Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement. Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago. Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog. The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime. In my first post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In the next post, I summarized popular Christian explanations. Now I turn to my own take.
The Bishop’s Silver
My own theory about atonement draws on the novel Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1962. The kindly Bishop of Digne is a figure of Christ. By saving Jean Valjean from the police, at personal cost, he shows what it means to love selflessly. This example leads Valjean to reform and devote his life to serving others. The Bishop is the moral example against which we are to compare the rest of the novel.
The first few chapters tell us that the bishop is a humble man who had given up most of his worldly goods. He had left his palace, so that it might be used as a hospital, and lives on one tenth of his income, giving the rest to the poor. His only extravagance is a pair of solid silver candlesticks.
The novel’s hero, Valjean, is an ex-convict. He cannot find work or a place to stay because no-one wants to deal with someone who has been in prison. With nowhere else to turn, Valjean stumbles across the bishop’s house, where he is warmly welcomed. Fearing for his future, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night, steals the silverware and flees the house – only to be caught by the police. He tells them that he was a guest of the bishop, who had given him the silver. They didn’t believe him. But, when the police bring him to the house, the bishop confirms his story and goes a step further. He takes his candlesticks from the cabinet and says, “you left so quickly, you forgot the best part.” After the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that God has saved him and now he owes God his life. After some misadventures and poor choices, Valjean takes this to heart and begins to live a life of service to others. The book explores this fundamental choice of compassion over justice as it plays out in several characters. The musical successfully introduces the major themes, but if you have the patience, the (1500 page) book covers the topic with poetry and sophistication.
The message for theology is clear enough. In Bishop’s Silver Atonement, God has given Jesus to humanity as a freewill gift. God loves us and shares life with us, becoming one of us and approaching us where we are. Humanity, in turn, attempts to steal the gift. Both Romans and Judeans take advantage of the power they have been given, trying to manipulate and control Jesus. Friends and enemies begin to see his vulnerability as an opportunity to gain power for themselves. They torture and kill the God made flesh. They literally steal Jesus’ life.
Like the bishop, God refuses to punish the thieves. Instead, God’s love transforms theft into gift. Without ignoring or endorsing human selfishness and malice, God turns the crime into an opportunity. It saves us from the immediate consequences and shows us how to live into a better life. We are forgiven and empowered to forgive by God’s sacrifice.