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Christianity's victims

'Christianity bears the marks of unresolved trauma,' write two feminist theologians in a book that argues that suffering redeems nothing.
By Christopher L. Walton
March/April 2002 3.1.02

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An all-powerful father sends his son to die on a cross, in the process saving his other children from an awful fate he himself ordained. Or so the story goes.

According to a new book by two path-breaking feminist theologians—each with close ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association—something is horribly wrong with this version of the story, something that has brought lasting harm to millions. When Christians identify the central story of their faith as the intentional sacrifice of a "beloved son" by God, his own father, they unwittingly make a story about child abuse into a narrative of salvation. Believing that Jesus willingly submitted to crucifixion out of obedience and love, Christians have advocated an ethic of self-sacrificial love that can trap those most vulnerable to violence—women and children. For theologians Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, this version of Christianity tries to make violence—intimate, family violence—into a form of redemption. Even people who want nothing to do with Christianity can suffer from this misinterpretation of violence that has stood at the heart of Christian teaching for centuries, shaping Western civilization and its languages, cultures, and ideas—consequences that reach into our closest relationships.

In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, their new Beacon Press book, Brock and Parker tell of their quest to understand the origin and effects of the Christian doctrine of atonement. They discover that atonement, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is not what the Bible teaches. Atonement is only one of many interpretations in the New Testament and early Christianity, and was made the orthodox interpretation in the Middle Ages. But their quest involves much more than scholarship: their story is profoundly personal as well. (See "Can Violence Save?"; link in sidebar.)

Brock, the first Asian-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in theology in the United States, is a research fellow at Harvard Divinity School. She was born in Japan in the tumultuous aftermath of World War II and moved to Fort Riley, Kansas, in the 1950s with her Japanese mother and American father, a U.S. soldier. In time, alienated from her father, from her original language and culture, and from the evangelical Christianity in which she was raised, she began to question the central symbols of her faith at the same time that she discovered a passion for religious scholarship and political activism.

Parker, her longtime friend, was the first woman to become the president of an accredited theological seminary in the United States—the Unitarian Universalist Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, where Brock is a trustee. The daughter and granddaughter of United Methodist ministers, Parker grew up as a liberal Protestant committed to social justice and the transformative power of the church. As a Methodist minister, though, she confronted the limits of her faith as she recognized unspoken pain and desolation in the lives of the people she served. Parker also began rethinking the central symbols of her faith—and gradually came to confront the desolation and grief buried in her own experience.

Trained in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy, the two Christian feminists set out to write an academic study of atonement theology, but discovered that they had much more to say. They began sharing their own stories of violence, betrayal, and self-sacrifice—stories that became central to the book. The violence they were struggling to understand and challenge turned out to be violence they had experienced in their own lives.

Proverbs of Ashes contains each woman’s gripping story, along with their shared reflections on what really does save us. In an interview with UU World (see "Interview with Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker"; link in sidebar), they describe the significance of hundreds of early Christian mosaics in Ravenna, Italy—some of which grace these pages. These mosaics never portray Jesus’ crucifixion—the defining symbol of this season of Lent and the days before Easter—as a saving symbol. Instead, they depict a world whose beauty is transformed and magnified by a divine love that restrains violence.


See sidebar for links to an excerpt from Proverbs of Ashes and an interview with the authors.

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