Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thinking About Atonement w/Andrew Sung Park (pt.4)

[Continuing an ongoing series of posts about Park's "Triune Atonement."  Click here for part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3.   Here I'm blogging about a short chapter on the blood of Jesus, the meaning of the cross, and touch on the idea of the trinity in atonement.  Park - a Korean process-liberation theologian - studied at my school, Claremont School of Theology and then went to Graduate Theological Union for his PhD. This is his latest book and it gets a nice endorsement  from one of my favorite theologians, John B. Cobb Jr.  You can check out Park's excellent interview with Homebrewed Christianity here.]

Can Christians still talk about the blood of Jesus being redemptive in some way? If not, a lot of language within the church has to be rejected (scripture, hymns, etc). Perhaps there is a way of moving towards a second naiveté, as Paul Ricoer argues for. Avoiding the problems of traditional atonement theories that place a literal emphasis on the blood of Jesus and the weak liberal atonement theories that reject it out of hand, Andrew Sung Park argues that the blood of Christ is a redemptive symbol for the oppressed and oppressors. With Paul Tillich, he differentiates between sign and symbol: as a sign, blood points to the actual fluid of plasma, cells, platelets, etc; as a symbol, blood points to life, family relationships, death, passion, love, etc. Symbols go beyond the literal, pointing to an ineffable reality and also participating in that to which it points: “Blood has a profound communicative influence”, writes Park. And for Park, there is nothing supernatural about Jesus' blood - it really was human blood, through and through.  But as a symbol, it contains a divine dimension as a real communication of forgiveness and liberation.

For the oppressed, the symbol of the blood of Jesus “participates in the agony of their suffering under unjust persecution, exploitation, oppression, and violence.” Because of this symbol, the oppressed understand God’s own sorrow and suffering, which intermingles in solidarity with their own experiences of injustice. It represents “God’s pierced heart for the sinned against.” I am certainly reminded here of Jürgen Moltmann’s “The Crucified God”, although Park does not entertain the ontological/metaphysical speculation about cross that Moltmann does in that book. The blood is a symbol, not a metaphysical event that constitutes the triune life.

For Park, this symbol will not die until there are no more victims of history – in fact, it will only deepen as a profound symbol as it opens up the unspeakable horror of the victims.  Park also argues that Jesus' death joins the message of the book of Job in its rejection of the Deuteronomistic theology of retribution that is so common throughout the Hebrew scriptures (that suffering is God's punishment for sin).  Penal substitution (Calvin) and satisfaction (Anselm) theories of atonement support such retributive theologies (sin-punishment formulas).  The cross of Christ stands in contradiction to such false ideas: here, the truly innocent person - even more, the incarnation of God in a human life - was wrongly killed on the cross in solidarity with history's innocent victims.  In this way, Jesus restores the dignity of the oppressed by sharing in their humiliations and sufferings.  Park summarizes his position on the atonement for the oppressed here: "Jesus' blood was not shed to pay human debts to God; rather, it was shed to restore the integrity of the victims through God's justice and compassion.  Jesus came not to appease God's wrath but to manifest God's intention to restore humanity.  His blood demonstrates that even God's chosen one suffered, was put to shame, and was victimized.  Contrary to the sin-punishment principle, Jesus came to vindicate suffering victims and to restore their human dignity."

For the oppressors, the blood of Jesus “symbolizes the protest, confrontation, and challenge of the oppressed and of God.” It participates in the cries of the oppressed until they are heard. Like Pharaoh, the oppressors hearts are hard as stone, their ears are deaf to the cries of the oppressed. But the symbol of Jesus’ blood has the incredible strength to unlock their hardened hearts and open their ears to hear the anguished cries of history’s victims. How does the symbol function to bring about justice for the oppressed and redemption for the oppressors?  Park writes: “It is due to the strength of the presence of the Holy Spirit working through the symbol…the visible collective symbol of Jesus’ blood and the invisible transformative work of the Holy Spirit cooperate for the liberation of the victims and the salvation of the oppressors.”  Park later clarifies this even more: "Jesus initiated the atonement movement, and the Paraclete has carried on after Jesus' departure."  But the blood of Jesus also declares forgiveness and salvation or justification by faith for the penitent.  The Spirit works through the symbol of Jesus' blood to lead sinners and the oppressed to repentance, and not just for individual sins - Park emphasizes the social/structural dimensions as well.

Repentance (in the fullest sense of that word's meaning) by the sinners/oppressors is absolutely necessary for Jesus' atonement to be effective.  God needs human cooperation in redemption, so the cross is not some one time event that automatically provided salvation.  Again, Park argues that Jesus' death was not required for God to forgive sinners - God does not need violence or suffering to forgive!  That is retributive punishment, and it contradicts the overall theology of the Old Testament and the nonviolent message of Jesus himself.  Instead, Jesus' death expanded the horizon of God's forgiveness by providing an effective symbol of liberation and forgiveness.  After all, Jesus forgave sins in his lifetime without some sort of transactional event at his death that many other atonement theories hold to.  Jesus did not primarily die for sinners but because of them.  However, Park asserts that there is a limited sense in which Jesus also died for sinners: "Jesus resisted and challenged his persecutors and oppressors unto death so that they might come to their senses and be saved."  In this exclusive sense, Jesus died for us so that we might be saved from our sins.  Notice that Park leaves open the possibility of salvation outside of the effective symbols of the cross and blood of Christ, but he holds these symbols to be (perhaps) the ultimate means of reconciliation between creation and God.  While God clearly does not need the cross and Jesus' blood to forgive, these powerful symbols are enormously effective in bringing about God's purposes for creation.

We can see in the above outline of atonement theology how Park is developing a deeply trinitarian theology of atonement.  God the Creator has been redemptively working from the beginning to bring creation to its fulfillment (continuous creation), Jesus came to embody salvation and liberation in history for the whole creation, and the Spirit has continued Jesus' salvific, liberating work after his post-resurrection departure.  These three persons are all involved at every stage of atonement - yet they are all three unique in their functions.

This book is great and I highly recommend checking it out to explore these ideas further.  It's short and and accessible, but filled with challenging ideas. 

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