The Cross, Violence, and God: Some reflections on the eve of Holy Week

I’ve been thinking about the violence of the cross the past few days. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, walking the familiar streets around Capitol Square while carrying a cross and reflecting on Christ’s suffering and death offered a new perspective on the suffering that occurs in our city. Earlier in the week, I participated in an ecumenical conversation around the atonement, violence, and non-violence. I was particularly intrigued by the comment of an Armenian Orthodox colleague who said that they sing a hymn during Holy Week, “He lifted himself up on the cross.” In other words, instead of the cross being something God did to Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion is something Jesus himself did (as God, of course).

That conversation was in my mind as I tried to choose hymnody for our our Holy Week services and began working on my sermons. Our hymns tend to focus on Christ’s suffering on our behalf and the necessity of the shedding of Jesus’ blood. There are other images but for the most part, our devotional focus during Holy Week is on our guilt and Jesus’ suffering.

As part of my sermon preparation, I listened to the Working Preacher podcast, in which one of the speakers asked the question, “What does the cross say about God?” The answer is obvious if one accepts substitutionary atonemenent: that God is violent.

But is that the only possible answer? J. Denny Weaver argues in A Nonviolent Atonement and The Nonviolent God for a different perspective. If Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God in the world, Jesus’ nonviolence offers a key to understanding the character of God. He makes the case that the dominant understanding of atonement in the Early Church, “Christus Victor” puts the focus on the resurrection of Christ, not the crucifixion and thus God is seen as renewing life and creation through Christ’s death and resurrection (rather than seeking satisfaction for human sin).

How then to understand the cross? If Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t necessary to appease a vengeful God, what does the cross mean? Here, the Working Preacher question takes on significance.

What does the cross say about God? The cross shows God’s love for the world, God giving Godself for humanity; God dying because of human evil and sinfulness, yet in the end triumphing over that evil. The cross helps us encounter God in the suffering of the world. The cross helps us experience God’s love in the midst of our pain and struggles. The cross, to use St. Paul’s language, is “power made perfect in weakness.”

What might devotional practice and devotional imagery that emphasized those themes look like? Perhaps a downtown, public stations of the cross that connects Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on our streets is one answer.


Changing the lyrics of hymns

In his sermon yesterday, Bishop Miller discussed the hymn “Come Down, O Love divine.” In the course of his comments he mentioned a rather significant change in the text from the 1940 to the 1982 Hymnal. The third stanza of the hymn in our hymnal reads:

And so they yearning strong, with which the soul will long,

Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place

wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling

In the 1940 hymnal, the third line reads:

“For none can guess its grace, Till he become the place”

At the time, not knowing the earlier version, I assumed the change had to do with the gendered pronoun “He.” A quick look at the text suggests another reason–it’s not clear what the antecedent of “He” is. The soul? But when I looked back at the 1940 Hymnal, it struck me that there is a significant theological change to go with the change in wording. For it is not just switching from “He” to “Love.;” the verb is also changed, from “become” to “create.” And thus Love, perhaps God, becomes the main actor, creating space in the soul for the Holy Spirit to dwell; whereas in the earlier version, the sense is more passive; there’s no stated subject and no sense of activity on the part of the soul or of God.

It’s an odd coincidence that I’ve read several items in the past couple of days about the wording of another particular hymn (song?) Bosco Peters drew my attention  to a contemporary Christian song “In Christ Alone” that has become quite popular. It was sung at a recent Synod meeting and he reacted negatively to this line in it:

“Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”

Peters argues that “these words as interpreted by many (if not most) in that room is heresy.” A follow-up post includes a poll in which you can vote on what you think is the meaning of those words.

A manufactured debate among Kiwis that has no significance for North America? Ah, but a Christian Century article from Mary Louise Bringle, who is involved in the Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal revision discusses the very same words from the very same song. In the end, it wasn’t included in the hymnal because the replacement lyrics proposed diverged too widely from the authors’ theological perspective. (Peters’ post and readers comments suggest that a good bit of editing is taking place in those congregations where the song is used regularly, but such diversions aren’t possible when copyright permissions are necessary).

