The Cross and the Lynching Tree—Atonement Theology and Beyond

Several people have expressed interest in my recent sermon about my concerns with atonement theology. Let me first say that I might never have preached this sermon if our church weren’t doing a sermon series on “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bible But Were Afraid to Ask,” where congregants got to submit questions that formed the basis of our worship. One of my favorite congregants asked the question, “If we worship an all-loving, justice-oriented God, how could He demand that his son be sacrificed?” Here’s a close approximation of the sermon I preached. (I preach from notes so I can be more present with the congregation, but this is my best recollection of what I said.)


I remember the exact moment I decided to start hosting bible study in this congregation. I had been here a year or two, and one of the newer members of the congregation led a communion meditation about Jesus’ love and compassion and about the Roman empire’s violent murder of Jesus. He never mentioned how Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan of salvation. And so after worship one of the longtime members of the congregation said to me, “You have to start teaching these new people that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”


The new member overheard this and jumped in. “I’ve actually studied this. I know that’s what we’ve been taught to believe. I know it’s kind of conventional wisdom. But I’ve read a lot and I’ve decided that idea of God needing a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us is just Cosmic Child Abuse. It doesn’t fit with my understanding of a God of love.”


The longtime member turned away from him, faced me head on, and said, “See? You need to start teaching them that Jesus died on the cross for our sins!”

For those of us who have attended bible studies in the years since then, we’ve learned that our members have diverse opinions, and we can respect that diversity. But not everyone comes to bible study, and we haven’t had this discussion here in worship. So I want to offer some thoughts on the subject.


I’ll be honest; my thinking is shaped significantly by James Cone’s newest book: The Cross and the Lynching Tree. James Cone is one of my favorite theologians and the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Cone grew up in the South, afraid he wouldn’t see his father each night. His mother would comfort him, and faith brought some comfort as well. But he began thinking about that message he heard in church to suffer quietly and wait for his reward in heaven. Over the years he’s begun to wonder about the redemptive role of violence.


You all know our beloved member Rita Nakashima Brock. The first time I met Rita, she was talking about her seminal work, Proverbs of Ashes. I’m saying it slowly so you can remember it, because you need to read it. In that book, her co-author talked about World War Two soldiers who weren’t allowed to talk about the horrors of war, the horrors of killing, because it was the Good War. She talked about the ways she saw scripture used to permit the abuse of women. Her more recent work shows that Christians support torture at higher levels than people of other religions.


Around the same time I met Rita, I reconnected with an old college friend of mine. Theresa, a devout Catholic, was a social worker at a hospital in a blue collar suburb of Chicago. “I’m about ready to walk away from religion,” she told me, and here’s why. Theresa got called into the hospital rooms where the doctors could tell the women had been beaten but the women wouldn’t tell the doctors. When she asked the women who were there for third or fourth times why they stayed with their husbands, they would say, “My pastor, my Baptist minister, my Catholic priest, tells me that  I draw closer to Jesus by suffering like him, and I shouldn’t leave.”


What does this have to do with scripture? Each Sunday we come to a table and some of us find comfort in the idea that Jesus’ suffering was part of a grand plan, was not an accident of fate. There are too many accidents of fate in our out-of-control lives as it is. Others of us cannot bear what that means about God.


The thing is, atonement theology (Jesus died on the cross for your sins, as a substitute for you) has really only been the dominant theology for 1,000 years or so. And it was formed largely to permit the expansion of violence by the church. It is no surprise, then, that Christians support torture at higher rates in this country than people of other religions. It is embedded in a theology we take for granted.


I do not want to suggest there is no power in the cross. Here’s what James Cone has to say about it: “Great preachers preach the cross as the heart of the Christian message. The Apostle Paul preached the cross and transformed a Jewish sect into a faith for the world. Martin Luther preached the cross and started the Protestant Reformation. Karl Barth preached the cross and created a Copernican revolution in European theology. Reinhold Niebuhr preached the cross and developed a creative perspective on Christian social ethics in America. Fannie Lou Hamer sang and preached the cross and ignited a grassroots revolution in Mississippi. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the cross and transformed the social and political life in America, pointing to an American dream of justice for which he gave his life.”

And then he adds, “One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy.”

I used to do theological backflips to try to make substitutionary atonement and an all-loving God all fit together, and I’ve stopped.

