Feminist Theology, Violence, & the Atonement

As most know, today was Ash Wednesday.  Coincidentally, today my feminist theology class met right before chapel service.  The sermon and various parts of the liturgy were more than striking in light of the prior discussion in class regarding violence and the nature of atonement.

A point of particular note was an illustration made in the sermon, summarized as follows.  A father is a bridge operator, which he is just about to lower to provide safe passage for an oncoming train when he sees his son caught in the gears under the bridge.  The father is obviously put in a gut-wrenching position, forced to sacrifice either his son or the hundreds of passengers on the train.

The implied moral of this story stands in conflict with Rita’s Brock & Rebecca Parker’s book Proverbs of Ashes, a theological biography that argues that conceptions of the atonement like this are grotesque, providing tacit approval of violence via the language of sacrifice.

While I think Brock and Parker are right to point out pitfalls regarding the language of sacrificial love, I also think this story illustrated the difficulty I’m having with Brock and Parker’s critique.  Fundamental to the illustration was the inescapably painful dilemma and the “no-win” alternatives that confronted the father; in short, there was no win-win or all-empowering solution to this problem.  While I’m open to critique of traditional atonement models I fear that Brock and Parker’s vision doesn’t recognize these no-win, messy and gray ethical situations.  I’m not trying to belittle their experience here, rather I’m wondering if the clearly abhorrent violent acts committed against them (made clear in the book) have served as a filter that has made the idea of sacrifice a purely negative category, when some forms of sacrifice seem inevitable given the ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest people face daily.

So how are these “no-win” situations dealt with in feminist thought?  Obviously, in abuse situations the rhetoric of or demand for sacrifice is cruel and oppressive, but what if there is no way to help everyone in a more murky ethical situation flourish?  Does the concept of sacrifice become viable then?  Behind this concern lies more fundamental issues I’m still trying to sort out in feminist theology, like the following: Can these concrete ethical difficulties be ascribed to God’s relation to a fallen world?  Is it actually a “messy” affair for God to reconcile God’s desire for justice and grace?  The trouble here obviously is in the fragmented nature of feminist theology, a point often made in class.  So while in a sense such questions are likely unanswerable in a broad, authoritative sense, I nonetheless think they are extremely important.

Further, while I admit that these concerns might evidence my lack of moral imagination to see a way to empower everyone in each ethical gray area I face in life, but I must admit that I’m skeptical this is the case.  Also, being fortunate to have not experienced some of the horrors Brock and Parker did myself, I admit that maybe my concern with these murky situations shows that I am trying to read Brock & Parker on my terms, and not theirs.  Nonetheless, I am struggling to see how their rejection of sacrifice can be squared with what to me is a more realistic picture of life on earth; one that contains both clear instances of oppression where naming & the rejection of sacrifice is necessary, and also all too often instances where I have next to no idea how God wants me to act in a complex situation.

To summarize all this in one sentence: I’m trying to understand how feminist thought of the Brock & Parker variety would respond to Bonheffer’s Ethics.


One response to “Feminist Theology, Violence, & the Atonement

  1. The relationship between violence and atonement is closely woven in scripture and theology but it seems inimical to me. As a life long Catholic, anthropologist, and amateur theologian, I grew up with the notion of the Mass as the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary. Things changed after Vatican II to a focus on the paschal mystery. Despite all of the language we have about the Father requiring satisfaction it does seem contrary to Jesus own teaching about the fact that fathers “evil as you are” would not give your son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matt 7:11)

    Clearly, there is patriarchal and tribal language in the concept of satisfaction. This is still prevalent in a recent gang rape case in Pakistan. A young woman was brutally gang raped by men of another sub-tribe because her 13 year old brother had apparently flirted with a young girl of the other group. To settle the conflict and avoid greater reprisals the elders of the young woman’s group offered her as a settlement. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/22/world/la-fg-pakistan-rape-20110422

    This is not only revolting to our current sensibilities but it does challenge the notion of sacrifice in the tribal sense. My own existentialist take on redemption has to do with authenticity. God took upon Himself our human condition and brought mercy, healing, and peace. For this he was publicly tortured to death.

    My own post modern sense is that the Father is not so much offended by our sin as appalled by it as an act of vandalism or destruction of works of great beauty conceived in boundless love. The freedom that is required for the reciprocation of love can also be used to reject it. I personally, cannot conceive of a an infinite God who is some how diminished or “offended”. To continue to anthropomorphize the Father as a post modern post Freudian human father leads us to a Father, Son, and Spirit caught up in the continuing ongoing creation of “bonum diffusivum sibi” good diffusive of itself. The Incarnation and Christ event are the result of an unlimited and unconditional love.

    Clearly, this post modern language flies in the face of Old Testament pastoral society and the cult of Temple sacrifice in the New Testament. Early Christians had to find a way to explain the Christ event in their own cultural and historical context. However, there is no denying that a post modern Father is less monstrous to secular humanist ethics and sensibilities that derive from the Christian tradition of the west.

    As terrible as the death of Jesus was it was completely overshadowed by the fact that no evil can come between us and the Love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)

    The great peril of a tribal metaphor is not its irrelevance nor its systemic violence but the chasm it creates between God and us which continues to be the original and fundamental blasphemy that alienates us from God and ourselves. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer at the Mass of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday begins in astonishment “Father, you love us still and sent us the Christ.” Yes, what amazement there is that in spite of our rejection God never stopped loving us.

    The demand for violence attributed to the Father elevates evil to the level of the divine. The unrelenting intrusion of the divine in the human train wreck of necessity requires God to confront violence which he does with non-violence – even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

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