Augustine writes in Bk. IV, Ch. 3 of De Trinitate,
Now there are four things to be considered in every sacrifice: whom it is offered to, whom it is offered by, what it is that is offered, and whom it is offered for. And this one true mediator, in reconciling us to God by his sacrifice of peace, would remain one with him to whom he offered it, and make one in himself those for whom he offered it, and be himself who offered it one and the same as what he offered.
I don’t know about which theological conversations are the popular ones in other Christian traditions, but evangelicals and liberal Protestants talk a lot about the relationship between violence and the atonement. The views which at least recognize that this is a problem worth reckoning with are as far-ranging as A.) Insisting we recognize Christ as victim of the evil of violence (versus God as promoter of violence for our salvation) to X.) Decentralizing the Cross as the place where reconciliation is accomplished (see Delores S. Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness). [I leave out Y and Z, because there probably are a Y and a Z out beyond Williams.]
On this Good Friday, what are we thinking about the Cross? What are we hearing in sermons today (and what are we preaching)? What do we believe happened on the Cross in time and in eternity? Finally, how do we make sense of the Cross’ violence?
Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testament undeniably and regularly speak of God’s reconciliation with humankind and all of Creation in the language of sacrifice. However, there are wrong ways and right ways (and worse ways and better ways) to understand that sacrificial language and what it says about the character of God. One route that we cannot take when approaching these texts is this: contrary to some broad brushstrokes takes on human history brought to bear on Biblical criticism (whether by Borg/Crossan or Girard), there is not some monolithic, bloodthirsty, primitive humanity that can be blamed for twisting up the Gospel into an unrecognizable state, marred by humans’ love of violence.
I am convinced that all our arguments are really about one question: Who is God? This is why I quote Augustine. When Christians talk about God at all, we are talking about the Trinity (Gregory Nazianzen, memorably: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). Our talk of the atonement and of the Cross and of sacrifice is just one of many areas in which we tend to forget this and to start talking of a God who is not Trinitarian (that is, a “God’ who is not God).
In our beliefs, in our thinking, in our reading, in our speech, in our arguments, is the Cross a Trinitarian action of God? Does our Jesus “remain one with him to whom he offered” himself? If not, our Cross is not the Cross of Christ, and our atonement is not the one which God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–accomplished. But, if Jesus crucified indeed remains one with the Godhead, then how we must re-understand the nature of our atonement with God and what the Cross has to do with it?
Bonus Link: “Pope Francis, Marc Chagall and the Jews” (RNS)