Atonement as satisfying a vendetta

Some time ago, on the local Christian radio station, I was listening to a preacher explain how Jesus’s death on the cross saved us all by paying the penalty for all our human sins against God. He used the analogy of a judge who lets a convicted person go, because some other person, innocent of the crime, volunteers to go to the gallows instead. The law is satisfied by someone paying the penalty; the convict just has to accept the sacrifice of the innocent person and walk free.

I’ve run into this analogy before; I would guess that it circulates in the culture of evangelical Christianity. It just happens to be particularly striking in the way it makes no sense. None of our legal systems work this way. And it seriously grates against the common modern conception of moral responsibility.

No doubt there are other conceptions of responsibility under which the satisfaction version of the Atonement make sense: conceptions where persons are much more strongly integrated into collectivities than modern individuals, and where responsibility and punishment are much more plausibly taken as communal affairs. Not being an anthropologist, though, the only example that I can think of that might help me make sense of the Atonement as satisfaction is a vendetta.

In many tribal or segmented societies, a tribe or (partly fictive) kinship group regularly bears collective responsibility for transgressions against another group. Say one person murders another from another group, starting a vendetta. For the aggrieved group, justice will often be deemed satisfied if any one person from the offending group is murdered in turn—it does not have to be the original murderer. Groups bear collective responsibility, and because of this, they can also often be effective in discouraging their members from transgressing against other groups.

So I guess in a vaguely similar sense, I can imagine humans bearing some collective responsibility for transgressions against the God-in-chief. Maybe some perfect sacrifice on behalf of all of us can satisfy that sort of debt. Maybe—I expect this sort of thing made more sense in Near Eastern societies of a couple thousand years ago where collective responsibility was a familiar everyday reality.

What I don’t get is conservative American Christians today still taking about the Atonement as satisfaction. These are often the same people who make a fetish of “personal responsibility” and rugged individualism. They don’t do vendettas. So don’t they feel the tension between that modern conception of responsibility and the stories they tell about Jesus atoning for our sins? Or should I speculate that collective responsibility is not so foreign to the evangelical subculture? After all, many conservative Christians today are quick to ascribe collective responsibility to Muslims for acts of terrorism. What’s going on here?

I’m not too concerned about how conservative Christians come up with intellectual excuses for their ideas about the Atonement. A religion that affirms the Trinity and Jesus being both fully divine and fully human should have no trouble with a bit of intellectual tension between conflicting senses of responsibility.

What I wonder is how the tension manifests itself (or not) psychologically. Do conservative Christians just, by and large, not think about this sort of thing? (I’m fairly sure they don’t give the Trinity much thought, for example.) Or is there something to a speculation that their culture has an element of tribalism that helps defuse the tension here?