Failing Easter

I wrote earlier this season about how I’m probably Failing Lent.  I hinted there that I’d write more about my lack of enthusiasm for this season, and so here are a few words about how I’m failing Easter too.  I’ve been failing Easter every since my feminist consciousness started coming to theological terms with this thing called atonement – the ancient Christian idea that Jesus’ death does something to reconcile God and humans.

I know the moment when it all changed:  When I was 21 and heard Joanne Carlson Brown speak about how classical Christian atonement theory is little more than divine child abuse.  I read her essay with Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” which had been published in 1989 in Christianity, Patriarchy, and AbuseI saw in stark relief the line connecting women’s experiences of violence and violation in a patriarchal culture to a religion that valorizes suffering, specifically the suffering of the obedient son at the hands of his father.

A sample:

“Christianity has been a primary—-in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world.”

Around the same time, Delores S. Williams was criticizing Christian fetishizing of the cross by looking at it from the perspective of black women, women whose bodies have been routinely and as a matter of federal law subject to violence and forced surrogacy.  In Sisters in the Wilderness in 1995, she says that:

“Humankind, then, is redeemed through Jesus’ ministerial vision and not through his death.  There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross.”

Rather than continue to valorize death and systemic violence and tragic bloodshed, she suggests that we consider Jesus’ life and radical ministry as that which is lifegiving.

This work is part of a whole field of feminist criticism of atonement theory and the cross.  My own dissertation research and first book was in part an extended effort to deal constructively with the harsh truth that is revealed when you take women’s experiences of violence and abuse seriously in Christian theology.

I don’t know that I’ve reconciled it all yet, or that I ever will.  Because the cross is embedded at the heart of the Christian tradition.  The death of Jesus is fixed in place as a part of the redemption narrative.  And so we are left with hymns and images and other Christian ritual worship of an instrument of torture and death.  Yuck.  

As Kimberly over at Coming Out Christian said recently and more eloquently than my ‘yuck’:

See, I am the sort of Christian that is not theologically down with the whole subsitionary atonement [sic] thing – especially penal.

First of all is the deeply disturbing (and some would say heretical) idea of a God that would NEED a sacrifice of one innocent to pay for the sins of the rest of our sorry asses.  A blood thirsty God is frankly a warped vision of the Divine cast in our own vengeful image. Second is the more esoteric question of HOW exactly such a sacrifice would pay for “sins”?  There simply has been no answer to this question that I have encountered in my reading, praying, discerning life that satisfactorily answers this big fat how.

But about the Cross – we are not washed clean by his blood, we are convicted as a cruel and blind race that will execute our God when God comes to us as a poor man healing on the sabbath, overturning the worship of mammon in the temple, confronting the religious elite and and challenging the authority of the state.

We are not saved by the crucifixion, we are damned by itor we could have been. Let us face that shameful dark day and accept our culpability – knowing that if Jesus returned today to preach the gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed His blood would likely run in rivulets once again.  And let us move through that desolate Saturday knowing what we have done.  And let us arise on Easter surprised by Grace.

To be surprised by grace.  This idea I like.  Grace given in spite of the horrors that we humans continue to inflict upon each other, especially the vulnerable and marginalized in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy … women, people of color, sexual minorities, the poor.

And even on one who spoke the truth about these systemic injustices, Jesus himself.

Now, the question stands:  what are we going to do with that gift freely given?


Images via:  Dan Erlander;  Christa (Brooklyn Museum, Sackler Center for Feminist Art); pregnant Christ image from the Russian Bishops House in Sitka, Alaska.

At the Intersections: On Being Black and Queer at a Black Baptist Church
A Merry Feminist Christmas, part two
For Damaged Girls
Disciplining the Spirit With Jack Levison
About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Paul Boire

    What a boring waste of words. Are you deliberately trying to undermine the role of women in Christianity? You really don’t get it and you address your wordwaste to what you don’t get. Do you imagine that justice is not real? That there is no price to be paid? Unhealthy images my asp. Suffering the unavoidable failings of others IS part of life, like your insufferably boring treatise here. Love IS about sacrifice and Christ .. and his intelligent by comparison followers GOT that. The example of Love is complete. You recoil in ideological , narrowed self adoration. And more patriarchal crap. Humanity developed the way it did so that the babies didn’t die. The one with the breasts got to feed them and the other one went out to hunt or go to school for a lifetime of supporting the wife and babies. The patriarchal prejudices were inadequate, but not as blind as the anti-woman feminism of western decadence and its wretchedly sexist understanding of history. Feminists, by very definition are the princple chauvinists of the west. I’m often surprised at how people can get sucked into this really pathetic whining rhetoric. There were inevitable sterotypes both ways, but its really little girlish of you to blame it on the big bad daddys. It was natural life and many men and women viewed the death of a baby with a lot more justified horror and anguish than the feminists who wipe out millions of the youngest little girls.

