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.