I was reminded of this when reading The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer by that prolific chronicler of the historical Jesus, author John Dominic Crossan. I found this little book a challenging delight. It is neither history nor textual Biblical exegesis, but rather a wide-ranging meditation on the familiar prayer, drawing on Crossan's broad scholarship and faithfilled imagination.
Those discussions from the death penalty campaign came back to me when I read his effort to explain how the western Christian world has trapped itself in a theology written out of a very particular feudal metaphor, a worldview that met the needs of Norman overlords imposing themselves on a conquered Saxon and Celtic Britain. The doctrine of vicarious satisfaction or substitutionary atonement entraps us in a picture of God as a rather nasty father who expressed his "love" for humanity by requiring the torture and murder of his only son. If that's what "Jesus died for our sins" means -- and that is pretty much what Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, argued in his influential Cur Deus Homo? -- no wonder we struggle to envision justice. Crossan explains what this hyper-rational medieval prince of the church was driving at:
Without punishment, the order imposed by the feudal overlord on a rebellious society would be impossible. There's enough obvious experiential truth in this that it can still appeal. When people do bad things, somebody has to suffer -- or so we feel and a millennium of Christian tradition has encouraged us to feel, especially because in this form of shaping the story, Jesus's undeserved pain and death let the "good" ones (us?) off the hook.
Crossan wants to get across that we don't need to constrain our understanding of justice in this narrow frame. We can understand Jesus' life and death as pointing us toward another way of seeking "justice."
I find this a fruitful exposition of central Christian mysteries. Anselm's exposition may have worked for his time and place but it is repulsive -- leads away from truth and justice -- in mine.