Atonement without violence?

Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver’s much-discussed book The Nonviolent Atonement is the most thorough treatment I’ve read of the problem of violence in traditional theories of the Atonement. According to Weaver, these theories–which include both satisfaction and moral influence types–rely on divinely sanctioned violence to achieve reconciliation between God and humanity. More specifically, in both cases, Jesus’ violent death is “engineered” by God to fill a slot in the divine economy, whether it’s satisfying the divine justice or bringing about the repentance of sinful human beings. Satisfaction atonement in particular, Weaver contends, is linked with a retributive theory of punishment and an image of God that is at odds with the Christian gospel.

Coming from a peace-church perspective, Weaver argues that the idea that God was the agent, or the object, of Jesus’ death is inconsistent with the character of Jesus (and by implication God) presented in the gospels. Jesus was nonviolent, and he revealed a nonviolent God. Weaver denies that Jesus’ death was willed by God, except in the sense that God foresaw that Jesus would inevitably be killed as a consequence of his mission. He concedes that there are passages in the New Testament that seem to support the notion of divinely sanctioned violence, but he offers some (admittedly non-consensus) interpretations to show that they can also be understood through a lens of nonviolence.

In place of satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement, Weaver offers a theory he dubs “narrative Christus Victor.” According to this account, Jesus’ entire life and ministry was a manifestation or drawing near of the reign of God. Jesus showed, in the flesh, what it looks like to live under God’s reign. It is characterized by forgiveness, compassion, and nonviolent confrontation with injustice. This brought Jesus into conflict with the “powers” of evil–the forces of sin and violence that hold sway over both the human heart and human institutions. It was these powers–not God–that orchestrated Jesus’ death. This is what makes Weaver’s view a variant of the “Christus Victor” model identified by Gustaf Aulén in his book of that name: Jesus triumphs over the powers in that (1) they are unable to deflect him from fidelity to his mission to incarnate God’s reign and (2) God vindicates him and his message through the Resurrection. In Weaver’s scheme, the Resurrection, not the cross, is the pivotal salvific moment–it reveals and establishes that God’s reign as manifested in Jesus is the ultimate power in the cosmos. Salvation for human beings is “switching sides” from slavery to sin and violence to participation in God’s reign.

Weaver tries to show that his view is consistent with the concerns raised by black, feminist, and womanist theologians about the ways in which traditional atonement motifs have allegedly licensed abuse and passivity in the face of oppression. He also interacts with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and some of the more recent defenders of satisfaction theory to show that, however it may be qualified or softened, any version of satisfaction atonement (emphatically including the penal substitution theory of contemporary conservative Protestantism) ultimately means that Jesus’ violent death is necessary to accomplish salvation. “It can be kept and defended,” Weaver concludes, “only if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 12).

However one answers that question, Weaver has put his finger on a crucial (pardon the expression) issue between defenders and critics of satisfaction-based atonement theories. The question is whether Jesus’ death, as such, is part of the divinely willed means to our salvation (rather than a consequence of Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission, as Weaver claims). And if God did will Jesus’ death, doesn’t that implicate God in the violence of that death? And is this consistent with the character of God that Christians believe has been revealed in Jesus?

Weaver observes that traditional atonement theories have often portrayed salvation as an ahistorical “transaction” within the Godhead. In this regard, they have often been driven more by abstract ideas of deity and justice than by the concrete biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To reflect the character of God as Christians understand it, theology needs to be thoroughly rooted in that narrative. And if Weaver is right that the NT portrays a Jesus (and by implication a God) who is fundamentally nonviolent, then how can divine-human reconciliation depend on violence?

You can read a summary of Weaver’s argument here.

Support for same-sex marriage from unexpected quarters

High-profile U.K. evangelical minister Steve Chalke describes how he came to an “affirming” position on same-sex relationships. Folks familiar with these arguments won’t find much new here, but Chalke provides a lucid overview of the bibilcal issues, and he frames the debate in a sensitive and sensible way.

Meanwhile, farmer-poet-novelist-essayist Wendell Berry, who’s always been difficult to classify politically but has been embraced by some religious conservatives, expands here on his support for civil marriage equality.

I’ve long thought that same-sex marriage could be seen as conservative in a “small-c” sense. Insisting that gay people, simply in virtue of their sexual orientation, remain celibate is pointlessly cruel. Far better to include them in an institution that provides for stability and fidelity and which can facilitate both their flourishing and ability to contribute to the well-being of the wider community.

