On Leaving Evangelicalism And Opposing It
Article Table of Contents
- Content warning & summary
- Who this post is for/who might find this interesting
- Where I started
- The Dangerous Books I Read
- where i finished
- Where I am now
- Book 1: Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
- Book 2: The Politics of Jesus
- Book 3: The Non-Violent Atonement
Content warning & summary #
This paper talks about ethics, ethical behavior, violence, abuse, complicency, domination and oppression. It’s a condimnation of evangelicalism, but not, necessarily, any particular evangelical. There are those within evangelicalism who are ethical, behave ethically, etc.
Some of you, reading this, who find yourselves in the camp of evangelicals, but who have sometimes felt that something was not quite right about it, you’re the people I’m writing to.
Here’s a brief summary of some of the information i’ll present below about the intellectual origin of modern evangelicalism:
The theological underpinnings of modern evangelicalism are two-fold:
Second, the puritans (john calvin, martin luther, others of that 1500s ilk) openly advocated actual genocide against certain other groups of christians who wanted to be left alone, but committed the offense of being insufficiently deferential to certain religious and political authorities. This “poisons the well”, in my mind, of any resource associated with them, or downstream of them.
Therefore, everything associated with Calvinism/the puritans or the satisfaction view of atonment is completely polluted with murder, violence, and domination.1 The evangelical church in america, and the southern baptists in particular, openly modified their theology to best accomodate the ethics of chattel slavery., and those modifications persist today.
“Modern christians” don’t resort to physical violence quite as quickly as their intellectual forebearers (slavers), but they instantly reach for tools of psychological and verbal coercion as soon as they see something that looks “out of line”.
Those willing to use verbal and psychological coercion, in justifying that coercion, find themselves as bedfellows with those who use physical violence, and the spawn of that union is demonic. America’s global military empire (and its domestic military empire) is firmly rooted in the logical extension of this verbal and psychological coercion. Police yelling at a black man to “stop resisting!” and the US military’s message to brown people of “accept our democracy” lives close to the message parents coerce on their children, which is “you will do whatever I tell you, and i will psychologically torture you until you comply.”
Who this post is for/who might find this interesting #
I’ve always enjoyed a good house party, and any good party is more fun when there’s more people. So, in honor of me ‘leaving evangelicalism’, I’m sorta throwing myself a party, and trying to get a few more people to show up. 2
If it seems I’ve arrived at a ‘theologically novel spot’, my honor requires me to push back and say “this is neither novel, nor difficult for you to arrive at, if you’re willing to apply a little brain sweat”.
This is love letter to an earlier and younger version of myself.
I experienced difficulty of many shades, because I was trying hard to fit into, and live according to, a system and regime that I thought was capable of absorbing my energy and giving me back something worthwhile, something that would justify what I was giving it.
I eagerly pursued safety for myself, relative to caretakers around me, and with the naïvety only children can embody, tried (unsuccessfully) to obtain safety from them while maintaining an individuated sense of self. I clung to this regime of thought through much of my early adulthood.
I relied on this regime of religiosity to intermediate all sorts of relationships. Relationships with my family, friends, and myself. This religieosity wasn’t capable of intermediating these relationships healthfully, and I experienced pain and harm as a result, without ever understanding why the pain was so poingant, the hurt so profound, the loneliness and abandonment so bottomless.3
The world needs soulful, lively people. Some of you have been raised in toxic and abusive environments and don’t yet know it. Your soul may have been crushed, repeatedly, until you relented and consented to whatever regime you were under, and you don’t even remember that this ever happened.
I’m basically writing this document as a mix of an “impassioned open letter”, and “a list of resources and concepts that I wish I’d encountered years earlier in my life.”
From birth, my parents had me firmly ensconced in the evangelical church traditions.
I was raised in an abusive and neglectful household (physical, emotional, verbal), sharing uncomfortable similarities with a cult. Because I was surrounded by others from the same group, it took a long time to get far enough from it that I could see it clearly. 4
This post is an explanation of how, without ever intending to, I found myself to have walked out of that camp of evangelicalism, and from their point of view I’m now firmly planted in “heretical theological hinterlands”, and vastly better off for it.5
From my own point of view of myself on my own change, there is a coherent line of thought, way of being, intellectual purity, a clear adherence to a firm ethical standard, and a reasonable causal chain from “there” (thinking evangelicalism was true, and a source of good in the world) to “here” (viewing evangelicalism and adjacent structures as simple propaganda to support harmful power structures, and viewing it as a primary source of historical and ongoing violence and abuse in the world).
I’ve recovered a much more actionable, robust, and firm understanding of the person of Jesus Christ (and the things he said and did, and why) than I ever had in the decades leading up to now. 6
I don’t use the labels ‘deconstruction’ or ‘exvangelical’. I simply matured and refined my understanding of a certain religious tradition (cult) that I was once a part of, and have ‘grown’ into a much more comfortable, peaceful, enjoyable version of a different religious tradition, which shares some interesting similarities and differences.
Despite my justified anger about my experiences of abuse and neglect as a child, adolescent, and adult, related to evangelicalism (and abuse and neglect sanctioned by ‘evangelical intellectual traditions’), I warmly extend an invite to this greener side of the fence, to anyone who currently finds themselves still a member of any religious tradition that looks like evangelicalsm. It’s way, way more peaceful and enjoyable ‘out here’.
