What, then, was Jesus’ purpose in dying? The earliest Christians seem to have relied on a venerable religious logic to answer this question. On the annual Day of Atonement, Israel offered, through its priest, a pure blood sacrifice to Yahweh in order to re-establish the covenantal accord that sin had ruptured. The imperative to atone by means of sacrifice is traced back to a divine command, and derives its compelling power from divine justice. This justice demands that the perpetrator of evil be held responsible for it and do something to compensate for it. Compensation can take the form of retributive punishment or atonement. While the former is meted out by an authority acting in the name of justice, the latter is voluntarily undertaken by the perpetrator himself. Both require the violator to give something up—to sacrifice something—in order to right a wrong.
The mandate of sacrificial atonement was behind the logic of redemption as the early Christian community came to conceive it. Because sin offends God’s perfect holiness, its evil is incalculable. Only the sacrifice of an incalculable good can possibly atone for it. As divine, Jesus was a sacrificial offering of infinite worth; as human, he was able to make atonement on our behalf. On the Cross, he was both priest and offering; his dying was an act of self-sacrificial love meant to redeem humanity by atoning for its sins. Viewed from this perspective, the self-sacrificial death of Jesus was the definitive salvific event.
But this way of understanding atonement doesn’t address some important truths about it—the fact that it was a murder, and the fact that Jesus was, in the first place, a victim of sin, not an atonement for it. Whatever else the Crucifixion was, whatever further meaning it might have, it involved the killing of an innocent person. It’s true that, to understand the full meaning of the Crucifixion, we have to consider how Jesus responded to his murder and murderers. But we can’t appreciate this response, or understand its purpose, unless we recognize the Crucifixion itself as an unequivocal evil that no just God could countenance. Insofar as the idea of atonement leads us to think that divine justice in some way required that an innocent man be murdered by way of compensation, it covers up the horror.
If the logic of sacrificial atonement nevertheless strikes a deep chord in us, it’s because we know in our heart of hearts—and perhaps only there—that we ourselves have committed little murders. Most of us can’t imagine committing an act of racial violence or abusing a child. But even a subtle betrayal can be deadly; a flash of meanness can be world-shattering. We can find excuses for our sins, or convince ourselves they’re venial. But sometimes the curtain of rationalization parts, and one glimpses one’s sins as they are. If the glimpse is brief, it’s because the guilt is unbearable. One can’t experience it without becoming desperate to be saved from it. But where is salvation to come from? To answer this question, we have to examine more carefully the location of the evil from which we long to be redeemed.
Insofar as I choose to do evil, I wed myself to it. Of course, there’s still more to me than my evil choice: there’s the divinely created goodness of my being, which no choice of mine can destroy. But while this goodness isn’t made extinct by my choices, I’ve sullied it by allying myself with evil and becoming its agent. Because I can’t separate myself from the evil I’ve done, Robert Lowell’s words ring true to me: “I myself am hell.”
But while the choice to do evil is internal to me, the evil I’ve chosen isn’t. It’s been done to the other in his singular dignity. This means it’s excruciatingly concrete. Guilt outwits my evasions and rationalizations by taking me back, again and again, to a singular time and place. Just when I’ve almost succeeded in forgetting the details of that scene, it puts my finger on the wound I inflicted. In doing evil to the other, I’ve introduced something unlovable into his being. This evil must be borne by this person. I can’t bear to face this truth, but guilt won’t let me escape it. “Compunction” is our word for this kind of moral torment. My hell is the wound that the person I’ve betrayed has to bear, and my hell will continue as long as this person continues to bear it. My redemption, therefore, requires that the person I have sinned against be ransomed. If he can’t be freed from the evil I’ve done, neither can I. If his salvation is delayed until the Parousia, so is mine.
The church’s treasury of prayers for the sinner invariably obscures this central truth. The Confiteor, in which we acknowledge grievous sin at the beginning of Mass every Sunday, doesn’t allude to the victims of our sin at all. Even the Act of Contrition we say at confession makes no reference to them. The church regularly reminds us of the impact our sins, if left unabsolved, can have on us—the “loss of heaven and the pains of hell.” The impact they have on others is too often ignored. The victims are treated as extras, or even props, in the drama of our sin and redemption. The sinner, redeemed or unredeemed, remains alone at center stage. For the violated, this is another betrayal.
In My First White Friend, her memoir of growing up as an African American in a racist society, Patricia Raybon reports that, when she began to explore forgiveness as a way of responding to the evil she’d experienced, all the books she read insisted that, before she could forgive others, she’d have to recognize that she herself needed to be forgiven for her own sins. Such advice follows naturally from a traditional soteriology that presumes that all of us ought to think of ourselves, first and foremost, as doers of evil. But this presumption flies in the face of a basic historical truth. For many human beings, the first devastating experience of evil involves suffering it, not doing it. Rejection, abandonment, and abuse can cast a shadow over the rest of one’s life. They haunt every relationship with the specter of betrayal.
One merit of liberation theology is that it encourages us to consider what salvation might mean if we were to conceive of it from the point of view of the violated. It can help us recognize that suffering evil is morally—not just physically and psychologically—world-shattering.
