Can violence save?
Challenging the theology of redemptive suffering.
"He killed her," Pat said, "with a kitchen knife. In front of three of their children. The baby was sleeping."
She turned and looked out the window, her face still as stone. Her hands gripped the mug of tea so tightly I thought the stoneware would crack. I followed my friend's gaze out the steamy kitchen windows. Gulls circled and cried above the salt marsh, across the slough that edged the main road. The rickety old docks, the gas station, and the gravel parking lot of the church looked weary in the dripping rain. It was typical weather for South Bend, Washington, along the shores of Willapa Bay, a wide, shallow backwater of the Pacific Ocean.
The Methodist parsonage, Pat's home, was perched on the hillside next to the church. Behind the house, Douglas fir, cedar, and big leaf maples climbed the hill, crowded underneath with huckleberry, salmonberry, and sword fern. Against the forest, the bay, the tide flats, and the unceasing rain, the small community felt fragile.
I knew this land. It was home. I'd started life on the other side of this bay, where the Grays River flowed into a similar muddy harbor, and the big towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen stood. I knew the people—hardy, good-natured, plain. I knew that behind the glassed-in storm porches of the gray-and-white clapboard houses there were interior spaces warmed with sawdust-burning stoves, steaming cups of coffee, friendly conversation, and laughter. As a child, I'd visited these homes with my father when he was making pastoral calls. In my heart, home would always be a place that smelled of coffee and wood smoke, a place where the entryway was crowded with tall rubber boots, dripping slickers, and plaid wool shirts.
But I knew better than to think all the homes were friendly. There were interior spaces where children were molested and wives were beaten, where voices spoke words that silenced, terrified, and controlled. This hadn't changed.
Pat and I had known each other since junior high. Now we were both United Methodist clergywomen. I'd come to visit her, driving three hours from the neighborhood parish I served in Seattle. Our conversations over tea were a ritual of friendship, and also part of our practice of ministry. Ministry is a lonely profession. By talking together, pouring our hearts out to each other, we eased the loneliness and gained insight into the work we'd chosen.
Pat had tried to help Anola Dole Reed, the woman whose murder she had just told me about. "When I got to South Bend," she said, "I discovered there weren't any social services for victims of domestic violence. The closest services were two or three hours away by car. That's too far for a woman who needs emergency shelter. I let it be known, quietly, that women in need of a safe space could come to my house."
Pat's choice made sense. It's an ancient principle: church property as sanctuary. Despite religion's failures, people come to churches counting on hospitality for the hungry and frightened, harbor for the distressed, shelter for the unjustly persecuted and pursued. People show up expecting the church to be the holy site where divine mercy and strength can be obtained and where human kindness can be counted on. Your job is to keep the sanctuary open and tend the sacred ground.
Pat cared about women who were being battered in their homes. She created a way to provide assistance for them. She turned back from the window and looked down into her tea. "It's just hard," she said, "not to be able to stop it. Almost every woman who’s come here for refuge has gone back to her violent husband or boyfriend. She thinks it's her religious duty. I counsel her otherwise. I tell her it's her religious duty to protect her own life and take care of herself so she can protect her children. But my words and this shelter"—Pat gestured around the damp and slightly dilapidated parsonage—"are not enough."
We had to do something about this, somehow. We couldn't just sit here. Were we destined to be nothing more than compassionate witnesses? Was our job simply to conduct the memorial services, comfort the grieving families, and pray for the children whose remaining parent was the murderer of their mother?
Pat had done more. She organized a drop-in support group for abused women. She knew that women needed resources to resist the violence in their lives.
Anola came to the group a few times. Pat offered her support and counsel. When Anola's husband assaulted her, the group gave her the courage to call the police. She was reluctant to press charges, but an activist prosecutor brought her husband to trial. Pat accompanied Anola to court and stood by her as she took the courageous step to testify against her husband. "He knocked me to the floor. He got on top of me and twisted my hand and kept telling me that I'd better start listening to him and do what he wants me to do," she said in court. Gordon James Reed was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to ten days in the county jail.