While my current “place” would horrify some from the religious communities in which I was raised, I’ve actually internalized (some of) the words they spoke over me, like “love others, act justly, walk humbly.” (they said, as they poured violence, anger, shame, condemnation, and credible threats of abandonment into me and others, to control us.) This is why I’ve cut them out of my life, and why I have been freely encouraging other children of emotionally immature parents to consider doing the same, if it would be protective\healing.
I sometimes manage to find words that are extremely offensive, which in some ways I’m proud of, and in other ways I am disappointed and saddened by. I also am inclined to hide explosive intellectual ideas behind a veil of words, to screen out those who hide behind the veil of functional illiteracy.
So, I’m writing this as a first pass towards an open display of what I feel, which is at times certainly tinged with emotions like anger and rage and grief, but at other times, I wish I could soften my disposition and be a bit more warm, winsom, and “reasonable”.
Hate is closer to love than apathy, so if you hate what I say, I don’t mind you communicating that to me. In some ways, it’s an honor. I am apathetic about none of this. Any expression of anger here is motivated by love for that which has been polluted and degraded by inhumane thoughts and actions.
I’ve been shunned7 by some, and I have withdrawn from others. Here’s no more or less than an explanation, mixed with a defense. Say what you will about me, but “Josh has not given thought or intellectual brain-sweat to his life” will not be accepted.
Where I started #
I was raised in ‘the church’, in a variety of ‘baptist’, ‘evangelical’, ‘southern baptist’, ‘presbyterian’, ‘episcopal’, non-denominational churches, from age zero, through perhaps age 31. I went to a nominally christian four-year university.
At the beginning, I went to church because my parents would have committed acts of soul murder upon me if I strenuously resisted going to church, so eager church attendance was simple safety-seeking behavior, and then at a later time, I was fully onboard with churchishness, ostensibly of my own volition. For example, my family did sunday morning church, sunday evening church, wednesday evening church, i think often church on Thursdays, and lots of ‘church stuff’ at home.
Kristi and I were married in “the church” over a decade ago, and at that point I considered my involvement to be fully voluntary.
When this gestures broadly first started happening, I didn’t really think it would lead to where it actually led me. Some of these things ‘i did’, others ‘were done to me’. There’s horror and sadness and grief throughout.
- I am no longer married, and as far as how well divorces and co/parallel parenting can go, it feels like it’s been pretty bad.
- I am no longer on speaking terms with a rather large percentage of my birth family, and with the family I married into.8 :(
- Some friendships/relationships I’d hoped to rely upon have ended. Others have deepened dramatically, which has provided energy and support in a way that one might find a life preserver to provide energy and support when floating down a turbulent river.9
Then, 2019 happened. these words are that story. The troubles that would affect my life in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 were completely absent from my consciousness. Lets roll back the clock to 2019.
You and I had not even heard the words ‘covid 19’.
I was climbing well, finally getting some breakthroughs in my bouldering and sport climbing.
Friends, family, climbing, I was doing well in my career, doing cool things, giving cool talks at meetups, had a great podcast appearence, and was helping others in ways that were good and emotionally satisfying.
I was getting unsolicited job offers, got recognized by a stranger in an airport because of a talk I had given (!!!), had external and internal trappings of success. My birth family and Kristi’s birth family gave me a resounding ‘thumbs up’, based on the life I was living.
Money was abundant, free time was abundant, emotional energy and engagement and agency was, overall, abundant.
Things seemed good.
When i try to think of the beginning of the story of my exit from evangelicalism, the best focal point I can pick is a book I got gifted on my Kindle, for my birthday.
I read an unassuming, short little book titled Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. It ruined me. Changed the trajectory of my life.
The Dangerous Books I Read #
So, lets just discuss the books directly.
Warning: Don’t read any of the books I reference in this article, even if ‘just’ out of spite, to prove that the book won’t impact you. Any single book might wreck you. They’re dangerous.
I’ve always been intuitively attracted to “banned books”. On principle, when hearing of a book that’s been banned, I’ll seek it out, read it, and luxuriate in whatever subversive or anti-establishment views it espouses.
These books that I recommend could easily be banned. Banning a book directly is a small-brained solution to a problem, from the establishment point of view, because of the Streisand Effect.
If the evangelical church (and it’s consorts from the state) got together and said:
We’re banning The Politics of Jesus, The Non-Violent Atonement, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey and The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia
everyone who had access to a library, a credit card, or the internet would go out and see what spicy words were contained in the text. Even children. In the era of the internet, the best defense against 🌶️ ideas is projecting an attitude of apathy.
Feel free to skim the rest of this article. It’s long, meandering, and weaves together my own thoughts with those of the books I read. I’ve written a few articles already around this topic, and I’ll link them in, but if you’re at all inclined to read the books I suggest, I think your time would be well-spent, though you’ll pay far more for reading these books than just time and money.
A warning - I’m nearly autistic and will gleefully wade through text of any difficulty and length if I feel like there’s something useful at the other end. These books are not “easy”.
People change when the cost of not-changing is greater than the cost of changing.
