In one weekend, the swastika appeared in public places in three U.S. cities — Houston, Chicago, and New York. The sight was so offensive, average New Yorkers pulled out hand sanitizer and tissues to wipe the graffiti from the walls of the subway where it had been scrawled.
“Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone,” one subway rider who was there said. He added, “Everyone kind of just did their jobs of being decent human beings.”
As Christians we should recognize the language of black lives matter. After all, Jesus did not say "blessed is everyone," but "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20). He did not say "as you do it unto everyone, you do it unto me," but "as you do it unto the least" (Matthew 25:40). Jesus did not say "love everyone," but "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).
Continually Jesus drew our attention not to loving people "in general" but to specifically caring for those we would tend to discount or condemn. Black lives matter is exactly the kind of thing Jesus would say.
It was the means of agonizing humiliation and execution and has adorned the banners of armies through which some of the most brutal violence was perpetrated in history. It is a symbol worn by the faithful and sometimes the fashionable. It has famously been described as a stumbling block and foolishness. The cross is central to the Christian faith — but what does it mean? And how could this symbol of weakness also be a source of strength for followers of Christ?
As Christians ponder the mystery and meaning of the cross and Christ’s resurrection in this Easter season, I read Tony Jones’ new book, Did God Kill Jesus? which explores and analyzes various atonement theories through history and culture and considers whether the most famous — penal substitutionary atonement — is really the most accurate. Although Tony and I do not necessarily share the same views, I realized that our perspectives are not as far off as I had thought. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about the book and how his study and meditation of the cross has shaped his understanding of the crucifixion and what that can mean for the faithful.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
JV: You touch a bit on this in the book (but for those who might not read it), what do you believe are the theological and social implications of holding to a belief in penal substitutionary atonement? Could you elaborate on what you think those implications are? And do you think there can be anything redemptive or beautiful in Christians holding to a substitutionary atonement theory of the crucifixion?
We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.
His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.
As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.
Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.
They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.
But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.
Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.
As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.
And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.
As we quickly approach Holy Week in the Christian calendar, our attention turns increasingly to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. According to the Gospel accounts, one of the last phrases that Jesus spoke while suffering on the cross is a recitation of the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Even Jesus, whom Christians hold to be the Son of God, experienced feeling forsaken by his Heavenly Father. And the words of the Psalmist go further, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
As I reflect on the plight of the undocumented immigrant in the United States today, I wonder if the words of the Psalmist, echoed by Jesus on the cross, don’t hit a little too close to home.
It baffles me when people who are deeply concerned about peace and peacemaking define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In pursuit of personal and/ or global peace, they shun organized religion in favor of indigenous spirituality. Celtic music, eastern spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation, and the Native American relationship with nature all seem so attractive and obviously non-violent. I actually have nothing against any of those expressions of spirituality – allow me to offer as proof the trip my husband and I will be taking in July. We will be touring Northern Ireland to enjoy the “storytelling, music, art and peace” of Celtic culture “ancient and new. Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Normally this sort of description would not entice me. It sounds vaguely new age-y, all too “spiritual but not religious.” So why am I going? Because one of the tour leaders is my friend and brilliant cultural critic, the founder of the Wild Goose Festival, Gareth Higgins. Gareth understands that alternative forms of religiosity and spirituality are a necessary part of the revival of Christianity that is going on today, but he also understands that without “religion,” the pursuit of peace is at a serious disadvantage.
I am aware that such a claim runs counter to the primary reason many people give for being spiritual but not religious. They blame religion for violence and war, and there is no denying that many people have killed in the name of their beliefs. Somehow those who abandon organized religion believe that the cure for violence is to purge themselves of religious texts and doctrines that have any reference to violence in them. Why read the Old Testament or believe in a God who requires the death of an innocent victim to be reconciled to us? How could that possibly lead to a more peaceful world?
Even the winter won’t last forever. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
We’ll wake up in April, ready and able, Sowing the seeds in the soil.
Even the darkness cannot disarm us. We’ll see the morning, we’ll feel the sun.
Easter is what many would argue to be the quintessential turning point of the Christian faith. The crux. The climax of the story. The thing that you must be able to articulate into carefully formed sentences depicting your belief, as though words and theology solely define your spirituality and very existence. Perhaps from all of this lies the basis for the trite messages that I, along with so many others, have heard about the Christian faith. “Jesus died for your sins.” “Jesus paid the debt.” “Jesus stood in your place and died for you so that you might have life.”
And if those words bear truth and meaning to you, I have not come to take them away, nor discredit them.
It’s just not the Jesus I’ve come to know, face-to-face in my human spiritual struggle.
There are so many people that have gone before me, people that have sacrificed their lives in pursuit of justice and equality. Because of this, I feel a deep sense of commitment to honor them by standing for some of the same things that they did. I am in complete awe of two things that connect deeply for me. The first is the cross and how Jesus gave his life for us all. The second is my ancestors who somehow understood Jesus’ sacrifice and passed it onto me through intense persecution.
I can’t say that I know persecution like my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew. I have been back to southern Alabama many times for family reunions and visited slave graveyards where relatives are buried. This compels me to be and do more with my life. I can’t say I understand why Jesus would choose to become human, walk this earth as a human being, and then die at the hands of his own creations to save those who were crucifying him. However, I do know it pushes me to be and do more with my life. I feel like I would let them down somehow if I didn’t take responsibility for addressing injustice with my life.
My life is not my own. I am the product of sacrifice. I am here because of those who saw beyond themselves and thought personal sacrifice was worth giving up to allow justice to take hold. I am here because Jesus modeled something completely illogical on the cross and then some of my ancestors took that example seriously and repeated it. I have no real right to the life I live. My only recourse is to continue the tradition handed to me in the same way.
America’s justice system is broken.
Our jails are overflowing, people are receiving life sentences for minor crimes under three strikes laws, racial disparities leave minority populations disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population, and we’re so obsessed with killing that we’re now using untested concoctions of drugs that recently took a condemned inmate more than 20 minutes to finally die.
Our system isn’t working.
It might surprise you however, to understand how we arrived at such a broken justice system.
We got here because of poor theology.
The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.
Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.
If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.
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)
Writing books is a strange process. When you’re in the middle of creating something this big, it tends to consume your every waking moment in some way. I can’t watch TV or have a conversation with a neighbor without my mind searching the content for narrative or thematic threads to weave into the chapter I’m working on. It can be a little bit maddening, at least for those around us, I expect. But I love it.
One unlikely wonderful source for material as of late for me has been the show “Louie,” by comedian Louis C.K. To say he’s irreverent would be underselling his shock value. He’s a little bit like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame in that he levels the playing field of propriety simply by making nothing off limits. Some might not be able to get past his coarse and occasionally nihilistic approach to life, but I consider him to be nothing short of prophetic in his observations about the human condition.