The Question of the Cross in "Good" Friday

Atonement theology says, "Jesus died so we might live." It suggests that the torture and murder lamented this Friday is "good."
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The FBI just broke up a homegrown Christian terrorist group, the Hutaree, in Michigan. How is it that a religion that claims that followers should turn the other cheek and love their enemies can breed such hate and violence? Unfortunately, Western Christianity has supported holy wars for a millennium, and it is deeply embedded in ideas that will be preached to Christians this "Good" Friday.

Many Christians will attend services to mark Jesus' dying words as he was crucified. On a "Good" Friday, in 1095, the First Crusade's pilgrims -- headed to Jerusalem to take the city back for Christ -- paused in the Rhineland to slaughter 10,000 Jews as "Christ killers." This focus on genocide against all "infidels" was supported by a new idea claiming that Jesus' crucifixion saved the world. This new idea has two main forms: one espoused by today's conservative evangelicals and the other by more liberal Christians.

In 1098 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury summarized the evangelical idea of salvation: he claimed the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world. His idea, now called "substitutionary atonement theology," claimed that humanity's sinfulness had dishonored God and carried a magnitude of debt from sin that was impossible to pay. God had to send Jesus to substitute for us as the only sinless sacrifice qualified to atone for sin. Anselm also taught a piety of stark terror of hell to drill the point home -- which, to my mind, grounds faith in abnegation of personal ethical responsibility and cowardice.

Anselm's opponent Abelard asked who would forgive God for murdering his own son. Abelard, the thinker liberals prefer, thought Anselm's God was unworthy of worship. He proposed an idea based on the love Jesus demonstrated in his willingness to die. Jesus reconciled humanity to God by revealing the horrible extent of the sins that killed him. He forgave us, his killers, unto death. In recognizing this, our hearts are changed, and we come to love God as deeply as Jesus loved us. We are united in self-sacrificing love. This version of atonement confuses passivity and absence with love.

Such interpretations of the events Christians will remember this Friday assert that God requires violence to save the world. If people believe that God uses torture and murder, what is to stop them from doing the same? Or they mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. They confuse non-violent resistance to evil with acquiescence to it.

Many Christians today refuse a faith that asks us to be thankful for the torture and murder of Jesus Christ. We are accused of wanting a Pollyanna Christianity without the cross. I ask, what cross? The earliest images of the cross -- dating back to the mid fourth century -- symbolize resurrection, the tree of life, paradise in this world, and the transfiguration of the world by the Spirit. These crosses are not about sacrifice or debt repayment.

Christianity that is true to the life of Jesus Christ tells his death as the story of resistance to the Roman Empire, not as the story of how the Empire enacted God's will. Rome used crucifixion against non-citizens, the poor, and slaves. More like lynching than a formal execution, it began with horrible forms of torture designed to create a long, agonizing death over days. A quick death was a mercy. Bodies were left exposed to the elements, and were devoured as carrion or rotted. Burials did not happen. It was so horrible a death that ancient writers, except for Seneca, were silent about it, and families of victims never spoke the names of the murdered again.

The gospels constructed an innovative strategy to resist crucifixion. They rejected the terror that crucifixion instilled and told the story another way, against the grain of historical fact and with the grain of love and resistance. They reported that Jesus had no broken bones and died quickly. His friends removed him intact the day he died and buried him properly. They found him again in the garden, along the shore, breaking bread, and telling them to carry on his ministry. They experienced him as many people and cultures experience those they love who have died, as present still in visions, dreams, and rituals. These loving details said that Rome was impotent to erase Jesus from memory, to deny his humanity, or to end his work for justice, healing, and peace.

Early Christians told the story of Jesus' death as lamentation and remembrance that resisted Rome. The gospel writers used lamentation from the Psalms to link his death to earlier imperial carnage visited upon his people. Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips vividly evoked the bitter lament that runs through it. In using sacred literature to expose what torture did to him and to his people, the gospel writers brought testimony before a higher court of appeals than Pilate or his ilk and wove Jesus into a history of violence against all advocates for justice. Their telling affirmed divine presence in human flesh, in Jesus who showed them how to live, before he died, and revealed love stronger than terror, torture, or death. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul asserted that Jesus died once to defeat the powers of death, which held no power over him, but Christians worshiped the risen Christ.

Crucifixion was designed to save the empire -- but those who testified to God's incarnate love and who told of the resurrection saved the church. If Christians reject the imperial designs of crucifixion, we must break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress our work for economic justice, health care, and peace. We must offer a way of holding this life with wisdom about evil, with sorrow for all it destroys, and with profound, deep love for life.

Atonement theology says, "Jesus died so we might live." It suggests that the torture and murder lamented this Friday is "good." Christians who ground their power in divine love mourn on Friday, keep vigil until dawn on Sunday, and say with joy, "Jesus lived so that all creation might live."

Material for this post is taken from my book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, co-authored with Rebecca Parker (Beacon, 2008,

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