Here’s the books (and a paper), in the order in which I read them:
- The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia
- Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
- The Naked Anabaptist
- The Politics of Jesus
- The Non-Violent Atonement
- The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West (Harvard Theological Review, 1963)
Boom. That was it. At the end of these books, and the paper, I was firmly outside of the evangelical tradition, and never able to be brought back.
where i finished #
I was “an evangelical”, despite how much I disliked the political conservativism that tends to come with it.10
While there are absolutely black evangelicals (the divide between black and white evangelicals is the topic of a wonderful book titled The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia, in general, white evangelicalism is/was an embodiment of “historic whiteness”. In my early years, I was “christian”, “white”, “republican”, and more. I’m not proud of the views I once espoused, but as they were coerced onto me with an overwhelming pressure, I don’t see myself as having had too much of a choice. (seeking safety from caretakers as a child and such)
If I chose to, I could blend in with a crowd of any political flavor, but my upbringing was extremely politically conservative. I was raised on messages like “gay people are what is wrong with America” and “the military of the government of the USA makes the world safe” and “american democracy is the best/last form of organization needed in the world” and “black people are overall inferior to white people” and “china and russia represent existential threats to ‘world peace’.”
I was also raised functionally divorced from any of the ethnic heritage I had, despite how close I could have been to certain latin american cultural origins.
In other words, I was raised White, though the closest I’ll identify now with whiteness is “white-passing”. 11
Where I am now #
After reading those books, some of them more than once, and much conversation (and painful lack of conversation) with others, I strongly and clearly de-identified with Christianity, christians, america/americanism, and all forms of evangelicalism and christendom.
When traveling, when asked “where I’m from”, I’ll say “Denver, Colorado”, rather than “the United States of America”, and I’ll sometimes add “my family is from Paraguay”.
I identify with attribute tags like anarchism and anabaptistm (loosely), but mostly I’ve dropped all the labels I used to voluntarily use. I’ll talk about my daughter, rock climbing, my love of friends and friendship, ‘intellectual pursuits’, my distaste for american forms of ethnic cleansing, and more. These are the ways I choose to define myself.
This article isn’t only about why I de-identified with evangelicalism, though.
I did that quietly, without really telling anyone, and I kept going to church on Sundays, and since I wasn’t saying/writing much about what I’d encountered, except for in trusted 1:1 conversations, no one in my family or the church had any reason to think things had changed for me.
Anyone who knew me and this came up in conversation, I’d quickly explain where I’d been, theologically, and they could track with me, but again, in the terms of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, I exited, quietly.
This article is about why I now strongly associate evangelicalism with an active creation of spaces safe for, and full of, abusive behaviors, oppression, and violence. As someone who’s ethically opposed to abuse, oppression, and violence
These books are quite dangerous, in some of the same way that Jesus was dangerous. (And representative of the same sort of threats to the powers of his time, which is why he was killed. Remember, he was killed as a fairly mundane ‘religious and political criminal’.)
To recap, between 2019 and 2020, I read:
- Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
- The Naked Anabaptist
- The Politics of Jesus
After these books, especially the last one, I saw core components of what I’d been given in a wholly different light.
For example, here’s a “take” that I’d literally never considered, but is intellectually coherent:
Jesus was not “murdered by God to atone for the sins of mankind” (the satisfaction atonement motif) - he was murdered by angry and immature people at the behest of the religious and political leaders, because he represented a credible threat to the established political and religious regimes of the day, and that threat was legible to the people who ran the regimes, so they killed him. No more and no less.
To me, it’s now vastly more interesting to understand and apprectiate why his words and actions were so egregiously offensive to the establishment.
Given that he also encouraged his followers to embody his way of being, if one can see why his words and actions were so dangerous to the status quo, one becomes different, and…
oops. There goes the status quo.
Next, after reading the three books above about anabaptism, I kept reading ‘the canon’, and a rather interesting-and-provocative paper.
- The Non-Violent Atonement
- The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver
- The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West (Harvard Theological Review, 1963 )
Book 1: Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism #
So, this all started with my brother-in-law’s Christmas gift to me. I read a lot12, and every Christmas and birthday, tend to be given at least a few books. (Thank you, everyone who’s ever gotten me a book!)
Someone will gift me a kindle book, and I’ll read it at some point. I really love this tradition.
This book is admittedly rather boring, but I often read ‘boring’ books. It’s an academic text about the history of an obscure religious group in the 16th century. My brother-in-law bought me the book, because the group had come up in conversation, and he thought it might be interesting to me.
He was right. It wrecked me.
I opened it up on my kindle, and started the preface, and was rocked. So much so that I copied the text down, and made this little blog post about it: What’s up with the Anabaptists (josh.works)
That was the beginning of the end.
I invite you to read it:
The preface of the book was excellent, and then the last chapter and appendix was also exceptional. I touch on all of those things in the blog post.
At the time, I knew nothing about the anabaptists.
I didn’t realize that they were targeted for extermination/ethnic cleansing by the religious and secular authorities of the day, like John Calvin, not unlike the polemics that HITLER HIMESELF went on against the Jews.
Critically, I felt a sense of indignation and betrayal that no one had told me that the same John Calvin that shaped much of modern protestantism was also an advocate for genocide.
The modern take on Anabaptists often says it’s a disagreement about minor theological points, like ‘how many times is the right number of times to be baptized’ and ‘who, really, is allowed to interpret scripture.’
The book said, basically:
when one group is killing [literally, burning at the stake] another group, perhaps we in the modern world should assume that both sides of the party knew what was at stake (pun intended), instead of saying they were committing acts of ethnic cleansing over a misunderstanding.
any earnest effort to get to the bottom of the disagreement should focus on the core differences between the groups, rather than over-focusing on commonalities.
