Cross and context

April 17, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

In this post-Easter season, I’ve been continuing to mull over the significance of the cross for our faith – and not only because I recently wrote an exam on this topic! I articulated my thoughts on the matter last year around this time (you can read it here), so it seems appropriate to articulate them again, slightly differently.

As you may know, many Christians speak about the cross as the atonement, with reference to different “atonement theories” about how the cross saves that have developed over Christian history. The most famous constellation of these theories derives from the Anselmian, substitutionary, or punitive model, based on the ideas of 11th-century thinker Anselm of Abelard that God’s justice required a death as to atone for sin, and that Jesus offered himself to pay that debt in humanity’s place. A second cluster of theories follows the Abelardian, exemplary, or “moral influence” theory developed by Anselm’s near-contemporary, Peter Abelard, who argued that Jesus gave his life for humanity in order to show not God’s unwavering justice, but God’s overwhelming love, as per John 15:13 (the greatest love is to give one’s life for one’s friends). In perceiving the profundity of this love, humanity is inspired to do likewise. The third and most ancient group of theories follows the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) or ransom idea; namely, that in dying and rising from the dead, Jesus exposed and defeated the powers of sin and death. Variations on this theme are based on deceiving the devil into capturing Jesus as a (secretly) divine ransom, which unravels the power of evil (see Gregory of Nyssa’s work, for example).

As Mennonites, I think we’re all over the map when it comes to the atonement. Many on the more “evangelical” side of the tradition likely see the substitutionary-punitive theory as the most compelling, while I would argue that influential Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder combines the moral influence and Christus Victor models (at least in his infamous book, The Politics of Jesus). Others on the more “liberal” side of the tradition, follow contemporary Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver in seeing violence in all three atonement theories and stressing the need for a new, nonviolent theory, such as his “narrative Christus Victor” theory (see his book The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd ed.). As if this weren’t enough to get our minds around, there is another option: to dispense with theories altogether and to hold all of the various scriptural explanations of the atonement together, as Mennonite biblical scholar Tom Yoder Neufeld advocates. But I think there is yet another option which Mennonites tend to undervalue, and these are contextual theologies of the cross, that is, interpretations of the cross which arise from certain lived experiences of its power (admittedly, Weaver draws on contextual theologies, but doesn’t describe his own theology as contextual). I want to explore just one example of contextual theology: that of American black liberation theologian James Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (image found here).

In his book, Cone explores the connections between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of approximately five thousand African American men and women between 1880 and 1940 in the U.S. (the decades after slavery had been “abolished,” at least officially) (p. 31). The parallels are poignant. In Cone’s words, “As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists – the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was […] to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place” (31).

But despite these clear parallels, Cone argues that the cross did not function for the African American community as a symbol of their defeat. Against theologians who view the cross as encouraging the oppressed to submit to their suffering, including womanist (black, woman-centred) theologian Delores Williams, Cone makes a case that the cross has retained a liberative meaning for African Americans. Instead of representing God’s abandonment of African Americans to their suffering, it represented that God was with them in the very worst moments of suffering; God was with those who experienced torture and lynching because God Godself had been lynched on the cross (150, 158). On the basis of this profound conviction, Cone argues that the cross not only continued to hold meaning for African Americans, but in fact spurred them to work for change through the Civil Rights movement. As he states, “it was Jesus’ cross that sent people protesting in the streets, seeking to change the social structures of racial oppression” and thus, counterintuitively, the cross “sustained […] their resistance to [suffering]” (28, 148, cf. 159).

Cone concludes that Christians need to hold the cross and the lynching tree together, so that the two symbols can illuminate one another’s significance for the unresolved history of lynching in the U.S. He writes, “The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering – to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of this cross we are called to more than contemplation and adoration. We are faced with a clear challenge: […] ‘to take the crucified down from the cross.’” As the lynching tree de-sanitizes the cross, revealing its horror, the inverse is true as well: “the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor” (161-2). Along these hopeful lines, he ends his book with a call for remembrance and reconciliation (165-6).

So why am I sharing this book with you, given that I am not American and not of African descent? In other words, if this theology is so specific to Cone’s particular context, how can it speak to those of us in other contexts? For one thing, the point of contextual theology is not to foster relativism, but to speak out of particular experiences – in this case, a particular experience of lynching, which certainly resonates with other kinds of oppression (even that endured by early Anabaptists during the Radical Reformation), as it does with Jesus’ execution at the hands of the occupying Romans. Actually, I think there are many parallels to be explored between Mennonite and black theologies, including emphases on the church community and the Bible in the face of a sometimes-hostile wider society. But above all, I think Cone provides a profound testimony of the life-giving, subversive power of the cross, the cross as a tree of life, not only in spite of, but in the midst of experiences of suffering. Too often, theologians and other Christians cling too rigidly to the abstract theories of the atonement, losing sight of how the cross affects the life and faith of real communities. This is what Mennonites and others can learn from Cone’s contextual theology: that we cannot pre-determine the significance of the cross, or reduce it to one theory, image, or effect; it overflows all of these, and speaks in ever new ways to human experiences. So I leave you with Cone’s description of this conviction: “The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair, as revealed in the biblical and black proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection” (150).

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