"While he was in jail, Anola got her ears pierced." Pat smiled broadly, remembering. "It was her act of defiance, a way of saying this is my body. He would never have let her do that. She was so pleased with herself. Then he got out of jail."
"She let him come home, didn’t she," I said with sadness. "Why?"
"She thought it would be the right thing, in God's eyes. In the church she went to, the intact family was celebrated as God's will; father, mother, and children were meant to be together in a loving home. Anola believed that because this configuration of family was the will of God, God would somehow make it all right. For her to break up the family would make her a bad person. Doing the will of God was more important than her personal safety. The possibility that faithfulness to God's will might mean pain and violence could even have been in its favor. A good woman would be willing to accept personal pain, and think only of the good of the family. You know, 'Your life is only valuable if it's given away' and 'This is your cross to bear.' She heard, just like you and I have, that Jesus didn't turn away from the cup of suffering when God asked him to drink it. She was trying to be a good Christian, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus."
Pat counseled Anola to embrace the sacredness of her own life and not to submit to abuse. But it was important to Anola to hold fast to the image of virtue that her church taught her. "I have been trying to hold our marriage together for seven years," she said at the assault trial, "with my head split open three or four times by him." Anola believed God expected her to risk being battered, like Jesus. Her husband reinforced the message, defending his actions saying, "I just kept trying to convince her that we had a marriage here and she had children and everything and that she was destroying it."
Anola allowed her husband back into her home, but she continued to struggle with her decision. She went to her home church pastor for counsel. He, like Pat, encouraged Anola to take care of herself and her children. She came home that evening and told Gordon Reed that she wanted him to leave. He went into a rage. He knocked her to the floor with the baby’s high chair and began stabbing her.
Later that night her four-year-old daughter would tell police, "Mommy was bad so Daddy killed her." Her five-year-old son would tell what happened. "I got in the way. Daddy said, 'Get out of the way,' when I tried to stop him. Daddy said he was mad. He said Mommy was a bad woman. Daddy had a high chair and was hitting Mommy. She wasn’t crying because she was bleeding. Then Daddy got the knife."
The daughter said, "We thought Mommy had spilled something on her. But she didn't. It was blood. Daddy bent the knife in Mommy's tummy then he went to get the sharp knife. Mommy only used it to cut bread. He stuck her with the big sharp knife. Mommy was on the floor in the kitchen."
"We was crying when Daddy was killing Mommy," the son said.
Gordon Reed stabbed Anola 18 times using 10 knives. The big kitchen knife was still lodged in her neck when the police found her body. He was sentenced to 20 years. "Her mother came for the funeral," Pat said. "She insisted that Anola be buried wearing her prettiest earrings in her pierced ears. I think it was a way to say, 'My daughter isn't just a victim.'"
"Pat," I said, "the only way you could have helped Anola more is if the whole Christian tradition taught something other than self-sacrificing love. If it didn't preach that to be like Jesus we have to give up our lives in faithful obedience to the will of God."
"But," Pat said, "this is what the church teaches. And Anola Reed is dead. I know Gordon Reed is the one responsible. He killed her. But I can't escape the feeling that he wouldn't have had the chance if the church hadn't taught Anola that your life is only valuable if you give it away."
Not long after my visit with Pat, I got pregnant. It was my husband who had proposed that we start a family. We were both finished with graduate school, he was busy composing music, and I was settled in the parish. It seemed like the right time. We'd been trying for six months.
I knew I was pregnant the day after Easter. The double-blossom cherry was blooming. The spring rain filled the air with damp fragrance. I felt the life beginning inside of me as if it were an enormous gift. My heart was full of joy.
When I told my husband the news, the blood drained from his face. We were sitting across from one another at a favorite restaurant. I had taken his hands in mine to tell him. The Formica tabletop expanded between us as he pulled back and let go of my hands. "I'm not ready to be a father," he said. "I can’t do this. I'm not sure I want to stay with you. The only way I can imagine our marriage having a chance is for you to have an abortion." I felt his words as if they were a physical blow—swift, precise, unexpected.