This last sentence ruined me, especially as my marriage was slowly disintegrating, and I was trying to hold it together.
I kept finding this conversational tactic around me everywhere, for the next two years of my life. I would want to focus conversations on core, critical differences, and those around me would respond with:
sure, but look at the things you agree about each other, surely that difference you say is critical is immaterial.
So, that book kicked off my normal ‘reading of the canon’.13
I ordered another five or six books on the topic from Amazon, and read through them all.
Book 2: The Politics of Jesus #
I ended up reading The Politics of Jesus, and… that was it.
That was the end. That was when I officially renounced vestiges of evangelicalism, and decided I might never attend a church again. I didn’t stop going to church when I read it, but I instantly felt like an outsider, and was content in this new status. A sense of self had coalesced, and I could put my finger on what felt so wrong about many experiences I’d had throughout my life.
I began feeling uncomfortable with the songs that were sung, the constant repeating of certain ‘creeds’, and more.
After reading The Politics of Jesus, I shared some personal context, a summary of the introduction, and reproduced a few pages from the first chapter here: Was Jesus’ Social Ethic Normative? (josh.works).
Yoder, in the first chapter, eviscerated “the church” (really, any vestige of Christendom) by showing the ways that modern biblical ethicists (of which pastors and clergy are a sub-group) explicitly (and erroniously) teach that the things Jesus said and did are irrelevant in modern times, and must be discarded.
At this point in the story, I’d encourage you to click through the above link, and read it. It’ll take a while. I’ll wait.
if you’re not ‘in the church’, you might not recognize that the page slug, ‘was Jesus’ ethic normative’, is an absolute broadside against ‘the church’. It’s saying “does jesus words and actions matter?” and that’s a bit of a dog-whistle, because evangelicals will say of course jesus words and actions matter. As they live out a belief of the opposite.
I kept trying to get friends to read this book.
Some did, and found it as compelling as I did.
Some of you looked at it, saw that it was loosely academic and had a lot of footnotes, and chose to embrace functional illiteracy.
The author of the book makes a compelling case that
the Jesus that is preached about in churches across America is explicitly made irrelevant to today, and replaced with basically an ethic of theological naturalism.
This is fine - if you wanna believe in theological naturalism, IDGAF, but don’t also then try to tell me it’s’s rooted in the story of Jesus Christ.
The book makes a great point - to all the people showing up to the execution of the person known as Jesus, most of them recognized him as nothing more interesting then a legitimate threat to the established order of the church and the state, because of the things that he said and did. He was a politically dangerous person, and the powers that be do what they’ve always done - maneuvered the world to eliminate a threat. Plain and simple.
Justification & the Atonement #
Here’s a copy of most of chapter 11 from The Politics of Jesus
If you go to a church, they’ll talk about ‘the atonement’, which is broadly addressed anytime you hear about “the work Jesus did on the cross” or “being saved by the blood of christ”, or “forgiveness of your sins”, and more. It’s kinda the core tenant of christianity.
You’ll hear the text “justified by faith”. Briefly, Yoder argues that this could be better understood. First, “justified” doesn’t mean “forgiven”, it is to be understood in the word-document text-formatting way. To “justify” a block of text is to align the ends of the lines. Ruby (the programming language) has methods like
ljust, short for “right justify” and “left justify”. It adds padding to strings to make them line up.
The “justification” of which this text speaks is to be “rightly aligned” relative to others. Do you have conflict between you and someone else? Then you’re not “rightly aligned” to each other. To be “rightly aligned” would be akin to resolving and repairing the block.
so lets let the first word of “justified by faith” to “rightly aligned to others”. By what? How do we get rightly aligned?
Faithfulness? What does that mean?
You can be “faithful” to a creed, an ethic, a set of norms. The faithfulness being referenced is faithfulness to Jesus’ specific social ethic, in which he talked a lot about interpersonal relations, within groups, across groups, and across power differentials.
So “justified by faith” becomes “rightly aligned to others by faithfulness to Jesus’’ specific social ethic.”
Some of you might not realize that making this assertion takes me into the realm of herasy. Live on the edge, huh?
Also, if you’re not faithful to Jesus’ ethic, you’re not ‘justified’. A willingness to violence is sufficient to make one ineligible for justification. All forms of interpersonal violence (physical, verbal, emotional) destroy the availability of ‘justification’.
Romans 13 - “the state” #
My journey was still unfolding. I didn’t realize I was moving into the ‘outer darkness’ relative to my religious community. I was just following interesting threads. Printing out papers, reading reading reading. Satisfying my special interests. I was feeling such progress and conceptual compressions coalescing out of the woodwork.
Romans 13 is this big text that’s referenced today to explain why ‘good people’ are supposed to do what the secular authorities tell them to do. the interpretation goes something like this:
the state, and it’s self-claimed legal monopoly on violence, is ordained by God to be over us, because the world runs on authority and domination, and the state is something like our intellectual father, just as the heavenly father is over us, so we should obey it.
I want to scare quote nearly every word in that statement, but here’s how Yoder re-works that statement:
The state, to the degree that it cares well for the least-privileged person under it’s ‘dominion’ , has legitimacy to care well for those persons.
Oops. Heresy part two. Did you feel it? Least privileged? Like immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, non-capitalists, children, people of various religious flavors, the poor, etc.
There are plenty more bombs carefully contained in that text. I’d encourage you to read it. These two examples serve as sufficient explanation.
