Vicarious Redemption

Christopher Hitchens believes that the teachings of Christianity are immoral, with its central theme – the provision of vicarious redemption – being the most vulgar of them all. This doctrine teaches that you can abolish your responsibility by throwing your sins on somebody else. “No,” says Hitchens, “your responsibility must stay with you. To have your sins abolished by someone else is an unhealthy cultivation of wish-thinking.”

I like Hitchens and often times feel closer to him than to whatever Christian apologist he happens to be debating, but here I think his definition of love has failed him. Love has many faces. Its fullest expression comes in the form of agape, which C.S. Lewis describes as “Love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance,” and Martin Buber summarizes concisely as “the responsibility of an I for a you.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky profoundly characterizes this love in the midst of his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, through the lips of an elderly monastic, Father Zosima:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.

Zosima’s message is the central theme of the novel, and those who live by it invariably find redemption for themselves and for others. Those who don’t add only to the world’s suffering.

Hitchens is not wrong, he just lacks moral imagination. Yes, we ought to hold ourselves and each other responsible. But when we fail (and we will all fail), then we have an opportunity to consider taking Christ at his offer – making him responsible for our sins, so that we can do the same for others in turn.

At the heart of the Gospel we are called to redeem the world by bearing the iniquities of the other, making ourselves responsible for their sin and their salvation. If he steals your cloak, give him your tunic also. Now you have not only broken the cycle of retribution, but initiated a cycle of loving-kindness in its place: Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.