"This is my decision to make," I said, claiming the only ground I could find to stand on.
During the next few weeks I considered my choices. The prospect of losing my marriage and becoming a single mother was overwhelming. I didn't think I could be a single mother and meet my responsibilities as the pastor of a church. I would have to give up my vocation and go on welfare. Worst of all, I couldn’t face the shame of being abandoned by my husband. I was afraid I would kill myself. I did not believe that anyone around me would be compassionate or supportive. Years later, looking back, I would know that many of these assumptions were wrong. My family would not have hesitated to help me, had I asked. The church, too, would have stood by me. But, at the time, I withdrew.
I had learned to hide pain early in life. When I was three, four, and five the neighbor who lived around the corner had groomed me to trust him. Then he had molested me, orally raping me repeatedly. The anxiety, fear, and pain of that experience and the fierce bond I'd formed with the abuser were traumas I could not and did not tell. He terrified me with threats that silenced me. Living with hidden abuse in turn intensified my dependence on my parents' love and care. I needed them, but was too frightened to tell them why. I wanted still to be the sturdy and happy child that my parents adored, so I tried to be like them. They were kind and generous people who put others first. I never saw them angry, upset, or frightened. Internalizing my parents' way of being kept me close to them and protected me from terror.
I forgot the sexual abuse. I'd learned to excise part of myself to preserve relationship. It was what a good person did. The good person cares for others, but if she herself is hurt, frightened, confused, or in need, these weaknesses are to be nursed in private, covered over, or solved without bothering anyone else.
In late May, when the lilacs were heavy with purple blossoms, I allowed a doctor to remove from my body what would have become my only child. It was 1982. I was 29. The abortion was performed in safe, legal, medical conditions.
I chose abortion to save myself from shame, loss, and fears of suicide; to save a child from coming into the world without a father; to save a marriage; and to save the father from something he feared.
It was a willing sacrifice, I thought. An enactment of love for my husband and hope for our future. But the loss of my child cut deep. I kept the pain secret. Only two friends knew about the abortion. The daily tasks of church life were a mercy. The midweek women’s Bible study, choir practice, writing a column for the church newsletter—these tasks steadied me.
But our future did not unfold as I’d hoped. My husband and I didn't speak of the abortion. We tried to repair the rift in our marriage, but within a few months, he took an apartment across town. I was left with grief and shame. During the day I did my job, but at night, I wrestled with anguish. I wanted to die. I was troubled that the choice to sacrifice came so easily.
The gesture of sacrifice was familiar. I knew the rubrics of the ritual by heart: you cut away some part of yourself, then peace and security are restored, relationship is preserved, and shame is avoided.
What if my choice for an abortion was the performance of a ritual that I was trained to enact, not the exercise of genuine moral discernment? I began trying to understand why the gesture of sacrifice was so easy, so familiar to my body, so related to my sexuality, and so futile. Why did I know so well how to do it? Why did the women I knew as friends, counseled as parishioners, preached to in my congregation, know so well how to sacrifice?
I recognized that Christianity had taught me that sacrifice is the way of life. I forgot the neighbor who raped me, but I could see that when theology presents Jesus' death as God’s sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice. To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive.
But what if this is not true? What if nothing, or very little, is saved? What if the consequence of sacrifice is simply pain, the diminishment of life, fragmentation of the soul, abasement, shame? What if the severing of life is merely destructive of life and is not the path of love, courage, trust, and faith? What if the performance of sacrifice is a ritual in which some human beings bear loss and others are protected from accountability or moral expectations?
My decision for an abortion was the best I could do in the circumstances. The moral position that would ask my husband to keep faith with the child he had fathered eluded me. I lacked trust that the larger community of family, religious community, and society would care for a child abandoned by its father. I wanted the child, but I sacrificed the desires of my heart and let go of a life that I cherished. I didn't exercise much choice. I obeyed a ritual.
