The Cross: God’s Peace Work – Towards a Restorative Peacemaking Understanding of the Atonement
WN: This was written initially as a chapter in Stricken By God?: Nonviolent Identification & The Victory of Christ. There are other iterations of this paper. That atonement and Restorative Justice are closely aligned is the contention of this paper.
Beginning before the era of Emperor Constantine (early fourth century), but intensified during and since, the early church emphasis on becoming “Christlike” based upon Christ’s atonement shifted to becoming merely “Christian”, an abstraction or even legal fiction based upon physical sacraments performed (Baptism and Eucharist in the Catholic tradition) or an intellectual change of beliefs (Justification by Faith in the Protestant tradition). It allowed people to become “Christian” without really having to change anything about their lives, lifestyles or political commitments/actions/realities, not least without having to become “Christlike”1 .
There were several factors that emerged in the Church since the fourth century to buttress a movement away from understanding the work of Christ as above all a call to ethical/political/lifestyle “imitation of Christ”, a change of behaviour so drastic Jesus called it denial/death of self (Matt. 16:24 and passim), and Paul dubbed it clothing oneself with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14 and passim).
First, the onset of rationalism in the history of the church demanded wrestling the various images into a coherent “dogma” that often put at arms’ length the necessary change needed in one’s personal behaviour, in favour of change only in one’s personal/religious rituals or belief.
Second, there was change in conceptions of law away from an emphasis upon right relationships maintained and restored, to one of retributive/punitive justice. Just deserts and punishments became the primary thrust of law in the course of Christian thinking rather than an understanding of a call to forgiveness and repentance. The dominant image of God became and remains in Western Christianity, Sentencing Judge2.
Third, the central preoccupation of law gradually came to do with guilt needing expiation through punishment, rather than grace as undeserved gift. The setting for the jewel called law was grace not guilt, biblically. Guilt is hardly a New Testament category3. But in Constantinian and post-Constantinian Christianity guilt became the dominant setting for law necessitating expiation or satisfaction for the wrong or sin committed.
Please click on: The Cross – God’s Peace Work
- The literal ethical components of Christ’s saving work have gradually atrophied, and the transcendent aspects, especially of sacrifice and expiation which lent themselves more easily to sacramental expression, became almost exclusively the lens through which the saving work of Christ was viewed. The practical results of this Constantinian shift in the way of perceiving the atoning work of Christ soon appeared. Admittedly un-Christlike people could be assured of the benefits of the saving death of Christ, bereft of its power to transform (Driver, 1986, p. 31).
Roman Emperor Constantine was baptized into the Christian faith only on his deathbed. At the time of Francisco Franco’s death, the 20th -century Spanish dictator, upon his receiving the last rites as a faithful Roman Catholic, a piece of graffiti read: “God cannot be trusted. Franco is in heaven.”[↩]
- I have often asked in teaching on this: How many times did Jesus call God “Judge” in the Gospels? The answer is never. How many times did Jesus call God (nurturing, caring, and forgiving) “Father” in the Gospels? The answer is a staggering 177 times![↩]
- Krister Standahl argued brilliantly that it is hard to find “any evidence that Paul the Christian had suffered under the burden of conscience regarding personal shortcomings which he would label ‘sins’ ” (Standahl, 1976, p. 82, italics in original). His entire essay (first published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215) is a watershed in modern Pauline studies in reinterpreting Paul in the opposite direction of Saint Augustine, as one with a very robust conscience and rarely plagued by guilt.[↩]