or, Can there be a non-violent atonement?
“The gospel is not a
message of personal salvation from the world, but a message of a world
transfigured, right down to its basic structures” (Walter Wink)
As a pacifist, it troubles me to think that
the understanding of the atonement that many Christians hold is dependant on the
idea of ‘divinely sanctioned, retributive violence.’1
Building on the work of John Howard Yoder,2 J.
Denny Weaver, Christopher Marshall and others, I have sought to discover if the atonement might look different
when viewed from a peace church perspective. Specifically, can we conceive of
an atonement that is consistent with the non-violent life and teachings of
Why did God take on humanity?
In the eleventh century, Anselm, Bishop of
Canterbury, presented his Satisfaction model of the atonement. He was
specifically responding to understandings of the atonement that understood it
as a ploy to catch-out the Devil. Though variations of this view had been the
predominant view since the early church, Anselm felt it was inappropriate. God
was neither deceitful to play such a trick, nor did he acknowledge any rights
In place of the prevailing model, Anselm
argued that the death of Jesus was intended to satisfy the honour and justice
of God. Humanity had sinned and dishonoured God by not obeying Him as they
should. Now, God’s honour had to be repaid, but no human could make the
offering because he already owes God everything and the debt on top of his own
required obedience is greater than he can pay. In reality, only God could make
an offering large enough to cover the debt of all Sin, but it would not be just
for God to make it, because it is not his debt to pay.
Thus, in his famous Cur Deus Homo,4 Anselm
concludes that since only Man should make the payment and since only God could
make it, it would need to be paid by someone who was both Man and God: enter
Jesus Christ, the God-Man. Through the reformers, Luther and Calvin, this view
developed into penal substitution, where the emphasis is upon Jesus receiving
the punishment of death that our sins have acquired. He took our place and paid
our debt – death – so that we can now be forgiven.
Anselm’s model has gone on to be the most
popular understanding of the atonement in Western theology. Yet, it has always
had its critics. Peter Aberlard formulated his ‘moral
influence’ theory in direct opposition to what he saw as a gross distortion of
the character of God in Anselm.5 However
in recent years opposition to the satisfaction model – or, more specifically,
to the penal substitution variant – has increased. It has come under attack
from Black theologians, Feminists and Anabaptists and other pacifists.
Some challenge that satisfaction atonement
is nothing but “divine child abuse." Though the language of this criticism
is unhelpfully shocking – and perhaps prejudges those who hold the view – it
makes an important point. Anselm’s model portrays God the Father inflicting undeserved
suffering on his own son to defend His own dignity.
Denny Weaver argues that "satisfaction
atonement in any form depends on divinely sanctioned violence that
follows from the assumption that doing justice means to punish."6 This
not only paints a picture of God as a violent and vengeful deity, but it also
shows God acting in ways that contradict the non-violent Christ of the gospel.
Moreover, it is pastorally irresponsible as it
discourages resistance to violent oppression. This has been a major complaint
of black theologians and feminists. Anselm’s model makes a positive virtue out
of innocent suffering and passive submission to an abusive authority.7 It
is historically true that such an approach has been used to stifle the
complaints of slaves and to silence the cries of abused spouses. It has sanctioned
ill-treatment of the marginalized and placed incontestable power in the hands
of ungodly oppressors.
Additionally, the satisfaction model is ahistorical and consequently devoid of ethical content. It
conceives of atonement as something that takes place outside of actual history.
It depends on some “spiritual” (read, ‘abstract’) transaction between God the Father
and the Son that removes human guilt and restores God's honour but fails to address
the actual structures of oppression.
Satisfaction atonement also takes place
outside the particular history of Jesus' earthly ministry. His life and
teachings are somehow divorced from his death. In fact, it reduces the meaning
of Jesus' life to some elongated preface – a demonstration that the lamb was
spotless and apt to die in our place. It might even be said that the best thing
about Jesus' life is that it came to an end!
Anabaptists have long complained
that the creeds move directly from incarnation to
crucifixion, with all that transpired in between having no ultimate
significance for salvation or atonement. This is expressed perfectly in
satisfaction atonement. Likewise, there is little real need of the
resurrection. Our debt is paid at the cross and the resurrection is little more
than God’s stamp of approval – a stamp placed on Christ and then anyone who simply believes in him. Consequently,
salvation becomes separated from ethics, eventually permitting Christendom
Christianity to regard violence as compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So is there an alternative? Is it possible
to conceive of a non-violent, ethically-transforming, biblical model of the
atonement? I believe it is and I’d like to use the rest of this paper to
formulate my understanding of this.8 I
aim to suggest that the death of Jesus was an outworking of his commitment to
‘turn the other cheek’ and to seek peace and liberation through non-violent
resistance of the powers.
Turning the other cheek
“You have heard
that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the
right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and
take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go
one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-41)
There are no concrete statistics, but I
would suspect that these words are amongst the most famous that Jesus ever
spoke. And, of course, with that goes the admission that they are surely also
amongst the most ignored. The trouble is that they seem unrealistic, naive and irrelevant.
