Culture At Large

Atonement, Justice and the Resurrection

Paul Vander Klay

The following items crossed my mental space this week: Stephen Colbert's appearing before a congressional hearing on farm labor and immigration, the book on Four Views on the Nature of Atonement, and some discussion on the Center for Public Justice website (CPJ).

Stephen Colbert crafted a masterpiece of political rhetoric and advocacy for this hearing, most of it done in his satirical character. It drew my attention to an issue that is very real for California's central valley which grows one quarter of this nation's food. Immigration reform is so difficult to address because so many important and competing interests are bound up in it and they don't fall cleanly across the partisan political lines. There are real conflicts, real decision, real problems.

The second element was a fine piece posted on the CPJ website on agonism which was a new word for me. The point of the piece is that pluralism naively assumes that conflict can be eliminated by political process and fails to appreciate that beneath many of our conflicts are not simply misunderstandings but deep seated conflicts that cannot be resolved simply by better communication and understanding. It was followed up by another good piece from the same website that had the quote "Christian hope contextualizes and relativizes the fall." which I of course agree with. I was disappointed, however, in the piece at how unspecific the assertion of the Christian narrative is in addressing the politics especially in locating our hope in the resurrection.

The third element is a book I'm reading "The Nature of the Atonement" in which four Christian scholars debate which atonement theory should be considered central in Christian thought. The arguments are all well done and the debate is wonderful. None of the authors deny the legitimacy of the major approaches but rather debate on whether or which should be considered as primary and others secondary.

In Joel Green's response to penal substitution as the foundational model he questions whether it provides a sufficient basis for an ethic broad enough to embrace the world-transformative scope of the salvation of the world as seen in Colossians 1:15-20 and Ephesians 2. The irony of this is that the same tradition (the Reformed tradition) tends to major both in the penal substitution theory as well as loving the world-transformative scope. Both CPJ articles focus on justice which draws attention to the cross in penal substitution while saying almost nothing about the empty tomb. Another critique of locating the center in penal substitution is that it minimizes the resurrection and I think there is something to that.

What specifically does the central Christian narrative bring to the table when we speak about public justice? Despite a lot of talk about Jesus' concern for the poor and citing Matthew 25 Jesus for the most part simply reiterates much of what is found in the Hebrew law and prophets. God didn't need to send Jesus to simply remind us of the Law and the Prophets as Abraham points out to the rich man in Jesus' parable. If they don't listen to the law and the prophets, then they won't listen to someone coming back from the dead. Similarly Jesus does not sustain a facile narrative of good guys and bad guys based on conventional wisdoms of morality or political supremacy. We see this clearly in Jesus' self-invitation to the home of Zacchaeus (the oppressor) to the horror of the crowd who hypocritically cheered giving Bartimeaus (the oppressed) sight after first trying to suppress his plea for help. Jesus comes to seek and save the lost and oppression enslaves both the oppressor and the oppressed.

The resurrection itself is the definitive statement on Christian justice because it is not simply the assertion of God's concern for the poor and dispossessed, it is the first fruits of our hope. The resurrection should energize a Christian's participation in public justice in two ways, optimism and sacrificial generosity.

Optimism is justifiable because all of the ills of this world that prove intractable in our political process will be healed. Despair is the reason we throw our hands up and quit trying. Secular models tend to energize people through fear and anger. The resurrection affords an alternative motivation. A clear view and vibrant faith in the resurrection can keep us working for justice even when our causes look lost without the need to vilify or hate those who oppose us.

If you watch the political posturing and position taking of the full immigration reform hearing the tension is clear. For a resolution to be found sacrifices will have to be made but politics is the art of taking advantage and having the outcome favor your interests and your constituency. There will be winners and losers. If the cross and resurrection show anything, it is that justice is costly, often even for the innocent. What then can motivate us to bear costly political compromise? The generosity of the resurrection. The resurrection relativizes all costs in the age of decay and makes cruciform sacrifice not only possible but productive. The resurrection truly makes it more blessed to give than to wrest concessions from the clutches of your political adversary.

Atonement theory ought not to simply heal the rift between human beings and God but move us towards the reconciliation of all the world (culture, politics, nature) with its maker. In fact ALL THINGS are reconciled to the Father through him, the first fruits of Creation 2.0. How will our justice seeking change if we focus not just on Old Testament prophetic exhortation but also see the resurrection as the first fruits of its fulfillment?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice, North America