The consequence of the ritual was sorrow. Nothing was redeemed or saved. I felt bereft. I grieved the lost pregnancy and my husband's absence. I also grieved an older loss. The abortion made me aware of an interior vacuity—an absence of self-possession, of self-protection, of freedom. I was missing an internal space in my own body that was free from the imperative of self-sacrifice. I had no inner sanctuary.
Lent: Season of ashes
In the midst of my questions, Lent arrived. In the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus tells his disciples, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again" (Luke 18: 31–33).
My understanding of this gospel text had been shaped by Bach’s cantatas, which I'd played many times as a cellist. One cantata begins with Jesus singing an aria announcing that he has set his face toward Jerusalem. "Don't go! Don't go!" the disciples respond, pleading with Jesus to avoid the dangerous path. But Jesus rebukes them. Then the cello and harpsichord sound out a lilting walk, almost a dance, and the aria of the exemplary believer is sung—an exquisite, joyful duet. One singer proclaims, "With willing feet, I follow thee." The other singer, representing Jesus, dances in harmonious joy. The final chorale is a prayer sung by the whole congregation, "Give us the strength to go with you to Jerusalem."
I had loved this music. When the disciples protested, imploring Jesus not to go, I felt their longing to see a loved one spared. I recognized their protest as a voice of love and I cheered them on. When Jesus responded that he must go, I felt the determination to face whatever had to be faced and I was moved by his strength. This felt like love too. When the exemplary believer sings her joyful duet with Jesus, pledging herself to follow him to Jerusalem and the cross, I wanted to be like her. If only my reluctance to bear suffering for the sake of love could likewise be overcome!
But now I questioned all of this. I grieved with Pat that Anola Reed had tried so hard to be a good Christian, and now she was dead. Hadn't Anola Reed, like Jesus, set her face toward Jerusalem? She had been mocked, scourged, and slain. Her young children were the witnesses at the foot of her cross. Their father, her crucifier. Though he was in prison, he still had custody of them. Killing their mother didn't disqualify him from maintaining his parental rights, just as God the Father wasn't denied his for sending his Son to the cross.
My desire to save my marriage had led me to sacrifice the life in my own body. The grief of this would not let me go.
What was the problem here? Were Anola and I just mixed up? Were the teachings of the church sound and good, but our comprehension and application flawed? I didn't think so. We had applied the theology of the church directly to our lives, theology that we had internalized deeply. I'd sung the hymn, "Lord, I am able to be crucified with thee."
My childhood experience had helped me construct an idealized self who lived for others and disregarded her own needs. When I chose to have the abortion, I was fighting to preserve this self. As I struggled with the aftermath of grief, I wanted to maintain the ideal of goodness. These lessons and ideals isolated me and deepened my anguish.
I could not keep silent about this theology. I began to argue with the members of my theological family. Because the teachings of the church are public, and because I had a public office as an ordained minister, I argued publicly from the pulpit, during Lent.
The first Sunday: Jesus pays the price
"Here is how the theological story is told," I said to the congregation.
"In the beginning, human beings lived in the Garden of Eden, in perfect harmony with God. But Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God. Because of their sinfulness, God had no recourse but to demand repayment for the harm they caused. We inherit their sin. The penalty for sin is death. God loves us and doesn't want to punish us. But his honor has been shamed. God is torn between love for us and the requirements of justice. To resolve this problem, he sends his only son Jesus into the world to pay the price we owe, to bear the punishment that all of humanity deserves.
"Anselm of Canterbury formulated the first statement of this substitutionary atonement theology in the 12th century. In Why Did God Become Human? Anselm said, 'No one can give himself more fully to God than when there is self-surrender to death for God's honor.'
"Jesus struggles with the assignment to be our substitute. He prays, 'Father, let this cup pass from me.' But Jesus loves his father and honors the request even though it means a terrible death. Adam and Eve were disobedient, but Jesus obeys. 'Let thy will, not mine, be done.' On the cross, Jesus bears the punishment we deserve and we are set free."
