Forgiveness

Reconciliation, Barth's chosen metaphor for the whole work of Christ, requires forgiveness. Forgiveness, we saw, can be understood as requiring Christ's death, or it can be understood as the result of life practices, being traditioned by God's Word, which make forgiveness possible. Beginning with this second sense we understand the church as a counter-culture based, to use John Milbank's terms, on an ontology of peace rather than an ontology of violence (Milbank 1990). Gregory Jones has argued that forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook but a remorselessly difficult option, a craft that may take a lifetime to learn (Jones 1995). Effectively Jones is talking about discipleship, and here we can introduce the much misunderstood idea of the "exemplary" theory of the atonement. The nineteenth-century historians found the origin of this in Abelard's urging that we were led to love by Jesus'example. It was certainly paradoxical that this view should be championed in 1915 by Hastings Rashdall, in the midst of the slaughter of World War I, and later twentieth-century theologians saw it as feeble, Pelagian, and disastrously shortsighted as to the seriousness of sin. To a large extent, however, these protests attack a straw man.

They miss the point for two reasons. First, and most significant, as R. C. Moberly argued a few years before Rashdall, there can be no atonement without Pentecost (Moberly 1909). An exclusive emphasis on the "once for all" event of the cross is nontrinitarian. Moltmann insists that "Whoever speaks of the Trinity speaks of the cross of Christ and does not speculate in heavenly riddles" (Molt-mann 1974: 204). This sentence can be inverted, so that in speaking of the cross we speak of the Trinity, and the continuing work of the Spirit. From the very beginning Christianity was a "way," a disciplined following intended to have concrete results . True, Jesus was not a utopian political theorist; but he did teach his disciples to pray that God's kingdom might come on earth, and in the same prayer urged on them the practice of forgiveness. In this connection we have to insist that an exclusive focus on the symbol of "the cross" leads us to miss the significance of his teaching and healing ministry which is also, of course, salvific. As the early community recognized, out of the new forms of prayer and practice learned from Jesus comes an alternative way of doing things (Mark 10: 43). The history of the church can be written as the history of repeated compromises, challenged by repeated calls to live according to the Gospel. If we require any proof that such calls may have momentous political consequences we have only to look at the contribution Benedictine monasticism has made to Western culture.

Second, attacks on exemplarism miss the sense in which, under the Spirit, the community is shaped by its reading of scripture. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises are an attempt to structure this reading in a way for which the term "example" is quite inadequate. Through this reading God works God's purpose out, a purpose for the whole human community, and not just for individual Christians - a purpose, in other words, with political dimensions. Perhaps the most interesting example of this in the twentieth century is the way Gandhi's practice of fasting to make atonement for communal violence, and to try to bring it to an end, was understood. The American missionary Stanley Jones felt that Gandhi's insistence that people can joyously take on themselves suffering for the sake of national ends "put the cross into politics" (Jones 1926: 92). It may be objected that such readings turn the cross into a "principle," but perhaps rather they are a recognition, firmly grounded in the Gospel, of the cross as a way on which the disciple has to tread.

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