I wrote my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, out of a conviction that the Bible does contain a coherent peace message (or, I could say, a coherent healing message or a coherent mercy message). Surprisingly to me, I wonder now whether this conviction is shared by all Mennonite academics.
While I would have preferred a more sympathetic reviewer, I appreciate the issues raised by Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman’s review of Instead of Atonement in the January 2014 Mennonite Quarterly Review. I want to reflect on several of those issues, not mainly to argue with Suderman but more to take the opportunity offered by his review to address some key elements of how we wrestle with the Bible in face of our call to be agents of healing in the world today.
There will be five issues that I will write about: (1) Is the best way to approach “biblical concepts” through focusing on the big picture or on analyses of specific words? (2) How do we understand God’s judgment in relation to God’s mercy? (3) How seriously should we take the Bible’s own way of summarizing its salvation story? (4) Is suggesting that the Bible has a coherent message actually making an inappropriate “universalized claim”? (5) What kind of assumptions should we have as we approach the Bible?
A big picture approach
If I were summarize the argument in my book that I think is most distinctive, it is that the best way to identify the Bible’s treatment of salvation is by looking at the big picture, the overall story line. I believe that meaning in the Bible ultimately is to be found on the big level. The meaning of words has mostly to do with how they are used in sentences, sentences as used in paragraphs, paragraphs in sections, sections in books, books in the Bible as a whole.
When approached in this big picture-oriented way, the Bible proves to have a coherent salvation story best understood in terms of its central saving events: the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the exodus, the gifts of Torah and the land, the sustenance of the faith community after exile, and the message of Jesus. And this salvation story tells us that God’s disposition toward humanity is, when all is said and done, unearned mercy. God does not need to gain “satisfaction” in order to offer salvation. That is, violence is not part of the dynamic of salvation. In fact, salvation ultimately is a deliverance from violence.
My biggest disappointment with Suderman’s review is that he does not engage this key part of my book. He judges the book a failure, but without addressing the central theme of the book. I certainly don’t think my argument about what the big picture tells us is irrefutable—I try to present it tentatively and admit my own limitations of expertise. But I would like to know what might be wrong with this thesis: In the most fundamental way, according to the big picture, God offers salvation without the need for satisfaction (i.e., mercy “instead of atonement” [with a specific sense of atonement in mind—salvation achieved through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross]). Suderman, though, does not say anything about this thesis.
His first point of critique is that I provide “inadequate discussion of the key biblical concepts related to [my] topic.” Part of the issue I am interested in here is what we mean by “biblical concepts” and how do we best get at them. Suderman gives examples of “salvation” and “shalom,” which certainly are two of the central themes with which I am concerned. He approaches them by looking closely at the words themselves, seeing in the Hebrew words connotations of military victory, God’s violence, and retribution. I can’t argue with his philological expertise, but I think we are seeing a pretty important philosophical issue here: How do we determine the meaning of texts? What is our reading strategy?
Suderman seems to assume you focus primarily on the individual words. So if you find in the etymology of “salvation” (yeshu’ah) usage that connotes military victory with an allusion to God as violent, then it is problematic to think of biblical salvation as being fundamentally about mercy without violence. Or if you find in the etymology of “shalom” the basic meaning of restoring equilibrium through retribution, then it is problematic to think of biblical shalom as being the grounding for thinking of salvation most fundamentally as a gift that does away with the need for a balancing of the moral scales of the universe.
I am simply making a different kind of argument. Certainly etymology is important. However, I think we should read texts as a whole and that the meaning of the whole is not an accumulation of individual words. The meaning broadens and takes on new elements as the words are linked together and a story unfolds.
I do read the whole biblical story as a Christian. That means that Jesus gives us important clues as to the ultimate meaning of the whole—including the meaning of “salvation” and “shalom.” But as I try to show in my book, reading with Jesus as the center helps us understand what is already there from the start in relation to these concepts—that God’s intentions toward the world are merciful and that over and over again when God brings salvation it is not linked with satisfaction (that is, not linked with necessary violence or “restoring equilibrium… through…retribution”) regardless of the etymology of the words.
Judgment and mercy
One of the biggest issues in understanding the Bible in relation to salvation, ethics, peace, justice, and human wholeness is how we understand the Bible’s take on judgment. Suderman criticizes me because I do “not adequately recognize that [mercy and judgment] are necessarily connected, since mercy presupposes judgment that decides to forgo punishment” (Suderman’s italics).