Summarizing this theology to the congregation, I looked around from the pulpit at the faces of the people of the church. I knew that for some this was the core Christian message. It told them they were loved, forgiven, and freed. The world had done its best to stamp the last bit of self-respect out of them. The substitutionary theory of the atonement lifted them up and renewed their confidence. It told them their lives had worth.
Who was I to disrupt this faith or put it down? But I felt compelled not to let the sermon end there. I made my way forward, taking careful steps, affirming that each of us is the beloved child of God. It felt like the pulpit was a plow I was pushing through difficult ground. There were land mines and rose bushes planted at random. I wanted the ground to support life and beauty, not to hold hidden bombs that would endanger lives. I continued the sermon:
"A generation after Anselm of Canterbury wrote this theology, Abelard in his Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans questioned it. 'Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child?' he asked. 'How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!'
"If God is imagined as a fatherly torturer, earthly parents are also justified, perhaps even required, to teach through violence. Children are instructed to understand their submission to pain as a form of love. Behind closed doors, in our own community, spouses and children are battered by abusers who justify their actions as necessary, loving discipline. 'I only hit her because I love her.' 'I'm doing this for your own good.' The child or the spouse who believes that obedience is what God wants may put up with physical or sexual abuse in an effort to be a good Christian.
"Theology that defines virtue as obedience to God suppresses the virtue of revolt. A woman being battered by her husband will be counseled to be obedient, as Jesus was to God. After all, Eve brought sin into the world by her disobedience. A good woman submits to her husband as he submits to God.
"But obedience is not a virtue. It is an evasion of our responsibility. Religion must engage us in the exercise of our responsibilities, not teach us to deny the power that is ours.
"A God who punishes disobedience will teach us to obey and endure when it would be holy to protest and righteous to refuse to cooperate."
I ended the sermon by appealing for a different image of God. We need a God who delights in revolutionary disobedience and spirited protest. Was not Jesus one such as this—a prophet who confronted injustices and risked opposition rather than conform to an empire that enforced its oppressive will through violence?
To myself, I wondered, if Anola Reed had believed in a God who supported protest, might she have protested and resisted her husband’s violence? If her husband didn't regard God as the divine enforcer of obedience, would he have enforced obedience from his wife with violence? Would they have had more of a chance at life?
The second Sunday: Self-sacrificing love
"Disobedience," I said the second week, "is not universally regarded as the root human sin.
"The 19th-century liberal Protestants were disquieted by the image of God as a wrathful, punishing deity. They rejected the substitutionary theory of the atonement and developed a different understanding of the cross.
"In A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbush argued that, 'When theological definitions speak of rebellion against God as the common characteristic of all sin, it reminds one of the readiness of despotic governments to treat every offense as treason . . . [But] our universe is not a despotic monarchy . . . It is a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.'
"Rauschenbush defined sin as betrayal of the bonds of care among human beings. The root of sin is not rebellious refusal to obey God, but a deep-seated selfishness. Sin disregards the needs and well-being of the neighbor in a heedless pursuit of self-centered wants. Selfishness is more than a personal failing. It is a transpersonal evil, institutionalized in social systems that benefit some individuals while exploiting and oppressing many others. If selfishness is the core human failing, the cure is loving concern for others, the transcendence of selfishness.
"The importance of Jesus for liberal Christians is not that he paid the price for sin. Jesus is important because he embodied loving concern for others and called people to love their neighbors. Jesus confronted the oppressive ruler of his day and was not afraid to risk his life doing so.
"Disciples of Jesus are called to follow in his footsteps. With him, we are to willingly take up our cross and bear the burdens that come with caring unselfishly for others. With his help and inspiration, no amount of pain need sway us from our devotion to serve others. In this way, we will embody God's love for all humanity."
I was preaching the theology I had heard all my life in the Methodist church. During much of my childhood, my own father and grandfather preached this and exemplified it in their lives. So did my mother and grandmother. They practiced unselfish devotion with a stunning and moving consistency. Social gospel Christianity promised healing and progress for society and gave joy and meaning to the lives of those who followed this path.