Modern evangelicalsm is… well, basically politically powerful white people coopting language of moral authority to justify a regime of domination. This is all in the context of Americanism, or westernism. The intellectual throught that emerged in Europe after the advent of the printing press, related to Calvin, Luther, catholicism, and more, is basically all the same.
Book 3: The Non-Violent Atonement #
As soon as I read the title of this book, I smashed the ‘buy now’ button on Amazon, as quickly as I could navigate to the page on my phone.
I’ve been raised in ‘the church’, and heard ALL THE TIME about the atonement. Say it with me - those of you in the church, you’ve heard these phrases, sprinkled liberally throughout spiritual words and texts, like salt and pepper on a dish:
Christ’s work on the cross
The blood of Christ
Christ bearing the sins of mankind
He was punished for our sin
Because we couldn’t be perfect, he was perfect, and incurred the wrath of god because of it
I’ll share a few long quotes from the introduction of the book. I’d encourage you to pick up your own copy, if you want, but these quotes are sufficient at explaining what is obviously implied in the title - that there exists this thing called ‘the violent atonement’, and it is, in fact, what all of evangelicalism (and the west) is founded upon. If you recognize violence as the crappy problem-solving ‘tool’ used by emotionally immature people that it is, you’ll quickly traverse from “the atonement theology you’ve been taught is dripping in violence and blood” to “the satisfaction atonement motif is heareby discarded”
Everything below is a quote from the first few pages of The Nonviolent Atonement, by J. Denny Weaver. It’s a theological ‘child’ of The Politics of Jesus, which I strongly recommend. I’ve added a few linebreaks here and there, because this is the internet.
First, he paints some words about the ‘satisfaction’ motif of atonement, also known as ‘the violent atonement’ or ‘anselmian atonement’, named after the noble who invented the whole thing in 1100AD.
A brief sketch of the violent atonement #
Atonement theology starts with violence, namely, the killing of Jesus. The commonplace assumption is that something good happened, namely, the salvation of sinners, when or because Jesus was killed. It follows that the doctrine of atonement then explains how and why Christians believe that the death of Jesus the killing of Jesus - resulted in the salvation of sinful humankind.
In much of the world generally and in the United States in particular, the prevailing assumption behind the criminal justice system is that to “do justice” means to punish criminal perpetrators appropriately. “Appropriately” means that the more serious the offense, the greater the penalty (punishment) to be imposed, with death as the ultimate penalty for the most serious crimes.
There is a pervasive use of violence in the criminal justice system when it operates on this belief that justice is accomplished by inflicting punishment. Called “retributive justice”, this system assumes that doing justice consists of administering quid pro quo violence an evil deed involving some level of violence on one side, balanced by an equivalent violence of punishment on the other.
The level of violence in the punishment corresponds to the level of violence in the criminal act.
Satisfaction atonement assumes that the sin of humankind against God has earned the penalty of death but that Jesus satisfied the offended honor of God on their behalf or took the place of sinful humankind and bore their punishment or satisfied the required penalty on their behalf.
Sin was atoned for because it was punished - punished vicariously through the death of Jesus, which saved sinful humankind from the punishment of death that they deserved - or because the voluntary death of Jesus paid or satisfied a debt to God’s honor that sinful humans had no way of paying themselves. That is, sinful humankind can enjoy salvation because Jesus was killed in their place, satisfying the requirement of divine justice on their behalf.
While the discussion of satisfaction atonement involves much more than this exceedingly brief account, this description is sufficient to portray how satisfaction atonement, which assumes that God’s justice requires compensatory violence or punishment for evil deeds committed, can seem self-evident in the context of contemporary understandings of retributive justice in North American as well as worldwide system of criminal justice.
The link between satisfaction atonement and systems of retributive justice cannot be denied. Timothy Gorringe’s God’s Just Vengeance provides a thorough analysis of satisfaction atonement’s foundation assumptions of retributive violence as well as an extended discussion of the mutual interrelations between theories of satisfaction atonement and understandings of punishment and criminal justice in the western world since the time of Anselm.
A different kind of challenge to satisfaction atonement comes from a Catholic writer who works out of the theory of mimetic violence and the scapegoat mechanism developed by René Girard. As an alternative to the assumption that God orchestrates evil that punishes Jesus for the sins of humankind, Raymund Schwager developed a dramatistic understanding of the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus, which shows that punishment is what sinful humanity does to itself through rejection of the reign of God.
I had concluded that Anselmian atonement was an abstract legal transaction that enabled the Christian believers of Christendom to claim salvation via the death of Christ while actively accommodating the violence of the sword. With that insight already in mind, encountering the critique of Anselm in Cone’s God of the Oppressed was startling. Where I had been arguing that the abstract legal formula allowed accommodation of the sword, Cone was arguing that it had accommodated chattel slavery and racism. Rapidly I saw that critique of Anselm was an agenda item that extended well beyond the pacifist perspective from which I had been working.
Definition of Narrative Christus Victor #
“The” alternative to the anselmian/violent/atonement atonement, from the next page of the introduction:
I have called the resulting model of the life and work of Christ narrative Christus Victor.
While narrative Christus Victor displays continuity with classic Christus Victor, it differs from the classic view in many important ways, and it deals with a number of issues not usually included in the discussion of atonement.
