In Christianity the life, death and resurrection of Christ are treated as central to the faith, but even within the bounds of orthodoxy as laid down by the councils there is much room for interpretation as to what, exactly, the Christ-event means for us today. In Christologies that are more traditional, often the same ones called “descending” Christologies, the emphasis in the Christ-event is placed on the notion of atonement, that our sins are in some mysterious way placated by God in Christ. In this sort of Christology atonement for personal sin is usually the predominant understanding of the Crucifixion. In many “ascending” Christologies the emphasis is still on atonement; however in a more recent strain of ascending Christologies, that of liberation theology, the emphasis is more on Christ’s solidarity with the poor and the understanding of the Crucifixion changes at least inasmuch as it includes an understanding that Jesus dies in his solidarity with the poor.
This essay will first examine the archetypal interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Christ from the perspective of liberation theology and then discuss what these understandings can contribute to more atonement-based Christologies. I do not believe every aspect of liberation theology and atonement theology to be compatible. I maintain that the understanding of the life of Jesus, of the Cross, and of Resurrection in liberation theology has something to contribute to more traditional or Anselmian understandings of the Christ-event. The essay will conclude with remarks on how these contributions shape our understanding of what it means to live as a Christian in the world.
One major notion in liberation theology is that the mission and identity of Jesus is very much tied respectively with the critique of social structures and with the poor. Jesus’ identification with the poor. Edward Schillebeeckx makes note of the fact that in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life we find the theme that Jesus is in fact a prophet; not merely a prophet, but still a prophet in the tradition of Moses (Schillebeeckx Reader 166). The prophets of the Jewish tradition are known for speaking out against all the sins of the people, most notably their infidelity towards God and their poor treatment of the weakest among them (see Juan Luis Segundo 78-79. Jesus is connected to a prophetic tradition that is critical (in the sense of critique, not the sense of negativity) of the social structures that surround it. In his synopsis of the life of Jesus, James Cone discusses how from the beginning—even from his birth—his messiahship is tied in with his identification with the poor and oppressed (Cone 114-15). Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation in the desert signifies “his refusal to identify himself with any of the available modes of oppressive or self-glorifying power” (Cone 115). According to him, the Markan saying “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1.14-15, qtd. in Cone) speaks to the powers that be in the world, telling them that the kingdom of God is coming and that their reign is over, and Cone maintains that this has implications for all those in power, even implications for what it means if they even are rich (Cone, 116-17).
Chung Hyun Kyung, also, speaks of Jesus’ ministry to the oppressed, particularly Asian women. She sees the image of Jesus as the “suffering servant” as a double-edged sword; while on the one hand Jesus’ suffering can be misinterpreted with the message of blind obedience to authority, on the other hand Jesus is there and can be thought of as in identity with Asian women in his suffering (Kyung 56-57). Jon Sobrino looks at the mission of Jesus as “the proclamation and inauguration of the Reign of God in behalf of the poor and outcast” (Sobrino 453) and talks about how Jesus’ attitude towards sin includes a command to those with power and money to reconcile themselves to the Reign of God and avoid oppression of others (Sobrino 454). For Sobrino, then, the mission of Jesus on earth has significant implications for all social structures that it touches. It is clear that liberation theology ties Jesus’ life and mission to his identification with the poor and oppressed, the notion that his mission includes at the very least a component of speaking truth to power. Indeed, it is often the case that in liberation theology Jesus’ primary or more direct mission is considered to be liberation of humanity from oppressive social structures.
The meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross and his resurrection from death, in liberation theology, is similarly tied with his identification with and mission to the poor. Segundo writes that Jesus’ fate is, in the New Testament Gospel tradition, connected to the treatment of prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah, and that those prophets’ teachings and revelations from God were in their own context intertwined with political matters (Segundo 79). Segundo speaks of the fact that the official cause of Jesus’ death on the cross was his status as a political agitator and notes that the conspiracies against him by the Pharisees and other political powers in the Gospels are motivated primarily by his ‘agitation’ of their social structure (Segundo 74,76-77). Choi Man Ja, responding to concerns echoed by Kyung about the potential for misuse of suffering, syas that “Jesus endures the yoke of the cross against the evil powers of this patriarchal world. This obedience is different from simple submission” (Man Ja, qtd. in Kyung 57). For Cone the death of Jesus on the Cross is, along with his resurrection, “the consummation of his earthly ministry with the poor” (Cone 117). In dying on the Cross, Jesus puts himself in solidarity with the poor and “[takes] upon himself the totality of human oppression” (Cone 119). The resurrection indicates that oppression and social sin cannot defeat God but rather that God conquers it and transforms it (Cone 118). The resurrection means that death no longer “has the last word,” and so the oppressed are able to live free from the threats of the earthly powers that be (Cone 118). The resurrection in liberation theology says that oppressive systems cannot keep Jesus down—they can try, but Jesus, and by association those oppressed by the system, will rise up again to press for liberation. The emphasis is not on the atoning aspect of the death and resurrection of Christ but rather on the identification of Jesus with the poor, even on pain of death, and the hope contained in the resurrection for liberation from bad earthly systems.
