The cross as sacrifice and gift

In chapter two of his small book on the cross and resurrection (see previous post), Rowan Williams turns to the important but controversial motif of sacrifice. He reminds us that “there is no pre-cross Christianity”: that is, as far as we can tell, there was no early Christianity that regarded Jesus only as a charismatic teacher or preacher. “[N]ot only is the first stratum, the base level, of Christianity preoccupied with the cross: it seems to take it for granted that the cross is for something, that it is an event whose effect is liberation given to us from beyond ourselves” (p. 21).

When the New Testament writers (and other early Christians) looked for ways to understand the death of Jesus, they reached, almost instinctively it seems, for the language of sacrifice. “If a first-century Jew had heard the statement that Jesus died ‘for many’, for the forgiveness of sins, his or her first thought would probably have been to connect it with the system of sacrifice: when blood is shed in God’s presence, for the sake of God’s people, for the avoiding of disaster, that is sacrifice” (p. 22). It is sacrifice—moreso than the image of the law court—that provides the controlling metaphor for much of the NT’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Williams briefly reviews the multiple forms and purposes of sacrifice in the Old Testament, including peace offerings, guilt sacrifices, the great Day of Atonement where the sins of the whole people are laid on the scapegoat, and the daily offering of the lamb in the Temple sanctuary. There is no one, simple understanding of sacrifice that we can put into a “tidy system,” but

in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. (p. 24)

The sacrifice, on this understanding, both turns away God’s anger and establishes (or re-establishes) a covenant between God and God’s people. “The gift is given, and in response God not only covers over sin but promises actively to be there for his people” (p. 25).

Turning to the NT, Williams highlights several key passages that use sacrificial language referring back to the OT. Paul uses language of “propitiation,” as well as the metaphors of the scapegoat and the covenant established in blood, when writing about what God has accomplished in Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as analogous to, but surpassing, the Day of Atonement ritual, while both 1 Peter and Revelation reflect on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.

This does not, Williams notes, add up to a “precise theory of Christ’s death as a sacrifice,” but we can identify at least three ways it has a sacrificial effect. First, it “breaks the chain between evil actions and consequences”; second, it deals with the failures not just of individuals, but of the people taken collectively; third, it establishes and reinforces the covenant—the “peace treaty” between God and humanity.

Granted that sacrifice is a powerful symbol or metaphor, can we say what it is a metaphor for? After all, Jesus was not literally sacrificed as a ritual victim in a cultic setting. He was executed by the Roman state as a rebel on a desolate hill, far outside the Temple.

To understand this, Williams turns to developments in the OT and intertestamental Jewish thought that seem to move away from a literal understanding of sacrifice and toward a more “spiritual” view. Specifically, “the real heart of sacrifice was obedience . . . to perform the law, to do God’s will, is to give the gift that pleases him most” (pp. 29-30). And it was recognized that fully giving the gift of one’s heart, will, and decisions could lead, under certain circumstances, to death: “obedience to the law could mean death at the hands of a ruthless occupying power.” Such a death, it came to be thought, could “cover over” the sins of others.

It’s a short step from here to understanding Jesus’ life and death as a sacrifice for others:

At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. […]

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed; it’s that kind of world. That’s why the New Testament speaks of the cost of Jesus’ obedience, and of Jesus paying a price on our behalf; he buys us back. (p. 31)

The uniquely Christian twist on this idea, however, is that Jesus is more than a perfectly obedient human being whose self-sacrifice covers the sins of others and restores relationship with God. He is, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, God enfleshed.

The obedience that Jesus offers to his Father is not just that of a very pious Jew: it goes deeper. It’s a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (p. 33)

In other words, sacrifice is here not understood as something humanity offers God to assuage his anger, but as a gift that God himself gives: the loving response of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Human beings are “caught up in” this loving relationship, enabled by the Spirit to share in the Son’s loving response to the Father.

This is, Williams says, what the often-misunderstood St. Anselm of Canterbury was trying to get at, in part, in his treatise on the Incarnation.

At the heart of [Anselm’s] argument is the idea of giving a gift to God that is worthy of God. What gift could be worthy of God except God’s own love? Jesus, perfectly human, perfectly diving, gives it to God as we cannot because of our ingrained sin. So the life and death of Jesus are the translation into human terms of the eternal truth of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And when that divine life becomes active and local and immediate in the world, it changes the definition of what human beings are. It interposes between God and human failure, a new face for humanity.

‘Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him,’ says the great eucharistic hymn. We are able to say to God: ‘Don’t look at our failures. You know, Lord God, that humanity is more than this because you have made it more than this. You know that humanity is more than me and my miserable and wretched and incompetent struggles to be human, because you have given to the world perfect humanity: Jesus’ humanity. And in association with that new human nature I can be at peace with you, my sins forgiven, my injuries healed, a new creation.’ (pp. 34-5)

Williams admits that we can’t quite get a satisfying intellectual grip on this “immense metaphor of sacrifice.” But at its heart it’s saying that “what Jesus does, who Jesus is, is a gift offered to God, offered from the earth, from humanity, and yet offered with divine liberty and divine love. That gift – so costly, so painful in a world of injustice and violence – ‘covers over’ the world’s failure, makes the face of the world new, makes peace” (p. 36).

Thus we are driven beyond the idea that the cross is (just) a revelation or sign of God’s love—it accomplishes something for us that we could never have done for ourselves. We can say that Jesus suffered “for us” or “in our place”–though not primarily in the penal-substitutionary sense favored by some evangelical Protestants. As David B. Hart described it in an article on Anselm, it is a “gift exceeding every debt.”