Guns, civil society, and peacemaking

In the wake of the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, a common reaction among some conservative/pro-gun folks has been that we should “arm the teachers.” This is consistent with responses to previous such events, like the movie theater shooting in Colorado this summer, when some gun proponents argued that if only someone else there had been armed, they would’ve been able to stop the shooter.

But apart from the logistical and safety issues this would raise, the more important reason this is a bad idea was well articulated today by two different writers. At the New York Times Opinionator blog, philosophy professor Firmin DeBrabander writes that “an armed society — especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country — is the opposite of a civil society.” What he means is that if your solution to gun violence is to arm more people, in more places, more openly, you’ve replaced a society based on mutual trust and cooperation with one based on fear.

At the American Conservative, Alan Jacobs offers a similar thought:

But what troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.)

Is this really the best we can do? It might be if we lived in, say, the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. But we don’t. Our social order is flawed, but by no means bankrupt. Most of us live in peace and safety without the use of guns. It makes more sense to try to make that social order safer and safer, more and more genuinely peaceful, rather than descend voluntarily into a world governed by paranoia, in which one can only feel safe — or, really, “safe” — with cold steel strapped to one’s ribcage.

There can and should be vigorous debate about what kinds of gun control measures are desirable and practicable, but we also need to think about what kind of society we want to live in. The character of a society in which everyone walks around packing heat, Old West style, would be very different from one in which most of us feel safe enough to go about unarmed. There’s no question in my mind which is preferable.

In her sermon this Sunday, our pastor reminded us that Christians are to act as peacemakers as part of their calling to “bear the life of Christ” to the world. But there is peace based on fear, and there is peace based on love (or at least mutual respect). We’ll probably never eliminate the need for some “fear-based” policies, but the proper Christian stance, I submit, is to nudge social relations  in a “love-based” direction. By that standard, a more heavily armed and militarized society would be moving in the wrong direction.

Do we need a two-tier system of marriage?

According to The Book of Common Prayer,

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

So, marriage serves multiple, partly overlapping functions:

–Personal happiness and fulfillment (including sexual pleasure!)

–Companionship and support in facing the joys and vicissitudes of life

–A context for the having and raising of children

Even though the BCP refers to a “union of husband and wife,”  it seems obvious that same-sex couples also desire–and benefit from–the goods that marriage provides. And individual marriages will exhibit these goods in different combinations and to varying degrees. There are straight couples who don’t (or can’t) have children and perhaps don’t derive much happiness from their marriages, but who marry for support or economic security. Likewise, there are gay couples who have children, either from previous marriages, by adoption, or through assisted reproductive technologies.

That’s why I think people who suggest we have a “two-tiered” marriage system–one for opposite-sex and one for same-sex couples–are making things overly complicated. Marriage is big enough to accommodate a variety of different relationships. What would be the point of establishing separate, parallel versions of marriage when the existing institution is already flexible enough to accommodate same-sex couples? (As it already accommodates infertile or elderly couples, say.)

What proponents of such a system sometimes say is that we need to preserve a “straights-only” version of marriage to uphold the value of “sexual difference.” Now, you don’t need to buy into what some Christians call “complementarianism” to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women; if nothing else, their different biological natures are what make human procreation possible. But I don’t understand what purpose is served by setting aside a special institution just to express this distinction. Providing meaningful social support to people raising children strikes me as far more important than symbolically emphasizing the specialness of sexual difference.

A rare post on abortion

In this editorial, the Christian Century articulates a middle-ground approach on abortion that I find largely persuasive:

Over the years, mainline Protestants have expressed their own reservations and qualifications. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, declared that “the strong Christian presumption is that . . . all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it.” Therefore “abortion ought to be an option of last resort.” Voicing a similar position, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the church to “seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.” Churches that backed legalization did not want abortion to be a routine means of birth control.

On those Christian grounds, it is good news that abortion rates in the United States dropped 5 percent in 2009 (the latest year of reporting) to the lowest rate in 40 years—15 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Rates have generally trended downward since 1981, when they peaked at 29. Health officials attribute the recent drop to more widespread use of contraception, especially by teens, and the use of more effective types of contraception.

U.S. abortion rates remain high, however, compared to other countries where abortion is legal. In Belgium and Germany the rates are below 10 per 1,000 women, and in the Netherlands, where abortion is freely available up to 21 weeks, the rate is 5, the lowest in the world. The Dutch have achieved that low rate through widespread education about family planning and easy access to contraception and by inculcating a general understanding that abortion is an irresponsible means of birth control.

