Which Side of the Cross Are You On?

Which Side of the Cross Are You On? January 29, 2014

Scot McKnight made an interesting observation this week:

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.

Being that I’m writing a book on the atonement, this caught my eye. I’ve got chapters in the book on both the moral exemplar theory (Abelard) and the last scapegoat theory (Girard).

Scot is right, and wrong.

The mistake I’m afraid he makes is too much of a cursory reading of those two atonement theories. When you read either Abelard or Girard, they both actually play pretty heavily on human guilt. Abelard is a man of his time — the late middle ages — and he’s not shy in talking about human culpability, even original sin (gasp!).

And Girard is actually quite brutal when it comes to the contagion of rivalry, which is his version of sin. In fact, for Girard, it is very much us who nailed Jesus to the cross.

Where Scot is right, I think, is the way that many people use these two theories to get out from under the heavy, crushing weight of guilt in the Anselmian/substitutionary versions of the atonement.

I can tell you this much about my book: I won’t be joining the current trend of casting the cross as a “non-violent atonement.” The atonement is unavoidably violent.

And the main question I’m asking is not whether you or I are on the side of the victim or the oppressor — we’re both, as Moltmann makes clear better than anyone. Instead, I’m trying to figure answer this question: Where the hell was God when Jesus died?

Because that’s the question that Jesus was asking.

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  • Jason

    Tony, you are most likely aware of this article from Stacy Johnson:
    William Stacy Johnson, “Jesus’ Cry, God’s Cry, and Ours,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, eds. Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Miller (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 80-93
    He takes on Moltmann explicitly in the article claiming a broader reading of Psalm 22 is necessary to interpret Jesus’ cry (My God, my God…). He uses Hays as an ally from NT scholarship to move in this direction. So rather than Moltmann’s God abandonment, Johnson claims Jesus’ cry indicates a trust that God will be with him while on the cross. For Johnson much is at stake if we say God turned away from Jesus during his most desperate hour. Johnson had us read his article during the semester I took TH 221 in seminary and I’ve always found it an interesting and helpful take.

    • Do you have that article as a PDF, by any chance? 🙂

      • Jason

        Unfortunately I do not. Just the summary of it in my head and in my notes. It must have been handed out as a hard copy unfortunately or I would. If I find it I’ll let you know.

      • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

        T, you can find the chapter in the online Google book transcript. Just search Chapter 8 or pg. 80 here: http://books.google.com/books/about/Lament.html?id=iEMUFxAcORwC

    • My OT prof held that same view. I’m still not sure if I totally agree, but it’s certainly worth considering. If this is, indeed, the correct way to view Jesus’ cry, then 2 Cor 5:19 would be the perfect answer to the question: “Where the hell was God when Jesus died.” He was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

      Tony, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Supposing–for the sake of the argument–this interpretation is correct, how (if at all) does this affect your understanding of God’s culpability?

  • Buck_Eschaton

    I was introduced to Margaret Barker by James Alison. This is a great article by Barker.

    Maybe I’m just dense regarding what you’re asking but Barker contends that Jesus was Yahweh, the Lord. So God was on the cross.

    McKnight in the comments to his article says “Girardian theory barely touches on atonement.” What?? That’s what all Girardian theory revolves around.

    • I think by “atonement,” Scot means forgiveness of personal sin.

      • Buck_Eschaton

        Atonement for Girard means the unifying of a community. The doing away or negation of jealousy/envy, the things people have done wrong to each other that cause anger/revenge/resentments. Piling all these things on a scapegoat whose evil we all agree (we must all agree) transcends (or causes) the animosities between members of the community.
        Like a losing football that suddenly wins. People aren’t pointing fingers of blame, or worrying about there positions, everything is well in the world.
        I guess for Girard Atonement is more of a relationship thing, a healing of relationships than something about personal transgression.

  • scotmcknight

    Fair enough, Tony, as I wasn’t trying to deal with the nuances of either Girard or Abelard. Instead, with how folks have used both. But by atonement I don’t think I’d say it means “forgiveness of personal sin” so much as God’s method of resolving, forgiving, removing and eliminating sin, the sin problem, and our load/debt of sin. So forgiveness is the implication of atonement, not the same thing.