The cross as a sign of freedom

Here is a divine love that cannot be defeated by violence: we do our worst, and we still fail to put God off. We reject, exclude and murder the one who bears the love of God in his words and work, and that love continues to do exactly what it always did. The Jesus who is dying on the cross is completely consistent with the Jesus we have followed through his ministry, and this consistency shows that we can’t deflect the love that comes through in life and death. So when Pilate and the High Priest — acting on behalf of all of us, it seems — push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing.

So the cross is a sign of the transcendent freedom of the love of God. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do. You can’t trap, trick or force God into behaving against his character. You can do what you like: but God is God. And if he wants to love and forgive, then he’s going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because he is free. Our lives, in contrast, are regularly dominated by a kind of emotional economics: ‘I give you that; you give me this.’ ‘I give you friendship; you give me friendship.’ ‘You treat me badly, and I’ll treat you badly.’ We’re caught up in cycles of tit-for-tat behaviour. But God is not caught up in any cycle: God is free to be who he decides to be, and we can’t do anything about it.

And that’s the good news: the good news of our powerlessness to change God’s mind. Which is just as well, because God’s mind is focused upon us for mercy and for life. God will always survive our sin, our failure. God is never exhausted by what we do. God is always there, capable of remaking the relationships we break again and again. That’s the sign of the cross, the sign of freedom. (Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, pp. 8-9)

In this book, the former archbishop of Canterbury writes meditatively on the central mystery of the Christian faith. The first part looks at the three classic motifs that have been used to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death — sign, sacrifice and victory. Here, in the spirit of Peter Abelard, Williams writes powerfully of the cross as a revelation (or sign) of God’s inexhaustible love. He’s clear, however, that this isn’t all that Christians have wanted to say about the crucifixion of Jesus. An example of love, no matter how powerful and inspiring, doesn’t seem to capture the sense that our objective situation is different because of the death of Jesus. Hence the motifs of “sacrifice” and “victory,” which he considers in subsequent chapters.

The approach Williams takes in this book is one I’ve long agreed with – the different atonement models are better seen as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Each of them presents to us a particular aspect of a mystery which is ultimately beyond the grasp of any schematic theory.

Friday Links

–Marvin on the Presbyterian Church’s decision to allow congregations to call non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

–Libraries are part of the social safety net.

–“I hated vegans too, but now I am one.”

–On anti-Semites and philo-Semites.

–Mark Bittman asks, “Why bother with meat?”

–Jesus and eco-theology.

–Jeremy discusses Herbert McCabe and Gerhard Forde on the Atonement.

–Your commute is killing you.

–Rowan Williams’ Ascension Day sermon: “The friends of Jesus are called … to offer themselves as signs of God in the world.”

–Grist’s “great places” series continues with two posts on the industrial food system and its alternatives.

–Keith Ward on his recent book More than Matter?

–Russell Arben Fox on the Left in America.

–The Cheers challenge. My wife and I have already been rewatching the entire series. We’re on season 6 now, which replaces Shelley Long’s Diane with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, although the earlier seasons are probably the best ones.

–Ozzy’s first two solo albums, which are generally considered classics, have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Here’s a review.

CofE RIP?

Though I often think of myself as a closeted Episcopalian, I don’t usually comment on Anglican matters. But I thought this piece from the always-interesting Theo Hobson was worth pointing out. Hobson argues that, in trying to hold the Anglican Communion together come hell or high water, Rowan Williams has unwittingly doomed the Church of England.

Obviously, I’m in sympathy with the “revisionists” here, but it’s worth pointing out that, at least as far as I can tell, the “conservatives” have been proposing a radical revision of their own in the understanding of the Anglican Communion itself. They’ve sought to change it from a loose confederation of autonomous national churches held together by “bonds of affection” into a much more centralized institution with quasi-universalist pretensions. That alone would be enough to get my localist/libertarian hackles up.

Rowan Williams on prayer

I came across this during a Google search:

One of the primary tasks of any prayer is ‘How do I let God be God? How do I empty my mind and heart – not so as to confront a kind of void, but so that the personal presence of God can come in?’

If all prayer is trying to listen to God we have to remember that the God that we are seeking to meet is a person, and we come into a personal presence. And that means of course, that praying is about a great deal more than words in the same way that personal presence is about a great deal more than words. The Word of God – the way God communicates – is by being God, by being himself; so one of the primary tasks of any kind of prayer is ‘How do I let God be God?’ ‘How do I empty my mind and heart, not so as to confront a kind of void but so that the personal presence of God can come in? And words are part of that but only a very small part.

More here.

More on +Rowan’s lecture

Via Fr. Chris, an in-depth analysis and defense of the now-infamous Rowan Williams “sharia lecture” by Mike Higton, a theologian and scholar of Williams’ work. As Higton says in his brief summary:

Despite everything you’ve heard and read, the most striking thing about Rowan Williams’ lecture is that he mounts a serious and impassioned defence of ‘Enlightenment values’.

Fr. Chris also makes the following point that’s well worth considering:

It is always interesting — frustrating, too — to observe how Muslims are criticized illegitimately for doing things that Christians seem to be called to in some ways as well. 1 Cor 6 seems to suggest that we Christians should also avoid bringing our legal disputes into the secular realm, solving them within the Church wherever possible. The Muslim system goes further than this, so the situations are not identical. But on the face of it, I don’t see the desire to adjudicate some claims within one’s faith community — especially where there are safeguards so no one is coerced to give up their basic human rights, an important caveat in Williams’ proposal — is illegitimate.

P.S. See also Ross Douthat and Alan Jacobs for somewhat more critical, but still intelligent takes.