross, so that we sinners may be reconciled to God or be saved. Theories of Atonement developed mostly during the middle ages try to explain this absurdity. The standard account of the history of doctrine
lists three families of atonement theories. Let me give you very cursory summary of these.
The predominant theory of the early church, Christus Victor, existed in two forms. In the first, the ransom version, the devil held the souls of human beings captive. In a seemingly contractual agreement, God handed Jesus over to the devil as a ransom payment to secure the release of captive souls. The devil killed Jesus, in an apparent victory for the forces of evil. But by raising Jesus from the dead, God deceived and triumphed over the devil; hence the name Christ the Victor. In the second version there’s a cosmic battle between the devil and God. In this struggle, God's son was killed, but the resurrection then constituted the victory of God over the forces of evil, and definitively identified God as the ruler of the universe.
The satisfaction theory, which has been the predominant image for much of the past millennium, has two versions as well. One reflects the view of Anselm of Canterbury who wrote that Jesus' death was necessary in order to satisfy God’s honor offended by human sin, and restore the order of the universe. For the Protestant Reformers, Jesus' death satisfied the divine law's requirement that sin be punished. Thus with his death, Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that was really due to human beings as sinners, and therefore, died a penal, substitutionary death. This is the more common theory subscribed to by western theological traditions.
In the third atonement theory, God the Father shows love to us sinners by giving us his most precious possession, his Son, to die for us. Peter Abelard saw the death of Jesus as a loving act of God designed to get the attention of sinners, and reveal the love of God for sinners while they were yet sinners. Since it is designed to impact the psychological or moral character of human beings, it is identified as the moral influence theory of atonement.
As you can tell, this is very brief summary. Since I am speaking at the theological seminary, I am reasonably confident that you all must be, or have the potential to be, experts on these! But these theories leave us with present-day problem. If God could allow the use of drastically violent means to save us, why should we not use violence to achieve noble ends?
I want to briefly summarize for you a few critiques of these theories, but with the caveat that I can’t do justice to these views in this short time. I say this only to whet your appetite so you will read and study them as well.
J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite theologian in his recent book The Nonviolent Atonement presents a full-scale attack on Anselm's and others' atonement theologies from the “peace-church” perspective. During the first century of the church the dominant atonement motif was Christus Victor. Weaver says that in addition there is also what he calls the “narrative Christus Victor.” The church in the first century, he suggests, saw the saving work of Jesus in his struggle against and victory over the structural evil powers of this world. The saving work of Christ therefore is not just in his death on the cross, but in the entire “narrative” of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The persecuted church did not need a metaphysical theory to understand how Jesus saves. They only needed to remember the story of how Jesus confronted the empire. All this changed when the church developed a symbiotic relationship with the empire. The church’s endorsement of the military force of a Christian state corresponded with the rise of a theology of God's redemptive use of punishment. Weaver’s work is also an attempt to historicize these a-historical theories, to inject an ethical dimension to it and ask how the “narrative Christus Victor” might be a new way to think about living towards the eschatological vision of God’s Kingdom.
James Cone, a premier liberation theologian from the African American tradition rather than focus on the churches’ legitimization of the use of the sword, points to the church’s legitimization of slavery and oppression. In his classic God of the Oppressed he posits reconciliation as the primary object of the atonement. Primarily an act of God that embraces the entire world, reconciliation changes sinful human beings in to new creatures, enabling them to have new relationships with other human beings and with God. “God’s reconciliation is a new relationship with people, [ephasis his] created by God’s concrete involvement with the political affairs of the world, taking sides with the weak and the helpless.”
The liberation that follows God’s political involvement is a pre-condition for reconciliation. While the Christus Victor image is typically presented as a non-political, metaphysical theory, Cone sees possibilities in that image as a political theory. It is a return to the biblical emphasis on God’s victory over the power of evil. In doing so, Cone reconfigures the classical theory of Christus Victor as a historical reality rather than some “mystical communion with the divine.”
It is important to note Cone’s point that the Nicean and Chalcedonian Christological formulas, accompanied by Anselmian and Abelardian atonement theories, were formulations developed by the ruling classes. Since the ethics of the ruling classes had a foundation other than Jesus, these formulations are devoid of any ethics of Jesus. Cone points out that this problem continues in the church even today as these formulas are assumed to be mainstream theology that accepts the status quo of the white power structure.
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker in a fascinating theological memoir Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us, echo the cry of Job to his friends who spouted pious platitudes in the face of his suffering. Coming from two distinctly different backgrounds, Brock, a Japanese American and Parker, a Caucasian, discuss how their personal lives and experiences shaped their theology. "We were convinced that Christianity could not promise healing for victims of intimate violence as long as its central image was a divine parent who required the death of his child," writes Brock, What sort of God requires his son to die to redeem others' guilt? What sort of son would submit? What sort of human being feels redeemed by such a death? The two authors share deep and painful traumas as they weigh the concept of "redemptive suffering." Too many Christian women, they argue, have remained in abusive situations because they have been taught that their suffering is like how Jesus “carried the cross” and is necessary for redemption. The doctrine of atonement, they poignantly argue, is inherently dangerous and destructive, especially for women.