I was deeply committed to the values that had shaped me: social witness, service to others, and an intellectually responsible faith. The courageous activism of my family’s religious tradition called me to speak out against wrongs. I needed this heritage of courage now. I had to confront the limits of my theological tradition. For all it had given me, it was not enough as I struggled with the grief that would not let me go.
At night, I was pacing the hall of the parsonage, hysterical with sorrow. My maternal arms were empty. The child I had welcomed with joy was never born. I let him or her go because love cares for the other, and no amount of personal sacrifice for the sake of love is too much. I struggled to regain my husband’s affection and attention. I prayed for the strength to keep loving him, regardless of the humiliation, rejection, and betrayal I felt.
"Dear God, please give me the strength to never give up on love. Please give me the grace to follow the way Jesus taught, to love no matter what, to endure no matter what. Help me to forgive, help me to forbear, help me to keep my vow of love."
One night, praying this prayer, I received an answer. It came in the midst of my silent pleading, as if it were the voice of God. The answer was one, simple, clear word: No.
This "no" startled me, but I understood its meaning. It meant that some authority, within or beyond me, rejected self-sacrificing love. I pondered this, wondering if there was another direction that the source of life to whom I appealed in prayer might lead me.
I looked out at the congregation that Sunday morning, and I pushed the plow of my sermon a little further along the rocky ground.
"As valuable as social gospel theology is, it does not hold all that religion needs to be able to hold. It fails to take into account that in women's lives the central sin may not be selfishness. It may be just the opposite: a lack of a sense of self.
"Women are culturally conditioned to care for others, but not ourselves. We believe that having needs, feelings, ambitions, or thoughts of our own is not good. In this self-abnegation, we enact a culturally prescribed role that perpetuates sexist social structures. The needs and thoughts of men matter, but not ours. Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies."
I paused and took a deep breath. Every eye in the congregation was fixed on me. My words described familiar experiences for the men and women in the congregation, but they weren't used to hearing this from the pulpit. I didn't have the courage to expose how relevant the words were to my own life, but I went on.
"When we aren't present in our own bodies, our closest relationships can become empty. In sexual intimacy, our husband or lover may feel he is embracing an absence. We ourselves may feel we don’t really exist. Intimacy ceases being a joy and becomes an unarticulated loss.
"The Bible suggests that sexism marks the fall of humanity. Exiled from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are cursed with the loss of mutuality. Women will experience their sexuality as a source of pain, and men will lord it over them (Genesis 3: 16). Primordial estrangement from God is manifest in social systems of dominance and submission.
"We don't need to be saved from the wrath of God or the sin of selfishness. We need to be saved from the gender socialization that teaches women to abnegate selfhood and teaches men to depend on the service of subordinates. The dynamic of dominance and submission in human relations is the heart of sin. What will save us from this?
"Does Jesus' self-sacrifice on the cross end dominance and submission? No. Jesus' crucifixion was a consequence of domination, not its cure. An oppressive system killed him to silence him and to threaten others who might follow him. Domination still operates in our world and has left many lives bereft of intimacy and joy."
My sermon hit close to home for many. My own pain, albeit cloaked, had entered the public sphere.
Midweek the women's Bible class met at noon, as usual. The women had started the class when their children were young. Now they were in their 70s and 80s, and the group had become small. Every Wednesday, as they'd done for 40 years, they packed a brown-bag lunch and came to church to read and discuss the Bible together. The pastor always met with them.
This week, as we were unwrapping our sandwiches, there was an uncomfortable silence. Then one of them turned to me and spoke. "We've talked about this and decided we need to say something to you about your sermons. You have to stop talking about women being oppressed and saying those things happen to women, like battering and rape."
"Why?" I asked, somewhat taken aback.
