The older I get, the more violence disturbs me. Every weeknight, I take my psychic temperature to see if I can tolerate watching the violence that will appear on the national news that evening. I drum up the courage to “stay informed” about twice a week.
This weekend is Palm Sunday and many Christian churches will be hearing the Passion of Jesus read aloud. Once again, we come face-to-face with the crucifixion – an act of violence which, like the Ukraine War, the January 6th attack on Congress, and the rash of random mass shootings, makes me wonder - WHY?
I attribute most violence to the human craving to acquire power and wealth through the coercion and suppression of others. For many Christians, the crucifixion is generally viewed as something else entirely.
Somewhere along the line the Christian imagination tied that particularly reprehensible form of violence to God’s need for satisfaction. The theory goes like this – Jesus had to be sacrificed in order for God to be reconciled with humanity.
This understanding of why Jesus died on the cross (called the satisfaction theory or the atonement theory), began to take shape with the writings of Anselm in the 11th century. Like us, Anselm was trying to understand the “why” of the crucifixion. To find an answer, he turned to the society in which he lived.
Ansel lived at a time when Western civilization had shifted from the law of the Roman Empire to a feudal system of justice. Roman occupation was bad, but the feudal system was the wild, wild west. No longer was there any central authority. The authority of the local king or overlord safeguarded the stability of a region. His word was the law. Violations of the law were more than simple disobedience; they offended the honor of the feudal ruler himself.
To restore order under the feudal system, the lawbreaker was punished, but was also required to pay compensation. This pay-back, called satisfaction, restored honor to the overlord and allowed the region to return to orderly operation.
Anselm took these concepts of feudal justice and applied them to the relationship between God and the world. Humanity had sinned against God. He therefore reasoned that God’s honor had been impugned. This meant that some form of satisfaction was now required in order to restore God’s honor. He further reasoned, that since humanity already owed everything it had to God, humanity had nothing “left over” to offer God as satisfaction. Only a God-man could do that.
Theologies and rituals that resonate for people in one age, may no longer make sense to people in another. Today, the satisfaction theory goes against our instinctive experiences of love. One of the reasons that many teens to older adults turn away from religion today is because they cannot square a God they are told is love (Jn 4:7-9), with a God who could condone such violence.
Perhaps the time has come for us to unlearn a few things and imagine salvation from a different vantage point. As one modern-day theologian remarked, we need to rearrange the faith furniture in our heads. Several scholars are reading Rom 3:21-26 thru the lens of different translations from the Greek and believe that Paul had a different and fairly clear theory of how Jesus saves us. We need to loosen our grip on the view of God as a feudal lord in need of satisfaction, or as an angry father, or a punishing cosmic ruler.
We might say that the crucifixion was inevitable, but not pre-ordained. By promoting the coming Reign of God in his preaching and actions, Jesus and his movement ran afoul of the interests of the ruling powers in his corner of the world.
Despite the signs and warnings, Jesus carried on. God’s mission had a grip on his heart. He died as a result of that mission, to which he remained faithful to the bitter end. Crucified as “the King of the Jews,” he met the fate of an enemy of the Roman Empire. To quote Sr. Elizabeth Johnson: He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor.
It is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals God’s salvific work. It is the resurrection that reveals Jesus as God’s beloved,
the one who showed us God’s desires for the world. The resurrection is God’s endorsement of Jesus. The longed-for salvation of the messianic age was begun as he healed the sick and brought good news to the poor.
But it is the cross, not the resurrection, that has become the defining symbol of Christianity. We Christians love the cross. It is used widely inside and outside of churches, on bibles, in personal jewelry, and on hilltops. I have a collection of crosses and crucifixes on a wall in my home.
The cross in the sanctuary at the Paulist Center in Boston Massachusetts, represents an imaginative way for us to begin to move the faith furniture in our heads. There are three pieces in this work of art: a cross made from a single tree, an image of Christ suspended away and above the cross, and a final image of a flame above and beyond the figure of Christ, representing the Holy Spirit. You can read more about this work of art at https://www.paulistcenter.org/our-chapel/
Good Friday happened. The cross happened. Just like the Ukraine War, the January 6th attack on Congress and the rash of random mass shootings we experience in this country today, Jesus was tortured and crucified because of the human craving to acquire power and wealth through the coercion and suppression of others. God was with Jesus in his suffering, but God was not accountable for it.