I just finished reading Proverbs of Ashes for a book review, and I cried a lot. Like, every twelve pages. Not full-on sobbing, but brief, six-second bouts of tears. I suspect this is not an unheard of phenomenon when reading this particular book.
The book, whose full title is Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for what Saves Us, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, started as a desire to offer a feminist critique of Christian theories of the atonement. That probably would have been a valuable but boring book. Instead, they found their project transforming into something story-based and essentially autobiographical. The critique is there, but it is incased in heart-wrenching stories of rape, shattered relationships, identity crises, and family secrets.
Where I probably differ from everyone else who cries while reading this book is I didn't cry at the tragedy. I was sad to read that Parker felt cornered into aborting a child whose presence initially evoked joy out of a desire to save her marriage, but I didn't cry. Stories of rape and abuse leave me feeling confused and sickened, but I don't cry.
I didn't cry when Shadow fell into the pit near the end of Homeward Bound. No, I'm the guy who cried when he finally came limping over the horizon, then ran to Peter's embrace. I tear up when the music cuts in during Andrew Shepherd's speech at the end of The American President. I cried, over and over, when Parker and Brock offered or quoted words that were magical in their profundity or astonishing in their healing. Like when Brock, on her way out of the City of a Thousand Buddhas, emptied the jar of dirt that she had claimed years earlier from the front yard of the man who raped her when she was five:
"The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas could take care of one more hungry ghost. Every day the monks put food in the garden to help all the ghosts bound in misery and pain find their way home. I happily turned the job of taking care of Frank over to them and brushed the dirt off my hands" (Parker, Proverbs of Ashes, 209)."One more hungry ghost" is one of those points at which I cried. Now that you all think I'm strange, on to the theology.
I was intrigued to learn that neither Brock nor Parker--both Christians--participates in communion. It's not hard to understand why, though, as they reject not just specific theories of the atonement, but the atonement itself.
Substitutionary atonement is problematic because it presents a God abusive towards his child and bloodthirsty in his demand for justice:
"The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God" (Hosea Ballou, Treatise on the Atonement, qtd. in Parker, Proverbs of Ashes, 30).Further, with its identification of disobedience as the root human sin, the message here can be for victims of abuse to obey their abusers. "A God who punishes disobedience will teach us to obey and endure when it would be holy to protest and righteous to refuse to cooperate" (Parker 21).
In the same chapter, Parker launches similar indictments against social gospel, the crucified people of God, moral influence, liberation theology, spiritualist, and crucified God theories of the atonement. I was going to try to summarize them all, but I fear I'll lose everyone's attention and many of them are kind of similar anyway.
Ultimately, the message is that we should not make a horrific act of violence into something good, in any way, because to do so celebrates the violence. Instead we must be free to grieve the death of Jesus as something bad. Brock and Parker also argue that we can never be separated from God's love, and thus there is no need for atonement.
What saves us is truth, defense of the abused, and opposition of injustice. These life-affirming qualities are where promise lies.