The Death of Christianity by Lawrence Swaim: A Response

The Crucifixion by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez

Tikkun recently issued a series of articles by a number of different theologians entitled “Christianity Without the Cross“. Each writer was asked to respond with their own thoughts on how central the Cross (and Crucifixion) is to Christianity and whether a “modern” Christianity might not be better without an emphasis on the Cross. This series of articles was meant as a response to/fleshing-out of Lawrence Swaim’s “The Death of Christianity” (unfortunately, most of this article is behind a paywall–though you can try this link, although I don’t think this will work without a Tikkun subscription–but the outline of his thought is clear in the excerpt available at the former link). So let’s begin with Swaim’s article. Swaim essentially finds the doctrine of “blood atonement” both central to Christianity and morally repugnant. I’ll address each of these claims in turn. We should also note here that from the outset, Swaim seem more concerned with social and political issues rather than theology itself; however, he grounds his whole work in theology, so his theological position is central to understanding the whole thing, in my opinion. So in this response, I am focusing solely on his theology: I do not intend to deal at all with this social or political claims.

First, it’s simply incorrect to argue that Christianity is centrally dependent on this “blood atonement” doctrine, best known in two forms: the satisfaction theory and the penal substitution theory; this approach wasn’t even fully fleshed out until Anselm explicated it in the 9th century–so for a good 800 years, alternate doctrines of the atonement were not just alive and well, but much more central to Christian thought! (Though some have argued that traces of it are present in earlier thought, scholars are still in debate about this, and, as I’ll suggest below, I don’t think there’s a good argument there). Furthermore, the latter penal substitution approach which Swaim seems particularly upset with wasn’t developed until after the Reformation began. So right off the bat, Swaim is operating with a Christianity=Western Protestantism (and really, more specifically, Calvinist/Reformed Western Protestantism) which is both inaccurate and insulting to all the other Christians, in the West or elsewhere. Swaim’s oversimplification of the issue is easily summed up with this quote: “Blood redemption, the central doctrine of Christianity, is the train wreck of Western civilization.” (Emphasis mine; this quote can be found in the beginning of paragraph 11 in the full version of the article).

The fact of the matter is that the earliest Christians seem to have had a radically different understanding of how Jesus’ death was salvific. For one, St. Paul makes it clear that it was not Jesus’ death that was salvific in and of itself, but rather his Resurrection: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17). Jesus’ death does not show the promise of salvation: his victory over death does. This is absolutely crucial, and Swaim is both right to critique the satisfaction/penal theories for de-emphasizing this and yet sorely mistaken in missing how central this older Resurrection-focused soteriology is for any serious Christian theology.

So what are these other theories of atonement? First, the Christus Victor model seemed to have been especially popular among the Roman and later the Germanic converts to Christianity. This model portrays Christ as a sort of cosmic warrior who came to earth to battle evil and who, in his resurrection, defeats sin and evil in a sort of military action. The Ransom model, alternatively, understood Jesus’ sacrifice as not an offering to an overly-litigious god, but rather to Satan, the incararnation of evil itself. This approach has serious flaws vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty, but it clearly casts God as offering Jesus as a sacrifice not to Godself, but to God’s evil opponent, in order to save humanity, or indeed the whole universe. In this view, the Resurrection is almost a sort of “trick” that God plays on Satan: Satan thought he had killed a divine Person, but in fact, this person arose after death, undefeated, displaying God’s power and love over the forces of sin and death.

Other models are even more intriguing and, I think, from a modern perspective, very promising–and I am shocked and disappointed that Swaim seems either ignorant of them or doesn’t find them worth his time. The Recapitulation model, in particular, is extremely powerful. In this view, Jesus came to show humanity how to live in a godly, loving fashion, and we are called to follow his example, with the promise that if we do, no matter what evils befall us in life, we will, in the end, find ourselves in God’s presence. Such a view fits very well with Chardin’s “evolutionary Christianity” approach and thereby ought to be dusted off and re-analyzed by modern theologians. Swaim’s failure to do so reflects, I think, on the shallowness of his thought on this subject. (One might note that each of the doctrines explored above was developed during the second era of Christian intellectual development: the “Patristic” period, roughly 100 CE to 700 or 800 CE, while the theory/theories Swaim focuses on were developed subsequently.)

And such a view is also in full accord, I think, with the traditional Eastern Orthodox understanding of Jesus’ work. For the Eastern Orthodox, Jesus became incarnate in order to reveal to humans how to achieve divinization: in Greek, theosis. God became human in order that humanity might be come god-like. Such a view is focused, again, more on the Resurrection than the Crucifixion, but of course does not deny the reality: those who choose to turn to God and act in obedience to God are often met with hostility and violence.

