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Confronting the violent core
of Christian belief

by Rosemary Bray McNatt

Liberal religion and traditional Christianity have made an uneasy peace in these days of ecumenism, but in our not-so-secret hearts, we Unitarian Universalists take issue with much that Christianity represents. Of all the points of contention among us, perhaps the bedrock Christian doctrine of atonement — that Jesus died to save us from our essentially sinful nature — is the hardest for UUs to bear. What kind of God, we ask, would offer his (!) own son as a human sacrifice to be beaten, tortured, and eventually murdered in order to cleanse humanity of sin? Unable to wrap our minds around this core Christian doctrine, most of us flee to the safety of our fellowships where we ridicule our gullible neighbors, or take refuge in the Dharma, or even in coffee hour.

But some of us stay at the table, struggling to reconcile our religious beliefs with a doctrine that not only seems untenable, but has proven to be downright dangerous. In their remarkable book, Proverbs of Ashes: The Trouble with Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us (Beacon Press, 2001; $27.50), theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker have created a powerful blend of personal, political, and theological sensibilities, challenging and ultimately rejecting the theology of the cross against which more than one of us has rebelled.

"We were convinced Christianity could not promise healing for victims of intimate violence as long as its central image was a divine parent who required the death of his child," writes Brock in one part of their prelude. "We wanted theology to redefine salvation — not only as forgiveness for sinners, but also as healing for those who had been the victims of sin, for the brokenhearted."

Their poignant and provocative book, written in alternating chapters that follow the Christian liturgical year, confronts the specter of violence and redemptive suffering as the insidious trap that it is, connecting family violence as well as state-sanctioned violence to the doctrine of atonement. The authors provide us with glimpses through the windows of their own losses and sorrows, relating them to a theology that sanctions violence and robs believers of wholeness. Brock and Parker's childhood experiences are among the major tools of inquiry here.

Brock, currently a research associate in Harvard Divinity School's Initiatives on Religion and Public Life, was born in Japan. Her early childhood, with loving grandparents and a familiar and embracing culture, was lost to her when her mother married and emigrated to the United States. "I was torn from the Japanese culture that gave my life stability, that taught me how to know, what to see, how to speak, whom to love, and what to hope for."

Her life in the predominantly white community around the Army base in Fort Riley, Kansas, provided the ground of her theological questioning. The traumatizing racism she endured, the violence of her stepfather's beatings, the secrets she discovered about her own origins — these and other moments are the ground from which she works, with Parker, to create a different view of Jesus' life and death. "I saw in Christianity's ideas about Jesus, a theology that made people passive and acquiescent in their own suffering, a legacy of abuse entrenched in doctrine."

"Pain is the risk of loving, not the basis of love," Brock writes. "Love saves life. I believed it was possible to find this truth in Christianity, in a view of Jesus that bound him in love to others, that recognized the caring that inspired his commitment to resist an unjust empire and made him part of a long legacy of resistance and hope."

For her part, Parker, currently President of the Starr King School for the Ministry, and a minister in dual fellowship with both the United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association, begins to question the theology of the cross as she works as a small town pastor. After preaching to her congregation about the varied oppressions of women, her midweek Bible class one day confronts her to ask that she stop preaching on the subject. When she presses the women, they respond by revealing tales of intimate violence which the group had never before shared with anyone. From her parish work as well as her personal struggles, Parker comes to understand that, "You couldn't look at Jesus on the cross and see there, as the old liturgy said, 'one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.' These ways . . . ended up sanctifying violence against women and children, valorizing suffering and pain, or denying loss. You couldn't look on the man of sorrows and give thanks to God without ending up a partner in a thousand crimes."

In Parker's case, the path of theological inquiry leads not only through parish ministry, a failed marriage, and the abortion that denied her a much-desired child, but through the battlefield of childhood sexual abuse kept secret from a loving family. "I didn't want my suffering to be imposed on anyone else in a way that injured them. I bore it in silence," she writes, recalling how her desire to be good was exploited: "'You want to be a good girl, don't you?' Of course I did. He told me that good girls don't tell about the things he did to me. Good is what my parents told me I was. If I wasn't good, I wouldn't be their girl — I would lose them, somehow. I kept quiet."

But not forever. Both Brock and Parker learned to speak from the pain they knew, struggled to recover their lives. "We have sifted the inheritance of pain and violence that has marked our lives and embraced the kindness watching for us, this side the ground," the authors tell us at the book's conclusion. "In our efforts to cleave to life, we have found the presence of God." For those of us whose encounters with life have left us unable to acknowledge even the possibility of divinity, for those of us whose struggles with questions of a just god leave us gasping for air, Brock and Parker have written a book of both sorrow and hope, and a blueprint for deeper thinking about the things that matter most.

A personal note: It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that I have known the authors for many years, and in fact faced the reviewing of this book with a certain trepidation. But though I knew this was the topic they planned to address, I could not have known how rich and satisfactory the result would be. I will be reflecting on Proverbs of Ashes for many months to come.

UU World XV:5 (November/December 2001): 55-58.

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