Magazine article The Christian Century

Affirmation of Being: In Defense of Atonement Theology

Magazine article The Christian Century

Affirmation of Being: In Defense of Atonement Theology

Article excerpt

DURING THE waning days of the 1970s Jesus movement, I was 15 and clueless, like most people that age. My church's youth group had a tradition of traveling each year to a large, outdoor Christian music festival. The event, a self-styled alternative to the Woodstock legacy, offered camping, communal sources of drinking water and food--not to mention outdoor sanitation--and plenty of Jesus served up through "Christian rock" music. Of course, it was really the camp meeting tradition redux. The first evening, with several thousand others and in an atmosphere of drum kits, guitars and evangelical preaching, an "invitation" to faith was issued.

When the call came, I went forward. Several of us were ushered into the old tabernacle building, part barn and part chapel. It was a misty night, and I was greeted by a young bearded seminarian in a rain poncho. I don't remember his name, but I do remember him being genuinely kind, not condescending or controlling. He listened as I shared my heart, and we prayed.

I was not harangued about my sins. The discussion that night revolved around God's love, the conviction that God entered the world in human form with a tenacious care that never quit. When those wielding power and privilege sought to make him stop, God in the person of Jesus remained steadfast, even accepting execution.

Then my conversation partner in the rain poncho tossed off an old saw about Calvary. He said that if I were the only person on earth--past, present or future--Jesus still would have gone to the cross. For me.

A cliche? Perhaps. Yet even the most hackneyed of sayings often reveals mind-bending concepts. The God who didn't have to get involved got involved unto death--for me. That meant something.

Last spring I was invited to lead a conversation at my college about the meaning of Holy Week. Wanting to open a dialogue about the cross sans heavy doctrinal explication, I began with a question: What is the best thing someone has done for you?

The responses were instructive. One young man explained that he had been hospitalized with a serious injury his senior year of high school. A friend took the bus downtown every afternoon to help him keep up with homework. The young man was able to graduate with his classmates because of this generosity.

Another student spoke about the struggles of getting to and from a job. Her grandmother saved to buy a reliable, used car--and then gave this young woman the keys when the vehicle arrived.

These were modest personal anecdotes perhaps, but they revealed important stuff to these students. When discussing why such acts of kindness were so powerful, many pointed to their sacrificial nature. There was a cost involved for those who gave. Affirmation came with a price. Love expressed through sacrifice is compelling.

Explanations of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross have been subjected to major critiques over the past few decades. Is it really the case that, given humanity's sin, someone has to pay? This line of reasoning ends up with a sacrificial victim. These theories become especially troubling when coupled with language of the parent-child relationship. Feminist scholars and others have emphasized the potentially abusive effects of such linkage. If God is Father (or Mother, for that matter) and Jesus is Son, then are we treading in the land of child sacrifice?

Perhaps more generally and insidiously, does our perpetuation of this theology sanction the abuse of those less powerful in an effort to satisfy an angry God? This question focuses the problem with utilitarian moral theories. When the "greater good" demands sacrifice, it is seldom the powerful who divest themselves of privilege. Someone else, someone with fewer resources and connections, takes the fall.

So I understand why thoughtful people would cringe at the idea of God offering up a daughter or son as sacrifice. We can talk about why anyone in particular has to pay in the first place, but even if we grant some unavoidable necessity, a God who makes someone else cover the gap is not a God of love. …

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