April 2, 2010 by J. Madson
A version of this post previously appeared last year
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our iniquities…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
(Isaiah 53:4-7 ESV)
History and Theology
Today commemorates the day that Christians throughout the world remember Jesus death. The understanding of Jesus’s death is of course wrapped up with atonement theology and various schemes or concepts of how this death affects us individually. For those of us associated with Christianity we bring in centuries old predispositions and thoughts into what occurs on this day. In the most common vernacular, we state that “Jesus died for the sins of the world.” This was later developed into a theological framework where Jesus acted as a substitute for us. Anselm first expressed this idea in fully developed form:
“He presupposes a legal framework for understanding our relationship with God. Our sin, our disobedience, is a crime against God. Disobedience requires punishment, or else it is not to be taken seriously. Hence God must require a punishment, the payment of a price, before God can forgive our sins or crimes. Jesus is the price. The payment has been made, the debt has been satisfied. And because Jesus is provided by God, the system also affirms grace – but only within a legal framework.”
Within the LDS framework we have seen some attempt to remove the idea of God demanding death by placing this demand one-step further into the very fabric or law of the universe. In either case, God and/or the universe operates in a legalistic manner that demands retribution in the form of punishment and ultimately death and suffering. As I mentioned in another post,
“this failure to participate in atonement and instead see Jesus as only a substitution creates an empty vessel whose purpose seems more in line with a sacrificial animal than an actual individual with a vocation or work to perform. It disconnects Jesus’ life, where we encounter his actual words, deeds, and his vision of God’s kingdom, and instead gives us an icon.”
Why was Jesus killed?
Before delving into the theological implications of the death, I want to address the historical implications of Jesus’s death. This is of course the same question that a historian could ask of Caesar, Socrates, Saul, or any historical figure in attempting to ascertain what events and causes led to their death or in the case of Jesus, his murder. Stanley Hauerwas frames it in this manner:
“If you ask one of the crucial theological questions–why was Jesus killed?–the answer isn’t `because God wants us to love one another.’ Why in the hell would anyone kill Jesus for that? That’s stupid. It’s not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution calling people to be an alternative to the world. That’s what the cross is about.” Hauerwas 1991
Marcus Borg addresses the same question in this manner:
“Jesus was killed. He didn’t just die. The significant HISTORICAL question about his death is not, “Why did he die?,” but “Why was he killed?” I do not think it was random or accidental (as has occasionally been suggested), but was because he challenged what Walter Wink calls “the domination system” of his day. To put that differently and to use the strokes from my sketch: if Jesus had been “just” a Spirit person and teacher of unconventional wisdom, I don’t think he would have been executed. Rather, it was because he was a social prophet, with an alternative social vision, who had attracted a following, that accounts for his execuition. He was perceived as a threat by the ruling elites at the top of the domination system.”
As my other posts have discussed in length, Jesus came to Jerusalem and challenged the powers of his day. This is of course part of a prophetic tradition and modern tradition that only those who have not been corrupted by the system have the proper intellectual, spiritual, and moral stance to challenge wickedness in high places. Wendell Berry notes that:
“If change is to come… it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins… this sort of change is a dominant theme of our tradition, whose “central figures” have often worked their way inward from the margins. It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.” Wendell Berry
What Jesus had once spoken in parables, “let them with ears hear, and with eyes, see,” he now spoke openly in Jerusalem in the center of the domination system that controlled the political and religious lives of the Jewish people. Here in Jerusalem, Jesus followed the long line of prophets/servants who had spoken against the wicked/greedy tenants who sought position, power, and authority while rejecting the true owner of the vineyard. Here in Jerusalem, Jesus suffered the fate of all servants/prophets who have ever spoken out against the powers that be.
“Jerusalem is the city that kills the prophets, and stones those sent to her; Jesus comes as the last in the prophetic line, expecting no better than his predecessors, and indeed worse.” NT Wright
There is also a warning in his death. If this is what occurs to an innocent man whose crime is non-violent revolution, what will occur when the wood is dry? When Israel chooses violent revolution as their form of protest. The (lestes) two revolutionaries crucified next to Jesus are just the beginning of what will be thousands of revolutionary deaths in thirty years time when they have taken up arms and turned the temple into a “den of revolutionaries/brigands/lestes”
As Crossan explains in length
“[T]he execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable. Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability – this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them. It happened often in the ancient world. It has happened to countless people throughout history. Closer to Jesus, it had happened to his mentor John the Baptizer, arrested and executed by Herod Antipas not long before. Now it happened to Jesus. Within a few more decades, it would happen to Paul, Peter, and James. We should wonder what it was about Jesus and his movement that so provoked the authorities at the top of the domination systems of their time.
But Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God.
He spoke to peasants as a voice of peasant religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day. He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice.
Jesus passion got him killed…Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and his death. But to restrict Jesus’s passion to his suffering and death is to ignore the passion that brought him to Jerusalem. To think of Jesus’s passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life.”
This is of course where atonement theories like Anselm’s fail us. In demanding Jesus death as a substitution we participate in the very system that leads to his death. We demand more scapegoats and more victims in our name. Jesus death was meant to end all attempts at externalizing our failings onto a scapegoat and instead reveal the violence and corruption inherent in our own political, personal, and religious scapegoating. To substitute Jesus for ourselves individually is to continue in the same substitution that had occurred anciently with humans, animals, foreign enemies, and which continues today in our attempts to secure salvation, safety, and comfort at the expense of others economically, politically, and individually. It is to crucify Jesus again and again.
Surely, Jesus has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” as Isaiah attests but it is WE who “esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” When the reality is that “he was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our iniquities.” I believe that Jesus died because of our sins rather than for them in some legalistic framework that demands violence, retribution, and runs counter to the entire life, vocation, and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Yoder observes that:
“His life is a life according to the Sermon on the Mount; the cross is the meaning of His moral teaching. It then follows that the humanity of Jesus is a revelation of the purpose of God for a man who will to do his will.”
This is what the atonement calls us to do. Jesus shows us what it is to be Godly, what it is to be a son of God and invites us all to participate, to be called sons of God. I reiterate that the atonement is an invitation to walk on the path with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the resurrection. Jesus does not merely substitute himself for us but asks us to participate intimately in the atonement. The atonement is an invitation to participate with Jesus in his work, his vocation, his seeking to establish what he describes as the kingdom of God. As Rene Girard rightly observed
“All the world is called to become sons of God. The only distinction – though of course it is a crucial one – is that the Son hears the Word of the Father and conforms to it right to the end; he makes himself perfectly identical with the Word, while other people, even if they hear it, are incapable of conforming to it. – René Girard Things Hidden From The Foundation, 213