I posted a couple of days ago about Passover, and since Easter is probably celebrated by about a thousand times as many people, including, in a superficial chocolate-related way, me, I felt I might as well comment on that too.
In the discussion of Passover, I argued that the God presented is notably un-transcendent: rather than breaking out of the cycle of bloodshed, vengeance, sacrifice, power, powerlessness, etc., He remains within it. The violence of the Egyptians against the Israelites is reflected in God’s violence against them; the oppression of the Israelites by Egyptians is replaced with their oppression by other Israelites; the murderous wrath of God is averted only by the murder of a lamb as substitute.
Now, on one level, the key story of Easter, of the Atonement for humanity’s sins by the sacrifice of Jesus, also works from within this cycle. Jesus is simply a new version of the sacrificial lamb: in order to avert the violence of God’s anger at human sins, a different victim must be found to suffer.
But on the other hand, the outcome is in a sense the ‘short-circuiting’ of that cycle. Afterwards, human crimes don’t need to produce Godly counter-crimes acts of punishment. They can be forgiven, ‘washed away’ by Jesus. A ‘personal relationship’ can reconcile the sinful human with an angry God, without the need for violence. The punishment need not be borne, because God has taken it upon himself.
This is a perfect example of ‘dialectic’ in the sense that Hegel and Marx use. We might say that the power-and-bloodshed cycle is ‘short-circuited’ by the Atonement.
It passes, through an internal contradiction or tension (specifically, that the punisher and the person punished are the same) into its opposite.
This of course has a major secular parallel in the work of Marx: the proletarian revolution. Here again, a cycle which has for centuries simply replaced one elite with another, each new force enlisting mass support to overthrow the old regime, before revealing their own exploitative nature, is short-circuited to destroy itself.
When, for example, the black bourgeoisie of South Africa, supported by the workers of the country, defeated apartheid, their nature – as property owners, exploiting those who work their property – was revealed. A layer of black millionaires appeared, but for most of the population, the new boss was the same basic deal as the old one. As in every other revolution, it has been aspiring ruling classes which have had the organisation and the confidence to drive out the old ones, and thus re-established the oppression that they claimed to oppose.
The proletariat, according to traditional Marxism, can short-circuit this pattern. This is because on the one hand, its situation, working in cities, in large enterprises, allows it to develop the same organisation and confidence as a ruling class, but that its basic economic role, to labour and to own nothing, does not contain within itself the conditions for further exploitation of others.
That account may need to be amended – the definition of ‘proletariat’, of those whose basic social role does not contain the conditions for the exploitation of others, may need to be re-interpreted. But in its broadest outlines it is analogous to the Atonement: an insurrection, a revolution, an army, a conflict – but one which will establish the possibility of a society without systemic conflict. The class whose revolution, establishing it as the new ‘ruling class’, will impel it towards classlessness.
As this parallel suggests, I do think that there’s something admirable in the doctrine of the Atonement. It’s more admirable, certainly, than if Jesus were to massacre the Romans and the unbelievers and establish his own mighty kingdom by superior strength (which, incidentally, Christians often think he will do, but in the future, as predicted in revelations).
But it’s also profoundly flawed, precisely because of its religious nature. The problem, at its most basic, is that religious revelation and authority, at least in as expresses itself socially through organised religions, demands stasis and finality, and this is incompatible with dialectical, or more broadly dynamic, structures.
For example, why does Jesus have to produce forgiveness, love, and reconciliation out of anger and fear and punishment? For Jesus of Nazareth, the finite weak human, the answer is obvious: he needed to appeal to his audience, to relate to the way they thought and had been taught to think.
But that can’t be translated to God itself, because God is omnipotent. If God wills forgiveness and reconciliation, then there would be forgiveness and reconciliation. Omnipotence can’t work within an already-given horizon. As atheists so often, and so straightforwardly, ask: why does God need to be crucified in order to forgive humans?
And so to make sense of this, the mentality of anger and cruelty that is being replaced has to be attributed to God’s will. God can’t simply forgive humans, because that would violate God’s nature as divine vengeance justice. The cycle that endlessly multiplies suffering upon suffering must be seen as part of God, and a powerful part at that.
One consequence is that the story itself must be seen as fitting into the structure of justice, which it clearly doesn’t. My guilt can’t go away because of someone else’s suffering. If I am sentenced to life in prison for a string of rape-murders, no-one will let me out because someone else volunteers to go to prison in my stead.
This is very different, for example, to the analogous ‘proletarian revolution’. Because it can be accepted that human social history is finite, imperfect, and grows out of ignorance and poverty, rather than being eternally perfect and just, the revolutionaries can quite happily admit that what they aim at is opposed to, and superior to, the class societies of the past – that capitalism preceded socialism not because that was part of the benevolent divine plan, but because of the terrible difficulties that humans encountered in organising themselves.
So the religious and theistic approach forces us to turn a dynamic into a static co-existence, and thus to falsify both sides. This might seem like a fairly irrelevant theoretical issue, but it’s practical manifestations have been terrible.
Because if God’s anger and hellfire cannot be simply rejected and dispensed with, but must be preserved and accepted as just, then some people will still go to hell, at least potentially. Jesus has short-circuited the terrifying logic which could generate the most obscene idea possible, of ever-lasting torture, but he has not destroyed or disabled it. It’s still in operation for whoever doesn’t accept Jesus.
Who exactly that is, has been determined by the socially-useful decisions of religious authorities. But the effect has clearly not been good. In particular, we can observe that if there is such a thing as ever-lasting torture (in which case, of course, all the happiness of a billion people is like a drop in the ocean next to such horror) then any human torture is justified if it helps to avoid this.
In summary: the Atonement is a nice idea, the short-circuiting of a cycle of sin and punishment, but the religious veil in which it cloaked itself distorted this intention.
In order to gain access to the ‘social capital’ built up by people’s existing religious attitudes, Jesus had to accept the basic validity of that torture that his message eventually came to suspend (that’s not to say that he saw it in this way – I don’t know, or hugely care, whether his own beliefs bore any relation to what Christianity established on him).
But since those existing religious attitudes were shaped by oppression, so also the outcome, Christianity, carried that over. This was of course also reinforced by the social pressures towards oppression that were always operative on it from its social surroundings, especially after the conversion of Constantine.
So once again: religion is a vehicle in which all kinds of attitudes and messages can be transmitted, but its distinctively religious nature fits it to be an agent of control and suppression. Even the most humane message, in a religious garb, will tend to produce horror and cruelty.