The editorial concludes that this “nuanced position on abortion may not bring people to the barricades, but it points to a coherent, responsible policy.”

I think this is basically right, but it’s worth noting how this differs from the more absolutist pro-life position found among conservative Catholics and evangelicals. If you believe that abortion is morally comparable to killing babies, then nothing short of legal prohibition really makes sense. That’s why there’s a certain logic to not making exceptions even in the case of rape: why should an innocent child be killed because of the crimes of its father?

But the position sketched by the Century rests on a different view of of the value of pre-natal life–though one that also differs from a pro-choice position that assigns zero value to it. (I doubt this view is as widespread among pro-choicers as pro-lifers sometimes seem to think, but there probably are people who hold it.)

What this more moderate view presupposes is that pre-natal life has value, but that its value is not equivalent to the value of a newborn baby (or a 2-year old, a 5-year old, an adult, etc.). Moreover, it generally presupposes that this value increases as the pregnancy progresses: a very early abortion is less serious, morally speaking, than a very late-term one. To say, as the PC(USA) does, that “all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it” seems to allow for these kinds of distinctions.

I think that this kind of “gradualist” position makes sense of many people’s common moral intuitions. Most parents or would-be parents, I think, would say that a miscarriage at a very early stage of pregnancy would be a less grievous blow than one at, say, 7 or 8 months, much less the death of a newborn or older child. In other words, we generally act like the embryo or fetus is not, morally speaking, a fully realized person. Or to take another thought experiment: if you could save either a Petri dish full of fertilized embryos or a single child from a burning building, wouldn’t the right choice clearly be to save the child?

Now, just because many people have these intuitions doesn’t mean they’re right. And one problem that has always bedeviled the gradualist view is that it’s hard to draw bright lines demarcating the various stages of fetal moral considerability. By contrast, the hard-core pro-life view can point to such a bright line, namely conception. (Though even this is a bit fuzzier than people sometimes think: does it refer to fertilization? Implantation? The appearance of the “primitive streak” that determines whether an embryo will develop into one or two distinct beings?)

In my view, the clarity that comes from drawing such bright lines is purchased at too high a price if it requires treating a newly fertilized embryo as morally indistinguishable from a baby. It seems to me undeniable that nascent human life has value, but also that its value is less than that of a baby or child. Given this, a policy that places some value on fetal life while also recognizing that importance of women’s bodily autonomy makes sense and would aim at the “safe, legal, and rare” regime the Century recommends.

Do the evolution

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.

But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”

Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:

when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Posner goes on to contend that

Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:

Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.

So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.

Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.

Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.

On Animals: Redemption

Picking back up the thread of David Clough’s On Animals, let’s look at the third part, which deals with animal redemption. Clough’s argument throughout has been that it makes more sense to understand God’s great acts (creation, reconciliation, redemption) as including non-humans than as exclusively concerned with humans. This is no less true of redemption than of the other two doctrinal themes. He goes so far as to say that they are “different aspects of a single divine act of graciousness by God towards all that is.” The question then is: Will animals share in human deliverance from sin, suffering, and death, or are they destined to be cast aside as a kind of cosmic detritus?

Clough cites John Wesley, who argued in his sermon “The Great Deliverance” that non-human animals needed–and would receive–redemption, just as humans would, and John Hildrop, who maintained that God brought each individual creature into existence for a reason, and thus God has reason to maintain them in existence. Clough writes that “[j]ust as we are accustomed to picturing human beings as being gathered up in Christ without regard to when they died, so we must become accustomed to think of other animals, too–ammonites and stegosaurs, dodos and Javan tigers–beign gathered up in the divine plan of redemption.” What God has created, God will redeem.

An alternative argument for animal redemption draws on considerations of theodicy–the suffering of animals should be compensated for by life after death. While he strongly affirms the reality of animal suffering, Clought rejects this line of argument on the grounds that theodicies generally tend to justify suffering–by seeing it as a necessary part of some overarching plan or system. This portrays God as having to compensate animals for an injustice experienced at his hand. Rather, Clough says, “God must be understood to be the redeemer of all creatures, human and other-than-human, because God has determined to be gracious and faithful to them in this sphere, as well as in their creation and reconciliation, not because they would otherwise have a legitimate cause of complaint.”

