Who will pay the cost? (reflections on a public conversation with Justin Duckworth)
I recently attended a public conversation at which Andrew Shepherd from the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in New Zealand interviewed the new Bishop of Wellington, Justin Duckworth. When Justin was asked about how Christians make a difference and what their agenda might be, he spoke about Christian influence in terms which do not assume our involvement in government or our right to shape the culture from a position of authority because we are a state religion. In other words he spoke about Christian influence in ways that might finally make sense with the demise of Christendom. His key phrase and central point was that those who make a difference will be those who ‘pay the cost’. We will change the world but only if we pay the cost. At the time it was clear that he was thinking quite broadly and concretely of the lifestyle costs of sharing community with the poorest and weakest, the costs of limiting our consumer desire for the sake of a sustainable future for all… all the costs that arise from our society’s violence against its members and against the natural world. It was if he was or could be interpreted as saying we must pay the price of salvation.
And I was thinking “He’s right” but another Presbyterian voice in my head was saying “No, Jesus paid the price of salvation, we are saved by grace and not works”. But before you run and hide between tidy evangelical distinctions between ‘personal salvation’ and ‘social justice’ I invite you to pause for a moment. Justin Duckworth was speaking like an Anabaptist Christian rather than an Evangelical of reformed heritage.
Let me try and emphasise the distinction. From the Anabaptist perspective Jesus death and our death are not mutually exclusive. Jesus does not die instead of us. He dies with us and we die with him (and rise with him). We share in his death. The price he pays, we pay also. As followers of his we are empowered by the same Spirit to live and die in a life like his. We too take up our cross. We too pay the cost of going up against the ‘principalities and powers’. In short, we participate ‘in him’. It’s not as if we could do it on our own, as if we could even imagine doing it had he not done it. It’s not as if we could do it apart from his Spirit and the way we are brought to participate in what he did. We cannot. His ‘paying the cost’ is entirely the basis and source of our ‘paying the cost’, but it does require of us that we also ‘pay the cost’. And as we pay the cost we also share in his saving work. To summarise Justin Duckworth’s point: new possibilities for a just community emerge when Christians ‘pay the cost’. So in the Anabaptist approach there is no separation between salvation and justice. What then does this way of parsing the matter say about the reformed objector in my head?
It says that there are different ways of using an economic metaphor to describe the difference that Jesus makes. And the Evangelical tradition with its roots in Calvinism which in turn has roots in Anselm uses the language quite differently from the Anabaptist tradition which is more closely connected to the christus victor tradition in the eastern fathers and Irenaeus
For Anselm the cost must be paid to God because God is the transcendental equivalent (analogue) of a medieval Earl. This means that God is responsible – responsible for the well-being of creation and responsible to a transcendent law of retributive justice (reciprocity). In this economy costs (damages to creation) are conceived as debts payable to God which must be paid and which cannot be forgiven. Of course, as Anselm imagines it, God must also do the paying (if justice is to be done) as well as receive the payment. Hence Jesus alone can ‘pay the cost’ of our salvation.
Two things are worth noting. Firstly, in this system ‘debts/costs’ are abstract and quantifiable, rather than relational. Thus the language of forgiveness no longer functions in a properly relational way. Secondly, God is subordinated to notion of justice conceived as a system of reciprocity – an exchange economy. Thus, not only can God not ‘forgive’, but it must be God who is paid, if God’s honour within the system is to be maintained.
That another way of thinking about the language of ‘paying the cost’ is possible becomes evident when we think about the resonances of Justin Duckworth’s account, in nuce, of social healing. If the costs or debts in question are not abstract ‘coinage’ in an exchange economy but damages to creation, then the focus of salvation become the healing of creation rather than the restoration of divine honour. If that damage is conceived as a complex network of human violences both to human and non-human creation, then we can begin to see how the non-violent suffering of Jesus might, in all its otherness and subversiveness play a healing role, bearing sin and subverting a fallen economy under the control of principalities and powers. If something is given or offered to God in all it is a secondary result of what is done in and for creation by God. Paying the cost thus becomes primarily a restorative rather than a retributive metaphor. If God is ‘paid’ at all it is not by Christ alone but by Christ who brings with him all creation restored and renewed. At this point the financial metaphor begins to betray the soteriological cause and reveal some of the problems it creates. The real ‘costs’ are not entailed by any transcendent obligation upon God but are simply a way of describing the disarray of creation. For God to chose to ‘pay the cost’ is simply for God to seek the reordering of creation and to take this upon Godself as free divine act of grace. The nature of creation’s disarray means that ‘paying the cost’ means the suffering of the ‘Son of God’ and of those who share in his life. If we are not to continue to think abstractly about this payment we must acknowledge that it is not made in some abstraction from the whole history of creation but represents the outcome of this whole history – an eschatological atonement in which the community of Christ continues to participate and to pay (with Jesus) the cost of the that future which scripture calls ‘the joy that was set before him’.