The Death of Christianity

How does repeated exposure to gory crucifixion imagery affect our psyches? Do images like this fifteenth-century painting by Meister Francke send the message that violence can be redemptive? Credit: Creative Commons/Meister Francke.

There is at the heart of Christianity a disturbing doctrine that has the uncanny ability to overwhelm cognition, and—when internalized by the believer—the ability to traumatize. I refer to the belief, held by most Christians, that Jesus Christ, the prophetic figure of Christianity, was crucified to redeem the world, and that this plan originated with God.

This belief, central to most forms of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, maintains that God allowed Jesus to be tortured to death in public in order to redeem human beings, so that God might reconcile himself to his own creation.

This patriarchal doctrine makes God out to be a vengeful, homicidal deity who can be satisfied only with the death of his son, and portrays the state terrorism of the Roman Empire (the crucifixion) as redemptive. This vision of God is so reprehensible, and sufficiently different from the God of love as taught by Jesus, that it poses an unsolvable and irreducible moral problem.

The extreme sense of paradox created by this doctrine can and does traumatize the believer, especially when disturbing images, narratives, and beliefs concerning the crucifixion are constantly reiterated over a lifetime. This reiteration unconsciously bonds the believer to his Christian faith community, but it does so by causing him to internalize as redemptive the aggression implicit in the crucifixion. Because of this, a profound identification with aggression tends to be the fundamental emotional orientation of institutional Christianity.

Can Torture Be Redemptive?

This key belief of Christianity—that God caused Jesus to die on the cross for the sins of the world—is most commonly called substitutionary atonement by Christian theologians. It could be more accurately referred to as blood redemption or blood atonement—by dying on the cross, Jesus atones for the sins of humankind and redeems sinners in the process. Some Christians will object at the outset by saying that it was humanity, and not God, that crucified Jesus Christ. Indeed it was, but every Christian theology of which I am aware maintains that it was God that infused the crucifixion with its power to redeem. Human beings may have crucified Jesus, but it was God who gave that crucifixion its redemptive power, thus ensuring eternal life for the believer.

In other words, God colluded with the procurator of the Roman Empire, a specialist in imperial cruelty, to arrive at redemption for you and me. God, in this scenario, is little more than a cosmic thug whose specialty is ritualized human sacrifice and whose preferred method of redemption is public torture of dissenters. If you do not “accept” this distasteful belief (that is, if you refuse to internalize it as part of a conversion experience) because you do not accept that torture can be redemptive, you yourself will go to hell and be tortured for all eternity. (Interestingly, this was also the implied social contract involved in the use of the Inquisition as an instrument of social repression.)

Whatever else it may do, the doctrine of blood atonement does send a message that violence can be redemptive. This message came to be, over a period of time, the very heart and soul of Christianity. I am not talking about Jesus’s life, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, or the parables. I am talking about the idea that God made a human sacrifice out of Jesus as a scapegoat for the sins of humanity. This belief in blood redemption is, I submit, perhaps the most violent idea ever devised by the human mind, with the single exception of eternal torment for temporal sins. And this belief in Jesus’s blood atonement, far from being some unexamined bit of theology in the dank margins of religious exotica, is the foundational theological concept of almost all institutional Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Jesus’s violent death on the cross (the central dynamic of salvation) is constantly referred to by Christians as being of supreme importance, from the primitive church through the Middle Ages right up to, and very much including, today’s conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals—in other words, the majority of American Christians.

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Lawrence Swaim is the executive director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. His book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World will be published by Circle Books. Swaim identifies himself as “a heretical/progressive Christian.”
 

Source Citation

Swaim, Lawrence. 2012. The Death of Christianity. Tikkun 27(4): 20.

tags: Christianity, Rethinking Religion, War & Peace   
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7 Responses to The Death of Christianity

  1. konradyona October 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Great, Lawrence! I thank you very much for your courageous article about this most terrible symbol mankind ever invented and whose effects on anti-Judaism and Shoah are widely underestimated. Danish Protestant Soren Kierkegaard and Austrian Catholic Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi remained unheard when they described in 1850/1925 how the crucifix (which is still a standard and state ordered object in Austrian kindergartens as well as Bavarian and Italian classrooms!) works as a learning device for Jew hatred. Hopefully, authors like James Carroll, Robert Michael, William Nicholls, Gabriel Wilensky, Jeremy Cohen and you will succeed in casting light on this taboo issue.
    See also my commentary:
    http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/joseph-weiler-traditional-jew-defends-the-crucifix/

    Dr. Konrad Yona Riggenmann

  2. HUGH HANSEN December 18, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Swaim is an imposter. What is his corpus of theology? Not the canonical Bible. Maybe his own? His rank arrogance in publishing such brash and shallow narrative will only create strife between Jews and Christians. Such strife I have avoided in my lifetime (71 years old). Jews would do well to share their beautiful faith with the world and, for G-d’s sake, don’t be so arrogant as to try to “fix” the religion of others. No doubt the Cross has been wrongly used. So, the power and weaponry of Israel has been wrongly used. But this is no argument to trash the Cross. Also, the ruthless use of power by Israel is no argument to destroy the State of Israel.
    TIKKUN seems to have lost its mind and its heart. What Swaim, Rabbi Lerner, and others are spreading his has nothing to do with interfaith understanding. In a wisp TIKKUN has lost it relevance and its ability to encourage meaningful dialogue.

