The first is an article by James Alison titled “Traversing hostility: The sine qua non of any Christian talk about Atonement.” James talks about the “intelligence of the victim.” The phrase indicates in part that Jesus understood the risks involved in his preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God. He knew he would most likely be killed by his fellow human beings, and yet he was not afraid. James explores Jesus’ parable of the vineyard. He says that the parable makes it “quite clear that [Jesus] expects to be murdered and furthermore that this is not a problem for him. It is, rather, the previously considered and generously assumed cost of business in a project of love.”
James has taught me that when it comes to the Atonement, there was an angry divinity at the cross and it was us. God has nothing with the violence of the cross, but everything to do with forgiving human violence and hostility. On the cross we find that the Real Presence of God “is one of deliberate love in the midst of violent and allergic hostility”. It’s not so much that God responds to us with love; it’s that God is love.
We humans, on the other hand, are not God and so we are not love. We can be so fickle and hostile. We find it natural to create group solidarity in hostility toward others. It’s almost become our default mechanism of creating identity. I do this, and unless you are a saint, you probably do this, too. That hostility, that way of creating identity in opposition to another, was clearly seen on the cross when it was directed against Jesus.
And Jesus revealed the love of God that traverses our hostility. God’s ability to traverse our hostility in the name of love changes our very humanity, because the way we respond to hostility is usually with more hostility. But the God revealed by Jesus shows us another way of being human: to respond to hostility in the way of God, by traversing hostility with God’s deliberate love and forgiveness.
The cover of the magazine depicts Muhammad with a tear running down his cheek. He holds a “Je Suis Charlie” sign and above Muhammad are the words, “All is forgiven.” But who exactly is forgiving whom and for what? Gerard Biard, Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, explained that the cover “means that France can forgive the attackers, not that the Prophet is forgiving the cartoonists for lampooning him.”
Muhamad, who cared for the victims of his culture, would indeed grieve for the victims at Charlie Hebdo. And James writes that God forgives us before we ever knew we needed to be forgiven. In that forgiveness we are “being let off our enmity.”
I applaud Charlie Hebdo for using the phrase, “All is forgiven.” I think that if we forgave terrorists instead of seeking violent retribution the world would be in a much better place. But I also hope that Charlie Hebdo will take a self-critical look at its own need for forgiveness, as my colleague Suzanne Ross suggests in her recent article about the tragedy. Both Christianity and Islam call everyone to the spiritual practice of repentance and transformation so that we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Forgiveness, it should be noted, is an essential characteristic of the God of Islam. One might say that Allah traverses our hostility with forgiveness. The Qur’an says to those worried about being forgiven, “Do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful.”
A God who traverses our hostility with nonviolent love? A God who forgives all sin? Many think that message from Christianity and Islam is too good to be true. I just think it’s good news.
In this world we should have the intelligence of the victim. Unfortunately, we can anticipate that there will be violence. We will commit violent acts and violent acts will be committed against us. We all need to repent of our own violence.
By having the intelligence of the victim, we know that tears will continue to fall, but we also know that violence doesn’t have the last word. Hostility is traversed with God’s love. And all is forgiven.