As we approach the start of Holy Week, we can see the glimmer of Easter on the horizon at the other end of that week. After five weeks of Lent, people are probably looking forward to the outburst of joy that comes with Easter Day. It is, after all, the heart and soul of the Christian faith and year: the Resurrection of Christ. We know, from a careful reading of the New Testament, that it was also the heart of the early Christian message: Christ is Risen, and he has appeared to Simon (and, before that, to a group of women, along with other disciples). In the context of early Christianity, before people got interested in stories of Jesus’ birth, it was the Resurrection that made Jesus the Christ.
Of course, in order for there to be a resurrection, a death must first occur. And, so, we have Palm Sunday and Good Friday which unfold the terrifying time encompassing the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. And it is the crucifixion of Jesus that has proven to be a rather significant stumbling block in the Christian tradition. While the church, over the centuries, has not hesitated to put forth numerous doctrinal statements and definitions covering a multitude of aspects of the mystery of Christ, it has not been possible to be definitive and clear about the theology that should attach to the crucifixion. Christians, I think, came to be haunted by the death of Jesus, as we are and should be haunted by the unjust and tortuous death of any human being. In the face of death that seems senseless and unfair, human beings have a deep longing and need to make the senseless sensible. We cannot help ourselves asking, “Why?” And we cannot help ourselves trying to supply an answer to give meaning.
Probably (and, in my estimation, most unfortunately) the most popular attempt to make sense of the death of Jesus has become what is known in theological circles as the theory of substitutionary atonement. According to this theory, the ability or willingness of God to forgive human beings depends on the offering of a sacrifice. The ancient Jewish people practiced animal sacrifice in order to obtain such forgiveness, and the theory of substitutionary atonement basically makes Jesus the sacrifice par excellence to obtain God’s forgiveness — the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. But this notion that God cannot or will not forgive in the absence of some sort of sacrifice is a difficult position, and raises a host of questions about God and the relationship between God and humanity that cannot easily be dealt with. Theological libraries are littered with books that attempt to do so.
If one spends enough time exploring the dark streets and back alleys of atonement theology, it can easily start to seem that the crucifixion is the central Christian mystery, rather than the resurrection. And, for me, we get ourselves immersed in unnecessary complexity.
The crucifixion of Jesus can be greatly simplified and clarified — and become much less a stumbling block — if we stop insisting on seeing it as a divine necessity and, instead, begin seeing it as a human tragedy. Jesus did not die because God needed him to. Jesus died because human beings exclude, marginalize, scapegoat, and kill those whom we cannot understand or who seem to us to be threatening in some fundamental way. The life and being of Jesus was itself a stumbling block for ancient Jewish religious leadership and ancient Roman civil authority, and the result of the tension created by the life and teaching of Jesus was that threatened human beings in positions of power brought about his death. They made him a victim, no doubt believing that by so doing they were serving some higher interest. The crucifixion demonstrates a dark human tendency that has made a victim not only of Jesus, but of countless human beings over the centuries.
The recognition of the crucifixion as a human tragedy which made Jesus a victim radically transforms the role of God in that event. Rather than being the One who demands Jesus’ death, God becomes the One who, in Jesus, becomes the victim. In Christ, God chooses to occupy the space of the victim. And, having become the victim, God transforms the victim space by the light of Resurrection, exposing it for what it is but also declaring its deathly power null and void.
Perhaps the fact that it is so hard for people of faith to accept the crucifixion as a human tragedy rather than as involving some divine necessity or protagonism underscores how unwilling we are to acknowledge the darker streets and back alleys of our own humanity.