    I’m glad you responded Tony and I’m glad you are taking on the question. A dissertation at Australian Catholic University (or something like that) asked if God was complicit in evil if current ruling atoning theories are right.
    I’d be interested if you see both Girard and Abelard being used as little more than a moral theory. That’s what I see often.

    • I agree, Scot. You are right to criticize the way that Girard is being used by some today. I almost never hear anyone embrace Abelard. When I actually read him, I found him wonderfully complex.

      As I wrote in a comment above, I think that God is somehow culpable for the crucifixion. I’m just trying to figure out how.

      • denisemo1

        Isn’t the cross God’s way of absorbing and annihilating the
        chaos and violence. God did not create the chaos and violence. He dealt with it. I don’t think culpability is the right perspective here.

        • denisemo1

          There is not a morbid obsession with pain and suffering in Christianity…

          There is, however, plenty of pain and suffering in this world, unless you are
          fortunate and rich enough to avoid a lot of it. The emphasis on the Cross as
          the love of God, is not a love of suffering, but a love that takes suffering
          into itself and heals it.

          every good thing we have in this life is a result of someone who was willing to
          take on hard things, even suffering things, that we might have good things.
          Every good parent does this for their child. Love will always do this.

          This is not morbid – it’s what love looks like…

          If you understand mercy –
          then you understand a God who would go anywhere, do anything, for our sakes.
          And if we love him and want to follow him, we become willing to do the same.
          How else would you describe love? As a feeling? [Father
          Steven Freeman responds to a person claiming Christianity’s emphasis of the
          cross is a sick morbid fascination: The
          Church and the Cross of Christ, May 13, 2011, comments]

      • I think this question is related to God’s culpability for a system like evolution which produces life at the cost of mass death and suffering. Every slow wildebeest asks this question while being eaten by lions. As for answers, I’m playing with Barth’s “das Nichtige” these days.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Tony asks, “Where the hell was God, when Christ died?” My super simplistic, yet rather obvious answer would be: “Right there, just as God is always, everywhere.” Perhaps the mortal, human aspect of Christ merely “felt forsaken” (as indeed, we all do, at times), but it’s not the truth…Just because we “feel” forsaken, does not mean, that we are. Christ was not forsaken.

    • Joshua Adam Scott

      I think the use of Psalm 22–the forsaken cry–actually points to the entire Psalm, which ends up being a Psalm of trust in God for rescue. So, whether spoken by Jesus, or placed on his lips by the author, it points to a larger reality: God will vindicate Jesus.

      I also agree with your point–God is always present. “In him we live, move, and have our being.”

  • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

    Hmmm. Unsurprisingly I’m sure, I’m not sure I want to identify wholly with either perpetrator or victim. Clearly I am some of each. And ultimately, they both seem to share in the same loss–separation; breakdown of communal life. Which is perhaps a reflection of the separation-grief between God and Jesus…if we see them as two entities. Or, if not, the separation at work in God when he separates himself from the fullness of his power which might otherwise protect him from grief, and instead chooses to limit himself by allowing himself to love and then, in turn, to experience separation/loss.

  • Joshua Adam Scott

    I’m currently writing my thesis, and a good chunk of it deals with how we understand violence and atonement. I would advocate an understanding of atonement that is nonviolent. When you say, “The atonement is unavoidably violent,” what do you mean? I agree that crucifixion was a violent act. Josephus describes the brutality vividly. Borg and Crossan call it a kind of “imperial terrorism.” But I am not referring to the act of crucifixion with the term nonviolent. By nonviolent atonement, I am referring to God. Specifically, I mean that God does not carry out violence against Jesus. Actually, one way of seeing the resurrection of Jesus is as God’s vindication of Jesus’ nonviolence and a repudiation of the violence of empire.

    So, by nonviolent atonement, what are you referencing? God? Empire? Both?

    Thanks! I really enjoyed “A Better Atonement,” and look forward to your current project!

    • I mean this: 1) the event by which we are atoned — the crucifixion — is undeniably violent. And 2) although God did not require it, by even allowing it to happen, God is somehow culpable.

      It’s for those reasons that I think the phrase “nonviolent atonement” is misleading.

