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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