  3. DAVID WHITE December 19, 2012 at 5:16 am

    This article crystallizes my feelings about christianity. I grew up catholic and by the 3rd grad of catholic school, I knew that I had a problem with this central belief and was continually sent to the principle’s office for telling the nuns that I didn’t understand nor believe in the ideas that you have articulated here although I did speak in the way that a 9 year old would…but my feelings got across. I never told my parents of the trouble that I was getting into. From the get go, it all seemed very scary and very wrong.

    • sylvia reyes January 4, 2013 at 4:17 am

      I TOO GREW UP A CATHOLIC, STUDIED IN A CATHOLIC SCHOOL … BUT DIDN’T REALIZE HOW MUCH I’D MISSED GOD’S WORD TILL I UNIVERSITY WHERE I EMBRACED AN EVANGELICAL FAITH AFTER SOMEONE TALKED TO ME ABOUT WHAT SALVATION FROM SIN IS THROUGH JESUS’ SACRIFICE. I THINK SWAIM IS MISREADING/MISINTERPRETING THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS AS THE REQUIREMENT TO ATONE FOR OUR SINS. HE NEGLECTS TO SEE THAT IT’S MANKIND’S SIN THAT SENT JESUS TO CRUCIFIXION AND THERE’S NO QUALIFIED SUBSTITUTIONARY SACRIFICE AMONG SINFUL HUMANS, SO THE SON OF GOD, HUMAN BUT WITHOUT SIN, WAS THE ONLY QUALIFIED TO DO IT. HE ALSO NEGLECTS SEEING THAT JESUS’S SACRIFICE DIDN’T ALL END IN HIS DEATH…. HE ROSE BACK TO LIFE, A PROOF THAT HE’S DONE WHAT WAS NECESSARY TO DEFEAT THE POWER OF SIN(DEATH TO ALL SINFUL MANKIND). HE ALSO FAILS TO SEE GOD’S INITIATIVE IN SENDING HIS OWN SON TO BE SACRIFICED,AN ACT THAT IT’S NOT VIOLENCE THAT WOULD REDEEM THE SINFUL MAN BUT AN ACT OF SELF-GIVING,AN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE OF ONE WHO DIDN’T DESERVE IT BUT WILLINGLY GAVE ALL OF HIMSELF FOR THE RESCUE OF THE OTHER.

      • john gibas October 14, 2013 at 4:49 am

        Jesus could of called 10,000 some versions it says legions of angels not to give his life for our sins. people forget that pilot washed his hands of Jesus punishment, he left it up to the pharisees and sadducees and high priest his fate, they were the only ones who could offer up a blood sacrifice. that is why i believe Jesus said to the Father, forgive them for they know not what they have done. they thought they were killing a false prophet, not Gods son. they were blinded by hardened heart. just my opinion,i mean not to insult anyone, unless you deserve it.

  4. Aaron Schroeter December 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    I have not yet read the full article, and while I do find it intriguing it seems to beg the following question, If sacrifice of animals was used in Judaism does that not also confer the idea that violence is redemptive?

  5. Humanist March 23, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    I strongly concur Lawrence but Judaism is not exactly squeamish when it comes to embracing violence. Moses went out to meet the victorious army … [and God said] “Why have you let all the women live? … Now kill all the boys and all the women who have had sexual intercourse. Only the little girls may live; you may keep them for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:13–18). The problem derives from accepting the idea of an interventionist God who oversees and implicitly condones everything from substitutionary atonement to Auschwitz.
    I think the early Jewish/Christian gnostics got it right. Once God created physical, mortal life he had to stay detached and let free will operate or else totally undo the fabric of His creation. Our redemption is in our own hands. All God can do is privilege a handful of mystical individuals – prophets like Isaiah, Jesus- and perhaps Krishna, Buddha etc- with a core spiritual insight: that our path to enlightenment lies in developing a strong compassionate awareness to relieve human suffering.
    Then the cross becomes a symbol not of redemptive violence but of heroic martyrdom in the ongoing struggle against oppression and injustice.

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