All at once, all the women burst into tears. One by one they spoke. Marion said, "When I was a child I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather used to beat my grandmother terribly. He'd go after her, and I thought he would kill her. I'd try to put myself between him and her to get him to stop. Then he would beat me, too." When Marion spoke the rage and grief in her face and voice was as intense as if this violence had happened that morning.
Then Violet said, "Every day of my marriage I have been raped." I was startled to hear this. "What do you mean?" I asked. She said, "In our marriage, I am not allowed to make any decisions. My opinion, my wishes, my thoughts are never honored. He acts against my will. I have no will of my own. That's what I mean by rape."
June Ellen spoke. "My husband doesn't talk to me when he is angry at me. Sometimes I have no idea why. Right now he's angry at me. I cook him breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, and sleep with him at night, but he won't speak to me. He hasn't spoken to me for three months."
After listening to the women I asked, "How have you lived with these things? Have you talked to one another, helped one another?" They looked around at one another and shook their heads.
The women had known one another all their adult lives, but they had hidden their memories of abuse and their daily experiences of humiliation. They'd taught Sunday school, run the women's society, raised money for agricultural mission projects in Africa, India, and China, organized food drives and clothing collections for the poor in our own city, managed the church's finances, put out the weekly bulletin, sung together in the choir—but they had never told one another about the daily pain in their own lives. My sermons were disrupting their ability to suffer in silence.
"You are asking me to help you continue to keep your experience silent," I said to them. "Do you really want to do that?" They talked about what it had been like to remain silent. By the end of the conversation, the women were laughing through their tears. The warmth of their affection and their compassion for each other filled the room. They turned to me again, "We think you should keep preaching about what happens in women's lives."
The mask of violence
My objection to every theology of the cross was that it mystified violence and offered dangerously false comfort. The restless concern, the fire in my bones, was to face violence in the world more squarely. Theology cloaked violence and taught people to endure it. Christianity's denial of violence appalled me.
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." You couldn’t see the face of love. You couldn't see a model for an interior psychological process of dying and rising. You couldn't see pain inflicted by God for the spiritual edification of believers. All these ways of seeing Jesus on the cross 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.
The actual historical event of Jesus' crucifixion was neither sweet nor saving. In Jesus' time, the Romans occupied all of Palestine. The Romans suppressed resistance by terrorizing the local population. Crucifixion was their most brutal form of capital punishment. It took place in full public view, to teach a lesson through terror.
To say that Jesus' executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God. It is to say that those who loved and missed Jesus, those who did not want him to die, were wrong, that enemies who cared nothing for him were right. The dominant traditions of Western Christianity have turned away from the suffering of Jesus and his community, abandoning the man on the cross.
Atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific. Intimate violence ends sin. Behind the holy mask of intimate violence, state violence disappears.
A new theology begins here
What words tell the truth? What balms heal? What proverbs kindle the fires of passion and joy? What spirituality stirs the hunger for justice? We seek answers to these questions—not only for ourselves but for our communities and our society. What are the ways of being with one another that enable life to flourish, rich with meaning? When violence has fractured communities, isolated people, and broken hearts, how can life be repaired? We ask these questions not to arrive at final answers, but because asking them is fundamental to living.
We have worked with those afflicted by abuse and violence, whose exposure to war has limited their capacities to feel, whose internalization of messages of hate and disrespect has led to self-destruction and injury to others. We have contended with these realities in our own lives.
In the Bible, prophets and teachers repeatedly contend with their religion’s failures and false claims. Job railed against the pious teachings of his day as he struggled with devastating loss and illness. The teachings of his friends reinforced his suffering. "Your maxims are proverbs of ashes!" he protested. Jesus challenged the Temple authorities who oppressed his people: "You have made my father’s house a den of thieves!" Judaism and Christianity claim that life is good and that there is an author of life who wants our freedom and joy. Our religious heritage gives us the imperative to confront it when it fails to foster life or advocate for justice.
It also asks us to witness to grace. Grace has come to us in unexpected ways, in the midst of life. We have known healing, courage, restored love—salvation. From these experiences of grace we have arrived at a new theology. We see how to live in resistance to violence; we see how to live in love and in truth without denying bitter realities. We have learned how to use power, how to create places of hospitality for human flourishing, how to be present, how to choose life.
