Liberation Theologies and Atonement

James Cone is generally considered the founder of Black Theology

In the next section of The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver, he enters into dialogue with three categories of liberation theology: black theology, feminist theology, and womanist theology. As with the first two posts in this series, my synopsis here is a very brief look at the kind of detail explored by Weaver.

Discussed first, Black theology primarily reveals how penal substitutionary atonement encourages, or at least fails to confront, slavery. Recall that penal substitutionary theory is oriented around maintaining law and order; it is a top-down system where God keeps everything in line through force. The status quo is clearly what God wants in this framework: sacrifices, retributive justice, the need to punish somebody for sins. If God not only allows but requires this kind of framework, there is clearly no reason to challenge the top-down maintenance of the status quo through force in terms of race relations. This use of theology to maintain racial hierarchies is still true today in a lot of areas, even if it is more subtle than outright slavery of anybody with the “inferior” skin colour. Just think of the fact that we refer to Black theology, or Latino/a theology, but when we mean white (usually Protestant) theology we just call it simply “theology” as if it alone is purely objective.

Feminist theology takes this critique to a further degree. Not only does penal substitutionary theory encourage being passive to maintain the status quo, it actively encourages violence to maintain that hierarchical status quo. Abuse is a clear example. According to the penal substitutionary view, the world is redeemed through the ultimate power-holder – God – using that power to punish somebody innocent. There’s a great line in the book something like:

In penal substitutionary atonement, wrongs are not made right, they are punished. [paraphrased]

Not only are wrongs punished instead of righted, the “wrongs” are always determined by whoever is currently in power, never by the people on the fringes of society. If a man feels slighted by his wife, he has the right to violently punish her. Or if either parent feels their child did something wrong, they should violently punish him or her. It doesn’t really matter if the person in power actually was wronged or not.

Taking penal theory seriously, you can even go a step further. If God not only was allowed to do this kind of violent punishment of the innocent as a vent for his wrath but absolutely had to do it in order to redeem the world, of course we should do the same toward those in our lives, regardless of their relative innocence. Add to this that according to this view Jesus, even though he expressed that he didn’t want to do it, ultimately submitted to the Father’s wrath to the point of horrific death. And it is a real tragedy that thousands if not millions of women and children have been told to shut up and take their punishment just like Jesus did.

Womanist theology is unsurprisingly a lot of the same themes repeated from Black theology and feminist theology. A particularly interesting point was the idea of surrogacy. Since black women would be forced to do a lot of things that white women didn’t want to do, black women can especially identify with the concept of suffering in the place of somebody else, a concept that stands central to Anselmian atonement theology. Unlike the white women forcing it on them, though, the black women being forced to suffer don’t see it as a good and necessary thing.

In short then, when a white man claims that God the Father had to punish Jesus on the cross as a substitute for the object of his wrath/honour/retribution, that white man will tend to think of such an arrangement in positive terms. The reason is obvious: we’ve been the ones to consistently benefit from maintaining the status quo with this approach. Blacks can suffer for us whites and women must be inferior to us men, and oh isn’t God great for instituting this way of the world working? In other words, if you have the might, you’re a lot more likely to be ok with the “might is right” maintain-the-status-quo approach.

Is it making connections that aren’t there to say these things about the implications of the penal view? I can see why many would jump to say that, but I don’t think so. Of course in the modern West, the person in power probably does not consciously come to conclusions supporting abuse or inequality or slavery but that doesn’t change that the penal view does presuppose certain things including that violence is good and necessary as a release for wrath or a demand of retributive justice. Those on the receiving end of these abuses against humanity are far more likely to see these connections than those who are committing them, and it is the job of those of us in power to make sure we are listening to those we have oppressed intentionally or not.

Changing the perspective clearly changes the emotional response to these oppressive systems backed by supporting theologies like Anselmian atonement, though. No longer is retributive justice clearly the right solution to the world’s problems when you aren’t the one benefiting from it. No longer is violence assumed to be part of God’s character if that doesn’t further our desire to commit violence in God’s name in order to make our own lives better at the expense of another.

The most fascinating part to me is that the Bible itself seems to be consistently in favour of the oppressed, unlike any other ancient text I can think of. As the saying usually goes, “history is written by the victors.” But in the case of the Bible, the texts selected as sacred are constantly focusing on the underdog in need of liberation. The Israelites were typically an oppressed people, a weak people, a people trying to find a justice that would not simply punish the bad guys but would restore them to the people God created them to be. White middle-class men like myself need to admit that we have far less in common with the Israelites than we do with the Roman oppressors or the Babylonian oppressors or the Egyptian oppressors repeatedly spoken against in Scripture. And most importantly, we need to listen to those who have been oppressed and are being oppressed in order to see how maybe some of our theologies (and rituals, and groups, and…) are not as God-honouring as we might think they are.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.