The working assumption in development of this model is that the rejection of violence, whether the direct violence of the sword or the systemic violence of racism or sexism, should be visible in expressions of Christology and atonement.
Developing an understanding shaped by nonviolence then lays bare the extent to which satisfaction atonement is founded on violent assumptions. Thus proposing narrative Christus Victor as a nonviolent atonement motif also poses a fundamental challenge to and ultimately a rejection of satisfaction atonement.
Since violence covers a multitude of sins and issues, examining biblical and historical material from a “nonviolent perspective” requires definitions for both violence and nonviolence.
I am using “violence” to mean harm or damage, a definition given more specificity by Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White.
They describe two dimensions of violence:
“(1) destruction to a victim and (2) by overpowering means. Violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.”
This definition obviously includes killing in war, in murder, and in capital punishment.
Violence as harm or damage includes physical harm or injury to bodily integrity. It incorporates a range of acts and conditions that include damage to a person’s dignity or self-esteem.
Abuse comes in psychological and sociological as well as physical forms: parents who belittle a child and thus nurture a person without self-worth, teachers who brand a child a failure and destroy confidence to learn, a husband who continually puts down his wife, and more.
Killing is not the sole instance of violence but one of its more extreme forms.
The system of chattel slavery that existed in colonial America and in the United States for two and a half centuries was most certainly violence. But the continuation of racist practices today under other names is also violence.
Social practices which proscribe set roles for women and limit their opportunities are examples of violence.
Social structures that impose poverty are violent.
Such forms as racism, sexism, and poverty are frequently referred to as systemic violence. It is necessary to keep all these forms of violence in mind, from direct violence of bodily injury and killing through psychological abuse and the multiple forms of systemic violence.
Each of these forms of violence appears at some point in the discussion of atonement images to follow.
One important dimension of violence is the way it is assumed and used in the criminal justice system. As was already noted, the prevailing assumption behind the criminal justice system is that to do justice means to inflict punishment, with the intensity of punishment dependent on the seriousness of the misdeed.
In theory then, the death penalty differs quantitatively but not qualitatively from lesser punishments. But recognizing the assumption that justice means punishment shows that a very pervasive use of violence surrounds us in the criminal justice system, a use of violence whose commonness renders it virtually invisible.
The assumed violence of justice as punishment will appear at several stages in the discussion of atonement, particularly in the context of feminist and womanist arguments and in the arguments of the defenders of Anselm in Chapter 7
If “violence” covers a variety of issues, “nonviolence” also covers a spectrum of stances and actions ranging from passive nonresistance at one end to active nonviolent resistance at the other.
In this regard, it is very important to distinguish violence defined as harm or damage from nonviolence as force or social coercion that respects bodily integrity.
Since we have no term that carries the specific meaning of coercion used positively, I will describe it here as identifying a spectrum or continuum of acts stretching from persuasion to physical coercion. Persuasion attempts to affect and guide the action of others without denying their freedom or harming their person. At a low level of intensity, it includes the gentle coercion of parents who restrain children from disruptive behavior and teachers who require pupils to raise their hands and wait for permission to speak in class.
At a high level of intensity at the other end of the spectrum, positive coercion that constrains or compels the acts of others through pressure would include such actions as social ostracism, public marches and protests, and eventually strikes and economic boycotts.
Examples of physical force used positively or in a way to prevent an act that an individual wants to perform might include some forms of punishment for children, physically restraining children from running into the street, knocking a person out of the path of a vehicle, and physically restraining a person attempting suicide.’
One specific point to make clear about nonviolence is that it does resist violence in any of its forms.
The question is not whether nonviolent Christians should resist.
It is rather how Christians should resist. And the answer is to resist nonviolently. As the treatment of the story of Jesus in the following chapter demonstrates, Jesus engaged in nonviolent resistance.
It also engages in conversation with other critics of violent atonement theology. The final conclusion is that, even at its best, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement cannot escape its foundation in the idea of retributive violence. It can be kept and defended, I conclude, only if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the gospel of Jesus Christ.]
Please, please engage with this, if you have any inclination.
My email inbox is open, and I’d be thrilled to hop on a WhatsApp call to discuss more! (Whatsapp is preferred to phone call, for a few reasons, but I could be swayed to do a phone call.)
Just a warning, though - there’s this thread of coercion and domination that exists in the church, and when someone tries to invoke a claim of “authority” over me, I have to laugh inside a little. Here’s why:
I’ve been so brutalized by authority my whole life, and I’ve seen what happens to others when they have been brutalized by ‘authority’, i’ve had an instinct to rebel, on principle, when someone tries to force me to do something. Please consider engaging from a place of mutuality and curiosity, rather than trying to push me to a specific, pre-determined outcome.
Invoked claims of authority now lands as an intellectual crutch, the tools of those who don’t have the awareness or maturity to use adult tools. Authority is for children. Don’t threaten me like I am an easy-to-intimidate child.
I’ve got good books that I could refer one to, if you wanted to know why I so reject your claims of authority, and why I would advise your children to stop giving it any heed, as soon as they’re out of the range of your threats of physical and emotional violence.
I’m not here really for the people that want to argue. I’m here for the people like me, that when they smelled the possibility of an alternative they jumped on it. I heard rumblings on the distance of ideas contained in these books, and ordered them and read them immediately. I hungered and thirsted for knowledge and wisdom, and true to my form, read about 1000 pages in pursuit of knowledge and freedom.