Messing with the language of hymns is always fraught with peril as those who were involved in gender-neutral revisions of hymnals over the last three decades can attest. Bringle points out some of the hymns that didn’t make the cut because of gendered language or problematic imagery, but she also writes sensitively about the larger issues at stake.

The song in question deals with Atonement theology and there are few matters that arouse as strong and divisive response as the atonement. From comments on articles, facebook and blog posts, it’s pretty clear that people disagree deeply and many of those who are critical of stances like that of Peters cannot fathom what’s at stake. But it’s also quite clear that one of the reasons passion run so high on matters of hymnody is because our faith, theology, and Christian experience can be profoundly shaped by the hymns and songs we sing and that messing with the words can mean messing with our deepest held beliefs and our deep feelings.

I’m glad I don’t serve on hymnal committees…

Jesus, Remember me: Lectionary Reflections for Palm Sunday, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

We have slowly been gaining insight into Luke’s understanding of Jesus these past few months–slowly because our gospel readings have jumped around in Luke and have also included readings from the Gospel of John. Among the most important texts for Luke’s understanding of Jesus is his teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:17:21, read on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany). There Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of the recovery of sight for the blind, that prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have the good news preached to them. Over the following weeks, we saw some of that activity. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we also saw the promise of forgiveness from a loving God.

It may be that it is only now, in the crucifixion scene, that many churchgoers will encounter central aspects of Luke’s image of Jesus. His prayer for forgiveness as he is crucified is a prayer that God will forgive his executioners whether or not they repent of their actions. In fact, Jesus says that “they know not what they do.” Jesus responds similarly to the plea of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here, the criminal doesn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus extends his forgiveness nonetheless: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Luke Jesus is crucified not to pay for the sins of humanity. He is crucified because the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators have chosen to execute him. The charges brought against him are political: perverting our nation,telling people no to pay taxes, and calling himself Messiah, a king (Lk 23:2). Pilate finds him innocent of the charges; Herod’s interrogation is inconclusive because Jesus doesn’t answer his questions. The second criminal also pronounces him condemned unjustly and the centurion says as Jesus dies, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Jesus’ innocence and his forgiveness of those who crucified him in spite of that innocence is central to the story. Luke will draw on that same theme in Acts when the first martyr, Stephen, asks God to forgive those who stone him.

Many contemporary Christians and those who struggle with Christianity wrestle with the meaning of the cross, with the doctrine of atonement, and especially with the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. As hard as it is for us to get our heads around this notion, it may be that Luke’s understanding of the cross is still more puzzling–an innocent victim who prays for forgiveness: that’s an image of a God of great compassion, and of a Christ who is difficult to imitate. But forgiveness of others is at the heart of our faith (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and should also be at the heart of our ethics

The Atonement: Some links

The Atonement continues to be a lively issue in Christianity. For many lay persons, it is one of the Christian doctrines with which they struggle the most. There’s been a great deal of interest in rethinking the doctrine in recent years. Right now, Patheos has several articles on it.

Tony Jones has a new book on the atonement and has blogged about it. Entries are here. A summary of his views is here.

For my part, it’s clear. I’m not interested in a God who needs to bargain with the Devil, or in a God who is bound to a legal system, no matter how just it seems to us. The crucifixion was the single most pivotal event in the history of the cosmos. In it, we see that the true character of God is love. God loves with an immensity that is hard to fathom. So much, in fact, that he forsook much of that divinity in order to find solidarity with you and me.

Greg Love also has a new book, and an essay:

I concur with the sharp critics of penal substitution. God is non-ambivalent and nonviolent, loving us with an unqualified love, one not surrounded by threats of condemnation, violence, rage, and death. Yet I also concur with the tradition: Burdened underneath the weight of sin, suffering, and tragedy, we human beings need a savior. And the gospel news is that we are saved by One outside ourselves—Jesus. This third approach entails the keeping of tensions present within the gospels’ stories of the cross. God is holy, but the holiness of God is present most in the mercy of God. What happens on the cross saves the world, and it ought not to have happened. The way Jesus died saved the world, but so did the way he lived. In Jesus’ work, salvation is a finished act, yet it is not one that happens “over our heads.” It inspires the human response of personal and social transformation. Jesus saves, and the Holy Spirit saves.