      • Joshua Adam Scott

        I agree with statement #1…it’s statement #2 I have trouble with. If that were true, then God is culpable in every single action or event that is unjust…because he ‘let it happen.’ I think that free will, and the reality that we get to choose, means that we, not God, are culpable for the things we do. God is the vindicator, not the perpetrator. Otherwise you have an issue, namely the idea that God was somehow against Jesus. Instead God, through and in Jesus, is displaying his love.

        • k_Lutz

          God is culpable! He’s got big shoulders. IMO, He knew exactly what was happening because He set it up. But He also knew that it would take something that horrific to catch most peoples attention. I think points at the inanity of the social gospel, because one does not see the depths to which God goes to restore us to His glory.

          • Joshua Adam Scott

            I think there is a major difference between human inevitability and divine necessity. It was inevitable that someone saying and doing the things Jesus was saying and doing–very socially grounded sorts of things–would meet such a violent end. And through this event God displays his love for us–both victim and oppressor. However, was this a divinely necessary event? Does God need blood to forgive? Jesus didn’t seem to think so. Neither did the Hebrew prophets.

            • k_Lutz

              Thanks for responding, Joshua.
              I am of two minds concerning the ‘divine necessity’ of the Cross. Granted that ‘the blood’ is not essential to God’s capacity to forgive, to restore, but it does point to the extreme depths to which He will go to do so, such that none is left without excuse.

      • Mark Kirschieper

        “Culpability” does not necessarily have a negative inference. God is just as culpable regards Christ’s incarnation (so happily celebrated at Christmas); as God is also culpable regards Christ’s crucifixion. Mortal, human life is by nature bloody and violent. This begins with birth (always bloody), and ends with death (always violent, in some way).
        Even if Christ had died of old age, we still would have had our PROPITIATION/EXPIATION. “Atonement” is no longer the best premise, regards our reconciliation. It’s too Jewish…IMO, Eastern Orthodoxy does a much better job with our reconciliation, in this regard. These Christian folks have already discovered a “better atonement”.

    • Kevin Panda

      Interesting.. I just thought I’d add my two cents in.. My friend was considering his thesis one day, and explained to me that if Jesus was infinite, like God, what if he indeed actually went to hell when he died?

      What if he went to hell for an eternity, but because he was an eternal being, his eternal part was stripped of him, leaving him as God, without the eternal aspect. Like when you divide an infinite number by that same infinite number, and you end up with 1.

      Just a random thought I had to put out there.

  • Mark Schulz

    You write: “Where the hell was God when Jesus died? Because that’s the question that Jesus was asking.”

    I don’t think Jesus was asking that at all. When he quotes Psalm 22 he does it to an audience (Jews around the cross) who knew that Psalm well. He was actually confessing he KNEW God was with him (as Psalm 22 does)!

    If I say, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” you know the rest. Using just that line I communicate the whole national anthem. Jesus communicated the whole Psalm – including the part that says, “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (v.14)

    • No way, Mark. That’s not what was happening, IMO.

      • Joshua Adam Scott

        Can you expand on this, Tony? So often, a quote was an allusion to the whole of a text. And, whether this is a quote going back to Jesus, or placed on his lips by a gospel writer [after all, not all gospels agree on what Jesus said on the cross], couldn’t this be seen, in light of the whole psalm, as a theological assessment of what is taking place?

        • Curtis Hinson

          I would be interested in seeing “No way” fleshed out a little. If not, why not? It’s a fair question.

  • Baz

    Not sure this question quite covers it…

    What about:

    Why the hell did god specifically set things up to occur this way and if he is omnipotent and caused it, how can humans possibly be blamed for anything that happens?

    • Sort of. I think that God’s “omnipotence” is a concept that we should jettison. But I think that God is uniquely potent, and as such must be somewhat on the hook for what happened.

      • Baz

        That might be your view of god, not to judge that as better or worse than that of others who believe, but traditionally god has been claimed to be omnipotent.

        Also without rather a lot of further definition of what is meant by ‘uniquely potent’ it would seem to just be side stepping the problem, if you see what I mean.

  • Tom Paine

    If we are Trinitarian, we also must confess that God was on the cross. Yes, God also existed beyond Jesus but to believe in the Trinity is to say God’s own self gave up life for us. Just an idea to throw into the mix.