Animal redemption is part and parcel of a vision of cosmic redemption that has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Key New Testament texts here are those that speak of “all things being gathered up in Christ” and God being “all in all.” Origen took these and ran with them in his doctrine of universal restoration. In fact, Clough suggests, the same sorts of considerations that point many in the direction of universal salvation tell equally well in favor of animal redemption.

In the final chapter, Clough goes on to consider “the shape of redeemed living.” While he is postponing discussion of ethical issues to the second volume of his work, he offers some general thoughts on what redeemed relationships between human and non-human animals would look like. He draws on the eschatological vision of “peace between creatures” offered in key Christian texts. These include the early chapters of Genesis, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, and the portrait of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, as well as the church’s stories of saints who “made peace” with wild animals. These suggest that God’s redemptive purpose is that “all creaturely enmity will be overcome in the new creation, and predator and prey will be reconciled to one another.”

This gives rise to a number of puzzles to which we can offer only speculative answers, such as: Will individual animals be redeemed, or only species? How can predators be reconciled with their prey without losing their essential nature? What does redemption look like for domesticated animals who have had their natures altered by human intervention? Are all animals ultimately to be “tamed,” or is their room for wilderness in the new creation? Clough offers some tentative answers to these questions with which I’m largely in sympathy, but he also cautions against dogmatic certainty when it comes to specifics.

But the trajectory, he thinks, is clear: the destiny of creation is to live in peace, even if it now “groans as in the pains of childbirth.” And this has practical implications. Whatever the details of our eschatology,

a vision of what the reconciliation and redemption of all things by God in Christ through the Spirit might mean for relationships between humans and other animals will cause Christians to be motivated to act in whatever ways they can to witness to redeemed patterns of creaturely relations.

I think the point here is that creaturely solidarity is, or should be, much more deeply woven into theology–and the Christian life more broadly–than has usually been the case. Animals are as deeply involved in God’s acts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption as we are. This has implications for ethics–and maybe also for community life and politics. For example, what would church life look like if we took seriously the view that we are part of a “mixed community” that includes many different kinds of animals? How should we anticipate the creaturely peace that is to characterize the new creation, even while recognizing that we still live in a fallen world? These are the kinds of questions I’d like to see Clough take up in his second volume.

Previous posts:

Reading David Clough’s On Animals

On Animals: Creation

On Animals: Reconciliation

Redefining moral rules?

Gene Callahan had a post recently on this Salon article by Irin Carmon. In the article, Carmon writes:

The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.

Gene comments:

Hey, and let’s have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It’s hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn’t fit her definition.

I agree that morality isn’t whatever we say it is (i.e., I’m not a moral relativist.). But let’s see if there might be a worthwhile point lurking around here.

Here’s one plausible (I think) account of what ethics is: a goal-oriented activitiy aimed at reducing suffering, increasing happiness, facilitating social coordination, increasing fairness, and cultivating virtues, among other things.

On this account, the purpose of ethical rules is direct us toward these ends. Obeying them isn’t good in and of itself; rather, following them helps us acheive the goals that morality is concerned with.

If this is the purpose of ethical rules, then as we learn more about the world and about human nature–about the sorts of things that lead to suffering, happiness, fairness, etc.–certain longstanding ethical rules could turn out to no longer make sense. That is, we learn that some rules are not as conducive to human flourishing as we thought and require revision or abandonment.

To take one fairly obvious example: much of force of the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity came from beliefs that it was associated with vice, suffering, and ill-health. But we now know that this isn’t the case, so the old rules seem–at least to many of us–obsolete. Note that this isn’t a form of moral relativism, but rather a revision of moral rules as our understanding changes (and, we hope, improves). (If the reader disagrees that the traditional prohibition on homosexuality is wrong, then she can substitute another outmoded moral rule of her choosing.)

Clearly this isn’t the only way to think about ethics. But, as I said, it’s a plausible one–and one that I think helps account for sentiments like the ones expressed in Irin Carmon’s piece.

What ails the mainline? (part the millionth)

A speech Rick Santorum made in 2008 has resurfaced in which he laments Satanic influence on many of the institutions in America. In addition to raising the alarm about the usual bogeyman of liberal academia, he opined that mainline Protestantism “is in shambles [and] gone from the world of Christianity.”

This is of course nothing new, as Sarah Morice-Brubaker pointed out in an article at Religion Dispatches. Mainliners are quite used to hearing from conservatives that they are too liberal, too accommodating to the surrounding culture, and are failing to uphold the integrity of the gospel. The numerical decline of mainline Protestant churches (which include the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is often taken by conservatives as evidence of their slackening faithfulness.