Walter Wink, in his valuable work Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination writes that violence is a powerful idol that has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death. He identifies a subtle kind of violence, which has made us think that violence is the nature of things. There’s a myth that legitimizes that violent nature, which he calls "The myth of redemptive violence."
This myth inundates us on every side. From US foreign policy – we must use violence against Iran before they develop a nuclear weapon – to the Sri Lankan conflict – if we kill so many Sinhalese we’ll get Eelam, or if we kill so many Tamils we can crush the Tigers – to movies and cartoons on TV, it is pervasive. The easiest way to understand this myth, suggests Wink, is to look at some classic cartoons such as Batman, Roadrunner and Tom and Jerry. There has always been an absolutely moral and indestructible good guy who is stubbornly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible bad guy. Nothing can kill the good guy although for the first three quarters of the show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and is often hopelessly trapped until somehow the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain and restores order, until the next episode. All these cartons rather strictly follow this mythic order. The premise is simple; good guys are needed to restore the moral order of the universe. There is absolutely no way to reason with, persuade or negotiate with the totally depraved bad guy who must be totally destroyed. The good guy must use violent means to achieve this noble end since due processes of law are assumed to be too weak to deal with evil. The theories of atonement too legitimize this myth of redemptive violence. Our children watch these cartoons day in and day out, and then go to church on Sunday and hear violence legitimized again. Are you surprised that we are so trigger-happy!
Ignoring these and many other criticisms, that I don’t have the time to get into, allows Christians to assume that these theories and therefore the Christian legitimization of violence, is valid. Conversely, I suggest, an alternative theology of atonement will offer a significant motivation for Christians to actively work towards a non-violent world.
Thankfully, the ecumenical community has laid some foundational building blocks for re-thinking our theologies of atonement during the past century. New thinking on the prior question of soteriology was one of those building blocks.
For much of Christian history soteriology has meant rescuing of human souls from the damnation of hell in order that they might spend eternity in heaven. For much of that history Christians also assumed that theirs was the only way to heaven. The turbulent decade of the 60s saw some significant changes occur in our thinking about soteriology which became formalized at the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968.
M.M. Thomas, a leading voice at Uppsala, argued that the most urgent task for contemporary Christian mission is to participate in the people's struggle for the "realisation of humanity" rather than following the traditional missionary task of conversion. He Thomas insisted that the mission of the church must take into account the "religious and secular movements which express men's search for the spiritual foundations for a fuller and richer human life" as manifestations of the “new reality of the Kingdom at work in the world of men in world history." The main problems of Indian Christianity, he said, were "pietistic individualism," which emphasized dogmatic belief and the inner experience of conversion, and the isolationistic tendency of the Christian community, which closed off Christians from others. The work of Jesus Christ is to ultimately unite all people’s struggles for humanization. Therefore "[s]alvation itself could be defined as humanisation in a total and eschatological sense."
Thomas’ booklet Salvation and Humanisation published in 1971 became so influential that the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism meeting in Bangkok a year later followed his thinking in producing the document “Salvation Today,” calling on Christians to understand salvation holistically.
The Conference saw the saving work of Christ in four social dimensions: in the struggle for economic justice against the exploitation of people by people; in the struggle for human dignity against the political oppression of human beings; in the struggle for solidarity against the alienation of person from person; and in the struggle of hope against despair in personal life. In the process of salvation we must relate the four dimensions to each other. There is no economic justice without political freedom and no political freedom without economic justice. There is no justice without human dignity, no solidarity without hope, no hope without justice, dignity and solidarity.
This change in soteriological paradigm signaled a new theological direction in subsequent ecumenical thinking.
Maintaining that emphasis, however, has been difficult for the churches. The Evangelical movement emerging as a backlash against this “liberalism” of the ecumenical churches came together in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 under the leadership of Billy Graham. The Lausanne Covenant on World Mission, which understands salvation only in the sense of the conversion of the individual enjoyed wide acceptance by churches and evangelical organizations worldwide. A new missionary movement that based itself entirely on those theological premises arose energetically in the early 1980s.