One question is whether, though Suderman speaks here of the “necessary” connection between mercy and judgment, he might actually be defining them as basically independent concepts. That is, should we think of “judgment” as something that has its own autonomous meaning so that “judgment” for Yahweh and “judgment” for, say, Marduk, have the same essential meaning? “Judgment” and “mercy” then are independent things that then are “connected.” Yahweh might have more mercy than Marduk, but in essence Yahweh’s judgment is pretty much the same thing as Marduk’s.
Is “judgment” in the Bible a natural law kind of judgment, the same kind of act regardless of who the judge is? If it is, then Suderman’s apparent assumption that Yahweh’s judgment includes punishment as an inherent part of its meaning, even if Yahweh may “forgo” judgment at times, would make sense. But what if, in the overall story, “judgment” comes to be defined in a quite different way that follows from the character of the judge? What if the story actually tells us, when we get to the end, that Yahweh’s judgment must be understood as subordinate to Yahweh’s mercy—that is, that judgment for Yahweh in its essence is about healing and not punishing?
Sure, there are moments of punishment and Yahweh acting like Marduk. But I believe that the story moves us away from those moments, presenting them ultimately as not definitive of what Yahweh’s judgment means. Let’s look at just one example of how this might work. Exodus 34 contrasts God’s mercy and wrath. Earlier, the children of Israel had built a golden calf while Moses was with God being given Torah. God says to Moses “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (32:10). But Moses insists that God turn from this anger—and remarkably, God does. Instead of all-consuming wrath, God brings healing mercy.
God’s core motivation is expressed in this way: I am “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:6-7). God does not deny the reality of negative consequences as well: I “by no means clear the guilty, but visit the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generations” (34:7).
These are significant negative consequences. But these verses make it clear that God’s love and God’s wrath are not equal parts of God’s character—the love goes to the thousandth generation, the wrath only to the third and fourth. There is a place for judgment, but it is not the fundamental reality. It’s not an equal force to the mercy. The punitive judgment is minuscule compared with the mercy. It seems that judgment for Yahweh, in the light of the entire story, is a qualitatively different kind of reality than the stand alone punishing judgment of the nations.
Suderman sees another problem with Instead of Atonement being that its “focus on the ‘main storyline’ of the Bible proves highly selective, avoiding elements that conflict with [my] perspective.” But is this inherently a bad thing?
I think everyone would agree that if we read the Bible as scripture, as in any sense a source of normative guidance, we have to be selective when we decide how to apply it. We can’t simply repeat the entirety of the Bible, with all its tensions and various perspectives. We have to narrow its witness down so we can make it usable. As we do this narrowing, we will of necessity leave out things, and our principle of selection will include “avoiding elements that conflict with [our] perspective”—we simply can’t use the Bible in any other way.
“Avoiding elements” in this way is a problem only when doing so significantly leaves a core that distorts the witness of the whole in fundamental ways. This is where we need to have our discussion. The issue is the validity of “our perspective,” not whether we have to skip themes and viewpoints when we try to summarize and apply the Bible’s message.
The argument I make is that the “perspective” that most fundamentally shapes my narrowed down account of the Bible’s main storyline is guided by the Bible’s own way of articulating its main storyline. Scattered throughout the Bible are summary statements of its story of salvation. These statements are not identical to each other. However, as a rule they emphasize the same elements that I do—God’s initiative of merciful healing seen in the calling of Abraham and Sarah, in the exodus, in the giving of Torah, in the gift of the promised land, in the sustenance of the community after the exile, and in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I believe that the parts I left out that Suderman mentions—mainly accounts of violence and punitive judgment—are to be understood in relation to the core story. They are not to be dismissed, but they are secondary. Partly, this sense of priorities is based on how the Christian canon concludes the story: The vision of the New Jerusalem where God’s human enemies—the nations and their kings—are healed. This healing is the point of the story. The best summary of the core of that story will point to that conclusion.
Coherence or “universalized claims”?
Suderman concludes his review by asserting that my “counter reading” to the more typical pro-violence ways the Bible has been appropriated is itself making the same kind of “universalized claim” that I have been trying to debunk. I’m not sure I fully understand the point of this criticism.
I don’t think Suderman thinks “universalized claims” are good. I would tend to agree, I suppose. But he could be inferring that any attempt to argue for a basic coherent story line in the Bible is to make a “universalized claim.” If the only options are (1) to see the Bible mainly as messy and diverse and resistant to offering very clear or direct moral guidance or (2) to make a universalized claim about the Bible’s message, I would be willing to take my chances with the “universalized claim.” In doing so, I would make the “claim” that God is love, God’s mercy is non-coercive, our call to imitate that mercy requires of us a willingness to suffer rather than dominate, and that the community that forms around that call is to be radically hospitable and non-exclusivist.
