Theological and spiritual ideas about the ultimate philosophical meaning of the cross—usually called atonement theory—never reached the level of denominational dogma or doctrine, and recent discussions in my Sunday school class and in an online forum of emergent Christians showed me why. The cross as Christ’s preemptive payment or atonement for our personal sins remains the most common conception of the crucifixion—yet seems to be unpopular among liberal and progressive followers of Jesus, especially in the notion known as “penal substitution,” that is, the idea God punished Jesus as a substitute for punishing the rest of us.
It’s an odd place to be, but I find myself to be more to the ultraleft politically (or more peacenik radical, tree-hugging, dirt-loving, gay-ally fringe) than many of my liberal-progressive Christian peers, at the same time I’m theologically or spiritually more conservative than the same friends. I actually take great comfort in numerous Pauline passages in Romans and First Corinthians that speak to the power of the cross and invoke the construct of atonement, such as Romans 5:8 that sums up so much for me: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Not only did Jesus die in such a horrifying way, he did it with love and purpose. Not only did Jesus die for sinners in general, he died for me, for my stupid selfish sins in particular.
To be blunt about my need for the cross and the empty tomb, about my hunger and thirst for the communion meal, about why I am not a Taoist or a Buddhist or an agnostic or new ager: I am a recovering alcoholic. As a sober drunk, the language of sin and salvation or the story of crucifixion and resurrection so integral to the Christian communal narrative, these speak directly to the core of my being, to a rooted sense of truth and knowing so beyond mere intellectual comprehension or so-called belief. Practicing drunks face their own near-death experiences, and sober drunks overcome these through surrender, through giving up before getting up, as if resurrected.
On a Saturday in April 2007, I left a conference in Knoxville around mid-day. I had big plans to see one of my favorite bands in Nashville that night. My (now ex) spouse wouldn’t be attending because of a birthday party for a close friend that would take up the afternoon and evening, and I had to push through the guilt of putting my music fandom before my friend’s birthday. I knew I would stop at my house in the hills on the way: to drop off some things, grab some other things, shower, and change clothes.
That day, I decided to start drinking when I departed east Tennessee. I drank while I drove home. I drank while I got ready for the concert. I drank all the way to the show. I ingested other strong special-occasion substances to give me that oh-so-familiar bump before the show. I drank during the show. I drank after the show. Even though I hung out with friends at the show, I was still solo for the night and entirely selfish, and I had plans afterwards to hit up another bar that also had wireless internet, in order to buy some tickets for a festival that went on sale that night at midnight.
Because of my buzzing state, I forgot to account for the time adjustment between the Eastern and Central time zones, because the coveted event would be EST. Inevitably, we didn’t get tickets for the fest, and I fought off more guilt (since my spouse was looking so forward to that event) by spiraling into a self-righteous drunken rage. I was stupidly angry at the snobby event-promoters for not saving me a ticket. I proceeded to get in the car drunk and start driving the 70 miles home in the pouring rain. Then, I picked up my cell phone, called a friend, and preached at him about how the festival had lost touch with its DIY ethic (and other assorted notions of intoxicated nonsense) by not allowing me to get tickets.
After my friend, probably a mixture of humored and annoyed if not disturbed, had let me go, I drove home in my manic state of high and drunk and angry, far above the speed limit, in a Tennessee springtime downpour.
It’s a miracle I didn’t die on Interstate 40 and take out some other probably sober drivers with me. Only on the backroads near my former home, going about 30 or 40 miles-per-hour instead of 80 or 90, did I finally flip and total the car into a ditch. Thanks be to God, only me and the car were victims. No witnesses. My former spouse miraculously answered the phone in the wee hours and came to retrieve my bruised pathetic self. Early the next morning, a Sunday, I called a local mechanic who agreed to tow the carcass of my car to his shop. Later in the week, he offered me a couple hundred dollars for the remains.
That Sunday afternoon I had a revelation. I would quit. I obviously had a problem with driving too much. I would quit driving. I would get an apartment closer to my job and not plan on replacing the totaled car. I could carpool, bum rides, take taxis. I relished the reactions I got from friends when I told them with some drama the big news about my decision—to quit driving which I hated and keep drinking which I loved. It would be two more years before I finally surrendered and embraced sobriety from alcohol.