The reality, as usual, is probably a little more complicated. For one thing, mainline churches are experiencing demographic shifts that are affecting pretty much all religious bodies in America, albeit at different rates. Second, numerical success is not necessarily a reliable indicator of theological faithfulness, as any number of suburban megachurches and prosperity-gospel TV ministries prove.

Moreover, the decline of mainline churches is almost certainly due in part to the increasing obsolescence of church membership as a matter of social respectability. Once upon a time, people went to church because that was what respectable, middle-class people (or people aspiring to be respectably middle-class) did. The fact that this expectation has largely vanished, at least in many parts of the country, is, on balance, a good thing. The conflation of Christianity with middle-class respectability is something we’re well rid of.

That said, liberal, mainline churches have plenty of self-inflicted wounds: shallow theology, a lack of economic and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social reform to the exclusion of personal piety and devotion being the ones that spring immediately to my mind. Not all mainline churches have these problems, obviously; but they’re common enough to have become cliches.

Note, though, that none of these are matters of “liberalism” per se. And this is where I agree with Sarah Morice-Brubaker. There are good Christian theological reasons for embracing liberal social and political views. This is what Santorum and other religious conservatives often miss or ignore: the social ethics of liberal Christians, at their best, are motivated by the gospel. In my view, too much mainline preaching and social action fails to make this connection explicit, and mainliners too often surrender the mantle of “orthodox” Christianity to social and political conservatives. But the connection is there.

To the extent that I agree with the conservative critique of mainline Protestantism, it’s that I think mainliners have failed (not always or everywhere, but often enough) to make their churches places where people encounter the holy and loving God of the Bible. When this encounter happens, it often results in radical transformation–both personal and social. But when it doesn’t, the church becomes little more than a social club, an amateur social-service agency, or a political lobbying group.

L. William Countryman on gender equality

There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately in the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse about sex and gender roles, stimulated in part by comments from high-profile preachers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. Unfortunately, the view that gender hierarchy (or “complementarianism” as its proponents call it) is an essential component of the gospel seems to be gaining ground, at least in some circles. Or maybe it’s the death rattle of an antiquated worldview. Time will tell.

At any rate, I thought I’d offer a contrasting viewpoint, from L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed and Sex, which is a study of the sexual ethics of the Bible and their relevance for today. Here’s Countryman on gender equality:

Both Jesus and Paul laid it down as a principle that women and men are basically equal in marriage. Although Paul, in the circumstances of his own times, did not find it necessary or appropriate to carry that principle into practice in all areas of married life, the church today with the shift from familial to individual society no longer has any reason to delay in this process.* Indeed, society has led the way in this matter, and it is entirely consistent with New Testament practice for the church to accept the emerging marital customs of the modern West as the basis for its own usage. This is not to suggest that the situation has stabilized, however, or that the acceptance of equality will be easy either for men or for women.

What is called for is something more than the revision of household rules and the alternation of household roles. It involves new understandings of manliness and womanliness that can come about only with some pain and anxiety as well as some sense of liberation and joy. If the husband gives up the image of himself as sole ruler of the household, waited on by wife and children, his whim the family’s law, he must also give up its spiritual equivalent–the image of himself as the family’s unique sacrificial sustainer, isolated in his moral strength and grandeur. If the wife gives up being the servant of all, with no life or her own except in responding to the needs of others, she must also give up the spiritual vision of herself as the one who gives all for others’ good. Men cannot give up their responsibilities as sole wage earner and still claim the benefits of that position by demanding an uneven distribution of labor and services; women cannot claim equality and still reserve the right to be dependent if equality does not yield what they want. None of this will be easy but the survival of marriage in our society surely depends on it.

Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn in this process from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. If there are useful models to be had, they will probably be found among them. (pp. 239-40)

Countryman’s main argument is that sexual ethics in the Bible largely revolve around concerns about ritual purity (“dirt”) and property (“greed”) that arose in a particular social context, whether it be that of ancient Israel or the first-century Mediterranean world. Consequently, contemporary Christian ethics can’t simply adopt the allegedly “biblical” view of sex without attending to the massive social changes that have occurred in the interim.
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*By “the shift from familial to individual society” Countryman refers to the historical process by which the locus of social importance and moral concern has shifted from the family to the individual.