Continuing our series on atonement theories, instead of looking at one particular theory, our guest blogger Leslie takes a look at how the atonement has been understood and taught by women and feminist theologians throughout history.
“In order to be able to understand the symbol of the cross as a sign of injustice, we need to tell its story differently. We need to abandon the story-frame of blood atonement and tell the Jesus story in terms of struggles for justice. We must not cut the cross and resurrection out of the Jesus story but tell this story differently” –Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza
It was during my research on feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza when my spark of curiosity towards feminist theology turned into a flame of love, where I became absorbed into the realm of atonement from the feminist perspective. Feminist theology is challenging, it requires balances between objectivity and subjectivity, tradition and experience, absolutism and relativism, as most meaningful things in life do. My goal is not to suggest these particular understandings of atonement as “right,” but instead, my hope is to provide some alternative perspectives. In thinking about atonement in light of women’s oppression, suffering, and marginalization, hopefully our eyes will be widened and hearts a bit more open. Perhaps we will be able to acknowledge that “a story is named and told differently depending on the audience to whom it is told. Different theoretical frameworks and social locations shape a story in different ways” (Fiorenza, Sharing Her Word, 23).
A significant view of feminist theology emerged in the 1960s, when theologians Valerie Saiving and Judith Plaskow began to question prominent and contemporary male theologians Anders Nygren and Reinhold Niebuhr and their male-dominated theological doctrines. Saiving and Plaskow noticed that these historically accepted theological doctrines, specifically harmatiology, failed to acknowledge women’s experience. The idea of sin was that it is rooted in a separateness and anxiety, and is equated to self-assertion and love with selflessness. Saiving, however, argued that such a doctrine comes from merely the male perspective, whereby sin in females may be more along the lines of neglecting self-identification, or self sacrifice in the service of others (Saiving, “The Human Situation,” 1960). Regardless of one’s position on harmatiology, Saiving and Plaskow worked to bring the voices and experiences of women into the theological arena.
Shortly after Saiving’s work, Mary Daly wrote Beyond God the Father (1973), pointing out the importance in discussing sin, the cross, and salvation. Here is where I think women’s experience on the theory of atonement is chiefly considered. Daly writes, “The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of the victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” This is clearly an experiential take on atonement, supporting women’s experiences over a fixed or “objective” doctrinal belief.
Following a similar trajectory as Daly, Rita Nakashima Brock suggests that Christianity has traditionally considered the highest form of love as self-sacrifice. Brock alternatively argues that the highest form of love needs to be redirected towards that of intimacy. This is because humanity at our core is relational and sin does not require punishment, but instead, healing (Brock, Journeys by Heart). Brock rightly recognizes that the doctrine of atonement emphasizes God’s grace and forgiveness for all. However, it is insufficient because God’s grace and forgiveness is contingent upon the suffering of one perfect child.
The notion of atonement as “divine child abuse,” depicted by Rita Nakashima Brock, is fairly well-known in the feminist theology world. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker also consider this to be problematic, boldly asserting that Christianity has been a primary force in shaping Christianity’s acceptance of abuse. Brown and Parker write, “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world, communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. […] The child who suffers without even raising a voice is loaded with the hope of the world” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, 1989). It is clear to see Daly, Brock, Brown, and Parker’s opposition to particular atonement traditions such as Christus victor, satisfaction or Anselmian, and moral influence. Likewise, all these women are Christians attempting to make sense of Jesus’s death in light of personal experiences.
Rosemary Radford Ruether is another acclaimed feminist theologian who offers a critique of traditional views of atonement theory. Ruether poses the problem of the maleness of Christ, wondering if the limitations of Christ as a male must lead to the conclusion that he cannot represent redemptive humanity for women. Ruether’s primary question is, “Will women need to emancipate themselves from Jesus as redeemer and seek a new redemptive disclosure of God in female form?” (Sexism and God-Talk). Ruether begins to solve this problem by looking at the gospels, where Jesus renews the prophetic vision by proclaiming a reversal of the system of religious status. Linda Peacore explains Ruether’s understanding saying, “the Gospels are directed at sociological realities in which maleness and femaleness in part make up the definition of social status. Jesus is the liberator who calls for the dissolution of these status relationship” (The Role of Women’s Experience in Feminist Theologies of Atonement, 2010). Therefore, for Ruether, it is not that Jesus’s significance rest in his maleness, but instead, his renouncing of systems of domination.