It is this centrally important lesson of the Crucifixion that Swaim seems also to miss. It’s hard not to see in his approach a very comfortable, middle-class worldview (I should point out that though I researched Swaim a bit on the internet, I do not know his class background, and am only commenting on his intellectual position and what appears to me as its most likely social/class setting). The Crucifixion is so violent, so messy, so unfair: can’t we just move beyond this? But of course, for many people in this world, Christianity is appealing precisely because it talks honestly about the realities of death, torture, and suffering. James Cone makes this point much better than I can in his entry in the “Christianity Without the Cross” series: “Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree“. He points out that so much of the power of African-American Christianity comes from an understanding of how a lynched black person hanging from a tree is Christ on the Cross, in a metaphorical/theological yet nonetheless ontologically real way. Cone’s point suggests that a Christianity without the Cross would be a bunch of feel-good self-elevation that ignores all the blood, the mess, the suffering of Jesus’ life for a cleaned-up story of ethical teaching and reassuring symbols.

How quickly we seem ready to forget that if we want to follow Christ, we must take up our Cross and follow him! (eg. Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) Where does Swaim think we are following Christ to? A 3,000-square foot suburban colonial house to share some good whiskey and watch Frasier? Swaim almost seems to be aping Peter:

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Matthew 16:21-23

Swaim seems to believe exactly what Peter is reported to have thought here: that Messiahship, that good, modern religion, means glory and civilization and beauty and an easy road ahead. But the whole point of the Resurrection is that it is a promise that despite the evils of this world, if we choose to love–to act in obedience to God’s love–then we will act as effective channels for God’s grace in the world, and act as God’s agents in building the Kingdom of God. We are not promised that this will be an easy road, or that building the Kingdom means disavowing all the messy, terrible suffering of this world: we are called to face that suffering, others’ and our own, with confidence and compassion, humility and love. Swaim’s sterile, bourgeois theology strips Christianity of all its realist impact, and renders the whole faith meaningless.

Furthermore, although I think that these other theories of atonement we’ve discussed are, on the whole, much better than the satisfaction/penal approaches, Swaim’s single-minded rejection of this latter paradigm seems to also betray a complete misunderstanding of Trinitarian theology in the first place. Even if one insisted on a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, this should never be seen as God offering some other being as a sacrifice for God’s supposed anal legalism; Trinitarian theology insists that Jesus was and is truly God: so in this framework, God offers Godself as the sacrifice. This isn’t bloodthirsty or cruel: it reveals the deeply self-giving (kenotic) reality of God as pure love. Swaim’s inability to recognize this absolutely central pillar of any theory of atonement is both shocking and depressing: there are, apparently, prominent Christian thinkers and writers who don’t even understand Trinitarian theology, which is supposed to be the foundation for our community! (cf. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)

But what really worries me is that an institution I had a lot of respect for, Tikkun, would publish this without recognizing the deep theological ignorance at its heart. [UPDATE: Tikkun did publish a critical response to Swaim by Kavin Rowe] It’d be like publishing an article about Judaism written by someone who didn’t know about the central importance of the Torah–and its diverse interpretations. Swaim seems only concerned with his own understanding of a pseudo-historical Jesus, who he casts, much like liberal theologians before him, as basically a clone of a middle-class Westerner: Jesus is presented as a bourgeois teacher, calling on people to lead ethical lives but with little interest in the mystical, the apocalyptic, or even the theological. Of course such a reading is only possible by excising much of the Gospel text on dubious grounds. But I’ve talked about this before.

For now, let me finish by pointing you back to the seven “Christianity Without the Cross” articles themselves; I hope to have specific comments on each of them soon. As I mentioned above, I found Cone’s article to be very well written and relevant…I was less pleased with most of the others. But that complaining will have to await another day and another post!

Let me finish by reiterating that I only intend here to critique Swaim’s theology: some of his other points, especially his critiques of right-leaning Christianity, are obviously not without value. But once they are cast in such a theologically ignorant and uncritical context, they are basically lost in this forest of bad theology. Lawrence Swaim may be an excellent political or social thinker, and he may do great work with the Interfaith Freedom Foundation–I really don’t know, and I certainly don’t here intend to dismiss him outright. But his theological thinking is confused and poorly-informed at best, and is just the sort of thinking that I think is driving so many people away from a liberal Protestant establishment increasingly afraid to even call itself “Christian”. Surely, let’s admit the failures of the past; but this revisionist dismissal of everything that even smacks of religiosity is certainly not the path forward.

[UPDATE 2: Small changes for the sake of clarity were made to paragraph 3 on 12.28.12]

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