Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Forgiveness of Sins and Divine Solidarity with the Oppressed.

It has taken me longer than I'd like to admit to realize that the choice between progressive politics and traditional faith is a false dichotomy. Thankfully, there are many faithful examples to show that the task of theology necessarily includes prophetic witness to the cause of oppression (Stringfellow, Romero, Gutiérrez, Barth, etc.). As one who was raised in evangelicalism, the cause of the suffering and oppressed was not emphasized much. This general trend is no surprise and the neglect of global oppression is well-noted by liberation theologies. Yet, after taking a liberation theology course this past fall, I struggled with the binaries between the oppressor and the oppressed. I noticed the binaries even more at the liberation theology session this year at AAR. My continual experience of this forced dichotomy left me wondering if the only way forward is to abandon a commitment to the understanding that Jesus Christ died for sinners. In my own understanding, Jesus Christ is first priest, and from that mediation He becomes our liberation. However, this becomes all the more complicated when one realizes that most who are committed to Jesus Christ's primary office as our priestly Mediator (including much of the great tradition) don't see that liberation is a necessary consequence (either in speech or act). To me, liberation of the oppressed is neither optional nor a fashionable add-on to conjure up some sort of relevant Christianity. Thus, I feel very torn.

All of that background information serves to show the significance of the following excerpt. Hunsinger's words are a verbalization of all that I wanted to say, but could not for so long (and far better than I ever could). The only amendment I would make is that there are not only "good reasons" for connecting atonement for sin and divine solidarity with the oppressed, but rather necessary reasons. If this sort of objective theological orientation does not offer genuine freedom for the oppressed and suffering, what hope is there for humanity? It must always be said that the cause of liberation is a necessary and direct consequence of the forgiveness of sins. Parsing out this connection for the Church is the task of the theologian in the next century:
"During the last twenty-five years or so, the church has increasingly witnessed the emergence of victim-oriented soteriologies. The plight of victims, variously specified and defined, has been urged by prominent theologians as the central soteriological problem. It can scarcely be denied that the history of the twentieth century has pushed the plight of the victims to the fore. Nor can it be denied that the church has too often seemed ill-equipped to bring the plight of victims, especially victims of oppression and social injustice, clearly into focus for itself so that reasonable and faithful remedies might be sought. Victim-oriented soteriologies have undoubtedly made an important contribution to a better understanding of the church's social responsibility.

Polarizations and animosities have developed, however, to the extent that the plight of victims has displaced the soteriological plight of sinners, or even eclipsed it. Victim-oriented soteriologies have unfortunately tended to define the meaning of sin entirely in terms of victimization. Sin ceases to be a universal category. It attaches to perpetrators and to them alone. Since by definition victims qua victims are innocent of being perpetrators, they are to that extent innocent of sin. If sin attaches only to perpetrators, however, victims can be sinners only by somehow becoming perpetrators themselves (a move not unknown in victim-oriented soteriologies). Victim-oriented soteriologies, with their bipolar opposition between victims and perpetrators, display a logic with sectarian tendencies.

How the cross of Christ is understood by these soteriologies is also worth noting. The cross becomes meaningful because it shows the divine solidarity with victims, generally ceasing to find any other relevance, at least positively. (In extreme cases, the theology of the cross is trashed as a cause of victimization. But such denunciations, when meant de jure, exceed the bounds even of heterodoxy and so cease to be of constructive interest to the church.) The cross, in any case, is no longer the supreme intervention for the forgiveness of sins. It is not surprising that more traditional, sin-oriented soteriologies should react with unfortunate polarization. When that happens, however, sin as a universal category obscures the plight of oppression's victims, rendering that plight just as invisible or irrelevant as it was before. Atonement without solidarity seems to exhaust the significance of the cross, and forgiveness supposedly occurs without judgment on oppression.

The task of generous orthodoxy in this situation is to dispel the polarization by letting central truths be central, and lesser truths be lesser, but in each case letting truth be truth. No reason exists why the cross as atonement for sin should be viewed as logically incompatible with the cross as divine solidarity with the oppressed. Good reasons can be found for connecting them. The great, historical, ecumenical consensus remains, however, that the central significance of the cross, as attested by holy scripture, is the forgiveness of sins. This established consensus pervades every aspect of the church's life, not least including baptism and the Lord's Supper."

- George Hunsinger, "Social Witness in Generous Orthodoxy: The New Presbyterian 'Study Catechism'", 56.

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