The Back Side of the Cross
A Book Review
By Brandon Brown
In their book, The Back Side of the Cross Drs. Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson ask a question. This question is important and one which may just awaken the Church to listening to a people who have often been ignored, the sinned against. They have not been ignored as existing, but their witness and cries for understanding often get shuffled to the bottom of a pile of personal sin concerns that woo the powerful to stand against. That is a more exciting and lucrative direction than showing the abused and abandoned that the Good News (Gospel) is also for the sinned against. "The primary question of this book is this: if the cross has always been portrayed as the means of salvation for sinners, does it have anything to say to those who have been sinned against?" (Back Side) While this question has been asked in different ways and in different contexts, this work seeks to reimagine the multitude of atonement metaphors found in scripture in ways that answer the questions of the sinned against.
I see this book as a companion to other atonement discussions, but one which turns those ideologies on their head. For a thorough understanding of the atonement metaphors and how they interact with one another and Christian traditions, we can look to Fleming Rutledge's The Crucifixion but even it deals with the metaphors in traditional ways. Leclerc and Peterson forge a much different path and while it this book is designed to be compatible with a wide array of Christian traditions and theological frameworks, their own Wesleyan-Holiness depth shows. This is a good thing, because in the meta-modern and sometimes chaotic age, Wesleyan-Holiness has something powerful to say to the marginalized and the powerful alike.
In turning the traditional interpretations of atonement metaphors on their heads, this book brings a powerful message of hope and healing to those who can be shamed and hurt by typical treatments. Going beyond the ideas of liberation and protest, the idea of back-side atonement embraces these ideas and yet goes beyond. In their mention of James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree I can feel the same sorrow I personally felt when reading Cone's work myself. Beyond the solidarity of the Christ of the lynching tree is the Christ who takes the suffering of all those for whom justice is out of reach. God's justice is restorative and yet like the protest theology post-Holocaust, back-side theology also allows the abused and abandoned to find ways to forgive God. As the authors write: "But we would also like to stress that back-side theology moves beyond protest theology by being open to the reality that the godforsaken can find new levels of healing by forgiving God." (Back Side)
Rather than a trite theodicy which seeks to defend or protect God, back-side theology knows that God needs no defense or protection. The God who came in flesh knows the cries of the oppressed and is willing to take those cries as lament and be with the hurting. It is this that angers many of the reviewers who would rather have a distant and wrathful God then one willing to be forgiven. The God willing to be forgiven is a God who stands in the pits of despair with the abused and yet also takes on the sin of the oppressors. The God of wrath is a God who is comfortable to the powerful. The God of wrath does not hurt for the enslaved, raped, or abused but demands repentance only of sin and cannot take on the guilt of those who seek to forgive God.
The power of this work versus process or even open and relational theology (which is my typical response) is that it is worked out in classical theism. Therefore, it can be embraced by a wider audience for whom the answers provided by process or open and relational theologies ring hollow. It provides a response to trauma and pain which works in both classical and open theism. Yet, the power is in the idea that God can be accused by the creation who then understand the solidarity of the Son willingly dying on a cross. The Son killed by that same creation as the First Person of the Trinity mourns.
The authors also give a practical section for the minister, which should only be read after the first section. This is especially true for those who have, thankfully, never experienced the horrors of the abuse and pain described in section one. This is an important work for our age and one which brings a message of redemption to the oppressed and oppressor by illuminating a language and story of the Cross which does not ignore the hurting. The book is hard to read at times because of the horrors, yet that is also why it is so powerful. I found myself in tears because of that horror, but also because of the message of restorative justice throughout. In particular, the Eucharistic liturgy found at the conclusion caused me to tear in joy for words and ideas I have attempted to communicate within the Eucharistic celebration of my own faith community.
In the end, the bigger question may become, "who is the God we worship?" If that God is the God described within The Back Side of the Cross then there is hope for the Church as we navigate chaos. I know this God and to see God described as I experience God is a soothing balm in a troubled world. May this book bless you as it has blessed me.
(Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson, The Back Side of the Cross)