Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Provocative Question & Answer About the Crucifixion

A question asked by email and my response:

[You have suggested that reverence for the cross glorified violence, but] I have never seen the cross as a glorification of violence. Rather I see it as a symbol of a man who was so committed to his life, his mission, and his gospel of God's love for all, that he was willing to give it his all. Secondarily, you've stated that you see no divine plan in the brutality of the crucifixion. As to the brutality, I can agree; but what do you say to the crucifixion itself? Were not the prophets correct and didn't Christ's death reconcile the old...way of relating to God with the necessity of a sacrifice? Didn't his life, death, and resurrection all culminate to a new way of humanity coming to know their God? Let me know your thoughts...
My response:

You ask questions that can be batted around for hours in graduate school seminars, so I feel that a 800 word response (while long for an email) doesn't really do justice to the question. But, I'll try...

Jesus' willingness to submit to the Roman authorities rather than fight, run, or raise a militant group to resist was noble and courageous on his part. The problem isn't with his response to the situation, but with how we romanticize his martyrdom. We sing about him dying "in my place" or "for my sins" as if God required it, as if God could think of no way to be in relationship with humanity other than to require the torture and brutal murder of a good person.

Of course, the person who first articulated and detailed the "justification" (or "satisfaction") atonement theory was a bishop in the middle ages, Anselm. Anselm in the 11th century was not only the highest ranking bishop in his country, but he was noble by birth and second in social power only to the king. From his position of privilege, anyone who defied the king (or any "godly" authority) or who was in any way disloyal deserved to be banished, imprisoned forever, or killed. Even if the king wanted to be lenient, he couldn't allow himself to be because it would diminish (in such hierarchical thinking) his authority and power.

In that kind of social system, God was imagined to be an absolute monarch ("king") wielding unchecked power over "His" subjects; therefore, Anselm naturally enough assumed that King God would respond to "His" subjects the way any king would.

In that context, Anselm interpreted the crucifixion as God's way of exacting the punishment that had to
be given out while still showing mercy to the subjects. The crimes (or sins) were punished, but Jesus took the punishment so that others wouldn't have this way, people were shown mercy while God's
sense of justice (the king must be feared and obeyed) was also satisfied.

For the first millennium of Christianity, that had NOT been the understanding of the crucifixion, but since Anselm, much of Christianity has not only accepted his view but have then read that view into scripture.

Our world view isn't that of an 11th century aristocrat believing God to be an absolute monarch like the ancient kings of France and England. Also, Anselm assumed Augustine's position that humanity was
cursed with "original sin," as a result of the Fall. Anselm (and Augustine) believed Adam and Eve were literal, factual, historical people whose mistake literally cursed all of humanity for all time (another view that doesn't paint God in a very flattering light). Everyone was somehow guilty just for existing.

Since Darwin, fewer people accept that we were created perfect and "fell" from that state of grace...rather, the Darwinian view is that we started rather humbly and have been evolving to higher and higher states ever since. We didn't fall from perfection, we just haven't reached it yet.

So, as we don't live in an absolute monarchy, we are less likely to see God as an absolute monarch; and as we now have scientific theories that suggest we are evolving from lower to higher states of being (rather than falling from perfection and needing to be restored), the whole Anselm view of atonement doesn't really fit with how we experience and understand our world.

So, no, I don't believe that Jesus' execution was required by God (nor do I believe the Hebrew scriptures prognosticated such an event...prophecy isn't future telling, its truth isn't saying what will happen to future generations, its challenging its own generation to make changes...the prophets weren't oracles, they
were a challenge to their own people in their own day).

People have always tried to understand ultimate reality ("God")...even without Jesus' martyrdom, people would have continued to try to figure out the mysteries of life. And God, I as I understand God, never needed Jesus' sacrifice or anything else in order to love and embrace God's own creation.

Now, once the evil practice of state execution was used against Jesus for his seditious activity, and those who loved him continued to experience him in powerful ways that they called "Resurrection," that is where God comes in....God is in the victory over the evil of the cross, but I have no need to believe that God ever required such horrific violence. If I were to call that good, what could I ever call reprehensible? If God could find no other way to love me than to torture and brutalize someone else, I'm afraid I wouldn't have much
use for such a God anyway. I would never truly feel "safe" with that god.

The violence of the cross happened, and the affirmation of our faith is that the terrible day that it happened did not end Jesus' story or ours; but to celebrate the violence rather than the victory over it is a mistake in my view, a tragic mistake that Christianity has made for too long and that has contributed to far too much suffering in our world.


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