One of the most arresting challenges to Christian atonement theory — namely, that on a cross, which was a hideous instrument of violence, torture, and suffering — was that it was violent. If violent, if God is connected to it, if this, if that, then the cross is violent. If God is not violent, then God is not to be connected to the cross.
A number of scholars have taken direct aim at this theme, including Rene Girard, Hans Boersma, and Peter Laughlin. Once again, some don’t find violence even to be a problem while others do. For those who do, these three names will prove to be food for thought. So, too, Thomas Andrew Bennett’s new The Labor of God: The Agony of the Cross as the Birth of the Church.
[I put my hand to the atonement discussion in A Community called Atonement.]
In short, violence is converted into non-violent birth, suffering into joy, and his image is the mother’s pain in childbirth giving way to the utter joy of the mother over the birth of the child. We are dealing not with redemptive violence but the transformation of violence.
This approach is the freshest I’ve seen when it comes to the charge of violence.
“Cynthia Crysdale begins her theology of suffering by relating her experience of childbirth.” So Bennett begins his third chapter.
If labor is connected to birth, and if we are children of God, then divine labor is an image worth exploring. That the Bible does, too, unmasks us in our missing this theme in atonement theories. But childbirth, suffering and violence are tied into this.
This should seem jarring to us from a theological perspective because Crysdale has just argued not only that suffering can sometimes be a good—for we suppose that the Christian tradition could hardly dispute that notion—but that it is a necessary component of some kinds of good—one of which, if the cross is the labor of God, is atonement. Pain and injury to a woman’s body in childbirth are both essential to childbirth and, mysteriously, constitutive of the joy it engenders. In the face of much current atonement theology, then, Crysdale asserts that, yes, the violence of the cross is quite necessary, that God could not have “resurrection joy” without “crucifixion pain’ because the two are, in some strange way, “the same thing.”
But violence is undone, not justified;
Jesus is neither murdered child nor passive victim; instead, Jesus is the divine mother who willingly and capably bears the cost of spiritual birth.
It is not uncommon for academic theology to excoriate any notion that the violence of the cross is either necessary or good.
Many today are not convinced; the cross is violent and that connects God and violence. Not good, it is argued over and over and over.
Whatever we make of the historicity of this telling, as an anthropological critique of the logic of sacrifice it has been powerfully influential, and, given the New Testament’s proclivity to associate Jesus’ death with the sacrificial cult, it has opened the door to a number of theological critiques of the role of the cross in atonement.
Bennett, however, goes in another direction:
In the labor of the cross, God does not perpetrate or merely endure violence but instead transforms it into a generative act.
What is violence?
Violence properly defined, that is, understood in light of Christian ends, is something like harm that normally hinders or is intended to hinder Godward transformation. One s autonomy or one’s rational evaluation of goods—these have little to do with “bodily integrity.” Bodily integrity is something more like the ability of an individual or a community to mirror its eschatological self. Where this is hindered, violence; where it is respected, nonviolence. Abstracted from a theological context, “bodily integrity” self-deconstructs. If there is no ultimate end, no communion with the divine, no imago Dei to recover, then, and this is critical, violence is all in all. Absenting the theological telos renders every interaction necessarily coercive. The question is not whether coercion is present; the question is only whether it succeeds.
Again, God converts violence into non-violence.
We are presented with an interesting tension. Crucifixion is an unambiguously violent practice. It humiliates, denigrates, and reduces the crucified to nothing, robbing the victim first of dignity, then of life itself. Yet it would be hard to characterize the pain of labor and violence done to a woman’s body during the birth experience as “violent” according to our present scheme. Giving birth does not normally “hinder Godward transformation.” At least in Crysdale’s theological report, childbirth is a sacred experience, not unlike baptism or marriage. And this is why the labor metaphor has such power: despite what is happening at a historical level, at the theological level God is transforming human violence into nonviolence. Crucifixion (an inherently violent, damaging, degrading practice) becomes childbirth—a sacred, generative, and transforming kind of suffering. God takes human violence and overcomes it by enduring it.At the cross, God turns violence into its opposite. God does not (or does not only) defang violence, expose it, or exhaust it. By enduring violence and producing new life from it, God-in-Christ converts it.
One of his important texts is Isaiah 42:13-17:
The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.
They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame—
those who trust in carved images,
who say to cast images,
“You are our gods.”
So, the themes of Girard and others and concern with violence are all brought into Bennett’s labor of God atonement theology and they are shifted into something they were not:
God’s labor is itself a transforming act: not unmasking scapegoating practices and naming victims, but instead simply converting a brutal human practice, crucifixion, into something that it is not and was never intended to be. The demonic powers sought murder, God allowed them to do it, and then God turned a murder into birth from above. Notice that God’s labor preserves the Girardian—and really we should include most species of Christus Victor—insistence that the fathers were right: the crucifixion was a trap laid for the forces of evil. The devil and the devil’s minions sow violence and reap nonviolence in a spectacular display of God’s generative and implacable power. This because they have put the wrong person on a cross. Rather than eliminating just another prophet, the powers have tried to execute the incarnate Word. If God chooses to make crucifixion childbirth, that is God’s prerogative; and if God’s prerogative thwarts the best laid plans of the enemy and bears a new, spiritual family, it is our place to marvel and to give thanks.
Suffering then is vital:
… in a world like the one God created, suffering is the cost of creating newness, and God does not excuse Godself from this experience. More plainly, if God is to give birth, then God will undergo labor just as women do. We have shown that this suffering is nonviolent—that in the present case it actually transforms violence into nonviolence—but it is nevertheless suffering.
Back to Crysdale and childbirth:
In a strange and wonderful way, we are able to claim that despite the best efforts of a demonic regime, the cross was no more “violent” than the hospital bed of a laboring woman. Bloody, long, and painful? Yes. But also saturated by the joy of new life. In this message the church can once again speak, and speak radically and therefore truly. Once again, from within and against neopagan cultures, the church offers the hope of a new way of being and of believing, once again offering a genuine invitation to respond, to be born again.
Reading through this chp I kept saying to myself, “Where sin and forgiveness?” The next chp takes them on.