How do you give more to a government that only uses what it has to oppress? How
do you turn the other cheek to weapons of mass distraction? Can Jesus really
mean what he says here – are his followers meant to be passive door-mats,
standing by and suffering silently while evil flourishes? Suddenly what appears
to be one of Christ’s most ethical sayings seems essentially unethical!
I believe that Jesus means for his words to
be taken seriously, but I don’t believe that he is calling for passive
inaction. Christ is here teaching to not fight violence done against us with
violence against our oppressors – or, as Paul later put it, not to repay evil
with evil (Rom. 12:17). When Jesus
says, ‘if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,’
we need to see that the most natural way for someone to strike us on the right
cheek is with the back of the hand. 9
However, when Jesus spoke these words he was addressing people who would never
consider striking an equal in such a
humiliating way. In fact, to do so carried a heavy fine. Therefore, following
Walter Wink,10 it seems reasonable to conclude that in turning the cheek the oppressed
person is refusing to be humiliated. The oppressor can now either
strike with the right fist (and acknowledge that he is facing an equal),
strike with his left hand and violate his own laws and customs, or desist from
his violence altogether.
The same message is being conveyed in Jesus’
other examples. Jewish law permitted a creditor to take someone’s tunic as
security when lending to the poor; they would have nothing else to offer as a
guarantee of payment (Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13, 7). However, the
creditor had to return the tunic each night so that the poor person might not
be forced to sleep naked. In the scene that Jesus describes – which seems to
take place in a court-room setting – if the poor person was to remove their cloak
as well as their tunic they would be exposing themselves in public, thus
bringing shame upon the person who caused their nakedness. Moreover, they would
be highlighting the inhumanity of the exploitative imbalance of wealth and a
society that puts the poor at the mercy of the rich.
Finally, Jesus pictures a scenario where a
Roman soldier has forced a Jew to carry his back-pack. According to Roman law,
soldiers were allowed to compel someone to carry a burden for them, but this
was strictly limited to one mile. This limitation apparently served to protect
the oppressed labourer, but Jesus teaches his followers to embarrass those who
would impose such laws by demonstrating that they can keep going another mile.
The Roman soldier thus runs the risk of being punished by his superiors and
might think twice about enforcing such help in the future.
Each of these examples are
summed up by Paul when he writes:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals
on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
A number of lessons from the life of Gandhi
capture this well. It is well known that Gandhi eschewed violence and looked to
Jesus as his inspiration in that. On one occasion he is discussing this with an
Anglican clergyman who suggests that Jesus might not have literally meant for
us to turn the other cheek. Gandhi disagrees and argues that doing so reminds
our oppressors of our humanity and the inhumanity of their actions. This is
powerful and disarming. At a number of points in his ‘career’ Gandhi
deliberately went into situations where he knew he was risking his life. His
intention was to expose the brutality of British rule and to show the world
that India would not give up and that this
oppression would not conquer their peaceful resistance. Gandhi was
simultaneously demonstrating his own strength and revealing the weakness and
cruelty of this foreign oppression.
Similarly, Martin Luther King claimed that his goal was to awaken a sense of shame within his white oppressors and thus to challenge their mistaken sense of superiority. This reminds me of a story I head about a black woman walking along the street with her two children when a white man spat in her face. She stopped and said, "Thank you, and now for the children." The man was, understandably, taken aback and didn't know how to respond. This woman had, in effect, beaten her oppressor and stripped him of his power.
I suggest that it is precisely this kind of
‘resistance’ that Jesus is talking about. He is, as is made clear by Paul after
him, both prohibiting violent retribution and encouraging creative non-violent
struggle. As Weaver states, Jesus ‘was teaching non-violent ways for oppressed
people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and [thus]
neutralize exploitative circumstances.’11
By living this way Christians demonstrate the Life of the kingdom of God and oppose the tyranny of death and its violent expressions.
Confronting the Powers
Christ’s confrontation did not take place in
an invisible spiritual realm beyond time and place. Rather his struggle was
made manifest in his continuing conflict with the powers of racism, sexism, abuse
of the poor and violence embodied in the political and religious structures
that surrounded him. He did not come to simply deliver us from the penalty of
our own personal sin, but to liberate us from the very real power of societal systemic
Christopher Marshall has suggested that ‘violence
is the foremost social manifestation of sin; it is all-pervasive in human
experience.’12 Violence reveals the condition of the human heart and demonstrates our
alienation from the life-giving God (James 1:13-15).
Sin has now so mastered humanity (Gen. 4:7) that we all instinctively seek to impose our will on others, and we know that
violence is the most effective way to do so.