That is, I would be willing to admit to making a “universalized claim,” but one that subverts other “universalized claims” that underwrite violence and domination. I would rather not use this language though, preferring to use the language of story and invitation. Rather than say I make a “universalized claim,” I would rather say that I identify a coherent story that does give us clear guidance, a clear view of God’s character, and a clear sense that our call to live in thoroughgoing mercy and to seek healing for all of humanity is a call to imitate our creator.
Suderman says early in his review that he does “strongly resonate with [my] commitment to nonviolence.” However, it seems that just about every criticism he makes has the effect of complexifying my account of the Bible’s message in a direction away from mercy, peace, and enemy love—and of placing at the center the Bible’s inclination toward violence.
Suderman’s comments make me think of a bright student I had a number of years ago. My student was troubled with the way other of my students were emphasizing pacifism so much. So he decided to take my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class in order to debunk my approach to the Bible. To prepare for the class, he started reading the Old Testament and noting all the ways it contradicted pacifism. He only got as far as Joshua before he experienced a major crisis of faith in relation to the picture of God he was getting in the Bible. When he then took the class, he greatly appreciated how I was trying to work honestly with the text and present it in a way that helped students affirm their Christian faith and take the Bible seriously as a positive resource while also to be morally humane and to resist our world’s inclination toward violence.
I have constructed my argument in the face of my own struggle that has paralleled my student’s. It seems like the best way I can imagine to capture the Bible’s message in a way that contributes to healing rather than exacerbating the problems of violence in our world. I don’t get a sense from Suderman’s hints about his own perspective that he has a more satisfying angle to offer.
Finally, Suderman concludes that my “avoidance and downplaying of judgment motifs in the Gospels suggests that nonviolence rather than Jesus provides [my] interpretive center.” I do disagree with this assessment. For one thing, the term “nonviolence” is hardly used in the book and only in ways that are pretty peripheral to the argument. However, I think his point does bring up a very important issue about how we read the Bible. What is our starting point?
I believe we all have starting points when we pick up the Bible. None of us read it with perfect neutrality waiting for the Bible to give us direction. We have something in mind, questions, expectations, assumptions, theories. Ideally, we take our agendas to the Bible and then adjust them as we encounter the stories and exhortations we find there.
I begin Instead of Atonement with an account of how violence operates in very problematic ways in our North American culture, using the example of criminal justice practices to illustrate. And I present the case that Christian theology tends to exacerbate the problem, and I argue that we need a different reading of the Bible if we are to make progress in overcoming this problem. Then the rest of the book is an attempt to offer such a reading.
I do want the reading I provide to be truthful and consistent with the Bible itself. Partly, I this is so because I believe that Jesus has the same kind of concern. I work hard in the book to use the kind of language that I understand Jesus to have used about what matters most in life, how God works, and what is involved in salvation—mercy, forgiveness, love, opposition to domination, welcome, service, peace, restorative justice, etc.
Suderman seems to suggest that instead of actually letting Jesus be at the center, I smuggle in a modern-day ideology of nonviolence. Now, I am not all that fond of the term “nonviolence,” partly because it mainly refers to a lack of something rather than referring to something positive. Plus, it can lend itself to use for a strategy that does not necessarily get to people’s hearts and can allow for coercion and a win/loss approach to conflict. So, I prefer the term “pacifism” (which actually, though, I never use in Instead of Atonement).
However, the way I do use “nonviolence” in the book is essentially as a synonym with the list I gave above—”mercy, forgiveness, love,…” For Suderman to suggest that I’m using “nonviolence” rather than Jesus as my center makes we wonder if he is conceiving of a Jesus who in some sense can be conceived independently of “mercy, forgiveness, love, etc.” Is there any way that Jesus could be our center and we not make loving our neighbor (that is, all our fellow human beings) our core conviction?
Most Christians throughout history (certainly since the 4th century) have not approached the Bible with Jesus and the call to love the neighbor as the “interpretive center.” Hence, the burden of my book. I would welcome proposals that correct, even drastically if necessary, the way I try to read the Bible with Jesus as the interpretive center. But I would assume that any such proposal would still have as its core burden the task of figuring out how to live consistently peaceable lives and how to read the Bible in ways that help us do that. I have a hard time imagining that an approach to the Bible and its teaching about salvation that doesn’t share this core burden can be consistent with the message of Jesus.