Jesus on the cross is best viewed as what that event concretely was, an imperial execution," says Mark Lewis Taylor in The Executed God. Many in this world and followers of Jesus know of a crucified Christ, but to look distinctly at the executed God is to more fully inform and energize faith. The way of the cross is to work and live through a world of oppression into love, life, and new community.
The reality that God, provider of all life, bound up in the person of Jesus Christ, was subjected to state-sanctioned killing cannot be discounted. The 2 million inmates in our prisons and jails and more than 3,700 on death row are indications that our daily lives are immersed in "the political theatrics of terror."
Taylor, professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, illustrates a "lockdown America" addicted to spectacles of fear in order to maintain social order. A continuum of law enforcement dysfunctions, police brutality, incarcerations, and, finally, capital punishment affects us all.
In empathy with all involvedvictims, offenders, professionals, and citizensTaylor laments the continual erosion of public compassion or deep democracy we need to meet the terrible problems of violence we face. He suggests "the terror is greater than the error [i.e. crime]." Disparities between the haves and the have-nots are subsumed in false responses. They will not be solved by the increase of the prison industrial complex.
Taylor calls readers into faithful, post-modern understandings of Jesus and God. He asks us to fasten onto the Galilean identity of Jesus, which reflects an ethos of a people who rebelled against imperial power's false claims over life and death. They resisted the established order. For this, these folks were branded criminals.
"Peoples' movement are...not just for living against empire but also for flourishing and pressing beyond it," says Taylor. He points out that Jesus' execution came during a religious festival, Passover, and a politically charged climate. Jesus' message of new relations, based in love, justice, and righteousness, was certain to be taken up by peoples' movements. This allowed Jesus through his prophetic persistence "to steal the show" with a theatrics that counters terror. Taylor argues for Christians to become "rebellious, impious Galileans" within a broader, inclusive, grassroots efforts to counter the empire.
Through the cross (imprisonment and execution), imperial power demands and repeats "Fear us." However, through the cross, the reign of God triumphs. We must persist, insists Taylor, until love has the last word.
David Whettstone is a religion writer and advocate on criminal justice in Washington, D.C.