Excerpt from the Introduction
The cross alone is our theology.
No one was saved by the execution of Jesus.
Participants in Christian community cannot avoid the bloodied body of Jesus hanging from a cross. But what significance does the cross have for Christians today? Contemporary theology plays host to a chorus of voices calling for an accounting of the church’s long history of using the cross of Christ to inflict suffering upon the innocent. From blaming the Jews for Jesus’s death to the Crusades to invoking the cross as justification for the silent suffering of women, Christianity must confront the ways in which its theology and practices glorify and even cause undeserved suffering.
Among the alleged perpetrators littering the historical Christian landscape, few loom as large as the reformers of sixteenth-century Europe, those fathers of Protestantism obsessed with God’s harsh wrath and judgment on deservedly damned human beings. Indeed, we need not wade far into the writings of reformer Martin Luther before we become submerged in what author Kathleen Norris calls the “scary vocabulary” of Christian speech. When heard with twenty-first century ears, much of what Luther says and how he says it offends modern sensibilities: that the sinner must be slain by the cross of Christ, that to be a Christian is to have to suffer, that a sinner must be humiliated by God in order to be made righteous. Does speaking rightly about God today demand that we abandon the theologizing of bygone thinkers like Luther?
Feminist and other contemporary theologians proclaim that speaking rightly of God requires radical reform of traditional theologies like Luther’s. That theology is contextual has become a central claim in current theological parlance, and Luther’s own admonitions on wrath, sin, and guilt add real insult to real injury when to those whose lives bear the marks of real crucifixions. Even more pointedly, traditional theories of atonement and theologies of the cross have come under attack by feminists and others who work to unmask these theologies’ damage to the wounded, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Where is the good news preached to the victimized? The responsibility for such oppression and suffering is being laid at the feet of traditional Christian patriarchy, of which Luther is a card-carrying member. Cries for reform rise up, and they deserve a hearing.
But cries of reform also rose up five hundred years ago from the mouth and pen of Luther over the oppressive theology and church practices of his own day. Theologians of his day, Luther proclaimed, had bypassed the cross of Christ. They were following instead glory theologies that traced disingenuous paths to God, path controlled by religious decrees of the seemingly all-powerful church. A theology of glory, according to Luther, declared salvation attainable through human effort, effectively painting a false picture of humanity’s stance before God. Diametrically opposed to any theology that called good evil and evil good, Luther glimpsed an alternative reality through the cross of Christ, an alternative vision of what counted as authority, wisdom, and salvation. While Luther is often critiqued for separating the material from the spiritual and thereby severing his theology from ethics, I argue that when his theology is investigated alongside his concrete attempts at living it, we find a Luther passionately concerned with the material condition of the peasants he viewed as oppressed by the corrupt ecclesial institutions of the day. What Luther accomplished in his Reformation was nothing less than a new way of perceiving church, theology, and the Christian’s role in society. By reasserting the cross’s primacy in Christian speech and practice, Luther destabilized an entire tradition and attacked the institutions that lay claim to the hearts, minds, and souls of medieval Christians.
Thus there exists a divide. Luther stands on one side; feminists and many other contemporary theologians stand on the other, separated not only by centuries but also by commitments. Here I stand, confessing allegiance to both Luther’s cross-centered vision and to feminists’ vision of theology free from debilitating sexism. As a female theologian trained in the late twentieth century, I credit my feminist predecessors for having given me voice, for fighting for my right to claim my identity as “theologian.” My feminist foremothers opened doors to the future, allowing me to experience not only women in church pulpits but also a religious tradition confessing and slowly breaking from its legacy of harm against women and other outside its traditional hierarchy of power. At the same time, however, I continue to be claimed by my heritage as a Lutheran, raised on a theology of the cross that never lets me forget my chronic disposition to sin, the inevitability of suffering, and God’s saving work through the cross and resurrection of Christ. Is it possible to claim both feminism and Luther? Is that divide that separates them crossable?