Lastly, I’ll do my best to highlight womanist and Asian feminist views on atonement. Womanist theologian Delores Williams focuses on atonement as it is understood in the ministerial vision of righting relations between body, mind, and spirit. Williams is arguing on behalf of black women, who have historic experience of surrogacy, which requires the need to reconstruct a Christian understanding of redemption. According to Williams, Jesus conquered sin, not in death, but in life. She claims that there is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. Again, this is a rejection of blood sacrifice imagery in common atonement theories. Williams says, “The womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil” (Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 164).
Linda Peacore also provides a sound analysis of atonement theory as seen through the eyes of Asian women. Peacore says, “The subject of suffering is ambiguous for Asian women because it can either be seen as the seed of liberation or the impetus for oppression of women” (118). Moreover, Peacore notes Filipino Lydia Lascano’s view that Jesus is understood as a compassionate man who identified himself with the oppressed, arguing that Filipino women understand Jesus neither as “a masochist who enjoys suffering nor as a father’s boy who does blindly what he is told to do” (118). Peacore quotes Chung Hyun Kyung who, “proposes that as Asian women suffer they meet God who discloses to them their value as creatures made in the divine image. ‘To know the self is to know God for Christian Asian women’” (119).
Now, what are we to make of these theories? As we have read, the feminist approach to atonement generally opposes suffering, they reject theories that emphasize the passivity of Jesus’s death on the cross. However, the exclusion of Jesus’s suffering and the violence involved could cause some disconnect, failing to preserve the entirety of the story of Jesus’s life, work, death, resurrection, and ascension. Fuerthermore, they are quite subjective. They are necessarily relative to gender, race, location, and personal experiences. Such relativity makes the feminist perspective of atonement relational, but we must be careful not to reject objectivity completely and fall into a reactive theology. Moreover, what place does tradition have in the theory of atonement? While I think it is easy follow the feminist’s stream of thought, and often helpful, it is imperative we remember the significance behind atonement theory, which extends beyond humanity’s knowledge. Yes, we should be critically thinking about who has developed these theories and how the notion of sacrificial love and acceptance of suffering can be, and often is, detrimental to women’s experience. Though, we must ask ourselves if, by focusing on the life of Jesus opposed to his death, we limit the uniqueness of Jesus as entirely human and divine. Peacore suggests another potential problem with feminist models of atonement theory, suggesting they “provide a view of redemption that is only partial and sporadic in the sense that we human beings can participate in profound moments of liberation, but never bring about the sort of transformation of relationships between God, each other, and the world necessary for true salvation” (197).
We can also see the positive aspects of these approaches. Feminist theologians continue to remind us that theology is more than the binaries we often ascribe it to. There is significance in not maintaining a fixed concept of the atonement theory. By listening to people’s stories of how certain traditional theories of atonement have been harmful, we are hopefully challenged out of the comfort of Western, dualistic thoughts, and into mutuality with humanity who struggles to find meaning in atonement on a daily basis. Therefore, would it be too bold to propose that we should start challenging each other out of comfort? Perhaps we don’t ascribe to “either/or” methodologies that maintain atonement as either an objective, historical story that has one perspective or a subjective theory that has no meaning beyond one’s social-context. Instead, maybe we start by bringing together diverse voices, listening to each other’s stories, and believing in the unique perspective each person provides the Church. Let us understand the theory of atonement in light of women’s perspective, but not limited to it. In consideration of Jesus’s death, but beyond it, towards Christ’s story as a whole, in the midst of the paradoxical “already and not yet.”
Leslie is a student at Azusa Pacific University, finishing her B.A. with a double major in Theology and Biblical Studies. She will go on to work on her M.Div./M.S.W. at Princeton Theological Seminary beginning this fall.