There is a lot of confusion and ambivalence about the death of Jesus, both inside and outside of the Church. I have a friend who is a Buddhist priest. She grew up in the Church of Scotland and recalls seeing a particularly gory Corpus Christi as a young girl that caused her to burst into tears. She ran out of the church crying, “I didn’t want that to happen!” She kept on running until she met the Buddha on the road. I’m not sure if she killed him, as the Zen koan instructs us; but if she did, it was metaphorically speaking. She is done with bloody sacrifices to appease an angry God. Can’t say that I blame her.
Even those who remain within the Church are more than a little bit embarrassed by all this talk of blood and sacrifice. The doctrine of the atonement – how we describe the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection – has become the stepchild that nobody wants to claim of much contemporary Christian theology. Typical is the comment of a theologian who remarked, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff . . .” It is Jesus’ life and teaching that are important: inclusive welcome of all people, healing broken hearts and broken bodies, resisting injustice. We just need to try to be good, like Jesus. Let’s focus on celebrating “community, with a moment of silence, as it were, for the untimely demise of our late brother.”
Given the myriad ways in which the Cross is used to justify both masochistic passivity and sadistic violence, one can understand this sentiment. Nowhere has this been truer than with respect to anti-Semitic uses of the Passion narratives. As Gil Bailie reminds us, this is more than a little ironic. To blame “the Jews” for Jesus death is to miss the universality of its importance, and to participate in the very process of scapegoating that it serves to expose and condemn. Moreover,
The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting. Only in a culture predisposed to empathize with victims could the crucifixion have had its full effects. If the forces that militated for Jesus' crucifixion were Jewish, so were the men and women whose lives were fundamentally altered by it and who first experienced its historical and spiritual impact. The Jewishness of Jesus' opponents should never be given more weight than the Jewishness of Jesus' disciples and those who first felt the power of the Christian revelation and proclaimed it to others. It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him, and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.
In John’s Gospel, “the Jews” often refers specifically to “the religious leaders.” If we affirm the universality of the meaning of the Cross, then we would do well to remember that those leaders in our time and place are almost uniformly Christians.
The Cross, its violence, and the language of sacrifice used to describe it, are central to the New Testament witness. It is the necessary foundation of any adequate account of Christian salvation. “Belief that Christ’s death has fundamentally changed the world seems so integral to the grammar of faith that its absence amounts to a debilitating speech defect. A church that falls silent about the cross has a hole where the gospel ought to be.” Fair enough, but how is the Cross good news?
The Cross is good news because it reveals the truth about humanity and about God. First, the truth about humanity: here, we have to recognize how ordinary is the Passion Narrative. The death of Jesus is, in a sense, nothing special. Such violence is the way of the world. We humans are making victims of one another all the time. This is true in ways large and small, from the character assassination of idle gossip to the murders and massacres that drive the daily news cycle.
Now, that is hardly news, and it certainly isn’t good, but it is true. What is more difficult to see – and to admit – is that we believe that we can not live without violence – without the making of victims. In fact, we make of our violence something righteous, something sacred. We construct a sense of identity and meaning in terms of us vs. them. We require the sacrifice of victims to make us feel united. We justify our violence as necessary for personal – and national – security.
Caiaphas was not the first, or last, national leader to declare that it was better that one man should die rather than that the whole nation should be at risk. Counter-violence especially is always seen as righteous, whether in the form of capital punishment or predator drone strikes. It doesn’t matter that on average five death row inmates are exonerated each year. It doesn’t matter that 20% of Pakistanis killed by predator drones were civilians (including 160 children), some of whom were murdered by follow-up strikes while assisting victims or actually attending funerals. Here the question of innocence or guilt is secondary, so long as the victims serve a larger purpose, reasons of state, punishing evil, deterring enemies and so on.
The Cross stands in judgment, not just of human violence – the way of the world – but also and especially of righteous violence. Jesus is executed for reasons of state (to preserve order) and as a blasphemer (to preserve purity). His death reveals how distorted our humanity has become through our entanglement in the scapegoat mechanism, creating pseudo-community based on violence and exclusion. What begins as a sacrificial system meant to build up unity leaves us even more separated from each other and from God.
What is truly good, as well as news, is what the Cross reveals about God. God, it turns out, is not One who requires sacrifice, but rather One who, in the form of Jesus, gives himself as a sacrifice for us. Jesus shows us our deep complicity in violence in the only way God could do so without participating in the violence: by willingly occupying the place of shame, as a victim. In so doing, Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with sacrificial systems. They are purely human constructs.
This is, certainly, a profound act of love. By joining us in the place of shame, Jesus gently invites us to see the truth about our world and turn back to the Source of our being, in God, and discover there the power of love and life that allows us to begin to imagine a new world, to cooperate with God in completing the fulfillment of creation that God intended for us.
As Pastor Paul Nuechterlein confesses, “Yes, the cross is violence. But we must see how it is decidedly our violence, our righteous violence. It is never God’s violence, in any way. Rather, the cross is our violence meeting God’s unconditional love, and forgiveness, and power of life.”
As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, since God has forgiven us already, there is no longer any offering for sin – no longer any reason for us to participate in the system of sacrificial violence.
By willingly entering into the very heart of the violent dynamic of our broken world, Christ offers himself on the cross and is raised up by God so as to undo our complicity, our powerlessness, and our fear from the inside out. Now we can acknowledge the truth about our lives and enter the place of shame in solidarity with victims, knowing that God will meet us there.
The place of shame has now become the sanctuary, the holiest of holy places, where we are united with God and restored to our identity as beloved children of God. We, too, die in that place, and are raised up into the life of Christ. We can live beyond and without violence.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
 Quoted in S. Mark Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?” The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, pp. 12-17.
 Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?”
 Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 218-219.
 Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?”
 From fact sheet at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
 Estimates on civilian casualties come from the careful analysis of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit news organization.
 Paul J. Neuchterlein, Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?, sermon delivered at Emmaus & Zion Lutheran Church, Racine, WI, April 13, 2001.
 Hebrews 10:19-23.