'Why Have You Forsaken Me?'

Stanley Hauerwas on atonement theology, Mel Gibson's 'Passion,' and the 'chilling' meaning of Christ's last words.

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen

Known for afflicting the comfortable, Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas "has been a thorn in the side of what he takes to be Christian complacency for more than 30 years," according to his fellow theologian Jean Bethke Elshtain. Whether condemning abortion or the war in Iraq, his views challenge believers to see Jesus' message as a radical one. Hauerwas spoke with Beliefnet about his most recent book, "A Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words."

You say in beginning of "A Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words" that you don't want to explain Jesus' seven last words. Are you unsatisfied with past explanations?

Yes. There's an inclination to get on the inside of Jesus' psyche, and I think that's a deep mistake because it assumes that what you have here is someone analogous to us. Of course it


analogous to us-he's fully human-but it oftentimes fails to take into account that this is the Son of God. I tried to exegete the seven last words in a way that does justice to their mystery.

You seem to critique the narcissism of today's Christians, saying "sentimentality is the urge to make the gospel conform to our needs, to make Jesus our 'personal' savior." This seems to echo what happened after the movie 'The Passion.' A lot of people were repeating the well-known profession, "Jesus died for me"-but with quite an emphasis on the 'me.'

That Protestant evangelicals would leave Gibson's movie and say "gee, I didn't know he had to suffer so much for my sins"-quite frankly, that's to make yourself more important than you are. It also underwrites satisfaction theories of the atonement, which fail to do justice to the fact that this is the second person of the Trinity who is suffering.

When you say, "someone had to suffer to reconcile me with an angry Father," you forget: it's not an angry Father who has given the Son to receive our violence. The problem with saying "I didn't know he had to suffer that much for my sins" is it fails to do justice to the Trinitarian character of the Christian faith. What is happening in the cross is a cosmic struggle.

Your book says, "any account that suggests God has to satisfy an abstract theory of justice by sacrificing his Son is clearly wrong."

The problem with those kinds of typologies is they separate the person from the work of Christ. They concentrate on the cross, separate from the life. I think it's a deep mistake. It's one of the problems with Mel Gibson's film.

What did you think of the film?

[It was] an extended exercise in showing how much punishment a human body could take. It didn't help us understand why that punishment was correlative with the kind of life Jesus led. It becomes a kind of sadism that it's not wise to be exposed to.

Can't evangelicals still make an argument that we should think of Jesus as our personal savior, and think of the gospel in terms of how it affects individual people?

I really don't like the word 'personal.' It makes it sound like I have a relationship with Jesus that is unmediated by the church. They have the idea that "I have a personal relationship with Jesus that I go to church to have expressed." But the heart of the gospel is that you don't know Jesus without the witness of the church. It's always mediated.

You quote Bonhoeffer and say Jesus' death and resurrection are not the solution to the problem of death. Many people take it as such.

It's a deep mistake, a pietistic reading of the cross. The idea is that Jesus overcame death through the resurrection. What that does is fail to appreciate the fact that the resurrected Christ is the crucified Christ. It's not like, "Oh, that was just a mistake, now it's over." Jesus continues to suffer from our sins.

I think the assumption is that we all now no longer need to fear death. We no longer need to fear the death that sin perpetrates, but that doesn't mean we're not going to die.

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