Today, on Tuesday in Holy Week, I’m thinking about the gospel for the day, and the verse that has become a theme for me this week: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn 12:32)


More on the Atonement–update on McCormack’s Croall lectures.

Darren at Via Crucis has given us summaries of Bruce McCormack’s lectures. I’m not going to go into great detail because much of the material relates to theological debates in which I have little interest. However, it seems to me the fourth and fifth lectures do provide some food for thought. In the fourth, McCormack deals with the views of Barth and von Balthasar as examples of his typology of theories of the atonement “which order the person of Christ to his work.”

According to MCcormack, no theologian has stressed so highly as Barth the importance for understanding the meaning of the cross of Jesus’ last words in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

For Barth, what is most important in the cross is the death of the sinner in the person of the God-Human.


Again, it is vital for the ontology undergirding Barth’s soteriology that the subject of the cross is God – not in a qualified or diminished sense, but really God. God hands Himself over to man’s contradiction of Him, places Himself under judgment. If this is really so, then the cry of dereliction holds the key to the meaning of the Incarnation: God the Son has taken the place of women and men by enduring the deepest and most extreme consequence of sin, which is separation from God.

For McCormack:

Barth is suggesting that the passion and death of Jesus are human experiences which God does not simply find a way to go and do, but which take place in God’s own life (without compromising the being of God). If His being is in His act, then it must be in the act of suffering and dying a reconciling death, as well – no, God’s being is especially this being.

Balthasar does something similar by focusing not on the cross, or Jesus’ dying, but on his death, on Holy Saturday:

the descent is the final moment in Christ’s defeat, and its significance is found in the depth to which he goes in separation from God the Father – the full separation that we are due in our death for sin.

In lecture 5, McCormack turns to his own view. He begins again with Jesus’ last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” McCormack says what I think has to be said about Mark and Matthew:

If we deal with the cry seriously, without trying to explain it away, McCormack says, we must face the fact that Mark and Matthew seem to want to say that God remained silent when called upon.

He then  makes a move I’m not sure I find convincing, arguing that “Jesus fears not death itself but the eschatological tribulation that is sure to accompany it.” God had to judge and condemn sin, in doing so, had to abandon Jesus so that the Son might die. In the end, the gradual withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from Jesus in the passion, with its culmination in Jesus’ cry, “Into your hands I commend my spirit is a loss of communion with the Father.

I do think that an adequate theory of the Atonement must begin with Mark’s gospel, with Jesus’ sense of abandonment by God, and God’s silence. That silence was temporary and in the resurrection we see both the vindication of Jesus, and humanity restored.

New perspectives on the Atonement

I was interested to observe that during the Trinity Institute, both in the televised conversations, and in our discussions at Luther Memorial, the Atonement came under close scrutiny. Ben Myers points to Bruce McCormack’s 2011 Croall Lectures which set out a new typology of the Atonement. There’s reporting, with theological reflection here. When people ask me about the Atonement, and I’m always surprised when they do, I refer them to Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor. I read it for the first time as an undergraduate; came back to it when I was preparing a course on the Theological Anthropology in the Christian Tradition. On second reading, I found it both interesting and troubling. I didn’t find it particularly helpful in understanding the perspectives of thinkers, either ancient, medieval, or early modern. That’s always the problem with typologies of course. Perhaps McCormack’s alternative will be more compelling, intellectually and theologically.

But what fascinates me most, as a theologian and as a pastor, is the continuing power of Atonement theory. Christians and seekers both struggle with the meaning of the cross for their lives. That came out in our conversations this week; I also encounter it in conversations with thoughtful parishioners. We still have work to do.