Giles Fraser has crated quite a stir among readers of his column in The Guardian last Saturday. He wants to remove a sacrificial understanding of the crucifixion, specifically any notion that the shedding of blood can be a good thing, clearly ruling out any ‘‘subsitutionary’ theory of the atonement. Many of those making comments say unhelpful things such as ‘he hasn’t read the new Testament’ and accuse him of ‘making up a new religion’. It is all pretty low level stuff but makes clear how very difficult it is to offer something both consistent with, and reforming of, the apostolic tradition (which has such notes of consistency and reform built in contra those who would claim that there is some monolithic, once and final, body of doctrine that can be defined as ‘apostolic’ or, more commonly ‘traditional’.) The difficulty seems to lie in those who are invested in the way things are for some reason or other. In the comments after Giles’ article they seem to fall into two camps. One lot wants the faith to be disgusting and irrelevant so that they can continue to reject it and feel confident in doing so. Others seem to worry that if God didn’t in some sense or other ‘plan’ Jesus’ death on the cross then the whole house of cards (and their certainty with it) comes tumbling down.
I once told a friend who is a bishop that I wanted to try and find a ‘non-instrumental’ way of talking about the cross. He asked my why on earth I would want to do such a thing? At the time I didn’t have an immediate answer, but it has to do with understanding God in ways that don’t leave us worshipping violence or caprice and dressing both up as ‘intention’ on God’s part.
I can think of sacrifice as ‘costly self offering’ when understood as something other than creating a ‘scapegoat’ who will bear the consequence of whatever it is that we have done. I believe that he crucifixion is a result of both human sin and Jesus’ absolute integrity in the face of such sin, --his refusal to bless the systems by which we manage our anxiety and fear (our society) with creating victims as scapegoats. What I don’t want to do is bless some notion of God’s plan having to do with Jesus taking a punishment that we rightly deserve or some Anselmic view of the cross as the satisfaction of ‘God’s honor, both of which ideas. I do recognize and affirm that many who talk in terms of a plan are striving to be faithful with the language we have. I just don’t want a metaphysical system built on such a notion (or a philosophy of history now that I think about it).
In the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have the unveiling of all that makes for violence and death and the opening to us an alternative in the new life of grace.