Sunday, August 21, 2005


Having just co-edited a book, Consuming Passion, which explores different aspects of the meaning of the death of Christ in a violent world, I'm struck by the anger with which critiques of 'penal substitution' doctrine are met in some church circles. The reductive power of this imagery, incomprehensible to many in a post-Christendom and secular context, is such that it makes reading biblical texts in a different way almost impossible for some Christians. This is because, I think, it rests on endemic but elusive necrophilia within human culture -- something that is particularly vulnerable to 'religious' construals of the kind that legitimate the capital punishment to which Jesus was subjected.

The outstanding Catholic theologian James Alison (who has a chapter in Consuming Passion on 'the intelligence of the victim') provides a useful counterpoint to all this in his Thoughts on Atonement, derived from a talk in Brisbane, Australia, this time last year. Here he defends the thesis "that Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting [Godself] for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not." The whole piece is well worth scanning, especially for those who have been raised to think of Christ's killing as the ultimate endorsement of a vengeful God who demands blood for honour.

Alison retorts: "All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in St John’s Gospel: a realisation that what Jesus was doing was actually revealing the mendacious principle of the world. The way human structure is kept going is by us killing each other, convincing ourselves of our right to do it, and therefore building ourselves us up over and against our victims. What Jesus understands himself as doing in St John’s Gospel is revealing the way that mechanism works. And by revealing it, depriving it of all power by seeing it as a lie."

Incidentally, I'm chuffed to see that Consuming Passion is in the Church Times Top 10 this week (well, it is August...) and that it has its first Amazon review in the US.

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