Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement
During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).
One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.
Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”
(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)
But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”
But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)
Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.
Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)
For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.