Making sense of the cross has been the church’s business since the day Jesus died. It’s way of making sense was to theorize or, to put the matter more delicately, to theologize — even if Zinsser taught me long ago that adding -ize to a word is a shortcut. Indeed, maybe so, but the church didn’t take shortcuts when it came to explaining its beliefs through the cross. One theory after another unfolded in the church, each adding to the other and at times a new one arising because it thought earlier theories got things wrong.
One such theory is the Abelardian theory, and another is the Girardian theory. The former is connected to the word “exemplary” and the latter to “scapegoat” and “mimetic violence.” I contend neither is in fact a theory of atonement even if each reveals yet one more way to ponder the cross.
Here’s why I say so. In all other theories the cross is in some way against us — pronouncing us guilty and therefore captured by the devil, or therefore condemned, or therefore at enmity with God, or corrupted by death and in need of life. In other words, atonement theories work by Christ entering into our condition — slavery, guilt, condemnation, alienation, dead — and absorbing that very condition on our behalf so we can enter into a new condition — free, justified, reconciled, new life.
But the Abelardian and Girardian have an oft-missed sinister side, even if you may object to my saying so. In these theories we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death. We end up being the good guys, the victims, while the bad guys — Roman and Jewish leaders, the gutless disciples, the whole damned human race — are the ones who put him there. We, on the other hand, know better. We’re innocent, they’re guilty.
We are not the authorities, pockmarked as they are by injustice; we are for justice, and we see Jesus as suffering a colossal injustice. We tell a story in which we side with Jesus against the world and against the sinners and against the perpetrators of injustice. We thereby become guiltless and just. The opposite of what the cross’s message teaches. We end up where the Holocaust perpetrators were: we see in the leaders those who killed God. But not us, we are on Jesus’ side. We find Jesus as our model for sacrifice for justice. He becomes a moral example — not against us but as one of us.
Such approaches mask their inner reality: self-righteousness.
To use the words of Francis Spufford, in Unapologetic, we make the crucifixion scene “a story about a special shiny person, whose side we’re all on as we listen, being abused by especially evil persons.” He says such an approach to the crucifixion scene is no longer about Jesus being crucified but Jesus being crucified. He’s innocent, we know it, and we’re for him. Cheer the just man on, folks, cheer him on! Raise a toast for justice as activists for justice!
But the cross contains another message: that we, each of us, because we are sinners and hate to be confronted with the utter sickness that stains us, are the ones who put him there. To read that narrative well is to see ourselves as complicit in the condemnation of the innocent man.
The only “theories” of the cross that make any sense of the cross then are theories that begin right here: I am guilty of that death.