Reconciling Our Enemies | Sojourners

Reconciling Our Enemies

For Christians, the cross is not some abstract symbol of nonviolence. The cross is the jagged slab of wood to which Roman soldiers spiked Jesus of Nazareth whom we follow and worship.

But why was he crucified? Was it merely because he came to die as a sacrifice for our sin? Or was it merely that he lived such an exemplary, loving life of concern for the poor and weak that he died a martyr to peace, justice, and love? Why did Jesus end up on the cross?

To answer that question, we must recall the historical context into which Jesus stepped and then reflect on what his life and message looked like in that historical setting.

Quite apart from the question of political freedom and independence for which the Jews eagerly yearned, Roman rule was hardly benign. Herod the Great, who ruled as a client king of Rome until 4 B.C., turned large portions of Palestine into personal estates worked by tenants -- an oppressive arrangement depicted in Jesus' parables.

After A.D. 6, when Judea became a directly-governed Roman province, governors were often oppressive. Pilate, according to a contemporary, was "of hard disposition, brutal and pitiless." His administration was full of "corruption, violence, robbery, brutality, extortion, and execution without trial." Tax collectors exacted heavy taxation. And there was the ongoing danger that Jewish religious life would be violated -- witness for instance Emperor Caligula's attempt to set up his statue in the temple in A.D. 41.

It is hardly surprising that apocalyptic, messianic expectation was widespread and intense in the first century A.D. Almost everyone longed for the dawning of the new age when the messiah would come to end the rule of the foreign oppressors.

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