I remember being truly shocked by my first encounter with Rita. She pointed to 1 Peter, a book in the new testament which says, “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. ” One of my best friends said, “I agree—I want to do anything I can to reduce violence; but what do we do with passages like that, that get used to permit violence?”

And Rita said, “Throw them out. Next question?” It was too much for me to absorb at the time, as a deeply committed student of scripture.

But I find myself going back to our Disciples founders, telling us to approach the scriptures with our whole minds and hearts. I reflect on my teaching pastor who taught me, “Being Disciples means coming into worship without checking our brains at the door.” And as I mentioned two weeks ago, I believe that we have a really easy litmus test. The bible always has something to teach us, but if we read something and think it’s teaching us that it’s okay to harm someone or reject someone, we have to come back to that passage and ask, “What were the people in this time trying to make sense of that would cause them to place commands of violence in the mouth of God?” We are blessed with minds and hearts to interpret scripture to our betterment and not to our collective harm.

I’m not saying atonement theology has never been helpful to anyone. I think of Central and South Americans tortured by dictators for standing up to oppression; as they suffered in their prison cells, they took comfort in that, as Jesus suffered on behalf of others, they also suffered on behalf of their community. It offered comfort; it gave them strength. I honor that. Does that mean atonement theology is right?


I want to offer you another way of looking at the power of the cross, straight from the mouth of James Cone: (listen to 4:30-7:40 to hear the excerpt I used in the sermon.)

They can take our lives but they cannot take our souls. There IS power in the cross, but not, I would argue, the power that Jesus suffered that we might live. There is power in that God takes an act of violence and overcomes it, overpowers it, transforms it from oppression and death to redemption and life.

Rita writes the following: “Christianity that is true to the life of Jesus Christ tells his death as the story of resistance to the Roman Empire, not as the story of how the Empire enacted God’s will. Rome used crucifixion against non-citizens, the poor, and slaves. More like lynching than a formal execution, it began with horrible forms of torture designed to create a long, agonizing death over days. A quick death was a mercy. Bodies were left exposed to the elements, and were devoured as carrion or rotted. Burials did not happen. It was so horrible a death that ancient writers, except for Seneca, were silent about it, and families of victims never spoke the names of the murdered again. Crucifixion was designed to save the empire — but those who testified to God’s incarnate love and who told of the resurrection saved the church…. If Christians reject the imperial designs of crucifixion, we must break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress our work for economic justice, health care, and peace. We must offer a way of holding this life with wisdom about evil, with sorrow for all it destroys, and with profound, deep love for life. Atonement theology says, “Jesus died so we might live.” It suggests that the torture and murder lamented [Good] Friday is “good.” Christians who ground their power in divine love mourn on Friday, keep vigil until dawn on Sunday, and say with joy, “Jesus lived so that all creation might live.””

I join with Rita in saying that I reject a theology created to create fear and disempower regular people, telling us to suffer gladly and wait for our reward in the next life. I choose instead to embrace a savior who did know suffering and therefore understands mine but who showed me not how to bear it quietly and meekly but how to overcome it, how to overthrow it, and how to be a resurrection force that the oppressive forces around us never saw coming. Let us sing the song that our fellow radical, Charles Wesley wrote, “Christ the Lord is risen today!” as we boldly stake a claim to be a resurrection people, proud and not cowed, faithful and not fearful, and joined in the struggle for the resurrection of all people. [editor’s note: we did not sing the Jackson Five arrangement]

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

5 thoughts on “The Cross and the Lynching Tree—Atonement Theology and Beyond

  1. Sandhya! What a joy to hear someone speak on this topic. As a young, Black adult, I have heard many sermons in my communities that glorify the violence that was shown towards Christ and have always wanted more to be said about the power that we were ALL granted when He LIVED again! The death was necessary but the power came when He rose! Thank you for being obedient and speaking boldly and truthfully. I know I am just one of many young adults who looks to your words and wisdom when musing over my faith. God bless!


    1. Jessica, that’s really humbling. I’m so grateful for the fact that you’re really wrestling yourself with this important issue. Keep it up; it makes God proud!


  2. Finally, you have put into words what I’ve been trying to frame for four years of seminary and couldn’t quite put my finger on. Not to say the seminary hasn’t given me the tools to figure this out, but I haven’t read it as clearly put before today.


  3. Thank you for sharing your theology and how it is the way you see reality. I heard Rita and the co-author speak some years ago when Proverbs of Ashes came out, and startling as it was to me, it certainly, on reflection, makes perfect sense.


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