Some say the crucifixion is abhorrent—too bloody, too brutal, too cruel to contemplate. We have to shield our eyes and look away or—as in Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie The Passion of the Christ, stare fascinated through our fingers at the spectacle. In either case, we avoid reckoning with the real power of the crucifixion, which is a blues power, a truth-telling power that not only holds a mirror up to the blood, the brutality, the cruelty that is our daily fare, but also opens up a way out of the carnage.
You see, for me, the crucifixion is embedded in the worldview of the “blues,” an indigenous African American art form that pulls no punches about how bad things are and how bad things can get. For any of us who have endured real suffering, there is a strange kind of comfort in a story that tells the absolute truth about what human beings can do, about what we must endure—a story that spares no details and takes no prisoners. You can trust a story like that a whole lot better than you can trust one that has been all prettied up, all sugarcoated in layers of denial and wishful thinking.
The crucifixion can be seen as a kind of metaphor for the collective struggle that is the universal, daily experience of all conscious people on the face of this terrifying globe who struggle to become human beings—to overcome hatred and violence and despair, to hope against hope, to love even in the face of death. This is the blues—the struggle to love life and serve life with dignity, courage, and love, even amid the suffering.
The cross is a non-sentimentalized symbol of what it means to be in resistance to the dominant culture. And there is plenty of sentimental religion out there that does not have the backbone that we are going to need to face down some of the principalities and powers. But in America, and yes, in American churches, across the board, we like the sentimental conception.
Take for example The Passion of the Christ. The movie made hundreds of millions of dollars. People were weeping and crying into big buckets of popcorn, finding it difficult to finish their Coca-Colas and Raisinets as they watched Jesus absorb the anger that God has toward us, the hostility that He feels toward us because we are not obeying and being good. There was a kind of lasciviousness running through the film. Lasciviousness is getting the juice out of what is wrong. When Gibson turns on the brutality and he pumps it up and he pumps it up—it’s the most violent film that most people have ever seen—we get a lascivious juice out of the violence.
But we want it to be juicy. It has to be juicy if Jesus is going to relieve us of this hostility that God has toward us, or so the prevailing story goes: Jesus soaks up God’s wrath, and the more horrible it is for Him, the better it is for us. This is totally consistent with mainstream Christian thinking, and not just that, but mainstream human thinking. Many people think that the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions represent and reinforce that worldview. But Jesus wasn’t crucified because God wanted to displace a desire to harm somebody off of us and on to Himself. That is not a scriptural principle. I challenge you to read the scriptures and see if there is any single statement in the New Testament that says that God had to take out God’s hostility on Jesus in order to forgive us. “Quench God’s wrath”—not there! “Suffer rejection from God on our behalf”—not there. It is not there. What is there is the concept of reconciliation—“reconciling us to God.” Note that it is not “reconciling God to us,” as the mainstream Christian narrative above suggests. That’s backward; it’s upside down. “God was in Christ reconciling the world back to God,” not “God was in Christ transferring the wrath that God had onto Christ so that God could be reconciled to the world.”
This is not a small mistake of theology. It is an absolute reversal of God’s intent in which we have made God over into our image, projecting onto Him our own deep-seated belief that the solution to every problem is to kill someone, a belief that some have called “the myth of redemptive violence.”
We can act horrified by this if we want to, but it is how we live everyday. Our way of living—our so-called “civilization”—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence. Violence is the default of our culture—the belief that the solution to every problem is to kill or overpower something or someone—sometimes with physical weapons and other times with civilization and conventionality and respectability, with our vitriol and hostility, with our persistent denial of forms of suffering and our obtuse dispositions and analysis. Our culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. This culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life. From birth on, we are individually and collectively enculturated to hate life, hate the natural world, hate the wild, hate animals, hate women, hate children, hate our bodies, hate and fear our emotions, and hate ourselves. Our current sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy or technology.
