The Cross has been misinterpreted as pacifism; it means something more subtle and hard than ‘non-resistance’ as Tolstoy and Gandhi understood it. Rather, it means ‘don’t defend anything of God, and throw yourself fully in where evil is.’ It means, also, ‘don’t use the weapons of the devil to fight the devil= don’t meet force with force, hate with hate, evil with evil.’ And, the suffering of love is itself a mysterious way of fighting evil. It empowers you to ‘bear the brother’ rather than abandon him for his betrayals of you as a brother. It enables you to continue to hope in him as a brother, whatever he has done to rip apart the already torn fabric of human solidarity.
To return love for evil is not just to refuse vengeance and retribution for harms done to you, it is actually to refuse to judge the brother going astray in any morally ultimate sense, but to leave this in the hands of God. Indeed, ‘judge not lest you be judged’ is to have faith in God to finally bring good from all the evil we do to each other. For, if one of us is to appear before the judge to have our crimes noted and punished, then all of us will similarly appear, and similarly be convicted. David= “Yahweh, if you should mark iniquities, who could stand it?”
When we cease judging other people, we cease having to ‘justify’ ourself.
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is Christ who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before Christ comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every person will receive the praise of God” [Paul, 1 Corinthians, 4, 1-5].
Justice cannot be jettisoned, as if the severe truth of our standing for each other, and letting each other down, can be softened.
But, justice needs to be taken out of the court-room and repositioned in the worldly arena where everyone is under the hammer, and everyone is put at test because of the jeopardy everyone endures. ‘We are all in this together.’ Letting each other down means adding to the burden each and every one of us carries just by virtue of being human, and existing in the world. We hurt each other, due to our weakness and temptations, and then we damn each other moralistically, condemning each other as beyond recall.. In this way, the unity of the people in a community of shared risk and shared struggle fragments. We become inherently divided= mere discrete units, each with a self-interest, an agenda, opposing and opposed by the self-interest, the agenda, of other discrete units.
Thus= Justice to expose the problem, and the Cross to resolve it.
Christ pays the debt we all owe and are all owed which none can repay. Christ does this out of his faith in us that love can free us for love. Rather than keep final score, he rejoices that each and all of us can be restored to love, like the many cells in a single body feeding from the same blood.
Forbearance, patience, long-suffering, is also Atoning, as well as dying for the sinning, and tragically fallen, brother. For Atoning is a deed of suffering love; no more ‘passing on’ the damage and destruction, instead, we take the damage and destruction upon ourself, even if it kills us. Something more important than any kind of karmic ‘come back’ is at stake. The divine love reveals us as involved in each other, a part of each other, upheld on a mysterious heart ground that is common to us all. That ground only ‘holds’ when it upholds ‘all.’ Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you when it tolls for your brother..
The suffering at the hands of the world becomes in the end, through the intervention and example of Christ’s Passion of the Cross, a suffering with and for the world. Only he who suffers has earned the right to forgive. This is the Atonement, supremely.
Faith is ‘faith in the way it works’ — “faith in the working of God” [Paul, Colossians, 2, 12] in the world.
“If justification were through the Law, then Christ died to no purpose” [Paul, Galatians, 2, 21].
“And you, who were dead.., God made alive with Christ, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the debt which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the Cross” [Paul, Colossians, 2, 13-14].
Atonement is where suffering love steps in and takes over from primitive pay-back or even the just scales of balance.
The buck stops here.
Christ Yeshua= “You have heard that it has been said, you shall love your neighbour, and oppose your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despise you, and persecute you, so that you may be the children of your heavenly Father. For he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what virtue do you have? Don’t the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Don’t the tax collectors do this? Therefore be perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” [Mathew, 5, 43-48].
Existentially, not legally — in terms of honesty about the heart’s inner dispositions in human relating rather than legal strictures of outer behaviour — to ‘pay’ for another is to make up for their lack. You pay what they cannot, at cost to yourself. This is your sacrifice, for love of them.
Such is the Cross as Atonement.
This is nothing to do with ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’, at the best legalistic terms, and at the worst much too easily dragged into the Satanic scenario.
