Timothy J Gorringe

In one of the most famous pieces of historical writing of the twentieth century E. P. Thompson, son of a Methodist missionary to India, took up Elié Halévy's argument that it was Methodism which saved England from revolution and applied it specifically to the atonement. He was led to do so by looking at Andrew Ure's Philosophy of Manufactures, which argues that religion is necessary to create a well-disciplined work force. Some power is needed to turn recalcitrant workers into docile wage slaves:

Where then shall mankind find this transforming power? - in the cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice which removes the guilt of sin: it is the motive which removes love of sin: it mortifies sin by showing its turpitude to be indelible except by such an awful expiation; it atones for disobedience; it excites to obedience; it purchases strength for obedience; it makes obedience practicable; it makes it acceptable; it makes it in a manner unavoidable, for it constrains to it; it is, finally, not only the motive to obedience, but the pattern of it. (Ure 1835: 423-5)

In commentary Thompson turned to the Methodist hymns he knew from his childhood: "True followers of our bleeding Lamb, Now on Thy daily cross we die." He commented: "Work was the Cross from which the 'transformed' industrial worker hung" (Thompson 1968: 406).1 With heavy irony he entitled his chapter, "The Transforming Power of the Cross."

It is true that there is no agreement on how exactly ideology, as expressed, for example, in theologies, creeds, hymns, and sermons, bears on social, political, and economic reality. Doubtless the question can never be settled once and for all, but this is quite different from arguing that there is no relationship here to be grasped - an assumption which is unfortunately still standard in histories of Christian doctrine.2 Did Methodism forestall revolution? Was it, in particular, the doctrine of the atonement, or rather the preaching of the cross, which functioned as opiate? It is probably fair to say that contemporary historians are skeptical (Thompson 1985: 126), but against such skepticism we have to set the extraordinary and continuing power of atonement imagery. No council of the church ever laid down what had to be believed about what we call, in English, the atonement.3 This early sixteenth-century coinage represents a particular construal of the meaning of the cross which, in the West, provided the symbolic center of the Christian faith. In the Christian East the icon provided a much richer and more varied symbolic center, but in the West it was before the crucifix that the poor prayed. It was a cross which was placed on the altar, and which provided the ground plan for the medieval church. It was the cross which bishops, abbots, and later countless lay people wore around their necks. It was the cross which provided the bulk of the imagery in Protestant hymns. Fatefully, it was the cross which Constantine saw in the sky in 312, which urged him on to the victory which gave him sole emperorship. The reversal of symbolic value was already here complete. From being an image of imperial terror, a sign of what would be done to those who challenged the powers that be, it became an aggressive sign, a sign of battle. When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in November 1095, urging Christians to "take the cross," the logic of Constantine's vision was but spelt out. Jesus had told his disciples that they would need to "take up their cross" in order to follow him. This was now interpreted as going on crusade, and Urban told his hearers that death in battle for "the Holy Land" would mean absolution and remission of sins (Runciman 1951: 107-9).

The symbolic centrality of the cross means that, although the doctrine of the atonement was set out from time to time in treatises of great systematic rigor, we need a category which goes beyond ideology if we are to understand its social impact. When we try to understand the political significance of the cross we need to turn, I believe, to Raymond Williams' idea of a "structure of feeling." The structure of feeling is the sum of all those things which tell us what it is like to live in a particular society, its emotional undertow, "a very deep and very wide possession, in all actual communities, precisely because it is on it that communication depends" (Williams 1965: 64-5). Abstract treatises spell out, more or less imperfectly, the implications of this structure of feeling. What Williams never saw, and he was a good Protestant in this regard, was the role ritual played in expressing and maintaining such structures. Rituals "provide a kind of didactic theatre through which the onlooker is taught what to feel, how to react, which sentiments are called for" (Garland 1990: 67, emphasis added). Think, then, of the significance of the celebration of the Mass, all over western Europe, throughout the Middle Ages, and think of its recalling at its center the death of Christ. In this and countless other ways the cross constituted a structure of feeling which generated particular cultural and political outcomes;4 and if it is the case, as Steven Runciman argued, that the Byzantine Empire was less bellicose than the West, it is not ridiculous to look at the way different construals of the symbolic center of Christianity, between East and West, generated different structures of feeling and therefore different outcomes (Runciman 1951: 83-8).

In hoc signo vinces. The cross was, of course, in its inception, a political symbol in the literal sense. Crucifixion was an exemplification of the deterrent theory of punishment (Hengel 1977). You crucify to deter any stirrings of revolt. The practice was widely used throughout the ancient world, but by Rome was reserved for slaves and rebels. After the defeat of Spartacus six thousand slaves were crucified on either side of the Via Appia - as a warning (Hengel 1986: 147). What happens, then, when this symbol of terror becomes a central focus of faith? The first answer, which Paul explores in 1 Corinthians, is that it causes absolute consternation:

In ancient thought, e.g. among the Stoics, an ethical and symbolic interpretation of the crucifixion was still possible, but to assert that God himself accepted death in the form of a crucified Jewish manual worker from Galilee in order to break the power of death and bring salvation to all men could only seem folly and madness to men of ancient times. (Hengel 1986: 181)

This consternation is theologically important. It is the foundation both of what today we call "counter-culture," and also of Nietzsche's "slave morality." Both of these reactions manifest themselves in political attitudes. Paul, as we know, "gloried in the Cross" (Gal. 6: 14). So strange was this idea that he had to resort to a range of metaphors to help people see the point. Contrary to much popular argument, we have to insist that this range means that no one interpretation of the meaning of the cross is dominant in the New Testament. The implications of the various metaphors are suggested, and left to germinate in the corporate memory and imagination of Christendom. They have each risen and fallen in significance over the centuries, each coloring the structure of feeling in a different way, each in some respect issuing out of a given culture, each in turn generating particular cultural and political outcomes. The history of this rise and fall is at the same time a mapping of how the Christian church has understood its political significance. Paul uses four main metaphors: redemption, justification, sacrifice, and reconciliation. In addition, I shall argue, the so-called "Christ hymn" of Phil. 2: 5ff. suggests the redemptive power of solidarity. I shall explore these various images in turn before concluding with some reflections on forgiveness.

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