We have felt a fire in the heart of things, intimated in moments of surprise, a power that guards, judges, and continually recreates life. Echoing the biblical poets, we call this fire 'spirit,' this power 'presence.' We have seen how those who glimpse this fire reverence life. This presence, felt as mystery and offered as faithfulness to one another, sustains and heals life. It calls for justice.
We have experienced life-giving communities that foster knowledge of spirit, awareness of presence. We know that, at their best, healthy communities practice the right use of the powers of life and lead people to experience wholeness, right relationship, and beauty. When this happens, such communities teach us to know ourselves and the world as sacred and sustain an ethic of appreciative care for life.
Violence denies presence and suffocates spirit. Violence robs us of knowledge of life and its intrinsic value; it steals our awareness of beauty, of complexity, of presence. Violence ignores vulnerability, dependence and interdependence. A person who acts violently disregards self and other as distinct, obliterating the spaces in which spirit breathes.
We can resist and redress violence by acting for justice and by being present: present to one another, present to beauty, present to the fire at the heart of things, the spirit that gives breath to life.
Jesus has been betrayed by his own tradition. A military empire murdered him. His life and work were not furthered by his death. His execution ruptured his community. Its scattered ashes were difficult to restore to fire. We cannot say what would have happened if Jesus had not been murdered, but we can say that unjust, violent death is traumatizing. Christianity bears the marks of unresolved trauma. Jesus’ resurrection and the continuation of his movement are not triumphs, but a glimpse of the power of survival, of the embers that survive the deluge.
To know that the presence of God endures through violence is to know life holds more than its destruction.
Salvation begins with the courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady. Steady witnesses neither flee in horror to hide their eyes, nor console with sweet words, “It isn’t all that bad. Something good is intended by this.” Steady witnesses end the hidden life of violence by bringing it to public attention. They help to restore souls fragmented by violence. They accompany the journey to healing.
Salvation requires love. Fainthearted love, idealized love, impatient love cannot walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Healing love touches the hidden wounds of violation, lances the places of stored trauma, restores glimpses of soul. The world offers too few such love and care. Violence persists.
Salvation also requires mourning. We must cross the raging rivers of grief to rest before the still waters of blessing. In grief, knowledge of loss finds its clarity. Grief knows that life has been altered with finality. Grief knows presence by its absence. It measures the weight of tragedy. It holds the memory of what might have been. Mourning deepens reverence for what is precious, what is already destroyed, what must be embraced with fierce determination, abiding faithfulness.
Those who cannot grieve fail to recognize when life is at risk. Mourning strengthens our ability to choose life and protect it, even as the pain of grief threatens to destroy us. Those who mourn experience the mystery of a presence that is not wholly lost, that accompanies the living with a tenderness and power that alters their lives. The world changes. The surface mask thins, life becomes luminous with fire. The heart expands its breadth. Love is as strong as death.
Grief is never overcome or removed, but remains part of living. To yearn for the return of the ones who have died, long after they have gone, is a sign to the living that love does not die with death, but lives on in those left behind. We know love in the relationships that sustain us, in the longest, most important friendships of our lives, the steady witnesses.
This is God with us: quiet moments of mutual discovery by friends sharing coffee on a sunlit afternoon, tears appearing on a frozen face, a community meeting that resists violence, the embrace that holds the other through the terrors of the night, the sheltering moon watching over the unblessed child, an old woman keeping faded photographs on a mirror, the dark ocean shimmering with diamonds.
Let us say that life shows us the face of God only in fleeting glimpses, by the light of night fires, in dancing shadows, in departing ghosts, and in recollections of steady love. Let us say this is enough, enough for us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, enough for us to stand against violence, enough for us to hold each other in benediction and blessing.
Excerpted from Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, published by Beacon Press. Copyright © 2001 by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press. See sidebar for links related to this article.