In The Nonviolent Atonement, J. Denny Weaver offers a crucial alternative to the standard understanding of the events we commemorate during Holy Week.
The most common interpretation of Jesus’s death is what is often called the substitutionary atonement theory. Based on the work of Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century, it suggests that our sins have offended God’s honor or broken God’s law, and that God must punish us in order to balance the cosmic scales. Jesus, who represents both God and humanity but who is not tainted by sin, volunteers to take our punishment for us. At the cross he sacrifices himself as our substitute, taking all of humanity’s sin upon himself and transferring his righteousness to us.
One of the problems with this scenario is that it seems to place Jesus and God at odds with one another—in order to forgive us, God must heap all of our sin upon Jesus and then, in a perverse twist, because God is too pure to look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13), must turn away and abandon him to face death utterly alone. Another problem with the theory is that it leaves in place, or even reinforces, the violence at the heart of the sacrificial system. Worse, it locates that violence in the very nature of God.
Weaver proposes an alternative understanding of the atonement that he calls “narrative Christus Victor.” Arguably the earliest atonement theory, Christus Victor sees the crucifixion not as a legal transaction in which Jesus substitutes himself for us, but rather as the locus of God’s victory over Satan and the forces of evil. Although the powers gain a momentary triumph over God by killing Jesus, the resurrection proves that their celebration is premature. The death and resurrection of Jesus represent the ultimate victory of good over evil, of God over the Devil, of the reign of God over the Domination System—however one wants to describe it.
Weaver takes this basic version of Christus Victor and applies it not only to Jesus’s passion and death, but also to the rest of his ministry and his continuing activity in the world through the Holy Spirit. The prime advantage of his theory is that it removes violence from our definition of God. Weaver believes, as do I, that Jesus rejected violence in all its forms. If we accept that Jesus is the definitive self-disclosure of God—the very incarnation of God, in fact—then it follows that the nature of God is nonviolent. Jesus saves us through his opposition to the Domination System, by facing down all the oppression, divisiveness, and death-dealing that characterize life in this world and not responding in kind. On the cross he absorbs all the violence the System can dish out, thereby draining it of its power, and in the resurrection he receives God’s vindication and accomplishes the nonviolent victory of the reign of God.
We need a model such as the one Weaver offers us this Holy Week. We find ourselves up to our necks in the most divisive, hate-filled, fear-mongering presidential campaign in living memory. We live in a country that divides along partisan and ideological lines more starkly than at any time since the 1960s and, before that, the 1860s. We inhabit a world of technology that simultaneously connects and isolates us.
And we witness again and again the efforts of some misguided fanatics to do the work of God by killing anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. We have seen in just the past two weeks attacks in Turkey, Côte d’Ivoire, and Belgium that have left around ninety people dead, more than two hundred wounded, and entire nations scarred and traumatized. And we have heard a presidential candidate who touts his Christian faith more than anyone else in the race suggest that the solution to terrorism is increased racial and religious profiling, more restrictive immigration policies, and a stronger shift toward a police state.
Would such rhetoric even be possible from someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus if our primary way of understanding Jesus’s work did not reek of divine violence? Would we be able to rely so heavily on belligerent speech, divisive policies, and warlike responses to threats if we had an alternative image of the atonement than the gore-splattered Jesus of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Let us re-commit to seeking and communicating such alternatives this Holy Week and beyond.
Worship our nonviolent God! Worship Christus Victor!