At the center of Christianity is a weird claim: that we have been saved by sacrifice. And it was a gruesome sacrifice at that, a snapshot of humanity at our worst, for the Christian claim is that what saved us was the torture and putting to death on a cross of an innocent man falsely charged as a criminal. Weird doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this idea. The talented and thoughtful writer, Colm Toibin, has taken the church to task regarding this claim. As quoted by Maureen Dowd about his one-woman show opening soon on Broadway, The Testament of Mary, Toibin says this: “The idea that we were somehow saved and redeemed by a crucifixion seems strange to me. The idea of human sacrifice is something we really have to think about, even people who are practicing Catholics, the idea of taking a single individual for the sake of any cause.”
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of human sacrifice lately. In fact, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in it because I’ve been editing a new introduction to Christianity by the Catholic theologian James Alison. At the center of his course is an insight about how a death on a cross could have redeeming qualities. Here’s how Alison understands what happened at the cross: Jesus did not invent human sacrifice and going to his death on a cross was not an endorsement of the torture and murder of innocent victims. It was an exposé. What we have in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion is a fairly complete picture of how human beings, without any assistance from God, have saved our own necks by crucifying someone else. We commit sacrifice when we scapegoat, demonize, marginalize, expel, persecute or kill others in the name of our own safety and security or to bolster our belief in our own goodness. As the Gospels tell us rather directly, enemies become reconciled when they can find a common enemy to unite against: “That same day [the day of the crucifixion] Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)
For sacrifice to work, however, it requires an essential ingredient: we need to be fully convinced that our victims deserve what they are getting. In other words, to accrue the benefit of reconciliation that sacrifice confers, we need to be convinced of the guilt of those we are persecuting. Herod and Pilate could share a conviction that Jesus was a threat to their power, hence their friendship became possible. How many of us bond over similarly shared convictions against an enemy? I’ll offer two examples, one trivial, another with grave consequences. The trivial example is gossip. Perhaps not so trivial for the victim of gossip, but it is trivial in the sense of its pervasive use in establishing bonds of friendship and community over against a hated other. As for the grave example, to paraphrase Toibin, we need to really think about how our nation has been seeking to unify itself against the elusive yet ubiquitous threat of terrorism. How many innocent people have we harassed, displaced, maimed, or killed without ever doubting our own goodness or whether they deserved what they are getting at our hands?
What Jesus did on the cross was to force us to doubt. Jesus is not just any victim, he is an innocent victim, the beloved son of God. When we put him to death, God was on the cross, too. As Alison likes to say, therewas an angry deity in need of appeasement that day, and it was us. As it has always been us when it comes to sacrifice. What Jesus did was flip our normal modus operandi: rather than blindly sacrificing others, Jesus modeled how to sacrifice ourselves for others. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
I’m not saying that Christianity has always been true to its message. We have betrayed ourselves too many times and Toibin himself is a witness to the harm done to gay men by what too often passes for Christian teaching today. But somehow the message that is undoing sacrifice has filtered down through the centuries to us, despite the messiness and imperfections of the messenger. Toibin’s doubt is a testimony to that, too. I’m betting that Jesus would be thrilled if we would begin to question the wisdom of sacrificing others for any cause, no matter how noble or good that cause may appear to us. Jesus opened up for us the possibility for our redemption. To follow Jesus is to forsake our addiction to human sacrifice and embrace the flip to sacrifice ourselves for others.
Jesus had faith that we could do it. I’d hate to disappoint him.
Photo: Cross on a hill, Spectral-Design / Shutterstock.com