Both LDS theological maximalists and minimalists seem to think that there is something invialby sacred about the atonement. It is the quintessential doctrine, the essence of Christianity, and the sine qua non of Christian faith. Perhaps the Book of Mormon isn’t ancient, and perhaps Moses didn’t write the Torah, and perhaps Jesus didn’t do the miracles–but if Jesus did not suffer, die, and be resurrected to satisfy God’s plan, then the really is nothing of value in these stories. Perhaps this perspective has some value, but at the very least it effectively warns anyone from looking too closely at the atonement.
The doctrine of the atonement is remarkably thin in New Testament texts. Just why exactly did Jesus have to die? What did it accomplish? We have a few scant passages from the NT on this topic, mostly focused around language about animal sacrifice, connecting Jesus’ [human] sacrifice as the perfect version of ritual animal slaughter and burning to satiate God’s anger (and hunger). It was later theologians that sought more robust answers to these questions, answers that have been adopted in Mormon texts and teachings. The two major versions are substitutionary propititiaon and satisfaction. What both theories take for granted is that sin is something that must be punished and that Jesus’ violent death in some way meets that demand. God’s judgement would necessarily be severe and painful had not Christ endured the severe and painful punishment God inflicted upon him for our sakes. In a system where God is the sole, sovereign source of authority, his wrath and judgment seem irrational and unjust. Much of Mormon doctrine arises out of a reformation of Christian notions of divine wrath, vengeance, and judgment, such as the three degrees of glory, baptism for the dead, the limitation of “eternal damnation,” and even a crucifixophobia expunging the gaze on the tortured body of Jesus. Yet these teachings do not repudiate the notion of God’s violent punishment of Jesus, but instead build on it as the foundation for God’s mercy.
Jesus’ death is reenacted on the sacrificial altar in LDS chapels each Sunday, where his body is broken, torn, and consumed by the congregation, and his blood lapped up washing down the flesh still clinging to our teeth and roofs of our mouths. As Jesus is butchered, we are called to both “remember” and “witness” that awful event, silently recounting our own crimes in our head, so that we can be resolved to “always keep his commandments.” Jesus’ death, flesh, and blood are presented to us under threat and promise. The promise is effectuated through the violence inflicted on Jesus’ body.
The critique of this narrative of Jesus’ violent torture and death as the source of our redemption is worth taking seriously. Not only do we have a kind of divine child abuse in this story, but the notion that violence is itself redemptive. We must be especially concerned that it is an innocent person who suffers vicariously for the guilty. What sort of legal system is this that an innocent man’s violent torture satisfies for the crimes of another? Of course, Mormon historians have been increasingly looking at violence as a redemptive concept in early Mormonism, being such ideas as blood atonement and even the various wars and aggressions Mormons found themselves in. Such accounts cannot be fully separated from the notion of redemptive violence in the New Testament, both in the story of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic arrival of his kingdom.
Even if this violence is not a part of contemporary Mormonism (and pace Krakauer, I don’t think it is), what does it mean to have it symbolically present in our texts? In God’s Gym, Stephen Moore describes apologetic accounts of the atonement that see a transition from Christ’s violent punishment as accomplishing an interior call to obedience as telling the same story of the account of transition of punishment in modern society in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The atonement effects a change in the heart of the believer, a changed attitude, not in the same way that public exectution was once supposed to deter crimes in the premodern era, but in the way that in the modern era such public torture has been replaced with more discreet operations of power to produce “obedient,” docile subjects. One used to hear more often in talks in church, but I think much less so today, the kind of popular “medical” accounts of Jesus’ torture that filled in the gory details of the excruciating pain of scourging and crucifixion, the details of which worked to motivate its hearers to a renewed commitment to obedience. Perhaps this violence is not symbolic at all, but continues to lurk behind the new forms of power that attempt to make violence invisible. In the attempt to hide it, to make the violent punishment of Jesus a event safely in the past, it also cooperates with modern forms of power as a “reminder” of how else it could be, and may be, had we not submitted.