What does this mean for a more “traditional” or atonement-based theology? The atonement theory of theology places high emphasis on personal sin and salvation and a lesser emphasis (sometimes none at all) on the implications of Christ’s coming for the social structures of the world. And liberation theology places a higher emphasis on liberation from social sins than on those sins often considered more personal. In each camp of theology there is often a tendency toward reduction of Jesus’ mission and message to the personal-atonement or social-liberation route, and it is true that there is some tension between the two. However, as Lisa Sowle Cahill notes, “[p]erhaps the reason Christianity has an authoritative scripture…rather than…systematic theology, is that scripture…better conveys the mystery of God…[challenging believers] to live and think within its creative tensions” (Cahill 208). Since Jesus is a mystery it ought to be said that neither liberation nor atonement theology should ignore its counterpart but rather that each should look for ways in which the understandings of the other could enhance its own understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As Sobrino says, “part of the responsibility of current Christology will be to show how all of the plural salvations converge in the Reign of God” (453).
The question for more traditional atonement theologies, then, must be where liberation theology reveals faults in its dealings with suffering and oppression and how liberation theology can help to shape a new theology of atonement that takes seriously the social-liberation meaning of Jesus’ mission.
Cahill points us to what is perhaps the chief negative effect of the Anselmian strain of atonement theology when she speaks of its potential to “[find] the cause of human suffering in the sin of those who suffer” (Cahill 204). This is a valid concern and it must be dealt with when we form our notion of what atonement means. In Cone’s thought, when Jesus dies on the cross he takes on “the totality of human oppression” (Cone 118). The cross, in liberation theology, symbolizes that God is suffering with the people. As a necessary corollary to delivering the people from personal sin Jesus must also deliver people from social sin and as such from the suffering that results from social sin. This does mean that on the cross Jesus’ identifies himself, to a slight degree, with the oppressor, insofar as his action ultimately proves redemptive for them, but Christ on the cross is identified even more so with the oppressed (a set of people that is not mutually exclusive with the oppressors!) The cause of human suffering, then, must be in some small part in the sin of those who suffer—oppressors suffer also, and cause suffering, but the oppressed also at times take a part in perpetuating the system (Cahill 204). But the image of Christ on the cross symbolizes that suffering under an unjust system is no more in line with the will of God than the often smaller sins committed by those in the poor and outcast class.
Another difficulty that arises when looking at how liberation theology can be integrated into atonement theology is the notion of mission. I maintain that the Christ event on earth was an effort to transform. That is, the sense in which Jesus was sent for our sins, in which Jesus was a sacrifice, was in the sense of his being a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” and showing the people (corporately and individually!) the way to “be transformed” (Romans 12.1-2, NRSV).1 Thus an atonement theory that takes seriously Jesus’ solidarity with the poor will say that Jesus comes to free people from both their individual sin and the surrounding social structures, which are not at all without overlap. Jesus as living sacrifice demands change and transformation from persons and from social structures. The poor are in many cases more than willing to accept Jesus’ assessment of their own lives, but those more well off more often than not are not so willing to change. As the political aspects of his message become a greater irritant, and the theological-moral aspects of his message become more annoying, the upper classes of Judaism2 and the Roman Empire see him as more of a threat; eventually everything comes to a head and Christ becomes a literal sacrifice for human sin. At this point it might be said that the sinful structures of the Empire and of Israel under the Empire believe they have put down Jesus; we do not know, theologically speaking, whether the dark spiritual forces that exist knew about the resurrection, so we do not know if they thought they had won. But Jesus’ resurrection meant that not only he, but also the poor with whom he was in solidarity, could not be kept down. On a theological level it could be said that the Crucifixion itself was the darkest manifestation of human sin—a rejection of the Son of God based on his political agitation and his demand that humanity, including human structures, live in a fashion fully oriented towards God. The resurrection, then, gives hope. It means that sinful structures have not defeated the Love of God; it means that sinful actions cannot put down the Son of God. Sin has been conquered. An atonement theology tempered with understandings of the Christ-event from a liberation theology perspective sees Jesus mission as multifaceted, unified by His desire to reconcile God to humanity; mission is to challenge sin in persons and in society, to love the unloved and embrace the outcasts, while challenging all of humanity (especially the “ruling class”) to do the same.
For the Christian today this means that to take up the cross and follow Christ cannot mean merely attending to one’s own spiritual affairs. It is of course imperative that we as Christians attend to our own personal salvation, including a good personal code of conduct, but this inextricably will include looking after the salvation of our the social structures around us from societal sin. If Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and his desire for a reorientation of humanity towards God were the cause of his death—and he freely accepted this death—we must accept that to be a disciple of Christ implies that we also put ourselves in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and challenge those structures which are deemed unjust. We are called to follow Jesus’ example here as elsewhere. In the frightening words of M. Shawn Copeland, “[Jesus’] mission…required [that he] do something bold: that he stake his whole life and very personhood on being absolutely directed toward God” (Copeland, 186). A liberation-tempered understanding of atonement calls us to “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep [ourselves] unstained by the world” (James 1.27).
1 I realize I am appropriating a Pauline phrase that may not be appropriate. I am doing so in an attempt to talk about a sense in which Jesus might be a “sacrifice” without necessarily having been intended to be sacrificed as literally as happened.
2 Anti-Judaism is not here intended. I am thinking of the oppressive institutions extant within the culture of Judaism of Jesus’ day as identified in the Gospels.