  • JoAnne Simson

    Very well put! I have always had mixed feelings about the imagery of the cross – it seemed so cruel. But the living Jesus was such a positive model. I eventually became a Unitarian: we don’t have to stare at a cross while some man is telling us how to behave or be saved.

    • pagansister

      JoAnne, Yes, in the Unitarian church—no dead guy on the cross OR even a single cross, sans man. I married a born and raised UU. Raised a Methodist but was highly skeptical of what I was being taught!

  • K C Thomas

    Caryn is educated and a theologian and what not ? However she does not consider Jesus as God. My doubt is why she says a Lutheran and not an atheist !

    • Paul Boire

      One cannot be educated and a theologian if one’s education did not “lead out” of error and one is not a theo-logian unless one understands the logos of God. One has heard some things otherwise or has perhaps become adept at rhetoric. It would indeed make sense if she did not consider Christ as God. Then indeed we might be left with a narcisisstic pathological need for suffering, and indeed Christ would have been nuts.

      OR. Christ manifested the totality, the pure being of love even to those who crucified him. This is not an argument for narcissistic self pitying slavery to spousal abuse.. and let talk about the abuse of women to their husbands for a moment. Neither is it a call for children to accept abuse from parents out of Christian love, but rather is it a definitive affirmation of the terrible cost of justice and the definitive divine statement in the flesh of limitless love. People who don’t get Christ, don’t fully get love. So does our author focus upon how unappealing suffering is and how its avoidance is the primary imperative. It is not. That is just the inverse expression of the pleasure principle.

  • Gretchen Robinson

    So glad to find someone familiar with Rebecca Parker’s Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse. Then to find a person who knows of the Christa archetype and the way ‘She’ speaks to both women and men, is practically more than I can bear.

    I left the Christianity when I started reading about the religious wars as a teen. Could not understand why the world would be so violent.This was just after being compelled to make a statement of orthodox faith about the doctrine of salvation that I really didn’t want to affirm. Thanks for the article.

    I’m a religious humanist and sometime Buddhist, who was an interfaith chaplain at a hospice for six years, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School. Have you seen the book, Crucified Woman by Doris Jean Dyke. Or Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s Paradise Regained? (I think that’s the title)

  • Gretchen Robinson

    correction: the title I was referencing above is
    Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.
    Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker.

    • Caryn Riswold

      I have, and I’m glad you named them here, Gretchen. Thanks for your comments.

  • Jann Aldredge-Clanton

    Thank you, Caryn, for your courage in writing this article! I have long believed what you wrote about the problematic theology of what churches continue to teach about atonement. Also, I think that many Christians believe what you wrote but are afraid to go against the traditional church and culture. Thank you for your willingness to be prophetic!

  • Kimberly Knight

    I have been reading and appreciating your posts for some time now, please forgive me for not commenting sooner.

    I began my morning reading with your post and was so grateful for your intelligent, faithful inclusion of the feminist texts you lifted up. I was enjoying your elevated discussion of a topic near and dear to my heart when I was pleasantly shocked, and honored, to find reference to my crazy little post. Thank you for your cogent discussion and thank you for lifting up my own struggle with this absurd notion of a blood thirsty God.

    I also love your title because I believe we all, as a species, are failing Easter and I am just crazy jealous of the title because I was thinking of a very similar theme this weekend :) We sure do keep getting all the hateful parts of Holy Week right but can’t seem to wrap our heads around how to live into the grace of Easter. Thank you for sparking my imagination yet again.

    PS – I fixed that dern, glaring typo :)

    • Caryn Riswold

      Hey Kimberly … the gratitude is mutual! :-)

  • Oriana Spizzo

    So glad to see that I’m not alone in feeling disturbed by the Church’s traditional teachings on the atonement. I’ve long been drawn to the moral influence theory, and I was so happy to find others who found the substitutionary “status quo” disturbing and full of problematic implications.

  • pagansister

    Caryn, you must have been reading my mind all these years! THANK YOU for all you said above. It states just what I have felt for SO LONG!