Fleming Rutledge and the Atonement (by Jason Micheli)

Fleming Rutledge and the Atonement (by Jason Micheli) February 12, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.19.00 PMI am beyond delighted that Jason, who has spent the year in cancer treatments and healing, is back on the Jesus Creed blog. I consider Jason a friend and a gifted Methodist pastor.

Inside the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama hangs a stained glass window featuring an arresting depiction of a brown-skinned Christ crucified upon the cross. I say arresting because the image leads the eye in two seemingly dissonant directions. In one direction, Christ’s body appears almost in motion as if he were not truly bound by his captors’ nails. In the other, his anguished visage recalls the Eastern icon called the Utmost Humiliation.

The window was commissioned by the people of Wales in response to the KKK bombing of the church in 1963, which murdered 4 little black girls. The artist, John Petts, expressed his intent that one arm of the crucified Christ appear turned against the demonic powers of the world while the other arm extends out, ready to embrace all of creation.

Accompanying the image is an inscription from Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment, which I’d argue has grown rote and impotent by its almost exclusive use to admonish Christians to care for the needybut here gets deployed with convicting power: ‘Whenever you’ve done it to one of the least of these, You Did It to Me.’

Like I said, arresting.

More than that, Petts’ art offers a thick, visual summary of the argument Fleming Rutledge mounts in her latest book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, for the Wales Window brings to the fore her emphasis on real, flesh and blood history as the arena in which God in Christ acted upon the cross and in which God through the word of the cross acts still today. Where so much debate today on the atonement veers between the individualistic and the esoteric, Rutledge relentlessly fixes her study of the cross within the challenges and questions raised by a suffering, sinful world. In addition to lived history, the Wales Window highlights several other distinct themes that resonant through The Crucifixion:

Sin not as vices requiring sentimental, pious conversion but as Sin, Powers and Principalities that systemically enslave humanity, requiring liberation. The former is, really, a work of human piety while the latter is an invasion only God can         work.

The need for God alone to work justice and to remake the world God created by rectifying the world that humanity, in bondage to Sin, has created.

The sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice upon the cross.

The irreligious, counter-cultural imperative of the New Testament that Christ’s death was offered not only in solidarity with the world’s forsaken and oppressed but ‘for’ the forsakers and oppressors as well.

All of these themes are implicit in the Wales Window and are explicit in Fleming Rutledge’s treatment of the cross; in fact, I’d wager that if John Petts had had the opportunity to read The Crucifixion he might have felt led to create another window for whatever church those KKK bombers attended, depicting in some way that’s deeply offensive to us that Christ died just as much for them, the ungodly.

Many months ago, Fleming Rutledge solicited my opinion, along with a group of others, on the cover of her forthcoming book on the cross. The Wales Window was one of three possible cover images. Unwisely, I suggested one of the other two options. Only now, having read her book, do I see how the image of a crucified black Christ in Jim Crow Alabama, whose death is offered for unrighteous klansmen as much as for innocent black children, perfectly captures her interpretation of the apostolic proclamation.

The incongruity of such an oblation, which becomes inescapable when viewing the Wales Window, is often missed by Christians who presume the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross to be self-evident.

Fleming Rutledge begins The Crucifixion by holding out this question:

            ‘If Christ crucified is the heart of the gospel, what does this signify?’

And another:

            ‘What does Christian faith say about evil in the world?’

These prove to be the guiding questions that animate her examination of the Jesus’ cross.

Rutledge’s assumptions behind these questions become key to the first part of her work. In insisting that the cross’ meaning is not self-evident, Rutledge forcefully distinguishes the apostolic kerygma from religion, spirituality, and the DIY devotional practices en vogue today. She recovers from both Paul and the Old Testament an awareness of the cross as a symbol of absolute forsakenness, an attribute which makes the cross the very opposite of what most people today take it to be: an inherently unreligious symbol. The cross is not an image projected out of humanity’s spiritual wants and needs; it is literally the crucible where humanity’s spiritual wants and needs are once for all killed. Therefore, Rutledge argues, you can’t reason your way from an agnostic posture to one of kneeling before cross nor will the spiritual intuition of God in your garden ever lead you to submit to a naked, executed Jew. Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith. It certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers. The only thing obvious about the cross, as Luke’s Emmaus story makes clear, is that the cross was a scandal. It’s this scandal, the peculiarly godlessness of the manner of death God chose in Christ, that will become crucial later in the book as Rutledge seeks to recover traditional substitutionary language for the atonement.

If the cross is so counter-intuitive and its meaning can only be grasped by faith, then how does the Church convert people to the message of Christ crucified?

As a preacher, I found her answer to this question particularly provocative.

There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology, for it relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but Rutledge retrieves the belief that Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself. On this, she is adamant, the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

As Fleming Rutledge puts it:

This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus’ ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…It is essential to          remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or   instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive    news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The  overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross,   incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of this apocalyptic event of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, because this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious (that is, sentimental) impulses.

Rutledge’s pastoral sensitivity to the question of evil, her second guiding question, motivates her passion for traditional atonement theories which today are wildly and popularly dismissed in progressive and mainline circles. Where critics often see substitutionary atonement as unavoidably individualistic and eternity obsessed, Rutledge fixes such language firmly within the pages of the New York Times. The pages and footnotes of her book are replete with heart-breaking and damning examples of our collective sinfulness. When applied only to the individual’s sin substitutionary language too often creates an image of God as a capricious, malevolent god, yet when such scriptural language is applied to the world’s evil, as Rutledge does, the reader is left wondering how wrath could not be the outworking of God’s Good nature.

Whatever else the cross may mean, Rutledge argues, it’s about justice; that is, the cross is an atonement for humanity’s sin and it’s an apocalyptic invasion where God rectifies the world’s injustice.

It’s her concern for justice in a world still ensnared by the Powers that pulses in her avowal of substitutionary atonement images, but perhaps it’s not what she argues for in the initial section of The Crucifixion that’s as needful as how she argues it. Considering how many Christians today, in both conservative and progressive circles, do what the Church Fathers intentionally did not do and cast aspersions on the legitimacy of various atonement metaphors, singling out their preferred theory as ‘more faithful,’ the charity with which Rutledge treats all of the Church’s language and images for the cross is maybe the best gift her book offers Christians who use the cross to undermine one of the cross’ central claims, that we are one in Jesus Christ.

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