The following is an excerpt from The Back Side of the Cross by Diane Leclerc & Brent Peterson. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Does the cross need saving? This is perhaps evidenced by the plethora of books written on the Atonement in recent years certainly suggests that it does. Critiques about how it has been understood traditionally have come from different directions. There are an array of recent studies that interpret Atonement passages with greater nuance and with an eye toward more contemporary themes. But most remain “traditional” in the sense that the issues raised are still directed at God’s forgiveness of sinful humanity. Only a handful have suggested that a second locus of Atonement theology should be focused on the victims of sin. Perhaps to overgeneralize, most churches do not know how muting their narratives can be, and how inhospitable their practices.
Unfortunately, some of the muting of victims of all kinds has been done in the name of theology, even theologies of Atonement. The silencing of victims comes from our inability to adequately deal with issues relevant to the sinned-against. We do not do a very good job of talking to, or listening to those at the backside of the cross. We understand that the Atonement is crucial for our salvation. But we do not easily connect the cross to victims of violence, abandonment, and abuse. When people are hurt, rejected, enslaved, abandoned, whatever the case may be, does Christian faith have anything to say? We return to our book’s central question: Does the Atonement have anything to say to those who are sinned against, to those at the back side of the cross, to those we have pitched out to Gehenna while others soothe their consciences? Is the meaning of the cross vast enough to speak into such darkness of those who have been victimized?
All traditional theories spell out exactly how forgiveness of sin comes from the Atonement of Christ, but do so in different ways. Interestingly, there is no one theory that is considered the “orthodox” position. The continuing development of various theories throughout the history of the church bears out that there is no one correct interpretation of relevant biblical passages. . . However, most Christians hold to a one-correct-interpretation model and clearly believe they know what the Bible says about the Atonement. The fact is that they are depending on extra-biblical sources from the early church, the medieval period, the Reformation or beyond. Most Christians are not aware that there are so many options, but are aware only of what is most emphasized in their own tradition.
Despite some wishful thinking on the part of many, it is not a viable option to suggest that the spiritual truth of the Atonement, as a reconciling act, is some mysterious combination of the dozen or so theories offered throughout the theological history of the church. In some respects, they radically oppose each other. They also represent very different views of the nature of God, some, we might suggest, quite detrimental. It has been a common strategy in scholarship of late to indict some theories as theologically abusive themselves. The question is whether these valid and necessary critiques are reaching beyond the realm of academic endeavors to laity who can somewhat superstitiously hold to what they have been taught to be the truth about the cross. And so, a theology of Atonement that focuses on the justification of the sinner in typical fashion is fraught with problems on its own, even before the introduction of the question, “what about the sinned-against” who cower at the backside of the cross? It could be said that Atonement theology in general is in turmoil.
The traditional emphasis seems clear enough: God forgives sinners. Unfortunately, this simple truth can lead us to a rather crass conclusions. If not careful, we could imply that it does not matter what we have done and whom we have hurt, God will wipe our slate clean as God throws our transgressions into the “sea of forgetfulness.” Often a focus on our psychological anxiety because we have not forgiven ourselves arises here. With a radical individualism at its base, we hear sermons or read books where we are reminded that God forgets, and that we should stop reminding God that we have sinned. We fail to remember, however, that it still exists for those who suffer from the wounds and pain we cause, and the sometimes debilitating consequences of sinful actions. They remember all too well while we use pseudo-spiritual tactics to forget; in doing so, we forget our responsibility in reconciliation and healing.
Yes, some shame that silences victims comes when their experiences are lumped into a theology that speaks only of and to sinners. Worse yet, Atonement theology can go where it should never go—sucked into the black hole of implying that we suffer because we sin, or similarly, that we are sure to be healed when we confess. Blame boomerangs back on the innocent, not just from perpetrators who spit blame and who use this strategy to control their victims (sometimes even long after the acts of victimization), but by a theology that imagines justice only as God gladly sweeping away the culpability of the guilty because “Jesus paid it all.” Certainly, it has often been implied, if not explicitly stated, that if victims do not forgive those who have transgressed against them as quickly and easily as God, they are at fault—threatened by the parable of the unmerciful servant and the re-imprisonment they deserve. They are threatened that if they do not forgive, the forgiveness they have received from God will be rescinded, like a cross necklace yanked from their necks due to their unworthiness to wear it.
[This book] is based on the belief that even traditional theories of the Atonement, that have been solely directed toward sinners who need forgiveness, can be transfigured into new sets of meaning for the sinned-against. The aim is to indeed “save the cross” by opening up new possibilities for perception, and thus new hope for healing, as it relates to violence, abandonment, and sexual abuse.
Praise for The Back Side of the Cross
“Leclerc and Peterson affirm our sinned-against brokenness and our hope of full redemption! Their prophetic voices are poignant and provocative in providing alternative theological perspectives that take survivors’ experiences and needs well into account. Although a work of theology, there are so many pastoral implications that offer brilliant helps to our everyday dilemmas of grief-stricken, abandoned, and abused parishioners. There is a balm in Gilead for those on the backside of the cross.”
—Rondy Smith, founder and CEO, Rest Stop Ministries
“Contemporary social movements are raising a level of awareness to the suffering of victims in ways that were previously without precedent. Yet, part of what I see taking place in these movements is a society attempting to grapple with victimization in the absence of a theology that adequately addresses very complex issues. … This book offers the kind of creative, astute, and well-timed theology so needed for such a time as this.”
—Timothy R. Gaines, Trevecca Nazarene University
“There are very few resources that help us understand how trauma can have an impact on the spiritual life and experience of a survivor. … This book helps bridge this gap. I have woven some of this book’s theology into my practice with clients. I have heard more than once ‘Why haven’t I ever heard this before?’ The insights offered by the authors will help pastors, clinicians, and survivors themselves work toward healing and wholeness.”
—Julie Schmidt, LCSW
“This book will be important for educators and pastors; it will be timely for Christians everywhere. More narrowly, Leclerc and Peterson’s emphasis meets a pronounced need in Wesleyan circles, in which language of atonement and holiness focuses on freedom from sin but may leave out those who have experienced unwilling violation. Instead of perceiving the atonement primarily as freeing people from guilt, this book takes seriously that the cross represents hope and redemption for those sinned against.”
—Kara Lyons Pardue, Point Loma Nazarene University
“This volume is a valuable, potent theological contribution to the growing body of literature focusing on the experiences, wisdom, and theological protest of the ‘sinned against,’ dismantling the focus of traditional atonement theologies and giving voice to so many of us who are survivors of violence.”
—Elaine A. Heath, author ofHealing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse: Reading the Bible with Survivors
About the Authors
Diane Leclerc is Professor of Historical Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Her own personal experiences and her extensive work with women in pastoral settings aids her in theological reflection on abuse and trauma.
Brent Peterson is Dean of the College of Theology and Christian Ministries and Professor of Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. He is a leading voice in the Wesleyan tradition on the sacraments, and founded the Wesleyan Liturgical Society.
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