I found it. I’m out. The books are there for anyone else to read. The path has been laid.
The entire intellectua and moral self-justification of Christendom just… collapses. The screaming rage of evangelicalism dies with a wimper, collapses in a heap.
I kept going to friends in the church with my findings, and they kept matching my eager interest with derision, disinterest, and dismissiveness. I can’t control others, but I was and am now willing to ahem burn any bridge required to protect myself, and those that I love, from abusive institutions.
I have a vast capacity to love. I am deeply compassionate. I dislike conflict to my core, and in the same way as some will go off to war to commit acts of violence against a specific ethnic group, I will strenuously exert myself to reduce conflict for myself, those I love, and anyone I can reduce conflict for.
One of the ways one can resist actual violence is with words.
Violence is a terrible problem-solving solution. It invariably creates far more problems than it’s advocates claims it solves, as it’s contingent upon fear, intimidation. Those who use violence don’t want to solve problems, they want to assert dominance in such an overwhelming way that the victim stops strenuously resisting, and this is certainly an available option to those willing to use violence.
The antidote to violence is an attitude of mutuality and cocreation, mixed with an acceptance of healthy, non-abusive anger.
The way I resist violence now is to attend more to the victims. It’s to grow the awareness, skills, capacity, and strength of those who are being victimized by those willing to use violence, or who those who use complacency, privilege, and unawareness allow bad things to keep happening.
So, if you read the books mentioned above, you’ll possibly join me on the outside of evangelicalism.
Despite what your parents may have told you, there’s a lot of fun to be had out here, and freedom. Dramatically less shame. Sometimes laughter. Space held for grief and sadness and mourning. Things don’t need to be so serious all the time. We have potlucks, home-cooked meals, mutuality, and co-creation, and a lot less shame and repressed sadness.
When someone is sad, we hold space for them. When they’re stuck, we help un-stick them. When someone has a sense of malaise, we malaise with them. We don’t arbitrarily denigrate whole groups of people.14
OK, so we’re gonna go another layer deeper. Here’s why:
It would be one thing to throw your hands up, say “yep, ‘the church’ is effed, not gonna touch it with a ten-foot pole”, and walk away and never come back.
Nothing wrong with that.
It’s like walking away from white supremacy. You don’t need to prove to the white supremacists, as they cling to their white supremacy, that they’re wrong. It’s sorta de-dignifying to debate them from their own ‘frame’, because the frame makes so many assumptions that it cannot really be wrestled with fairly. They’ll “no true scottsman” you to death. 15
Undoubtedly you’re better off, leaving this whole pile of crock behind, and nothing meaningful is lost. It’s like walking away from a cult, or deciding that your friends who think the earth is flat are wrong. All you ‘lose’ is a mental model that causes the world to keep not making sense, and getting mysteriously lost when navigating by the stars.
You can change your thinking and leave an intellectually bankrupt idea behind, and having nothing but improvement, and there’s no need to engage intellectually with those you leave.
unless, of course, you think you might be able to get more of them to leave with you.
Full list of recommended readings #
Here’s some books, and some academic essays, if you read them, you might feel like you’ve gotten your life and your soul back.
- Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
- The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith
- The Politics of Jesus
- The Non-Violent Atonement
- The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West (Harvard Theological Review, 1963)
- The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia
- The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey
- The Most Dangerous Superstition
- The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond
- Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty to Repair
- The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul (a chapter from The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver
Misc reading #
Some readers will understandibly protest this ‘discard’ I’m advocating for. Throwing away “the puritans” and the satisfaction view of atonement? Yes, that’s what I’m advocating for, and the burden of proof is on you for why something so odious as a theological justification for nobility, or a theological justification for domination and violence, shouldn’t be discarded. ↩
I’m willing to do to evangelicals what they so willingly (and often annoyingly) do to others. I’m evangelizing them. (ooooh, how your blood might be boiling right now, dear reader, if you’re an evangelical and frustrated with me.)
But the best/worst thing about me is I’m so screamingly stupid I can only take baby steps from one spot to another, and I like to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind me.
I can start at one spot and end up at a starkly different spot that is very surprising to someone else, but something that I love about myself is that nothing I’ve ever done is difficult or undoable by someone else. Everything I’ve done is easy and simple, given certain contexts and environments. ↩
Some of you might find yourself with something like a hole in the bottom of your heart, a pervasive sense of emptiness, alienation from otherse and yourself, purposelessness, and a sense of feeling deeply, desperately alone, or desperately unfit for relationships with others, especially in situations where you feel like you shouldn’t feel alone, like when you’re with family.