Violence also sets in motion a
"pay-back" mechanism - a powerful desire in the victimised to seek
compensation, to hurt those who have hurt us.13 The
Jewish command to take ‘an eye for an eye’ was originally intended to limit the amount of restitution that one
could seek. Thus, you could not knock someone’s house down because they injured
your horse. However, this also served to legitimate the human desire to seek
revenge and continued the cycle of violence. As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye” only results in the whole world going
blind. The retaliation instinct thus reveals Sin’s most deadly power by turning
sinned–against victims into sinful
oppressors. It creates patterns and systems of behaviour that allow violence to
spiral on forever. We see this all around us and within, from children pushing
one another in the school yard to religious wars in Northern Ireland.
Jesus came to break this cycle and to show
us how to live under the reign of God. Thus, he demonstrated in his own life
the power of non-violent resistance to the powers. He liberated victims of
religious and sexual oppression and refused to support the systems that
promoted such repression. He turned the other cheek and discipled his followers
in this peaceful rebellion against the power of death. However, to really
disentangle the spiral of sin it was necessary for him to endure the full weight
of violence – an unjust and oppressive cessation of life – and to do so without
seeking retaliation. This is precisely what he did, praying "Father
forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
It was in this action that Jesus demonstrated the inhumanity of sin and the
weakness of oppressive power. He lived his own message of non-violence, peace,
forgiveness and love. He turned the other cheek and in doing so he disarmed the
powers and authorities (the institutionalised embodiments of Sin and Death) and
made a spectacle of them (Col. 2:15).
Christ broke the power of sin, but not through
repaying violence with violence. If Jesus Christ truly reveals God to us, then
we see in Christ the will and ways of the Father. Thus, it is inconceivable
that Christ would teach that those who live by the sword will die by the sword
and that we should not react to violence with violence, but that the Father
would deal with human sin through the violent substitutionary
punishment of his Son! Jesus teaches us – through his words and the whole of
his life – to turn the other cheek to violence. Then, in his death, Christ
fully and finally reveals God’s answer to Sin. Jesus absorbed the very worst
that the powers have to offer, and the Father turned his cheek.
This does not mean that God passively
succumbed to an oppressive power, but that he unleashed a greater power – grace
– and thus broke the cycle of violence and retaliation and crushed the power of
Sin, revealing it to be bankrupt and powerless. In Christ, God fought the
oppressive powers precisely the way Christ has instructed us to: creatively, persistently, graciously and non-violently.
Jesus’ resurrection was the conclusive revelation
that the victory that the Lion of Judah secured was achieved by the lamb that
was slain.14 The resurrection is not an announcement that “might is right” and that the
violent death of God’s son had paid for the sins of humanity. It is instead the
unveiling of the true Power in the universe and the demonstration that the
powers that were finally disarmed at the cross need no longer pose a threat to
those who will not walk in their way, but will instead “march” under the banner
and in the footsteps of the victorious lamb.
On the cross, Christ disarmed the powers,
revealed their true nature and uncovered their weakness. In the resurrection,
he sealed his victory by freeing Death’s captives and asserting his own
supremacy. In the incarnation, Jesus united God and humanity in his own person.
In his life and teachings he opposed and exposed the powers; he thus bound
Satan (Matthew 12:22-29). In his
death and resurrection he revealed this by showing evil’s impotence and taking
the strong man’s spoils; he revealed that his death was not a sign that he had
passively suffered at the hands of a greater power, but that he had conquered
the powers – by turning the other cheek – and so liberated the captives. Thus,
Jesus Christ (not some fragment of his work, but Christ himself) is the atonement.
Jesus died as he lived – peacefully
liberating captives from the power of Sin. He clearly, explicitly and
repeatedly taught his followers to fight oppression through peaceful means.
This was not because he was afraid, or unable, to fight with violence, but
because violence itself is a manifestation of the powers that we needed
deliverance from. To repay violence with violence simply serves to strengthen
its power over us and results in a world of blindness.
Instead, Jesus provided strategies for
opposing Sin in such a way as to expose it to public disgrace. Time and again,
these strategies have been proven to be successful by some of the most famous
and revered men and women in modern history. The followers of Christ today must
embrace the path that Jesus laid down for us. By acknowledging that his way is
superior to our own and trusting in him, we can live under the reign of God and
witness to the powers that His power
is greater than that of Sin and Death. Through his radical and lasting
commitment to non— violence, Jesus demonstrated that
such liberating life can be costly. Yet, like Gandhi, Martin Luther-King and
Desmond Tutu after him, he also showed that such a life will, ultimately, lead
The model of atonement proposed here is
unmistakably and unashamedly grounded in the non-violent life and teachings of
Jesus. It is thoroughly ethical in its basis and its application. I believe
that it more than adequately avoids many of the problems with substitutionary atonement. I have not been able to fully
unpack every facet of this model, but I trust that what has been discussed is
sufficient to be built upon and taken further. This is a biblical model that is
desperately needed in a world that continues to suffer from fighting terror
with terror. In short, by revealing that Jesus Christ – in his life, death and
resurrection – has provided rescue from the powers that threaten to hold us
captive and has shown us how to live under the liberating rule of God, it is most
assuredly good news.