I just found out about a “GoFundMe” campaign to commission a portrait of Dr. Delores Williams who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The student body and Black Women’s Caucus at Union wants the portrait to honor “her trailblazing contributions to theology and her lasting impact on the lives of her students.” The campaign explains that Williams “is one of the mothers of Womanist Theology, which articulates theology in dialogue with the lived experiences and wisdom of Black women.”
It’s quite appropriate to be reminded of Delores Williams today, on Good Friday. I have been thinking about the doctrine of Atonement. I know I am wading into deeper theological waters than I have a right to, but hopefully I will be justified (no pun intended!).
First, a quick Sunday School lesson version of Atonement. Maybe you heard it as a child? The Atonement means “At one-ment” with God. Whereas the theological elites demand volumes and volumes on “propitiation,” “substitution,” “expiation,” “justification,” and all those other great terms – the bottom line is that God became man, in a specific point in time, and a specific place – as a son of the Hebrew people, the very people group that God had chosen to bring His light to the world. His coming for the whole world was foretold by the prophets. And His death gives us all the opportunity to be “at one” with Him.
It is simplistic, and incomplete theology, but still not a bad start for understanding the depth of meaning behind “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting Life.”
Now, onto Delores William’s lesson on the Atonement! I’ll bet my life that you didn’t hear this one as a child! You ain’t in Sunday School anymore!
My introduction to Williams came less than a month after I arrived at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She was one of the speakers at a conference on exploring the Divine Feminine of God called, “ReImagining” in November 1993. ReImagining was my initiation into the world of radical feminist theology and the Religious Left in general. Yikes! After that I knew that I needed to fasten my seatbelt. It was going to be a bumpy ride.
I did not have to attend ReImagining, thank God, but I did have to transcribe all of the cassette tapes full of strangeness, including the statements of Delores Williams. What is Dr. William’s perspective on the Atonement? Well, it is that it’s unnecessary. “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all,” Williams told the hundreds of women at Reimagining, and presumably also told hundreds of students at Union Theological Seminary.
Williams continued, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” If I remember correctly from my transcription travail, Williams also indicated that such theology was the theology of oppression. The narrative of “the Christ” as victim was created to placate and mollify folks that were suffering from oppression. Sure!
Well, I would agree with Williams that we don’t need folks hanging on crosses. But we do need the Son of God, the Sacrifice Lamb, hanging on a cross. Because if Jesus didn’t die, He couldn’t be raised up to life again. He couldn’t be what Paul called “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Jewish Rabbi Paul, a student of Gamaliel, is referencing the Jewish feasts – Jesus, the Lamb, was sacrificed on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the day on which the Passover lambs were sacrificed. And He rose from the dead on the 16th of Nisan, the Feast of Firstfruits.
Although He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I would not call this a “useless sacrifice” or an unneeded “theory of atonement.”
- God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.
- God took on the form of a servant.
- God humbled Himself to the point of a shameful, ignominious death on a cross.
No, I would not call that a useless sacrifice. I would call that reckless love.
And that is my last reflection on the Atonement. Some sticklers get their knickers in a 180 degree twist over the lovely, passionate song “Reckless Love.” I love it. It uses Biblical references, literary allusions, and – gasp! – poetic symbolism to try to come to terms – in human thinking – with God’s great love for us. The refrain exclaims:
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending reckless love of God!
Oh, it chases me down, fights til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine.
I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve, still You give Yourself away. . .
Some critics say “Tsk, tsk. It’s not theologically accurate to refer to God’s love as “reckless”! Fine, read a theology textbook then. But don’t bother me when I am singing about a God who is the intrepid Hound of Heaven, who is a good shepherd who looks for the one lost sheep out of a hundred theologically correct ones, who is a father who is so crazy with love that he is running with no thought of dignity to meet his wayward son.
Have those critics ever read the Anglo Saxon poem (or the translation!) Dream of the Rood? The poem, from before 1000 A.D., features a man dreaming that the Cross (Rood) on which Jesus died spoke to him about the experience. No, the Cross (Rood) on which Jesus died did not really speak about what it saw and felt. It’s called a literary device!
The Rood tells the man:
The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me
yet I dared not bow to the ground, collapse
to earthly regions, but I had to stand there firm.
The rood was reared. I heaved the mighty king,
the Lord of Heaven—I dared not topple or reel. (39-45)
No, Christ did not strip Himself and climb onto the cross. But this image cements the idea “he wished to redeem mankind.” The young warrior “magnificent in the sight of many” is the flip side to the Man of Sorrows, the Yeshua of Isaiah 53 who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” The Rood’s “mighty King” is the same as Isaiah’s suffering Servant who is “like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised.”
“Reckless Love,” to return to the beleaguered worship song, continues “There’s no shadow You won’t light up, mountain You won’t climb up coming after me.” (Hmm. I think Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, counts as a mountain!) Don’t know if Cory Asbury, the writer of “Reckless Love” ever read Dream of the Rood, but he is following in the footsteps of the likes of that anonymous Old English poet, as well as of Francis Thompson, and. . . the Bible!
Watch the video of two thousand U.S. Army soldiers singing “Reckless Love.” You get a whole lot different feeling from that than from listening to Delores Williams and her coven coterie of Sophia worshippers snickering about “blood dripping and weird stuff.” If love for God and thankfulness for what Jesus did for us on the Cross is expressed in a way that is not theologically scrupulous – you might say “reckless,” I’ll still take reckless love over useless atonement any day.
Especially on Good Friday.