The basic chronology of this part of the story illustrates the depth of denial present in my incarnation of the disease of alcoholism and addiction. Drink had become my religion. In those days, I even went so far as researching the gods of wine Dionysus and Bacchus (or Boxus, the god of box wine) and fashioned myself to be a kind of pagan evangelist who would perform a hedonist’s communion for any who asked. I even had a trinitarian rap—the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Meeting the resurrected Christ in the rock bottom of early sobriety changed everything, and for some reason, I needed the full throttle version of religion even as I would once gulp the full bottle of rebellion. Due to the progression of my recovery going in tandem with falling back in love with Jesus, I’ve formed new habits of spiritual discipline where Christianity is a not just a faith journey for me, it’s a survival strategy.
In my first course in seminary, I learned about some alternative but less known approaches to the cross, or as theologians say, theories of the atonement. These include aspects of God’s solidarity with all human suffering, sacrificial surrender, and the penultimate divine gesture of loving reconciliation and liberation. Most impressive, we find the work of 20th century thinkers who place the cross in our context without recoiling from human realities of violence or turning God into the punisher. A former Nazi German soldier and POW who once read Nietzche but then converted to Christ as a captive, theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes in his book The Crucified God:
“If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”
Not unlike Moltmann, the black liberation theology of James Cone places atonement theory right in the center of humanity’s collective sin, in this case the sin of racism and white supremacy. Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree:
“I accept Delores Williams’s rejection of theories of atonement as found in the Western theological tradition and in the uncritical proclamation of the cross in many black churches. I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself. 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. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”
Many mild and modern minds tend to recoil at any cultic notion of a blood sacrifice—or worse yet the image of an omnipotent wrath-master who brutally abandons and punishes his own son to please his own lust for punitive justice purveyed as violence. There’s a section in the novel Life of Pi that shows how sadistic and absurdist this so-called penal substitution theory really is.
In Yann Martel’s novel, we find this: “Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, 'Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate a camel. The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed them you.' ... 'Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up'. What a downright weird story. What a peculiar psychology.”
While we should cringe at the horror of the execution, it’s Christ’s profound capacity for nonviolence that we confront at the cross, and it’s the perpetrators of violence that present a vision not of God but of unchecked political power and organized brutality.
Denying the cross for me would be like denying my drunken debaucherous past. Denying the cross for us as a society and world would be like denying all the human horrors of barbarity that litter our past and present. Accepting the cross as a political but not spiritual fact and then denying the resurrection—that for me sounds hopeless, like utter defeat. As magical as a literal cross and resurrection with theological justification for both may appear to many modern minds, for a Christian, I find faith and comfort there, and I find the downgraded theories I encounter in the likes of Borg and Spong as somehow fake.
At once too sensational and too sanitized, too supernatural and too sedated, like processed meat at the supermarket that we’ll never know came from an animal that bled and an animal that died. It’s not wrong to wonder how God allowed or required Jesus to die, nor wrong to suggest that the political motives underpinning the parlay between imperial power and inspired powerlessness influenced the mode of execution or example made of this unlikely messiah.
It’s not wrong to probe this profound story both philosophically and historically or to confront it with the fullness of our God-given doubt and skepticism. But at the end, I prefer to embrace the full robust drama and complete cosmic audacity of Christianity, and some aspects of the liberal alternatives strike me as a watered-down unwelcome detour. Sure, I am sober from alcohol today, but I am not about to start drinking decaf coffee or embrace a decaf Christianity, a bloodless cross without its bloody core.
To suggest that blood is unnecessary or imply that death is optional—why? How squeamish we are about an embodied savior, a bodily God, a human light & logos because as man his death is not so much required or accidental but inevitable, as all death is, even as compost, even as food, death as one of those most essential ingredients to life.
Those liquor stores don’t sell “Wine and Spirits” by accident. The noted psychologist Carl Jung wrote the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson a letter in 1961 that contained the following premise, “You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.”
Perhaps all this helps explain why my theology is surprisingly ‘conservative’ when it comes to sin and the atonement. As a practicing alcoholic, I sought deeper doses of depravity as though drugged-out decadence for its own sake was delight and not dirt. As a practicing alcoholic, sins could not be sinful enough, bottoms could not be low enough, and many bottoms had trap doors.
As a recovering alcoholic, I need a most powerful elixir to transform my reality. I have found the blood of Jesus—on the cross and as grape juice in a communion chalice—to be just that potion required. And I have also experienced recovery—not just my own sobriety but the fellowship with others in recovery—as resurrection. I feel truly born again. And for that, I give thanks and credit not to an abstract concept of an ethereal out-there God, but to a God with a body down-here, a body that hung on a cross and rose from the dead as a radical testimony of hope, hope for everyone, for victims of war and racism and addiction and more. Hope for a world without end. Amen.