Expiation= to make ‘satisfaction’, as if a juridical god cannot be satisfied until the wrong in sinning is ‘made up for’ by punishment of the wrong-doer..
Propitiation= expiate also means to ‘appease’, suggesting an angry and loveless authority who demands recompense for the wrong we have done to them; we bow down to this superior authority only because they have the unilateral power to control our destiny= thus we acknowledge the recompense we owe them to appease their outrage, and we kow tow to their sovereignty over us to propitiate their anger..
Propitiate= conciliate; to render favourable..
Appease= to pacify or calm anger; to seek peace by yielding to the terms of an adversary; to appease an enemy by giving in to their demands, do as they command to mollify them.
Expiate, Propitiate and Appease= our way of trying to control that which controls us. There can be no God of Love in these low-grade notions..
Atonement, like all the mysteries of the Cross, arises from suffering love. This radical love originates within God, but is to be enacted by humanity= this is what Christ’s Atoning action of the Cross reveals.
“If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” [1 John, 4, 11].
“He who does not love his brother abides in death” [1 John, 3, 14].
“Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world” [1 John, 4, 17].
Once Atoning moves out of the court-room into the existentially testing arena of the world, it becomes clear that we all have it in our heart to suffer for each other in order to redeem each and all — or to accuse each other; or to abandon each other; or to climb over each other to get to the top. All these alternatives to Atoning for each other make the world a hell.
As the Cross bears us all, for once and forever, so over time and to whatever degree we are able, we are all called by the Cross, individually and collectively, to bear each other in the same manner, and in the same spirit.
It is one thing to bear the friend, but quite another to bear the enemy, yet Christ says that Yahweh, the Father, loves all equally, the rain falls on righteous and unrighteous alike, the sun shines on upright and wicked alike. This deed of suffering love does not foreclose prematurely on the enemy, regarding him beyond recall, but leaves a door open, trusting he is, beneath it all, capable of becoming the friend. The divine love sees human possibility differently; as Nietzsche put it= everything done for love is beyond good and evil. Morality is a fall-back position in the absence of love; when love finds a spark to ignite deep in the heart’s abyss, it kindles a love that exceeds any moral accounting, broad or narrow, sophisticated or childish, authentic or inauthentic.
This is the ‘rationale’ behind Atoning. It is not about balancing the books, making the accounts add up. It is about getting beyond that, recalling what has been lost, and in the absence of which, ‘weighing up accounts’ — in every sense — took its place. Such is the Tree of the Life of Love versus the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Atonement does not condone sin, nor magic it away. By the way we suffer each other from love, bear with each other, put up with each other, carry each other, so we keep everyone together in a brotherhood dynamically dependent upon the deeds of suffering love.
Forgiveness is arguably the very crown of Atoning because it pays the price of the evil which the evil-doer has ‘passed on.’ It is the ultimate in ‘the buck stops here.’
Nonetheless, Atoning can take many forms in human existence. St Isaac of Nineveh speaks of some of them thus=
Let yourself be persecuted but do not persecute others.
Let yourself be crucified but do not crucify others.
Let yourself be insulted but do not insult others.
Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Suffer with the sick. Be afflicted with sinners.
Exult with those who repent.
As for the sins of others, hide them, and take them on yourself.
This last deed of Atoning, so radical, was rediscovered in Tibet in the 11th century AD by Geshe Chekhawa hundreds of years after St Isaac of Syria. He stumbled by accident upon two lines by an unknown Tibetan teacher which read= “Give all profit and gain to others, take all loss and defeat on yourself.”
This is the Messianic Spirit. It does not airily transcend karma/moral consequences of action, all too easily dismissing the harshest reality of existing in this world, but ‘suffers’ it, and by a new way of suffering transforms it, through unconditional love. Such unconditional love comes only from God; without God sparking it in their innerds, humans are never capable of it, yet with God ‘at work’ in them, ‘all things are possible’..
In the deed of Atonement made by the Cross of Christ, the stronger carries the weaker, like a load. This is because God carries all of us, as a load. It is done from love– or it cannot be done.
We suffer for each other to redeem our ‘standing together’ as the ultimate.