Being the devil’s advocate

Former South African Supreme Court Judge, Justice Laurie Ackermann, was recently in Australia. During his visit he spoke quite personally about how he struggled with his judicial role under apartheid. Justice Ackermann reflected on his fundamental vision of human beings as equal, and as irreducible to any price or value, and each quality a function of being created in the image of God. This theological instinct was further sharpened for him by Kant’s ‘categorical imperatives’—those moral duties which transcend the outcome of an action—especially as they relate to the essential dignity of every, and non-instrumental use of any, human being.

His comments brought to mind a number of conversations I’d been having over Mel Gibson’s Passion. My difficulty concerns the particular atonement theology it preaches. In the opening Gethsemane scene, the devil appears to Jesus and contends that no one can die for the sins of the whole world: it is too costly. The much-discussed explicit violence in the film could be seen as a direct response to this diabolical challenge: yes, it sure was costly, but not too costly.

Around the time of the film’s release, an article by Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, was posted on the Sydney Anglican Media website: ‘The Good News of God’s Wrath.’ Archbishop Jensen discusses three ‘great words’ which, he argues, help us understand Christ’s Passion in terms coherent with a biblical trajectory of sacrifice: ‘substitution’ (Jesus stands in for those justly condemned by God on account of sin), ‘punishment’ (Jesus bears sin by experiencing its consequences), and ‘propitiation’ (Jesus turns aside God’s righteous anger). Their combined significance is summed up at the end of his text by two lines from an old hymn: ‘In my place, condemned he stood,/ Sealed my pardon with his blood! Alleluia!’ I suspect from watching as much of his film as I could stomach, that Gibson would have no quarrel with this, but I would be his own devil’s advocate here.
Did Jesus suffer more than any black South Africans before Justice Ackermann’s bench, or more than any number of political prisoners being tortured as we read and write? Does the nature and extent of Jesus’ suffering even matter? Only if we believe that it is to be interpreted in the space pegged out by those three ‘great words.’ If Jesus’ suffering is indeed in my place, and yours, and everyone else’s, then—as Gibson’s devil suggests—there would need to be an awful lot of it: more even than Gibson manages to squeeze into his film! But Justice Ackermann’s reading of Genesis via Kant highlights just two of many problems with such a view. First, what are we to make of such an instrumental use of the human being Jesus of Nazareth within a divine economy so construed? Second, what if we are in fact ‘priceless’, without denotable value, by virtue of being created in the image of God? If so, the celluloid devil is quite right: redemption understood in such transactional terms is necessarily too costly.

That Jesus suffered and died must be at the heart of any Christian doctrine of redemption, because it speaks of the solidarity of God-in-Christ with and in our flesh, where suffering and death simply come with the territory. When the costliness of redemption is associated primarily with the incarnation rather than the crucifixion, then we are not so much ‘bought back by’ Jesus-as-Scapegoat as ‘brought back with’ Jesus-the-Prodigal, who spent everything ... but not to buy us. If we cannot avoid economic metaphors then I would prefer to sing the Thomas Troeger hymn which begins ‘A spend-thrift lover is the Lord’.  

Richard Treloar is Chaplain of Trinity College, the University of Melbourne.



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