Although in the past two decades the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism attempted to bring back the holistic understanding of salvation, three factors worked against this. First, it took a long time for this understanding of salvation to gain currency in mainstream Christian theological circles. Second, with the steady decline of their numbers, mainstream Christianity, particularly in Europe saw a corresponding decline in its power and self-confidence. Third, the Evangelical movement was so successful in its missionary enterprise that the demographics of world Christianity saw a major shift. There are significantly more Christians now living in Asia, Africa and Latin America than in Europe and North America. However, since that movement was spurred by fundamentalistically and pentecostally oriented Christians, the dominant understanding of salvation has remained an individualistic one. Subsequent ecumenical assemblies have not been able to adequately address the holistic soteriology of Salvation Today.
I began this presentation by suggesting that Christianity is a violent religion. Indeed it is. However, like other religions, Christianity also is a strong proponent of peace. Christians, after all, are followers of Jesus, who in the Sermon on the Mount taught nonviolence and love of enemies, who faced his accusers nonviolently all the way to his death, whom we worship as the Prince of Peace. His nonviolent teaching inspired a movement of Christian pacifism as well as the Gandhian and Kingian movements of nonviolent social change. As we saw earlier, Denny Weaver among others suggests that it was the church’s allegiance to empire that caused Christian theology to go awry.
Whereas before, Christians did not wield the sword and pagans did, now Christians wielded the sword in the name of Christ. The claim was that “Christian” concerns required the use of the sword in order to defend the society and the empire, which is now a defender of church and Christian faith. In a manner of speaking, not applying the teaching of Jesus became the “Christian” thing to do.
The contradiction persists to this day. The World Council of Churches’ invitation to the churches to join in a Decade to Overcome Violence acknowledges this tension.
Churches have always stood divided, and continue to do so, on issues of war and peace, exposing the complexity of considerations that churches have to make in such situations. This is exacerbated by different ways in which churches are associated with ‘the state’ or ‘political powers.’
At least one reason for this continuing contradiction is our theology of atonement. Churches often find themselves confused because their desire of peace often runs into conflict with their inability to deal constructively with this theology which stands at the core of our faith, is liturgically affirmed and preached weekly.
The search for what saves us, however, is not just a Christian concern. It is a concern for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as well as for people unaffiliated with any religious tradition. Also rather than remain theoretical, our methodology must be historically rooted, politically viable, and motivate people to strive towards wholeness for individuals and communities. So, let me offer a few concluding suggestions.
First, Christian theologians are slowly coming to terms with the inadequacy and insularity of theology that is done without the presence and participation of people of outside the Christian tradition, and are welcoming the robust testing, refining and sharpening that occurs when theology is done in their presence and with their participation. In the context of our current crisis, the question of “what saves us,” particularly if we would re-engage M.M. Thomas ideas, requires the presence and participation of those outside the Christian tradition.
However, in convening such a table, we need to be careful about language. The question “the search for what saves us” needs to be modified since “save” is a particularly Christian word. Wesley Ariarajah has persuasively argued for two possibilities. The first is peace, which he suggests is not a secondary tenet of the gospel but a primary one. Peace, of course, has multiple shades of meaning that includes justice. His second suggestion is healing, which too has multiple shades of meaning that includes wholeness. People of other religions and people who don’t belong to religious traditions are also concerned with the search for peace with justice, healing and wholeness, and the struggle for full humanity, and therein we may have a common agenda.
Second, it must move beyond a theological/philosophical conversation to a strategic conversation based on an astute analysis of power that leads to organizing religious communities to work for change. We must find ways to put feet on the theological conversation. To begin with, it must impact the totality of church life. Liturgy, hymnody, preaching and teaching that is fraught with violent language must be re-configured. What if, baptism is not simply be a sign of our conversion from sin to redemption, but from a life committed to active engagement in or passive accommodation of violence to a life committed to justice and non-violent social change towards peace? What if, the eucharist is not simply be a means of God’s grace for forgiveness of sin, but also as a means of empowering the church to confront the religion of violence and to promote peace and wholeness.
It boggles the imagination to think that religious people are the most organized people in the world. Most religious people throughout the world gather in one place usually weekly or at least monthly, to hear usually one person exhort them about what is the right thing to do and the right way to live and most religious people at least try to follow those exhortations. What if a tenth of all the religious leaders committing to preach peace and mobilize their congregations to engage in that task – imagine that!
Friends and colleagues, I don’t need to tell you that we are at a time of crisis. And our colleagues from other religious traditions tell us that it is at least partly the fault of Christian theology. I think it behooves us to urgently and critically examine our theologies. Atonement is only one of those, and here I have only raised some questions. There are obviously others that need careful examination as well. I hope we can engage our best theological minds in this urgent task.
For a detailed account of the theories of atonement see Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor.
Bangkok Assembly 1973: Minutes and Report of the Assembly of Commissions on World Mission and Evangelism, Geneva, WCC, 1973, pp. 88 - 90.
“Nurturing Peace, Overcoming Violence: In the Way of Christ for the sake of the World” Faith and Order Document, World Council of Churches.