Red Stain of Cain

In this book the Revd Dr Christopher Steed brings together insights from social sciences to illuminate the doctrine of atonement. The doctrine has been the focus of considerable debate in recent years and therefore this contribution is both timely and welcome. The London School of Theology hosted a symposium on the subject of the atonement in July 2005 (in fact during the terrorist attacks in London) and from that occasion a number of papers were published.[1] These papers offered a discussion of penal substitution as well as the subject of contemporary culture and symbolic exchange. In a sense, Dr Steed is following along the path of this debate, but he is also adding his own unique perspective. It is one that was written by him as he watched the trial of the perpetrators of the Manchester bombing of 2017. So, once again, a discussion of the atonement is considered against the backdrop of terrorism in the UK. The continuity of the historical events should not be lost on the readers of this book.

Dr Steed considers the nature of violence as a public health issue and within Christianity he links it to the question of power. Of course, we all know that violence is an expression of power. The divesting of power for the sake of the powerless is a theme well known in theology and it is exemplified in the cross of Christ. In fact, in a shocking manner, Christ embraces such violence for the sake of the salvation of the world. This very event stands at the heart of the biblical narrative and without it the overarching story simply does not make sense. But with this act also comes an exchange: life for death, sinlessness for sinfulness, justice for injustice. There is a great mystery here, that the incarnate Son of God should hang on a cross for the salvation of the world.

In this book, Dr Steed takes us on a journey that uses the atonement as appreciated through the idea of symbolic exchange. On the journey, he reflects on the value of human beings and the nature of violence today. For example, he discusses human trafficking, violence against women, war against Islam, masculinity, racism and the Covid crisis. He interprets these features in terms of denigration, de-personalisation, desecration, de-humanisation and demonisation. In the middle of these issues is the matter of human responsibility and identity. Using psychological theory, Dr Steed unpacks these concepts and mobilises them to address violence. This is followed by a theological reflection based on the atonement and the therapeutic dimensions that emerge from the discussion. In this way, the material connects the different metaphors of the forensic and the therapeutic in a creative manner.

There is much in this book that will provoke reflection. It pushes us back to the doctrine of the atonement with greater sensitivity. It ignites our imagination to consider different lenses through which to view this pivotal event in the history of the world and the church. It moves us to prayer, as we consider the rampant use of violence in our own day. And its causes us to bow the knee and worship the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit with hope in our hearts because we know that the cross was not the end of God’s dealing with humanity. The cross must always be set against the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; and so we have hope for the new creation that is to come.

The Revd Professor Mark J. Cartledge, PhD, FRSA
Principal and Professor of Practical Theology
London School of Theology

[1] Derek Tidball, David Hilborn & Justin Thacker (eds.), The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).