Last Palm Sunday my friend Ann went to church and found herself in the middle of a mob scene. As it turned out, the congregation was taking part in a dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. The assembled worshipers were cast as members of a violent, bloodthirsty crowd that was excited at the prospect of a crucifixion and caught up in emotional hysteria.
Why is the death of Christ significant? Some of the church is sure it knows the answer, while much of the rest of the church is deeply uncomfortable with the question. The publicized comment by a feminist theologian at the “Re-imagining” conference a few years ago is only one example of the discomfort: “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all.
A banner in the Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University features these two statements set off from each other: Do not DESPAIR one of the thieves was SAVED; Do not PRESUME one of the thieves was DAMNED. The couplet refers to the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. The second half of the couplet, which is attributed to St. Augustine, is ambiguous. We could treat it as a command to presume that the second thief was damned. But I prefer taking the word presume as a synonym of assume: we should not necessarily assume that the second thief wasn’t saved. After all, Luke’s Gospel says nothing about his fate.
Karl Barth once asked a poignant question about capital punishment: “Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?” With that in mind, I eagerly anticipated reading this book by Mark Osler, a professo