Cross Purposes, The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg PA: Trinity International Press, 2001). Introduction by author, Anthony W. Bartlett (Click here to open a link to the Amazon page for the book!)

In one of his prose pieces Oscar Wilde speaks of a man who carries a cross through the streets of Jerusalem crying out that he is the Christ while the pilgrims look on with a mixture of contempt and horror. The literal imitation of Christ can easily tip into madness.

No one would have much trouble about accepting that in the history of Christianity. But what if Christian practice can tip into badness?

I think of the gripping sequence in Godfather One when the grand ceremony of baptism of the first child of the young Michael Corleone (Pacino) is intercut with the brutal assassination of mob rivals. The power of the director’s art is to imply that there is something complicit between the two events. Somehow the religious culture of the church both covers over and sanctifies the most appalling violence.

My book, Cross Purposes, The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement, is an anthropological and historical study attempting to show how and why this is the case. It also points out that in all the mayhem we perpetrate as Christians the figure of Jesus is uniquely working to bring about a radical human transformation.

As the prophet says: “The wine press I have trodden alone, and of my people there was no one with me.”

Once again we have to conclude that not all that calls itself Christian is of Christ. A true historical commitment to him would take the world to a place it has hardly dreamt of, and which has absolutely less than zero to do with any Left Behind fantasy of revenge. This abhorrent projection of Anglo-Saxon male aggression is simply the latest twist in the long history of Western Christendom’s overturning of the gospel within a logic of violence. The only thing that makes it different is the global level at which it is played out and the very real contemporary terminal violence it invokes.

But it wasn’t LaHaye and Jenkins that got me started thinking about violence and atonement. The motivation to reflect about the nexus of Jesus’ death and the character of Christian culture goes back much further. Among many things three are salient. First, about thirty years the professor at seminary who was teaching Christian Doctrine II stated that none of the major theories of atonement were satisfactory, and then he just left it at that–he moved right along! This struck me as amazing. There was obviously a hole here of galactic proportions. After all, just about fifty per cent of the sermons I ever heard proclaimed that Christ died for us and to find out that no one was really sure what this meant in an intellectually persuasive way was nothing short of stunning.

When I left the Roman Catholic priesthood I got work at a Protestant Evangelical Mission for homeless people in London, England. Clearly times had changed for this organization too, prepared as it was to hire an ex-Roman priest as its director. Going through the archives one day I found the minutes from a board meeting held a little while before the Second World War. In these minutes the board stipulated that no one should be hired to the post of superintendent–the post I in effect occupied–unless he subscribed to penal substitution as the meaning of the atonement. It was obvious, therefore, that ideas about atonement were just as likely to be in doubt in the Protestant communion as the Catholic, except one particular group was trying its hardest to make the substitution variety a shibboleth of faith. Of course by the point that I unearthed the minutes the board had other worries. No one took the trouble of quizzing me on the topic.

More or less at the same time as I found the minutes I came in contact with the thinking of René Girard–and this is the second thing. I don’t have to go into detail about the mimetic hypothesis; it is presented in many books by Girard and by others and referenced frequently on this web page. Enough to say that reading Girard for the first time generated something of the intellectual excitement of a first encounter with Marx, Freud, Sartre. But here everything is focused finally on the Crucified, not on dialectic, the libido etc. This gave me a strange sense of both the incredible power of the biblical tradition and its radical challenge to historical Christianity. (I later found out that Girard himself was more ambivalent about this challenge than his writing at first suggested, but no matter. Its basic themes seemed to me no different from the prophetic voice that regularly called the people of Israel to account and in the most drastic of terms.) In a nutshell Girard argued that human culture is based in violence, that the biblical tradition uniquely illuminated the dark meta-structures of culture, and that historical Christianity had in many ways fitted the message of Jesus back into these age-old dynamics.

