Atonement Part IV

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Before I introduce Rene Girard’s view of violence and the atonement, let me express some grievances about the emerging church and the atonement. If you read Scot McKnight’s book A Community Called Atonement he advocates that we (and this is the typical emerging church gesture) marshal all the metaphors in the Bible for explaining Jesus’ death. Although he ends up advocating a substitutionary view, I find this to be a tiresome approach. Also here’s Tony Jones’ post about penal substitution (http://tinyurl.com/l9zjxm) where he writes that we cannot dismiss this atonement view because ultimately no theory can fully explicate the meaning of Jesus’ death, although he concedes that specific theory is not the best. The emerging church needs some robust theology! Part of this requires taking a stance. Some of the understandings of atonement are just egregious, and as I pointed out potentially ethical destructive (like encouraging women to stay in abusive situation because Jesus suffered at the hands of the father in our place). I just want everyone to read Moltmann’s the Crucified God to actually understand how indispensable and beneficial a Trinitarian understanding of the cross can be. Wesley, this is one of my complaints. There is so much emphasis on contextualization, relationships, and community that people seem more intent on staying friends then actually advocating a theology that is both biblical and helpful for the Kingdom.

Anyway, Girard is a French anthropologist who studies the relationships between violence and the sacred. Girard conceives of human relationships to be built upon reciprocal desires, which he names mimesis (read imitation). Mimesis is defined to be a desire that is based on the desire of the other. The other’s desire arouses my own desire and our desires end up feeding each other until competition escalating until one of us claims the object of desire. For example, consider the strange fact that after you break up with an ex that you no longer have feelings for, suddenly enters a new relationship; your desire for your ex is magnified. This phenomenon can be explained by mimesis because the desire of the other has awakened your desire in your ex-partner.

Through Girard’s genealogy of myths he discovers that many ancient myths are driven by violence often in the form of scapegoating. How does he explain this? To return to this situation, person A & B begin to reciprocate each other’s desire until the object of the desire becomes unimportant. The now enhanced frustration and antagonism leads to an increasing societal unrest at which point something needs to occur to minimize the enhanced tension. Girard believes that all societies have victimized scapegoats as a way to quell the mimetic desires. Some sort of weakness or deformity generally singled this person out, which made them a prime candidate for a release of violence. However, what happens after this person is killed? Ambivalence. Initially, the collective considered this person to be responsible for their problems, but now they have experienced that cathartic peace that resulted form the scapegoat’s death. This leads the dead victim to be transformed into a sacred object. Girard thinks that this explains this founding murder marks the genesis of civilization (Cain/Abel).

So, what does this have to do with Jesus? One thing Girard finds exceptional about the gospel narrative is that Jesus’ innocence is upheld. He discovers in all of his anthropological research that the scapegoat is always held to be responsible for the conflict. For a gospel parallel let’s considered the apocryphal story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. In summary, this woman’s been found in adultery and the people demand her stoning. However, Jesus asks that, “He who is without sin cast the first stone”. Girard believes that Jesus’ brilliance comes in his recognition that the person who throws the first stone will have the most difficult stone to throw because that person has no model on which to imitate his desire. Jesus realizes that if one stone is thrown the rest will have a massive snowball effect because as the desires have more and more models to imitate it will increase the violence.

Girard views the atonement in a similar way that Weaver does. He believes that a substitution view is actually a regression into paganism. The Old Testament continues a tradition that maintains the innocence of the victims like Abel, Joseph, and the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. Likewise, the writers of the gospels defend Jesus’ innocence. This narrative is unique because it refuses to justify the violence that was unleashed on the scapegoat. In his ministry, Jesus adopts a nonviolent approach. His confrontations with the powers and principalities expose the violence that is built in to every society to preserve order. Girard suggests that the only way to resist the temptation of violence inherent in desire is to imitate Jesus as the perfect model. What does Jesus desire, the will of the Father. This liberates us from the chains of violence that affect our relationships, economics, and discriminatory practices such as misogyny and racism.

My next post will take more of a psychoanalytic view by taking a look at the death of God the Father as outlined in Freud’s Totem and Taboo. That will lead to a series of discussion on the death of God. From there I hope to use that as a springboard for my explicit reflections on the cross as outlined by the likes of Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer, Altizer, Moltmann, and Zizek.

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2 Responses to “Atonement Part IV”

  1. Wesley Says:

    I do agree with you that the emerging church lacks some theological gusto, but I agree with Tony and Scot’s assertion in ‘Community Called Atonement,’ that no one atonement theory encapsulates the whole of what atonement does. It’s not that ‘not taking stances’ is weak, its that some theories work for some and others work for others. If in your critique of Penal Substitution, do you mean to say that those who hold firm to the theory are compromising their ‘faith’ or withholding themselves from a more clear view of God? I’m beginning to see your critique of emerging church theology and how the precedence of inclusivity and ‘making friends’ as you so put it has been put above a robust theology. I’m not fully convinced that the priority of community over theology is detrimental (because community life, to me, is in a way practicing the art of theology) but I definitely see where you’re coming from and what it has done to emerging theology as a whole.

    My question for you is does the emerging church need to land hard on one theory of atonement and build a robust theology to be viable? And are you suggesting that the one to land on is this non-violent atonement, along with a trinitarian view of the cross (a concept I’m still a little hazy on, I’ll admit)?

  2. jbsrh18 Says:

    These are tough, but important questions. I also agree with Tony and Scot that no one theory properly describes atonement, but I don’t agree with them when they argue that all metaphors are helpful. As I’ve tried to show some are un-Trinitarian, damaging, and dangerous. Quite frankly, the person who thinks penal substitution works for them scares me. Also. I believe that views like penal substitution, sovereignty, nationalism, and support of war (as in Driscoll’s quote that it’s hard to be a Christian and a pacifist) arise from a view of the cross that sees God as linked to violence. I want to say no! God as demonstrated by Jesus is not a violent God. I don’t know what to say about the Old Testament, honestly, but I think we have to see the cross as an affront to violence not a confirmation of God’s violence towards his son. Perhaps like the liberation theologians I want to stress liberation as a theme and God’s preferential option for the poor.

    I’m not willing to break community with somebody for their theology. I mean I know Piper is militant about penal substitution; I would rather just disagree on atonement theories. I’ve already pointed out that I don’t believe one view is totally Biblical and every other view is without support. I just find certain to be more faithful to Jesus’ ministry on a whole. As long as we’re both committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God, then I think that person is not compromising their faith. However, again with someone likes Driscoll who holds this view of atonement, a low view of women, is pro-war, stresses a sovereign God, I just want to say these things are interrelated. I think those other beliefs are damaging and untrue to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom. My only point in sketching that atonement theory was to provide an alternative nonviolent way to understand the cross.

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