if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us [as] one who is offering forgiveness from the victim [Jesus Christ crucified]. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.
…it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”
…What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you [to] undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, “Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.
…We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone we despised, and were awfully glad not to be like – whom we would rather cast out so as to keep ourselves going – we find it awfully difficult to imagine that person generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us. But that’s what atonement is about; and that is what we are asked to live liturgically as Christians.
excerpts from “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” by James Alison.