  • Athanasius claims that whatever God wants to transform He becomes, following Girards theories a little further down stream could possibly culminate in God eliminating the idea of sacrifice altogether…reading Psalm 22 as declarative that God would NOT abandon the afflicted, then God is in Christ destroying the concept of sacrifice from the human consciousness…regardless of how you choose to read the psalm human sacrifice was probably never Gods idea and quite abhorrent to Him, how else can He stop it unless He transforms it?

  • Craig

    Is God essential in these theories? If so, just how?

  • Ric Shewell

    It seems to me that most human violence is a sacrificial system. In most cases, people engage in violence in order to bring about some perceived benefit. The victim is “sacrificed” for the benefit (or perceived benefit) of other or the whole.

    In my opinion, this is a lamentable reality, and God is culpable for the world’s violence because God has somehow set up creation to act in such a sacrificial system.

    The cross is God taking responsibility for this violence, allowing Godself to be sacrificed, but then proclaiming that this sacrifice is sufficient for all sacrifices. “It is finished.” It is enough. Stop sacrificing each other. My death is sufficient.

    In the cross, God experiences both sides of the sacrificial system: the priest and the lamb.

  • Except, as Girard points out, there never is that last scapegoat. The emotional feeling of “atonement” is only temporarily satisfying, and the Torture Dogma becomes a pretext for Torture Behavior.

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

    “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

    INRI: Initiate Nail Removal Immediately.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “The emotional feeling of “atonement” is only temporarily satisfying, and
      the Torture Dogma becomes a pretext for Torture Behavior.”

      I concur. The adherents of the theologies who are most enthusiastic about PS are the ones generally less supportive of or even adamantly opposed to social justice measures because of the unavoidably low view of humanity that accompanies that belief..

  • Curtis Hinson

    Dr. Jones, I believe Jesus (or at least his chroniclers) offer resolution to that question on the cross. Torah scrolls were not numbered in chapter and verse, and aren’t. The numbering started around 1555 in Geneva. Thus Jews at the time used the first line of a text as a shorthand reference to the entire text. “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani” then is a reference to the Targum of Psalms 22. Those who see Matthew’s version as evidence of a Hebrew rendering, while Mark’s is Aramaic, IMO are ill informed on scholarship on the phonology of Koine Greek — the omicron iota in “Eloi” would make the pronunctiation “Eli” due to iotaization well before this period (see Caragounis, Buth on historical pronunciation), so it’s just a different transliteration of the same Aramaic word being mispronounced by modern readers. So if it matters, I consider both accounts to be Targum references, not Hebrew references.

    Jewish hearers would have understood the reference to the entire text, not as though someone would quote one line and expect the hearer not to recall the rest. Therefore I believe Jesus’ cry to be much more theologically resolved than a mere “Why have I been abandoned” cry. Here is a snippet from the end of Psalm 22, NIV version:

    “For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
    he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help.
    25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
    before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
    26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek the Lord will praise him—
    may your hearts live forever!”

    I agree that atonement theory is unavoidably violent, which is why I completely reject it.

  • Mark

    This is probably not a good one for someone not well versed in all the atonement theories to jump into; nevertheless, here’s my take. I don’t believe in any of the atonement theories. There was no original sin, God didn’t hate humanity nor need an “ultimate sacrifice” in order to forgive us. I don’t even believe in the virgin birth. I do believe that Jesus came with a new way of looking at things, and a major reminder to us that our job is not only to love God, but also to love and take care of our neighbor – and everyone is our neighbor.

    Where was God when Jesus died? Same place God has always been. Everywhere and in everything (I’m a panentheist), and not intervening.

    Which side of the cross am I on? Most likely the side that ignored Jesus and didn’t pay much attention when he crossed the Roman authorities and was put to death. Who among us pays any attention to the “crazies” claiming to be Jesus returned to earth, as the bible claims he will do? Who listens to the modern day prophets, who tell us we spend too much on ourselves, we rape our land, we contribute to the forced labor and child labor of those who make our clothing? I think, like most of those in Jesus’ time, most of us would – unfortunately – feel he brought his death upon himself.