Do we need Atonement?

The proposed Dark MOFO performance by Hermann Nitsch, in which an animal is used to cover people ritualistically with blood has understandably caused a great deal of public comment. As I write, the signatories to the petition against it continue to rise, and the airwaves are awash with comment.

At the outset I should say that I am not interested in attending an event like this, and I, like many others find the idea of it at best confronting and at worst offensive.

David Walsh and his team at MONA love to provoke us, and they have achieved that once again. I found Walsh’s blog about the performance very provocative indeed.

It makes me think about the ancient idea of “atonement”, which the Macquarie Dictionary defines as “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends”.

In many ancient religions, “atonement” was made by a blood sacrifice; an animal slaughtered in the place of the “sinner” to “atone” (make reparation or amends) for their sins, usually in an attempt to turn aside the wrath of a god.

I have seen the idea in Hindu rituals of making offerings of flowers and food to appease the wrath of Hindu gods. In Islam people make atonement for their wrongdoings through good works, like feeding the poor. In ancient Israel, during the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) sins were confessed on the head of the “scapegoat” and it was sent out into the wilderness to die.

Many of us find these rituals anachronistic to our modern/western ears. But it seems to me themes of sacrifice and atonement are everywhere. Parents making up for their deficiencies by lavishing opportunity on their children. Prisoners ‘doing time’ for their misdemeanors. Politicians ‘falling on their swords’ for various failures. And ordinary people trying to make amends for their wrongs, so that they might find forgiveness and peace.

It strikes me that last year’s Dark MOFO finale when 10,000 people placed their dark fears and regrets into the Indonesian ogoh-ogoh effigy, and had it burned as a “cleansing ritual” on the Hobart waterfront ( might have been “just art”; or perhaps it was expressing a contemporary desire for atonement.

This year’s Dark MOFO kerfuffle comes just days after the celebration of Easter where for Christians Good Friday is, at its essence, about atonement. The significance of Jesus’ death is clearly to be understood as God’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of the world, to secure permanent forgiveness and freedom from the effects of sin, without the need to slaughter an animal.

We all struggle with guilt for our wrongs, our shortcomings, and our regrets for which we need forgiveness and relief, or at the very least, some way of leaving them behind us. Could it be, that these Dark MOFO events tap into our need? Do we need atonement?

We understand sacrifice well enough. After all, ANZAC Day is next on the calendar where we give thanks for the lives sacrificed for our freedom.

Sacrifice and atonement come together, where one pays the ultimate price in sacrifice for the wrongs of another, be it the death of the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, or the burning of the intricate work of the ogoh-ogoh effigy, or even God giving up His own Son.

The Christian contribution to this question is that sacrifices of atonement that need to be repeated year after year, never seem to bring satisfaction. Jesus’ atonement for sin was “once for all”, shown by his resurrection from the dead, forever securing forgiveness from God.

So the MONA team have made us think again. Do we need atonement? And if so, how are you securing yours?

The Right Revd Dr Richard Condie