Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bell, Day 6: Forgiveness and Atonement

I am excerpting some components of a paper I just finished in a class on forgiveness to help highlight some of the book's claims on forigveness and the atonement. If you would like a copy of the paper, please email me at rlangfo@yahoo.com, and I would be glad to send you a copy.

A saintly woman at my church asked if I could come by for a visit. When I arrived, she told me about the brutal murder of her grandson and that her son was unable to forgive the man, indeed refused to even mention the possibility of forgiveness. She asked me what she could do. I told her, "Pray and worship, together with the body, and trust the Lord." On one hand, this is the perfect pastoral response, but on the other hand it sounds a little too preachy, a little too Sunday School. The question she asked really proposes three questions:

1) Is forgiveness mandatory?
2) How can I forgive someone who has robbed me of my grandson?
3) What is my role in helping others (my son) to forgive?

To answer these questions, we must be disciplined to postpone an immediate answer, lest we fall into the temptation of offering a grab bag of techniques to "cope" which in reality does nothing more than anesthetize the pain. There is no forgetting the pain of a murdered grandson. Time alone will not make the ache of loss pass away.

Instead, as Christians we must be disciplined enough to begin with our understanding of God. Who is God? Christisn faith pronounces that God is Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even more importantly, the Triune God is revealed most clearly in the Incarnation of the Son. The Incarnation is much more than just Christ's birth. Indeed, it reaches its greatest intensity during Holy Week, the Last Supper, the Trial, the Crucifixion, the Death, the Resurrection. These events make up Christ's atonement, and the Lord's atonement makes human forgiveness possible.

In Liberation Theology After the End of History, Dan Bell states,
"The claim advanced for forgiveness here rests upon a certain reading of God's activity in Christ... God has given the gift of forgiveness. God has refused to render to humanity what is due sin, but instead graciously endures humanity's rejection and extends redemption and reconciliation in Christ. Justice in the classic sense of suum cuique would refuse to have suffered the injustice of sin and the cross; instead, God in Christ shouldered the cross and refused to cease suffering, defeating sin and injustice by forgiving it, by bearing it in order to bear it away. Accordingly, the atoning grace of God in Christ displaces such justice as the modality of God's overcoming of sin and sets in its place forgiveness. God confronts sin... with the gift of forgiveness" (146).
Interestingly, Bell draws on David Bentley Hart's reading of Anselm (see The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 360-372). There is a commonplace reading of Anselm that credits him with the development of the satisfaction theory of the atonement, whereby Christ "had" to be sacrificed in order to satisfy divine justice. Instead, Bell argues that Anselm falls within the vision of the early church whereby "God in Christ is understood to be acting on humanity's behalf in order to redeem us from the powers to which we have delivered ourselves" (147). Bell states further,
"The work of atonement is God in Christ bearing human rejection and extending the offer of grace again, thereby opening a path for humanity to return to the Father. In this sense, the atonement is identified not with a propitiatory sacrifice in the name of justice, but with the seelf-giving of the Son to the Father as an act of recapitulation that provides humanity with a positive means of return to its Creator... The atonement is not about meeting the demands of an implacable justice before which even God must bow, but the forgiveness that enables desire to return to its source. It is about humanity's being taken up into the divine life of the Trinity through participation in Christ, in Christ's body, the Church" (147).
There is sacrifice and even substitution, but these do not belong to an economy of credit and exchange but instead to the "aneconomic order of divine forgiveness" (148). In the Atonement, God in Christ opens the path of forgiveness. Forgiveness "names the way God in Christ defeats sin, it also characterizes the way Christians are called to meet sin" (148). In forgiveness, a new way of being is made possible. Bell states,
"Desire is healed insofar as it receives the gift of forgiveness, which it does by participating in Christ, and being in Christ, desire participates in Christ's work, which is the gift of forgiveness. Hence the gift of forgiveness is the gift of the capacity to forgive and the return of the gift is a sign of the gift's reception. Where it is not given, it has not been received... Conversely, where it has been received, the gift of forgiveness that is love is returned. And love's return to its source is the end of forgiveness, reconciliation" (148).
In other words, only the atonement of Christ for our sins makes forgiveness possible; however, this forgiveness must be received and participated in. Such participation reaches fullness when the gift that has been given is extended and offered to others. It is in this way that desire returns to God, and it is in this way that we begin to grasp the Triune economy of superabundant love. However, another temptation we face is to separate forgiveness from the Church, instead limiting it to the interaction of rational, autonomous individuals. Forgiveness can best be understood as an ensemble of technologies, or in MacIntyrean terms, a politics, a collection of practices guided towards a certain telos, in this case reconciliation. As such, it is only embodied in community, and specifically the body called together and forged by the Holy Spirit. Dan Bell states,
"The gift of forgiveness is the communally instantiated capacity to forgive. Being in Christ is to participate in Christ's body, the Church. Hence, we learn to receive and return the gift in the Church, and the task of the Church is nothing other than the reception and transmission of this gift" (148).
Thus, it is in worship that we receive and practice forgiveness, where we are infused with the Spirit, where our lives are narrated into the economy of divine forgiveness, and where we learn the grammar that will train us in the craft of forgiveness. Thus, I am reminded of Yoder's bold declaration that pacifism cannot be detached from faithful Christian discipleship. So also, forgiveness is not a skill set or technique that can be detached from Christian worship. Instead, only by participating in Christian worship, and especially the Eucharist, do we learn forgiveness in a way that moves beyond forgetting and denying.

Thus, when someone is wronged, the first step is not to demand forgiveness from victims for their offenders. Instead, victims must worship the Triune God, where divine forgiveness is mediated to them by the Spirit as the Gospel is preached and enfleshed. Likewise, offenders must also be told that they too must worship regularly and be confronted with the grammar of Christian worship that calls us to face God, to remember him, to remember who we are, to confess, to lament, to pray for forgiveness, to pray for victims, to pass the peace, to receive the Eucharist, and to hope for the Eschaton, when the Lord will return and sorrows and pain will be melted away.

Tomorrow, we will look at eschatology and the finality of forgiveness.


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