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.

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11 thoughts on “Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

  1. At the CCET conference last week David Yeago offered a theory of atonement that I hadn’t heard before (though this may just be my lack of familiarity with Lutheran theology). He said that the point of Jesus’ accepting divine wrath wasn’t for us to escape judgment because he took the hit instead, but that it made it possible for judgment to be salvific for us. I don’t remember it perfectly but I think the idea was that if we’re in Christ something in us will be able to survive the refiner’s fire, and like him rise transfigured from our execution.

    1. As far as I’m aware, there’s no distinctively Lutheran view of the Atonement, but what you’re describing does sound similar to the way Carl Braaten discusses Christ’s work in his _Principles of Lutheran Theology_. He says that Jesus does not die or suffer so that we don’t have to, but so that when we do we can know that he is present there with us.

  2. “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 guess I’ll never understand atonement. If Jesus has paid the price for our badness, why is it thought that people still go to hell?

    1. Well, the traditional response is that people need to accept Christ’s work on their behalf, either by joining the Church (as in traditional Catholicism) or through a conscious act of faith (as in conservative Protestantism). Those who don’t are damned. Most churches have tried to finesse this in various ways nowadays, and I think you can make a case that the universal significance of Christ’s work means that ultimately everyone will be saved. That seems to be the direction Karl Barth’s theology points in, for instance.

      As for theories of the Atonement, my view is that no one theory can fully capture the meaning of the Cross. But at least as I read it, the New Testament does teach that Christ’s death has saving significance. What the various theories do is try to spell out how this works. But I would have a hard time accepting a form of Christianity that flat-out denied that Jesus’ death had saving significance.

      1. I wonder how different Christianity would be if Jesus hadn’t been murdered but had lived to old age and then had been resurrected after death – if the whole sacrifice/atonement thing hadn’t been a feature, wouldn’t the important bits still be there? Does his violent killing have to be the most important thing about him and God and us?

  3. It’s an interesting question, though I have to say I think the NT kind of goes out of its way to foreclose this possibility. In the gospels Jesus says that his death and suffering are necessary (in some sense) for the completion of his mission. In some mysterious way, they are the means by which God intends to bring in the Kingdom.

    Does that mean that his violent death “is the most important thing about him and God and us”? I’m not sure, and I guess it depends on what we mean by that. Paul certainly seemed to put “Christ crucified” at the center of his preaching. On the other hand, for Christianity the crucifixion gets its significance only within the context of Jesus’ entire life, ministry, and passion–and his resurrection, ascension, and second coming (and more broadly, the entire biblical narrative from Genesis forward.) But “cruciformity” does seem like an essential aspect of what Christianity is about.

    1. It’s also worth pointing out that, even without supernatural explanations, there was a certain inevitability to Jesus’ execution. Even if Judas hadn’t turned him in and all that, Jesus seemed to be evoking so much hostility in a tinderbox of a political environment that I have trouble imagining how he could have lived very long. Maybe by hiding out in a cave like an Essene, but that would have made him a very different sort of leader (and a rather less inspiring one, I’d say).

      1. Right. And the NT takes a somewhat paradoxical view of this. On the one hand, the crucifixion is an act of wicked men or even demonic powers; on the other hand, it falls under God’s plan and is itself the means of defeating evil powers. It’s a tension that’s hard for a lot of us modern Christians to maintain it seems to me.

  4. Yeah. Bit of a tangent, but this reminds me of another discussion we were having at the conference about human agency and God’s sovereignty. I realized later that the reason the Bible seems so inconsistent on human agency is that it doesn’t go by a particular theory of consciousness, but by long-term results. So if someone’s decisions had huge consequences that were ultimately good then God must have been guiding them, even morally problematic decisions like the pharaoh’s hardening heart. Same goes for the various actors in the Crucifixion. It makes a certain amount of sense but it’s frustrating if you’re trying to derive a coherent theory from it (or trying to figure out how God is acting in events while they’re still happening…).

  5. The inconsistencies – that it was a divine plan for Jesus to be a willing sacrifice and for a possessed Judas to help, while at the same time having it be a brutal murder that damns the Jewish people and makes Judas’ intestines explode ;) – make it seem like a story contrived with hindsight to explain away how God could have let such an awful thing happen.

    To me, the important thing was that Jesus was resurrected, and that could have happened after any kind of death. But to make the violent death so important seems to say that what really matters is that human nature is rotten.

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