Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heresy, my working theology of the crucifixion, or both.

This is a response paper for my Lutheranism and Liberation class, on the chapters on modern critiques of the cross and epistemological questions in Vitor Westhelle's The Scandalous God.  As I posted on Twitter last night:  This is either entirely heretical, or my new revelation about how I can understand and live with the cross.  Or, quite possibly, both.


My primary interest in taking this course stemmed from reading Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes for Feminist Theologies my first year.  The challenge they posed, of the crucifixion as “cosmic child abuse,” troubled me in the face of my understanding of Lutheran theology.  We have centered ourselves around this God revealed in suffering, this justification wrought through substitutionary atonement.  Is there any point for reconciliation between Lutheranism and liberation/feminist theologies on this point?

I felt that Westhelle gave a reasonable overview of the Enlightenment and Nietzschian critiques of the cross.  Hegel’s speculative theology and Marx’s resurrection as insurrection were valuable contributions to the conversation (although I am not certain I fully understood the Hegelian proposal).  I appreciated Westhelle’s shift to an epistemological frame over the more common moral or ontological questions about the cross, and the contributions from Prenter and Sobrino which followed.  Westhelle seemed to give a brief but workable sketch of the existing critiques and ideas about the appropriate questions to ask of the cross.

I struggled a little with Westhelle’s presentation of Brock and of Parker on the crucifixion (66) in that little context was given for their rejection of the cross’ suffering as redemptive.  Although I felt Westhelle presented them as objectively as possible, to quote them entirely out of their experience (in which they consider themselves deeply rooted) seemed problematic.  How do you explain the horrors of “cosmic child abuse” when you neglect to state that these women had been abused, either as children or as wives?  How does one reject suffering as redemptive without first hearing the voices of parishioners, battered victims told by Christian leaders to stay with their abusive partners and to “bear their cross silently” as Christ had done?  I wondered what I would hear when I got to class on Wednesday, and if any of my classmates would have been horrified by Brock and Parker because they did not know their experiences.  I wondered if C. S. Song, Joanna Carlson Brown, and Max Horkheimer (all unknown names to me) had similar experiences that led them to their rejection of suffering as redemptive.

Westhelle’s epistemic key of the parrhesia was an interesting conclusion to the reading.  This “speaking of truth to power” is certainly a good summary of Jesus’ counter-cultural and -religious teachings and actions.  I appreciated the understanding of the crucifixion as a result of Jesus’ life, not a cosmic plan for self- or child-sacrifice.  It did seem to me like this understanding and application of parrhesia turned us back towards Enlightenment concepts of Christ’s “tragic death.”  There, the miracles and prophecies were proof of Jesus’ validity as a teacher; here, it is his suffering death that proves his worth.  If Jesus died because he “addressed his words to the suffering of the people” (89), that suggests to me that he was assassinated -- that his death was a result of his life.  Both theories appear to center on Jesus’ life as more important than the crucifixion.  This is not troubling to me personally, but I am struggling to reconcile it with a Lutheran way of thinking.  We are a cross-centered people.  We believe that justification was won for us through Christ’s death, do we not?  Is the crucifixion not part of God's plan for redemption?  Can this still be true if Christ’s death is understood as less a cosmic realignment of the balance of humanity’s righteousness, and more as the common human reaction (i.e. hatred and violence) to the presence of love among us?

I think it can.  I think a Lutheran theology of the cross is not necessarily dependent on a substitutionary atonement belief of Christ saving us from our own wretchedness by his spilt blood.  Our human willingness to crucify God, to destroy love and mercy and justice when it walks among us, is as condemning as the story of original sin (if not more so).  The cross reveals our collective guilt in our unwillingness to accept grace as true.  We fear that which would liberate others, and us.  But the resurrection is “proof” (for those who believe) that this grace is real.  We cannot destroy it or kill it.  We are almost powerless to reject it.  Here we return to ontological questions -- who am I in the face of the cross?  We are sinners, fearful and ashamed, terrified by God in our midst.  But God is here anyway.  We are then returned to moral questions about the cross -- what are we meant to do because of it?  Perhaps the resurrection is a sign that we are meant to accept that God’s mercy is greater than our hatred -- that life is finally greater than death.  The cross remains part of God's plan for redemption, but rather than as a balancing of the cosmic scales of righteousness as a clear conviction of humanity's brokenness -- tied up with a clear redemption of the message of grace.

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