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Can We Embrace the Cross without Claiming Crucifixion Saved Us?

Mar 30, 2010

Easter Reflection 2010, by Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good

What happened on the cross when Jesus died? One answer is that Jesus satisfied our debt of sin to God that we could not pay. He was, therefore, our substitute and took our punishment as the one sinless sacrifice qualified to pay for sin. Another interpretation says that Jesus reconciled us to God by revealing the horrible extent of our sins that killed him. He endured the outer extremity of human sin, while forgiving us unto death. In recognizing this, our hearts are changed and come to love God as deeply as Jesus loved us.

Perhaps, however, Jesus' suffering death was not a debt payment or model to emulate, but rather a moment that made visible the power of love over terror and death. Such debates about the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion have shaped Christian thinking for centuries.

It may or may not surprise you that some Christian theologians refuse "atonement theologies" altogether - the idea that humans are saved through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the nineteenth century, Christian Universalist Baptist preacher Hosea Ballou said atonement theology had done more harm to Christianity than all its despisers combined. Does this mean theologians who reject atonement ideas have no use for the cross of Jesus, that they ignore it or, worse, deny its importance to the Christian story? No.

First, though, it is important to distinguish the cross from the crucifixion. The earliest images of the cross - dating back to the fourth century - symbolize resurrection, the tree of life, victory over death, baptism, and the transfiguration of the world by the Spirit, not sacrifice or debt repayment. The crucifixion was not shown in images until the year 950. To reject atonement theology is not to reject the crucifixion or the cross, but to understand their meaning and the purposes of God differently.

Telling the story of the crucifixion is crucial to authentic Christianity. It must be told because of our commitment to the saving power of community, of lamentation, of remembrance, and of love stronger than terror, torture, or death. We must tell it to affirm the incarnation of God in human flesh, salvation through resurrection, and the incarnation of the Spirit in all creation. Telling it affirms divine love and resistance to the powers of empire and death.

The Roman Empire used crucifixion against non-citizens, the under-classes, and slaves, and it was regarded as so shameful that even families of victims would not speak of it. It required no trial and was more akin to a lynching than a formal execution. It began with horrible forms of torture designed to create a long, agonizing death outdoors. The victim was left hanging naked and exposed to the elements. A quick death was a mercy. Bodies were left to rot and be eaten as carrion until nothing was left to bury, with no place for a memorial to preserve a person's identity. Crucifixion was designed to destroy an entire existence, so that even the names of the crucified were erased from memory.

But the authors of the passion narratives constructed an innovative strategy to resist public torture and execution. They broke the silence about the shame and terror that crucifixion instilled. They created a literature of disclosure and wove the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice. They placed the opening of Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips and vividly evoked the bitter lament of grief and intense struggle that runs through the entire Psalm. In using it to expose what torture did to the soul and to communities, the gospel writers brought testimony before a higher court of appeals.

In speaking explicitly about Jesus' crucifixion, the gospel writers used lamentation from the scriptures that tied his death to earlier imperial carnage visited upon his people. But how they say Jesus died is telling. They reported that he had no broken bones and died quickly and with dignity. His friends removed him intact and buried him properly. They found him again in a garden, along the shore, breaking bread, and telling them to carry on his ministry. These loving details, which minimize or deny the most brutalizing and annihilating aspects of crucifixion, said that Rome was impotent to erase Jesus from memory, to deny his humanity, or to end his work for justice, healing, and peace.

To lament publicly was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy - dignity, courage, passion, love, wisdom, and remembrance. The purpose of the passion stories is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as good or as redemptive, to reveal "true love" as submission to evil and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. Such interpretations mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. They suggest that life can be saved by passivity and deny how the oppressed and marginalized must use their power for liberation. They confuse non-violent resistance of evil with innocence and weakness.

Jesus was not innocent. His actions violated the laws of the Roman Empire. He was guilty of the charges against him, even if he did nothing that was morally wrong. Pilate might kill him, but Rome had no moral authority, no power over him. The telling of the story of Jesus' crucifixion asserts that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life and the hard work of committed communities who know their power rests in God.

The passion narratives also reflect women's roles in public lamentation. In his book The Birth of Christianity (HarperOne, 1999), John Dominic Crossan notes that the new literary form of the gospel is built on this poetic base. From ancient times, women have tended the bodies of the dead. And they have carried the public role of grieving. "Call for the mourning women to come ... let them raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears," Jeremiah cried (Jer 9:17-18).

As professional mourners, women also composed lamentation poetry. Women, we are told in the gospels, were the first to tell the story. In their careful attention to detail, the stories offer the witness of those who hold to life against all odds and every power arrayed against them, a grass-roots movement dominated by women and ordinary people. They defy the imperial strategies of crucifixion by telling Jesus' story and naming his name. They affirm the divine blessings of justice and abundant life, revealed by this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave his friends power to do deeds in his name. Doing work in his name and telling his story aloud, even the scandal of the cross, defied imperial terrorism.

To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is the life-giving responsibility of those who reject what crucifixion was intended to do. Crucifixion was designed to save the empire - but those who testified to God incarnate and who told of his resurrection saved the church. The fourth-century Jerusalem church recited the passion stories once a year in the week before Easter during a day-long ritual of intense grief. Every week year-round, however, they told the stories of incarnation and resurrection. And every evening, they lit a lamp to mark the presence of the risen Christ who hosted every joyous Eucharist celebration. The cross signified this life, this ever-resurrected love that also had the power to remember crucifixion and not to be defeated by it.

Early faithful Christians resisted the many forces of sin and death in their world. They did not believe that suffering was good or sanctifying. Instead, they sought to alleviate it by taking care of one another. They knew that all violence, even the shedding of pagan blood, was a mortal sin and harmed their community. They saw, in the courage of martyrs, models of steadfast faith who refused to abandon the grace of God. Through their faith, joy and wonder seeped into a world afflicted with violence and sorrow.

The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ were gifts of persistent love, stronger than death, "life in his name" (John 20:31). God's gracious gifts, however, were neither a panacea nor a final solution to life's struggles. Instead, they offered a way of holding this life with wisdom and with profound, deep love.

In extremities of repression, pain, outrage, and protest, lamentation carried the energy of love's power, as did acts of compassion, generosity, and justice. The ancient words of scripture, the choreography of well-known rituals, and the prayers of many comforted those who loved Jesus, and they resided with him in the space of resistance to the death-dealing powers of Rome and its many legions.

There, in the church as the body of Christ, "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it ... for love is as strong as death" (Song of Songs 8:7, 6). And it is stronger than all the principalities and powers of this world because we have been called to be church, to tell Jesus' story, to use the great power of love, and to do divine deeds in his name.

This article is from DisciplesWorld: A Journal of News, Opinion, and Mission for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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