One of the truly great summaries of liberal Protestantism in the last century, Niebuhr’s quote has found new currency in the present church environment. A group called Preaching Peace (http://www.preachingpeace.org/) has taken on the task of holistically reconceptualizing Christian theology in light of the insights of Rene Girard, the French anthropological philosopher, and the application of his “mimetic theory” or the observation that human desire and behavior involves deep levels of imitation. Essentially, we borrow our desires from others in an endless drama of mythic themes and human imitation.
Applied to the cross of Christ, the Preaching Peace folks want to strip away all of the violence-saturated language of Christian theology (getting rid of the shadow of Augustine and Eusebius) and apply the insights of Girard and the “hermeneutic of peace” to understanding it.
Take Romans 3:25, for instance. Paul says God presented Jesus to be the “propitiation for our sins.” Unlike other words for forgiveness which refer to wiping clean the slate or remitting sin, propitiation (hilastarion) has been understood as assuaging the righteous wrath of a holy God against sin. Jesus’ death satisfied God’s righteous anger or made him “propitious.”
The Preaching Peace view asks the questions: “Does Jesus reveal God's love for us, or placate God's wrath towards us? And doesn't this way of thinking presuppose that you can attain a good, loving result through violence? Does the end justify the violent means? Isn't this the sort of thinking that has fueled the endless cycle of violence that's characterized human history?”
In the last century, liberal Protestantism got around the cross by seeing the ministry of Christ as exemplary of divine love. Now, we have a sophisticated anthropological analysis of human history being used to empty the cross of any meaning other than a pyrrhic victory over violence through innocent suffering. And, major denominational groups are promoting the "non-violent atonement" seminars. I know of at least one denomination that has been sending e-mails to their pastors recommending the resources. And, it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Brian McLaren and other members of the emerging church.