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For the most part, the skirmishing remains verbal. From early on, critics of the exemplary theory have held that it had no particular use for Christ's divinity. Any virtuous martyr might do. One wit remarked that the Bible could have ended with the death of Abel, a decent enough man. Calvinist Evangelicals like Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Southern Seminary, continue to press that point. Pure exemplary theory, he says, "is just an account of one human trying to impress other humans with the moral of self-sacrifice, and that is not the Christian Gospel and never has been." Others note that the theory shortchanges sin and evil, giving the impression that there is nothing wrong with the world that can't be cured by human endeavor.
Critiques of pure substitution, meanwhile, can be equally biting. Catholic liberal John Dominic Crossan has called it "the most unfortunately successful idea in the history of Christian thought." He suggests that after the Christian church gained worldly power, Anselm's theory created a sense of debt and a lever for social control. "If I can persuade you that there's a punishing God and that you deserve to be punished but I have some sort of way out for you, then that's a very attractive theology," he says.
Others see a double disempowerment--first of a humanity whose redemption is being negotiated well above its collective head and, more important, of Christ, the child of a father whose moral universe somehow seems to require his death. Even if one ignores literalist claims that substitution espouses divine child abuse, the evidence of hundreds of years suggests that, in the wrong hands, it can deliver the wrong message. Writes the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, of her experience as a spiritual counselor: "Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as 'good Christian women' to accept beatings by their husbands as 'Christ accepted the cross.' An overemphasis on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of his teaching has tended to be used to support violence."
So strongly does Thistlethwaite feel this that a few weeks ago, she convened a group at Chicago's First United Methodist Church to talk about Gibson's film. It was a war movie, she told about 30 attendees, the most violent she had ever screened. A colleague of hers said the film seemed to assume the theory of substitutionary atonement. "The problems with this classic Christian theology," he pointed out, are the "glorification of death and suffering, the encouragement of scapegoating and making forgiveness the [Christlike] burden of the victim."
Jonathan Ramey raised his hand. Ramey, an ordained Baptist minister who is homeless, had gravitated to First United Methodist while living in a nearby shelter. "Can't a person benefit from someone else's suffering?" he asked. "My brother saved me from getting beat up more than once by taking the beatings himself. I'm going through suffering now," he said. "If I look at Jesus' suffering, I know I can do this." The other participants humored him for a few minutes but gave no ground.