So there is hostility, yes, and the cross of Christ quenches it, but it’s the hostility that we have toward one another and toward life itself. Do you remember the scripture in the second chapter of Ephesians? Paul says the Jews and Gentiles used to be strangers in relation to each other and there was a mutual hostility, but now Christ, through his death, has put to death the enmity between you so that now you can be a community of life. That’s Paul’s vision—that Christ’s death deals with human hostility. Somehow, the cross—Jesus’s willingness to face hostility without vengeance, staying true to Love and Goodwill to the very end—is appointed by God as the meeting place of reconciliation between human beings; it is the place where our hostility can be done away with. On the cross, Jesus opens up a way of nonretaliation, a way to take what is thrown at us and not only refuse to return it with hatred, bitterness, or violence, but also to transform it into new life. Jesus models this way, but, according to Christian scripture, he also unleashes a Spirit that makes it possible for us to do it. In our imbibing of the crucifixion and resurrection, we are given spiritual capacity. That’s Paul’s faith, and that’s our faith.
The cross is thus the place where our hostility toward God—our hatred of each other and thus of God’s life—can be done away with. And that is what it says in Colossians. It says, “When you were once alienated from God, and you were hostile in your mind and doing destructive things, God reached out and reconciled you through the death of Christ.”
One of the most problematic things about Mel Gibson’s film is that Gibson has made a decision to tell the trial and execution of Jesus without telling the life of Jesus. This is also the fundamental problem of a lot of Christian theology that attempts to abstract the cross as symbol, or as what Ched Meyers calls an “atonement cosmic drama,” away from the life of Jesus. In Christian tradition we call that Docetism—removing the human, lived, felt, historical, sociological character of Jesus in order to turn the life of Jesus into cosmic puppetry.
To reconnect the death of Jesus with the life of Jesus is to repoliticize the meaning of the cross. And, the cross, as any first-century Palestinian Jew would have realized—because Jesus was by no means the first person to die on a cross—was not a religious symbol. It was a very specific political consequence of a life of dissidence. People were not crucified for stealing bread, people were not crucified for being mean, people were not crucified for blaspheming the name of God; people were crucified only if they were deemed to be a threat to “Homeland Security.”
So, the cross was a form of public state terrorism: the Roman Empire publicly executed people to say in the loudest possible terms, “Don’t mess with us.” Slaves who revolted were crucified and political dissidents were crucified. Now, that is not the sum total of the meaning of the cross in the New Testament, but it is the fundamental meaning and once we sever anything else from that, we get into sentiment and pathology.
Suffering and death is real; it is an outgrowth of the way human beings relate to each other. But as much suffering and death as we experience, we mostly don’t want to talk about that. For religion’s sake, it is much better to stick with miracles and healing. This was as true then as it is now; remember when Jesus told Peter “I am going to suffer violence and die, and Peter said, “God Forbid.”
Jesus doesn’t want to die, but he understands some things that Peter doesn’t yet. So he refuses to put a better spin on it and he says, “If any of you want to follow me, you must deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”
We have heard these words so often that they may have lost some power for us. We are used to seeing crosses everywhere—in churches and hospitals, on T-shirts, as tattoos, and made into all kinds of jewelry. We don’t always think about what a strange thing it is to try to make the cross into something beautiful, into an adornment or accessory. How many of us would buy a miniature gallows rope and wear it as jewelry? Or what if instead of a cross on the communion table, there was a giant hypodermic syringe to symbolize a lethal injection? Or a guillotine or an electric chair? That kind of puts a different light on it, doesn’t it?
The power of the cross is likewise domesticated by common phrases like “We all have our crosses to bear.” This notion may help us to cope with unpleasant things, but it is not what Jesus means. Everyone experiences some kind of suffering, whether they follow Jesus or not. What Jesus is talking about here is not the things that just happen in life, even the most painful things that may be part of our lives. What he is talking about is something that we volunteer for, that we take on, when we decide to follow him. Taking up the cross means being willing to suffer and perhaps even die because we are followers of Jesus and mean to see love win.
In fact, “we all have our crosses to bear” may actually be a pious covering for a refusal to take on the struggle toward life and instead to accommodate to the way things are. For me, it is not the crucifixion that strikes fear in my heart, but the real and present danger of this kind of living death. I am much more afraid of wasting this life—my introduction to God’s life in this frail and mortal body—and spending my short days gathering around me the petty and temporary objects, powers, and pleasures that are byproducts of a lifestyle mired in violence. What do I mean?
