Posted by: rogermitchell | October 14, 2010

The Christendom view of the atonement lies behind western politics

When the ecclesia embraced empire in the fourth century it established a view of the atonement that has provided the basis for Christendom ever since, including our so-called secular post-Christendom western world. Once imperial power is equated with sovereignty and recognised as the ultimate authority then its decrees must be upheld, breaking them must be punished, and forgiveness must be paid for. Translated into the story of salvation, this means that at the cross Jesus paid the price of our forgiveness by suffering and dying for us, sin was punished by his death and the law was fulfilled in his perfect life which then made it possible for him to become sin for us and uphold the law by carrying the penalty of death that breaking the law incurred. This way God was paid, sin was punished and the law upheld. The problem with this familiar story is that it made God an emperor and justified and legitimated Caesar’s empire full on. Traced through mediaevality and the modern multiplication of sovereignty, and translated into today’s terms, there is still a deep structural theopolitical transformation of this theology lying beneath our contemporary western representative democracies. Putting it as simply as I can, today our relation to sovereign power has been reconfigured as individual autonomy that can be bought.  This is what the idea of Jesus paying God for my freedom from the penalty of sin has become. Money is the new Jesus, the Messiah that can pay for a measure of personal sovereignty commensurate with allowing the ‘good’ really powerful people, celebrities, entrepreneurs, royalty and so on, to stay in place. Money dies through financial crises and rises again through massive banking bail-outs, quantitative easing, spending cuts and private enterprise in order to uphold the law that underpins the nation state and the wider western political system or empire which has to survive as the quasi-ecclesial agent of salvation. Laying down your life or the life of your loved ones in war is the cost that expands the system or protects it from militant Islam or whoever threatens it. But this is not good, this is not the government of God. This is bad! This is why we have to reimagine the gospel, re-understand the atonement and salvation, not with a new gospel, but by reconnecting with the gospel testimony, the good news of a heavenly Father who is not like this at all. For people of peace this is not just a theological or religious issue. It is vital in order to provide a proper counterpolitical voice and standpoint on our world.



  1. wow Roger, fabulous and clear summary. I’m going to chew on this all day. c.

  2. Whoah, hang on! This is doing loads of things.

    For what it’s worth, I tend to dispose of the atonement idea in a more simple way:

    (i) God has chosen the way of kenosis and true gift.
    (ii) We have chosen the way of the self and economy.
    (iii) God ongoing gift to us is evidenced in Jesus.
    (iv) Even when God give us a gift, we see it in terms of economy.

    It follows that, viewed through the lens of the self-orientation, we are always going to see economy (and will be uncomfortable with the ‘debt’ we owe etc). Viewed through the lens of kenosis, we celebrate the gift and hope to extend its radical potential. I know you’re ultimately trying to do a more sophisticated thing (quasi-genealogical analysis to be a bit Foucauldian) with history, political philosophy and so on (which I love), but the core theology’s got to be (almost!) that simple.

    Anyway, my main reason for responding is that I’m not sure I follow everything that you’re saying about money because I can’t seem to disaggregate it very well from everything you’re possibly saying about economy. Help?

  3. Thanks as usual for the Rusk laser! A couple of things here [at least]. Firstly I’m not wanting to dispose of atonement, I’m re-interpreting it. Secondly, what any of us mean by simple is, I think, a window on our world view. So while I find (i), (ii) & (iv) above simple to grasp, I don’t know for sure what you mean by economy in (ii). Like to try a one sentence explanation of what you mean by economy in this context? Then it will be easier for me to distinguish it, or not, from what I am saying about money.

  4. I suppose I mean ‘dispose’ of it in the sense that my current reinterpretation leaves me uneasy with the term “atonement”, which implies the idea of reparation – a payment made by Jesus on behalf of humanity. I’m really not sure that that is at all adequately reflective of what Jesus was doing.

    This is, I think, where the distinction between gift and economy comes in. Economy is, at core, an ethical construct. It is about the maintenance of equilibrium between parties: a zero-sum game in which the benefit of one is the disbenefit of another, causing disequilibrium. If you do something to my benefit, in theory the ethical draw towards equilibrium makes me want to return the ‘favour’. Conversely, if I seek to capitalise on this benefit, I may return to you less that I benefitted but ‘call it even’ (I got away with exploiting you). Or I may not make a return to you at all, causing a clear wrong. This is because economy – to which we are all conditioned, and which prefigures money – is about the maintenance of some kind of circle.

    The notion of atonement presumes that the circle was broken and God was affronted that we should have stopped loving him back. But that is to mistake the love of God for an economic transaction. It is, rather, a gift: that which gets economy going in the first place, although without expectation of return.

    I’m going to avoid the metaphysics here, which I’m sure would bore everyone to tears, but my view is that economy is the best you can hope for when you don’t have gift. It resolves the desires of the self in a way which is perceived as ethically agreeable and provides us with a way of dealing with the breach of the circle: thieves, murderers etc. must repay their debt in life or in death (“an eye for an eye” – thus Jesus’s response that we should love our enemies would be translated in these terms as ‘give’ to your enemies.). My point is that I don’t believe economy to be compatible with kenotic love and I don’t therefore believe that God is doing anything truly economic at all. He is doing gift and it screws up our world and our thinking. This is grace and not so much atonement.

  5. That’s clear and I think I like it!

  6. So, how do you communicate atonement if not saying Jesus paid for our freedom? I agree the money has replace God is providing autonomy apart from God but has not been the case for all men in all ages, finding another way to replace God? When I came to Christ, he was presented as a Santa Claus in a way. Death to self was a later revelation. Is that the economy you are wanting to disassociate with the gospel?

  7. Thanks for the great question. It’s so important that I’m making my attempt to answer it into a separate post.

  8. If I may make a response here and I am no expert.

    But God seems to be really committed to cause and effect. I don’t know why. He doesn’t change time, He makes sure people deal with the consequences of their actions, really committed. I know I would definitely cheat if I were Him. Why is God so committed to cause and effect?

    But it seems that Jesus’s sacrifice swallowed up the effect that our sin caused in love.

    That’s the way I would put it anyway.

  9. Reblogged this on Mismeret's Blog and commented:
    So agree with Roger on this.
    #pithy #truthspeakstopower

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