Listen to yourself, attend to your inner state. It is full of rich and valuable signal. The message of toxic family dynamics is one of numbness and self-abandonment and dissociation from the inner world. It is soul-murderous to exist in such a noxious environment. ↩
Some members of the group have been saying or implying unflattering things about me, and perhaps underappreciate my nearly-autistic tendencies to (over)intellectualize my justifications for my actions. I’ve been pressured to comply without speaking, and certainly not to explain myself. I’ve begged, literally, members of the group to engage with me on a level fractionally approaching ‘fair’ or ‘empathetic’ or ‘mutual’, but, true to the way in which I was raised, and the ways unhealthy systems handle dissidence, those requests were ignored/denied. ↩
To borrow from James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, I may be revealing myself to be something of a theological barbarian and savage, but I vastly prefer this version of myself than who I was several years ago. ↩
Since we’re throwing out the ‘satisfaction atonement’ and ‘christendom’, it’s reasonable to ask “what else is there?”. The answer is ‘narrative christus victor’ and ‘being rightly aligned to others by faithfully embodying Jesus’ specific social ethic.’ Read the books I recommend below for a fuller understanding, specifically The Politics of Jesus and The Non-Violent Atonement ↩
shun (definition): persistently avoid, ignore, or reject (someone or something) through antipathy or caution. Where shunning exists, it’s a form of punishment that a group can apply to individuals. I was naïve and well-intentioned, earlier on in my “journey” out of evangelicalism, and kept expecting other evangelicals to engage seriously with me, and got met with shunning. “Don’t say that!” “Don’t think that!” “You can’t be serious!” “You might be right, but I don’t think others will want to hear about it.” “Does that really matter?”
My views on shunning had been shifting for a while, particularly after reading Legal Systems Very Different than Ours, and especially after reading Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair.
Shunning is a response that is no longer acceptable to me.
I now view shunning as the violence and assertion of dominance that it is. My family, my ex-wife’s family, and many from evangelical traditions have shunned me, and that I was collectively shunned from “my” religious tradition (and, critally, from no one else) was ultimately what inspired this polemic. I would have loved to discuss this all privately, rather than dragging it into the public realm. Alas. ↩
Possibly, depending on who you talk to, I either cut them off, or they shunned me. A bit of both. I endorse Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty to Repair as a useful ethical framework for how a community might normally intervene in misdeads among its members. I’ve been brought aggressive and demanding and probing questions. Some, I’ve asked to consider reading one or two books to better understand the dynamics at root, and they’ve declined. ↩
We’ll talk about the dynamics of “shunning behavior” as a way of asserting dominance of a group over individuals later, and I’ve also been in recent times screamingly depressed, physically injured, emotionally wounded, and have withdrawn, at times, from most of the world, so I have hidden.
So, between me not being proactive in relationships, and being in hiding from the overtures of others, the narrative around ‘where I’m at’ has been entertaining to watch it evolve. Remember - conflict is not abuse, and the overstatement of harm is a threat.
Josh, why are you hiding from the overtures of others?
Some have reached out with a message like ‘pull your head out of your ass and man up’, which, besides not really meaning anything, earned a quick ‘block this contact’ response. (If I’ve not spoken at all or openly to you in several years, I’m not going to dignify a condemning overture with a response.)
Enough of ‘my people’ verbally assaulted me when I was already in a pretty low place, so cutting off contact with most people of a certain ilk (broadly, evangelical, or emotionally immature) was safety-seeking behavior on my behalf. ↩
I’m anarchist, have been for a while, but that’s neither here nor there. Just don’t read The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, even if it’s just to appreciate the author’s simple writing style, and how he’s nearly apologetic as he gently destroys argument after argument for state-sponsored violence. I’m not the ‘moltov cocktail’ anarchist, I’m simply opposed to trying to put the lipstick of legitimacy upon the pig of state-sponsored violence. I’m a consentualist, not more, not less. Hilariously, it’s guaranteed that almost anyone reading these words is, practically, an anarchist in most of their ‘normal’ relationships. (I could also be considered a ‘consentualist’, or ‘a anti-state-sponsored-violence-ist’) ↩
I now view ‘whiteness’ as a stand-in for ‘culturally alientated from any meaningful roots’. Whiteness tends to look like a mix of consumption, colonialism, imperialism, emotional numbness, and cultural vacuousness. Or at least, even if some white people don’t explicitely embody those values, they are comfortable in ecosystems hospitable to those values. I don’t find ‘race’ to be a useful construct, and am suspicious of those who do. That said, I am a privileged white-passing male from America, and would have to be stupid to pretend that this doesn’t drag behind it a lot of potential power. It’s been fun to see what this power gains me access to. If you call me ‘white’, I’ll correct you and say something like “I reject the lable, but I forgive you for thinking it. I’m ‘White-passing’.” ↩
I sometimes over-intellectualize things. It’s a trauma response. I seek safety in books, intellectual frameworks, improved conceptual compressions of the world. I often do gain incremental improvements in safety and peace, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. There’s a right amount of book reading, and an excessive amount of book reading. I don’t know where I am within this, but I’ve read dramatically fewer books-per-year lately than I used to. ↩
The best/worst thing about being ‘hyper literate’, and having used reading as a dissociative activity much of my life is a stack of books one or two feet tall doesn’t intimidate me in the slightest, as long as they’re all in english. If I find a topic I want to learn about, I will read, a lot, many different sources. I struggle to respect people who choose to not read books on topics they claim are important to them. ↩
sigh. My weakness in this regard is to denigrate evangelicals, white supremacists, and imperialists/colonialists, and yes, I know that hurt people hurt people. It’s been a year or so since I’ve exited the world I was raised in for three decades. Working on it. ↩
a refusal to leave a certain frame and try on a different one is a tactic of abuse, or at least emotional immaturity. It’s a blatant refusal to try on a theory of mind of someone else. Of course white supremacists are right, if you play by their rules, because their starting assumption of the world is that ‘the white race’ is superior, and non-white races are inferior. If they say “prove to me that non-white people are not inferior”, it’s embarrassing and self-abandoning to even treat that statement with seriousness.
More on frame control: https://knowingless.com/2021/11/27/frame-control/ ↩