Reading Girard led me by a couple more steps to James G. Williams, professor of Hebrew scriptures at Syracuse University, working with a Girardian approach. His Bible Violence and the Sacred is a vital contribution to use of the mimetic hypothesis as a way of reading both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In 1993 I left England with my family to enter the doctoral program at S.U. Department of Religion. Cross Purposes is a revised version of my dissertation produced there in a post-modern philosophical environment. In many ways Girard’s thought fit that environment very well and more radically than many would like to admit. It shifts the emphasis decisively from metaphysical thought to the structuring of human meaning out of effects of violence and not on the deflected level of concept, language, epistemology, but at the level of actual human killing.

The third thing goes back way beyond any of this and its self-revealing even primal character makes me hesitant to share it. But I think ultimately everyone’s academic pathway is rooted in something like this and the way it converges with the first two makes it deeply apt, too much to leave out. The awareness of violence and the role of Christ is coming to the surface in many different ways and situations in our time, why not in the waking dream of a seven year old boy?

It was early Good Friday morning and the theatre of my dream gripped me in such dense terror that I woke myself up with a visceral scream, sick with fear. (My mother came racing up the stairs to see what was wrong.) In my dream I saw the figure of Jesus standing on a raised platform, his hands bound, next to a man sitting in judgment, dressed in purple. Interposed between me and the tableau on the platform was a double or triple rank of soldiers in armor, carrying spears. What scared me the most was the way the guttering flames that seemed to light the place were reflected off the brass-colored helmets of the infantry. The images and the sensation are still with me so enormous was the force of the dream. For a long time I interpreted the man sat in judgment as Pilate but since reading Girard I realized that it was more likely a priest. Sunday after Sunday at Mass I would see a priest seated in majesty in his sedilia listening to the readings, often dressed in purple. But the biggest give-away (Freud always said look at the details) is the color of the helmets reflecting the flickering light: here in fact were the brass altar candlesticks and their smoky dancing flames. What I was witnessing was the ritual killing of Jesus rehearsed week after week by the churches–and beyond them society at large–in a millennium-plus insistence that Jesus was an atonement sacrifice to God.

Oh boy! Even in my dream Jesus was breaking through the complicit structures of culture. His attitude of infinite humility and yet fathomless strength threatened all foundational violence. But at the time I did not see this. What terrified me was the implication of my own religious culture in his death, and included in that somehow my own role as a draftee in the system of victims. This is little different from Franci
s Ford Coppola’s vision of a tide of violence issuing out of the sacred confines of the church where the original sacrifice takes place.

A long time later I came to write this down in a rigorous historical and theoretical way. It would not do–now that I have given the game away on a personal level–to say mine is very private kink in the Christian construction of Christ’s death. The testimony of Western wars and violence is too relentless to say anything but there is something systemic at work. And the role of Christian religion is far too deeply embedded not to see that it is fully, generatively, implicated. This is the argument of my book.

It is not however a negative argument. I understand that the gospel helps produce the crisis we’re in, almost as the body’s immune system increases the fever in fighting the disease. It accelerates the momentum of crisis leaving the world less and less space for the old “innocent” violence to take hold and succeed. And the reason the solutions do not hold is because Jesus testifies from the depths of history to the reality of the victim by means of his unending forgiveness and compassion. His is no angry voice of the victim and for that reason his testimony is invincible. At the bottom of the crisis there is another way and that itself creates the crisis.

In Cross Purposes I advance the metaphor of the abyss as a way of understanding the transformative work of Christ. I try to change the governing metaphor of theology from height to depth. God enters the depth of our situation, deeper than we can imagine, deeper than we want, deep enough to change it beyond our imagining. That is why he is not understood, or seen only by his back parts as Luther had it; not because of an impossible transcendence, less still because of an incandescent wrath, but because he is facing into a depth we turn from, a world-and-humanity-changing depth of love. So, far from seeing his face we have interpreted the cross as a further mediation of violence and it becomes God’s back parts in an offensive terrible way. But in truth it is the abyss of divine love.

If Christians were ready to dwell as Jesus did in the Hebrew depths of our world, rather than always planning their Greek exit strategy (by works, by private salvation, by Armageddon, what’s the difference?) faith would look extremely different. Depths or the abyss are not just a convenient metaphor to return us to history etc. They change the very constitution of the self and world and God in relation to these. It is the work of creation at its seventh day climax. As Jesus said one Sabbath day: “My Father is still working, and I also….”