The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does [for] us in return.
— Richard Rohr
Every Palm Sunday, and every Good Friday, Christians must contend with the crucifixion of Jesus. It is something that should really be quite simple, even as it challenges us emotionally and spiritually. But Christians have tended to try to make it very complicated.
Here is the simple part: Jesus was murdered. It was a murder that was brought about by a collaboration between the religious and political authorities of his time, who manipulated crowds of people who were desperately wanting Jesus to start a political revolution, and were bitterly disappointed when he did not. That disappointment, coupled with the cunningness of those in authority, allowed Jesus to become the scape goat for a lot of pent up anger and frustration. The authorities successfully redirected that anger onto Jesus, making him (in religious language) the bearer of sin — the one to be made responsible for the fact that life was not what people wanted it to be. And killing him promised to take the fire out of their anger, to make everyone feel better (whether it actually did is another matter). And so, an unjust, state-sanctioned murder occurred. Jesus became the victim.
Here’s the spiritually and emotionally challenging part: Jesus knew he would be made the victim. He had spent most of his adult life (and, perhaps, even his childhood) among victims, people who had been on the receiving end of their family’s or society’s anger and outrage. He was intimately familiar with the human habit of victimizing a person, or a group of people, in an effort to resolve pain that really had nothing to do with the designated victim or victims. Jesus knew this intimately as the truly original sin of humanity. And he voluntarily allowed himself to be pulled into this victim role, carrying the Divine with him, so that he — and God — could fully inhabit this space of the victim, taking upon himself (in religious language) the sin of the world. Notice that this has nothing to do with God requiring Jesus to die. God does not need to make victims. God became the victim: of human beings. And so the crucifixion does not show us God as Perpetrator but God as Victim — meaning that we are the ones in the role of perpetrator, as we so often are in so many ways. The crucifixion of Jesus shows us who we are when we allow ourselves to be run by a fearful ego. And that is hard stuff to take in.
Here’s the complication: We have been so unwilling to allow the crucifixion to tell us about ourselves that we have insisted on turning it around and forcing it to tell us something about God. That would have been okay, at least in part, if we had made the crucifixion tell us about God inhabiting the role of the victim, of our victim. But that’s not what we have done over the centuries. Instead, we have made the crucifixion tell us about God involving God’s self in violence, and insisting on violence and sacrifice as the only way in which forgiveness and salvation can be offered to us. We have, in other words, interpreted the crucifixion to put God in the role of Perpetrator, and insisted that this was part of some complicated divine algebra that was necessary for reasons we cannot understand. And so we have turned God into a monster, supposing that violence and sacrifice is what God is about. We have imagined God needing the death of God’s Son, even as we can’t imagine demanding such a thing of our own children. Somehow, God is a worse parent than we are. I find myself wondering how we have carried on believing this for so long.
If we wish to see what God is up to, we need to look not at the crucifixion but at the resurrection. That is the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. And what we see in the resurrection of Jesus is not vengeance and retribution visited upon those who murdered the Son of God. No, what we see is forgiveness and love: this is the pattern of God’s response to our violence. First, God in Christ becomes our victim — Jesus is indeed a sacrifice, but not to God. Jesus is a sacrifice to us. Then, God reveals that life is stronger than our violence, that love is stronger than death, for God in Christ returns to us to forgive us, to love us, and to invite us into the path of non-violence, in which there are no more victims. It is through the resurrection that we get invited into the inside of God’s life, a life in which there is no room for any more crucifixions.
As we contend with the crucifixion on Good Friday, let us not contend with a complicated theology that somehow makes God responsible for the death of Jesus, or a prejudiced theology that somehow makes the Jewish people responsible for it. Let us, instead, let the crucifixion help us to realize the patterns of fear and violence that run so deeply in us. Let us allow the cross to expose all that is within us that draws us away from God’s love and forgiveness so that, on Easter, we might be prepared to receive God’s love and forgiveness in ways that allow us truly to walk with Jesus the path of compassion and non-violence. For this is truly the life to which God is calling us in the Risen Christ.