We might be inclined to think that it requires no special perspicacity to recognize this. But no less a sage than Socrates insisted that only the doer of evil is morally affected by it. The Stoics developed an entire philosophy to elaborate this belief. They acknowledged, of course, that the victim of evil might lose social standing, worldly possessions, and bodily well-being. But they argued that such losses don’t affect one’s moral standing—one’s relationship to moral order—and hence aren’t truly evil. Victims of evil may be harmed in all kinds of ways, but their souls remain perfectly intact. They are innocent and, morally, this is all that matters. While Christianity, unlike Stoicism, has always recognized and lovingly responded to suffering of all sorts, its model of redemption seems to subscribe to the same belief about the victims of evil—that because they are innocent, they ought to be untroubled. Insofar as one is innocent, one is in no need of redemption, no matter how greatly one suffers from the sins of others. It is only because we are all, in some way, sinners that we all need God’s grace.
This Socratic/Stoic view seems plausible only as long as we’re thinking of evil as a moral abstraction and don’t appreciate the victim’s lived experience of it. The evil done to a person enters her life, her history, her being. In spite of the fact that it’s abhorrent to her, and utterly foreign to her original created goodness, she can’t separate herself from it. It’s not just that she now knows evil to be real in a way she didn’t before. It’s that she’s made to bear it, carry it with her, live in intimate relationship with what horrifies her. Our therapeutic belief that the victim can eventually “move past” what was done to her fails to appreciate how being the victim of sin differs from other kinds of trauma. In order to “move past” it, the victim would have to find some way to integrate it into her life. And to do that would involve accepting what’s absolutely abhorrent and repugnant to her. Evil can’t be assimilated into the life one is meant to live. One can’t move past it to a future that’s unaffected by it. One can’t live with it because the goodness of one’s being recoils from it. And one can’t get back to the life one had before because time isn’t reversible. Evil forces the victim into a cul-de-sac—the dead end of history. She can’t bear evil, and can’t escape it. This is the most extreme kind of abjection. The fact that no words are adequate to express the experience of evil doesn’t mean the victim is silent. She may do the only thing she can do: she may cry out to heaven.
This is the first cry in our scriptures. In Genesis, Yahweh himself tells Cain to listen to it—to harken to “the sound of your brother’s blood.” All the other cries heard in our holy texts echo this sound. It’s the terrible appeal inside the keen of all the defiled. It does not ask for any specific remedy; it cannot imagine one. Instead, it is a sheer beseeching. It is the cry of history itself.
The only recourse that traditional soteriology offers victims of evil is to place their hopes in what is to come after history. But the Crucifixion was a historical event. And the eschatological promises that the church makes in Jesus’ name anticipate the fulfillment of a redemptive process that this event is supposed to have already set in motion.
Ignatian spirituality encourages us to try to place ourselves at the scene of the Crucifixion, and imagine what it was like. Some of the great paintings of Western art facilitate this. When contemplating a Rembrandt or Van der Weyden, I find that I’m especially affected by the tender face of the dying Jesus and the child-like frailty of his body. Seeing this vulnerability puts me in mind of those I know who have been violated, and abandoned to the evil done to them. There’s no power in heaven or on earth that prevents unspeakable horror from happening. The Crucifixion confirms that human history is an open wound.
How, then, can the Crucifixion—the murder of an innocent—be redemptive? If we’re to derive a soteriology from the Crucifixion instead of imposing one on it, we have to ask how Jesus was able to turn the mortal violence done to him into a gift. To whom was the gift given? How was it salvific? The tender words the gospels attribute to the dying Jesus, the poignant vulnerability that Van der Weyden and Rembrandt give him in their paintings—these all suggest that Jesus opened himself to the wound of human history, even to the point of embracing it. I can think of only one motive for his doing this that wouldn’t be madness: empathy for the violated. There’s no doubt that the Crucifixion made Jesus one of history’s victims. But if he willingly bore the wound of history, he also became one with all of history’s victims. This way of responding to his murder would have turned it into a new paradigm of communion. The flow of blood from his wounds would, in this case, have been a torrent of affection.
Some liberation theologians who view the Crucifixion in this way claim that Jesus could have fully identified himself with the victims of history only if he abandoned his divinity. But this fails to take into account the fact that, in order to embrace the victims of history as victims, Jesus would have had to direct his love to the very wound from which the violated recoil in horror. This wound is utterly unlovable. Opening one’s heart to it isn’t just humanly impossible. For us, it’s inconceivable. Embracing this repugnant wound would require the kind of love that made something out of nothing. It would require a divine self-donation. If the crucified Jesus offered such love to all the other victims in history, that would be proof of his divinity, not a surrender of it. The result would be the divinization of all those for whom Jesus died, and with whom, in death, he identified. Every victim of history, as the recipient of divine empathy, would become one with the second person of the Trinity.
What would the recipient of such love do with it? A victim of evil who was filled by it would be moved to let it flow through her to others. This love would pass first of all to other victims of evil. Only from there could it flow toward those who had committed the evil. For them, too, it would be salvific, but it would reach them only through the mediation of their victims. And to receive it, they would have to open themselves to it: they, too, would have to embrace—and so be saved by—the wound they had inflicted.
Did Jesus, in fact, introduce this excruciating empathy into the world? As a sinner who’s been touched by it, I’m compelled to say yes. Jesus came not only to set sinners free from the evil they’ve done, but also—and first—to set victims free from the evils done to them. Has this Gospel reached all those in need of it? Has the church preached it? When we compare how far we’ve come in understanding divine love to how far we have yet to go, we must always admit that we’re just beginning. But this seems to be especially the case when it comes to the meaning of redemption.