The Political Subversion of the Cross
Last weekend – Easter – was a time where all Christians remember the tragic end of Jesus’ life, as well as the miraculous raising of Jesus the Christ from his death. The week prior to Jesus’ death – Holy Week – is one where Christians focus on Jesus’ arrival and entry into Jerusalem, the hub of Israeli and Jewish power, amid excited and adoring crowds. As we read through and remembered this tragic story, we heard and saw the excitement and adoration of the people quickly turn, resulting in a call by the people to kill – crucify! – this man they so enthusiastically welcomed. Not only do the people cry for his death, but they answer Pilate’s question by declaring let “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). The multitude, in other words, embrace the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, whereas Pilate, ironically, acts like a good Israelite seeking to separate himself from a deed that violates covenant justice (Gardner, 390). The result of the people’s eagerness, which was fed, we are told, by the chief priests and elders’ ability to persuade the multitude, lead to the death of Jesus on the cross.
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My fear, however, as we remember the horrible and horrific event of the crucifixion, is that we have forgotten much of its significance, both historically in Jesus’ time and for us today. What we now call the “substitutionary atonement theory” has understood the cross primarily as the beginning of salvation, and not also as the culmination of a radical life lived within an Empire. This theory has tended to disconnect the life-path chosen by Jesus from the salvation attributed to the cross. The cross, as represented in the New Testament, is both an end and a beginning. It demonstrates the predictable end of life lived in service to the Kingdom of God within an Empire. It also invites us into a future in which the power of this life-ending cross becomes the power of a cross-initiated life.
If we disconnect the above, the man of Jesus, his life and teachings, is not seen or understood as a model or example for the way in which we ought to live in our world.
We can, however, see the cross in a different interpretative light with regard to the story of Jesus. The cross, rather than being understood as the reason of Jesus’ incarnation, can rather be understood as the culmination of the subversive way he lived as well as the subversive lessons he taught. The cross, in other words, can be seen as the logical culmination and consequence that Jesus’ life and teachings point to and lead towards.
Jesus proved to be an unruly character. This is especially true for those who were in positions and places of power — those who sat in the upper echelons of society. From the very beginning, Jesus offered an alternative political image, an image that described a different kind of kingdom — the Kingdom of God. This kingdom that Jesus talked about challenged some of the basic, deeply entrenched practices that had come to exist in Israel during his time.
This alternative political vision proved to be quite subversive. As people were invited to participate and form a community that sought to live according to this alternative politic, it challenged many of the norms of the current empire. It challenged those who responded to the invitation to be part of this community to imagine a different way of living in this world, a different way of interacting with one another. Rather than seeking dominion, this community was encouraged and taught to serve others. Rather than seeking mastery over others, they were taught to become servants of all. Rather than seeking wealth and comfort, Jesus challenged the economic system, teaching this community to share and distribute what they had so that everyone would have enough. Rather than hoarding what there was — living selfishly — Jesus taught to live selflessly. Rather than accepting violence and injustice as the norm, Jesus taught this community how to seek and make peace – shalom. Rather than accepting a system that creates and perpetuates violence and injustice, this community was taught ways to actively work at living rightly with one another. Put simply, the kingdom Jesus taught and the community of followers that were invited to participate in this kingdom challenged the basic assumptions of existing kingdoms of this world.
To present, announce, and live according to such an alternative politic is dangerous. When one teaches and lives a life that challenges a particular empire, it often leads to discomfort, torture, persecution, even death. This is especially true when one challenges those in power, authority, and control. Examples abound to this reality. The politics of Jesus, to borrow the title from John Howard Yoder’s popular book, ultimately points to a different understanding of power — an upside down understanding of power. The power of this kingdom Jesus both proclaimed and initiated was a grand reversal: it exists with the poor, not the rich; it was embodied with the multitude (even when, ironically, they sought Jesus’ execution), not the elite; it was manifested through death and sacrifice, not mastery and control.
In Jesus’ case, leading a life that challenged those in power and authority and teaching a community to embody a different understanding of power led to death on a cross — a form of capital punishment for political troublemakers.
Jesus’ death points to how subversive his life and teachings were. His teachings continue to be so in our time as well. The question, however, is whether we acknowledge and seek to live according to this alternative political agenda? Are we willing to embody, live out, kingdom of God values in our world today? Are we looking for ways in which to organize ourselves as a community that lives according to this alternative understanding of power? Are we willing to live lives of discomfort as we seek to embody a different way of being in the world? Are we willing to suffer the consequences when the elite, those in authority, are challenged? Are we looking for ways, day-in-and-day-out, in which we can participate in God’s kingdom in the here-and-now?
Answers to these questions all hinge on whether we are willing to see the story of Jesus, a story that not only brings salvation to us as he substituted his life for ours, but a story in which we are called to participate as we seek to live out the example, teachings, and the alternative politics that Jesus provided. We should not be surprised, however, that understanding this story in this way may lead down a path that culminates in our own cross as well. But this should not deter us. For “the cross,” reminds Yoder, “is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come” (Yoder, 51).
Image: Jesus holding the cross, Kobets / Shutterstock.com