We continue to use everything at our disposal to prop up the myth of redemptive violence and to preserve the systems of sacrifice.
We spank our children to teach them respect.
We arm ourselves to keep the peace.
We kill people who kill people to show them that killing people is wrong.
We kill our food with chemicals to extend its “shelf life.”
We criminalize migrants driven here by our own trade practices and subject them to brutal day labor and endless forms of menial grunt work for very little money, and then hound them with immigration policies and our own unconstrained selfishness and hatred, even though we could not sustain for one day if they were all deported back to their countries of origin.
We blast gospel music in our gas-guzzling SUVs, or our smugness-producing Priuses, as we rush past homeless, hungry people to the mall or the farmer’s market. We, yes, we rush around to buy Easter frocks and church hats or iPads that are produced in Chinese sweatshops and perpetrate endless forms of suffering and abuse for desperate workers in other countries—people forced to master the art of monotony, which chips away day after day at their souls for pennies on the dollar, and then we wash it all down at Starbucks, where we huddle for a little church chat, or log a few hours on our computers in the long, long struggle to “get ahead” (to which I always want to ask, “Whose head?”).
We live in an endless maze of examples of interconnected, interdependent deathliness from which even the most careful of us cannot escape. (And all the while we think the crucifixion is too bloody.)
Even when our lives look clean and “upstanding” from here, they are sustained in a thousand ways by the suffering and exploitation of countless others, most of whom live in far-away places well out of sight. We continue to live on the embers of other people’s burning flesh and persist in believing that the way to fight fire is with fire, and our control, abuse and sacrifice of the natural world—indeed, this scorched earth of ours appears to have taught us nothing. Even those of us who like to think our hands are clean are supported day to day by a military industrial complex, a prison industrial complex, a nonprofit industrial complex in which we compete and scratch and bite and maul and devour and kill and fight, fight, fight. (But we say the crucifixion is too bloody.)
Meanwhile Jesus hangs on the cross, stubbornly refusing to fight at all. He has taken into himself all the violence flung against him and he will not give it back. Abused, he will not abuse. Condemned, he will not condemn. Abandoned, he will not abandon, but remains faithful. Jesus knew what kind of explosion it would take to break through the thick rock around the human heart. Teaching would not do it. Neither would prayer or the laying on of hands. If he was going to get through, he had to use something stronger than all of those, and he had to stake his own life on it. Self-giving, indeed self-annihilating love was the dynamite he chose. By choosing to die rather than to retaliate, he disarms the bomb of redemptive violence, wrapping himself around it to stop it once and for all with his own life. “It is finished,” he says at the very end, as the last life leaves his mortal body. Violence is finished. The back of the system that demands sacrifice is broken once and for all. It killed him in the process, but it is finished. It caused his death, but it got nothing of his life, a life that belongs to God who sent him to show us another way to live.
Jesus is the quintessential Blues Person, the ultimate first-born Blues Man leading a long line of Blues People who tell the truth about human cruelty without succumbing to it themselves, who struggle to become fully alive, fully human, even amidst deathliness. Jesus’s death on the cross is about death and degradation. You can’t pretty that up. It is the stripping away of dignity; it is the denial of humanness as well as the extinguishing of life. This is the cross; this is what it means. It is not sentimental. It is not cynical either. It is about struggle—gutbucket sophistication, funky refinement. That’s Bessie Smith isn’t it; that’s Ma Rainey right there. No sentimentalism. No cynicism. Just struggle straight ahead—the courage to be and the courage to love. The Jesus of the Gospel is a free man, so free inside of himself that he could openly confront the forces of Empire—religious authority, imperial authority—and preserve the deepest Love for all humanity. That’s freedom. That’s existential freedom. That’s inner freedom. And in practicing it, Jesus makes it available to all of us. By dying and rising again, he declares it possible not only by modeling it, but by releasing a Spirit that transforms us into new people capable of it. It happened then, and it happens now. It happens every day—Jesus dying into life in order to show us that love wins.
(To read more Fall 2012 online exclusives associated with the “Christianity Without the Cross?” section, click here.)