Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reflecting on pirates and substitutes

Reading about the capture and dramatic release of Captain Richard Phillips prompted two sets of thoughts:

1) The dead pirates

My delight in the prowess of the Navy sharpshooters was a wake-up call to myself. It was truly thrilling to hear of the result: three shots, three deaths--an amazing feat, performed after sunset, with a bobbing boat as a target. I watched the animations over and over with a great sense of satisfaction.

Yet Christians, I think, should beware of rejoicing in the death of anyone (though a sober sense of thanksgiving for justice and deliverance would be suitable). From what we have heard so far, the pirates were almost children. Like child soldiers everywhere, they cannot be said to be fully formed in a moral sense.

It's true that Miriam sang her immortal song of victory: "Let us sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously: the horse and rider thrown into the sea." I have never been one to lament for the Egyptians "dead upon the seashore." But the Scripture taken as a whole calls us to a larger view of the bondage we all share, "Egyptians" and "Israelites" alike, and a developed sense of our common human predicament.

2) The substitute

It will be another week, at least, before we know all the circumstances of Captain Phillips' capture. There have been reports, however, that he volunteered to be taken so as to protect his crew--and some of the crew said they owed their lives to him. This makes me think of the way that the Crucifixion of Christ has been interpreted--a subject on which I have spent ten years (and counting) of my life.

The theme of substitution has been under ferocious attack for some decades now, and the intensity is increasing (see for instance the article in last month's Christian Century, "God Does Not Demand Blood"). I admit to being somewhat baffled by these assaults, though I am trying hard to understand. The central problem, for many, seems to be that the concept of Christ as a substitute-- or a blood sacrifice-- for the sinful human race leads to masochistic or oppressive behavior, driven by the assumption that "redemptive suffering" is an enslaving concept. There is also a misinterpretation of the meaning of "the blood," which is all too often presented as something God demands rather then something God gives. (Granted, I am not doing justice to the arguments of those who don't like the substitution motif, but I take them up in more detail in my two-thirds-finished book.) One of the most serious problems with these objections is that they tend to be based on a misunderstanding and misreading of Anselm (David Bentley Hart is among those who has mounted a defense of Anselm in this regard.)

It is not necessary to work out a complicated system of supposedly logical steps in order to tell how Jesus Christ stepped into our place. A particular problem with the "substitutionary atonement" or "penal substitution theory" that was so influential in Protestant scholasticism was its excessive rationality, carried beyond that of Anselm. But take the case of Captain Phillips as a snapshot. He stepped into the place of his crew members. He took their plight upon himself. He gave himself up for them. He said (in effect) "not them, but me." Would it be a stretch to say that he substituted himself for them?

Should this basic concept cause so much offense to so many, today? I am arguing that, whereas the complicated legalistic-rationalistic apparatus should be abandoned, the theme/motif of substitution is absolutely essential for a full understanding of our predicament and Christ's total identification with us.

And there is an additional, unique factor to consider. Jesus died not only for the victims and hostages, not only for his own crew. He died also for the pirates and their bosses and for all the people of the failed state of Somalia.