As Good Friday drew nigh this year, I (a Scottish Quaker) joined together with a Catholic archbishop and a Church of Scotland convenor outside a nuclear submarine base at Faslane in an act of public worship: a Witness for Peace of Scottish Christians Against Nuclear Arms.
We stood on a podium drawn from the folds of many different denominations represented there that day, the underlying undivided Christian church that prays: “Thy kingdom come.”
We prayed thy kingdom come – not Caesar’s kingdom come, but God’s; and so Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you a king, then?” To which the Prince of Peace replied: “King is your word.” And he spoke unto Pilate of nonviolence, saying: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it was, my followers would fight….” (Jn. 18:36-37).
Likewise, when the disciple cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear, Jesus disarmed him, saying: “Put away your sword, Peter … No more of this!” (Jn. 18:11; Lk. 22:51). Why? Because violence destroys our ability to hear one another. Christ healed the ear and healed our hearing, therefore Easter asks us: can we hear the deeper whisperings of the Cross? The Cross of wood and nails encircled with a crown of thorns that stood upon a green hill far away. The Cross of monstrous hulls and thermonuclear warheads surrounded by a barbed wire fence that is this Trident missile base today.
The Bible claims that Christ came “to give his life, as a ransom” (Mk. 10:45; Mat 20:28; 1 Tim 2:6), and so, to a central question of the Cross. Who – is the ransomer of souls?
Throughout the First Millennium the church’s main answer was the Devil. Christ “descended into Hell” and his suffering was the ransom price that purchased our whole salvation.
Early in the Second Millennium Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that this gave the Devil too much power. Who, then, could be the ransomer of souls? Only one other candidate in town was qualified to take the post.
Christ’s death, Anslem reasoned, “satisfied” a God whose feudal honour human sin had offended. Later, John Calvin sharpened this up into the penal substitution theory of the atonement. God was “armed for vengeance,” but out of love for the Elect, and they alone, sent Christ to take their punishment.
The problem with such blood atonement is its seeming sanction of redemptive violence. A God armed for vengeance nods too readily towards the blasphemous idolatry of HMS Vengeance here at Faslane; and that, beneath a sovereign Commander in Chief, who doubles as Defender of the Faith.
What then, for this Third Millennium, might be the meaning of the Cross? Who, or what, this ransomer of souls? Whither a liberation theory of “atonement”?
I traveled to the nuclear base from Govan further up the Clyde, many of my neighbours ransomed unto violence through its face of poverty. That drew me to a single paragraph in a book – Mon Dieu, Pourquoi? – where the late Abbé Pierre, a radical French priest, wrote of his wrestling with the ransom question. Was it the Devil? or God? he’d asked: then came his breakthrough. “The drug addict,” he wrote:
… is at the same time his own executioner and the victim. He is both the ransomer and the hostage…. It is the same with all human beings. Because we are disconnected from our authentic divine source, we have become our own executioners. We are slaves to our disordered desires, to our egotism.
The Cross, the supreme transformative symbol of nonviolence, absorbs in its forgiveness all chains that bind us. Here is the love that dies for love, yet being of eternity, never dies. And so, “we call this Friday good.”
Christ said: “I come to bring fire to the earth, and wish it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49). Let us listen with our healing ear. What kind of fire?
The fire of Hell, of Trident’s holocaust? Or the fire of love.
That is why we witness each year at Faslane. That is why we bite the bullet, so unfashionably; why we survey the wondrous Cross.
Alastair McIntosh is a Scottish Quaker. His writing including Soil and Soul and Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition, has been described as “life-giving” by the Bishop of Liverpool, “an inspiration” by Starhhawk, and “truly mental” by Thom Yorke of Radiohead.