Is the cross of Jesus Christ implicated in the violence of our world? More specifically, does the church’s theology of the cross, expressed in its various views of atonement, contribute to fostering violence?
The English word “atonement” was made up by the pioneering translator, William Tyndale, when he translated the Bible into English. It was retained by the King James Bible translators and has made its way into common usage. It literally means “at-one-ment,” the bringing together of that which was separated. It translates several Hebrew and Greek words that are also often translated as “reconciliation,” depending on the context. And that which was separated and needed to be brought together was twofold, the estrangement of enemies needed to be reconciled, and the estrangement of the holy God with the sinful and broken world. The way the cross functions to effect these reconciliations is the Christian idea of atonement.
But do ideas of the atonement foster violence? It is a question that arises out of my own experience in the church. In 1995 when I was living in St Andrews, Scotland, and working on what would later become my book on the atonement, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross:” Reflections on the Atonement, I wrote an essay on some of the objections to the idea of substitutionary atonement. At the end of the chapter I made note that there were some critics who felt that the cross itself was an emblem of violence, but I didn’t really address this view in depth, because frankly, I thought it was a fringe view without much merit. I still do.
But the view that the cross itself is a cause of violence has been gaining traction in the last decade or so. There have been a spate of books addressing the issue, and in recent years I am hearing ordinands and new ministers repeating these views to the effect that the cross is not, as the church has always claimed, “good news,” but is instead “bad news.”
Let me share a couple of anecdotes. The first was at an ecclesiastical council a few years ago. The candidate told us that she didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement. “Fair enough,” I replied, since there have been some dubious ideas under that banner. “But what do you then make of the death of Christ?” “Christ’s death,” she said, “was the price he paid at the hands of the powerful for his advocacy of an inclusive community.” Admitting that it is at least that, I asked, “Then does the cross have any meaning for salvation?” “No!” she said.
My second anecdote took place in a seminar on the atonement I gave several years ago to United Church of Christ (USA) ministers. During the Q and A time it became clear to me that many of the ministers were uncomfortable with talk of the cross, and some found it offensive. One young man, a bright newly-minted UCC minister said, with some passion, “No good thing came from the cross.”
This rejection of the cross is not new; there have always been critics of the cross as far back as the New Testament. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthian 1:23)
But what is troubling to me is that the attacks on the cross in recent years come from within the church. It comes from seminary professors, and increasingly from pastors. This should concern us, as such teaching and preaching against the cross confuses the faithful and saps the church of the vital nerve center of the faith that is so needed to meet the challenges of our age, including the problem of violence.
That violence has been done in the name of the cross cannot be denied. It isn’t hard to conjure up images of the misuse of the cross as a symbol of violence: the crusaders’ cross on the tunics of invading soldiers in the Middle Ages, the Good Friday pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia where mobs of Christians would periodically terrorize Jewish neighborhoods, or the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.
These and other examples would seem to implicate the cross in the world’s violence, and in racism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism.
But the whole argument against the cross hinges on the important distinction between whether the cross, in and of itself, is a cause of violence, or whether when violence is done in the name of the cross, it is a betrayal of the cross’s true meaning.
I will be arguing for the latter, that where the cross is used to justify or induce violence it is a betrayal of the cross, which is the very center of God’s story of redeeming love to humankind.
Jesus’ crucifixion itself is, of course, a horrific act of violence, but Christian faith, from its early days, has interpreted it as a divine act of reconciliation. My own view, influenced by my St Andrew’s tutor Richard Bauckham, is that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death from the very beginning as an atoning, sacrificial death, and that was expressed in the earliest church’s pre-Markan proclamation that then shaped the written Gospels we have today. This view runs counter to the often-received line that Paul hijacked the faith and created a theology of the cross that was missing from the church’s earliest proclamation.
I argued in my atonement book that ideas of sacrifice and substitution are both biblical and necessary to fully express the radical nature of this divine act of love. Now there are various nuanced and sophisticated discussions about the precise nature of the atonement, and for that I would refer you to my book. My more focused mission when I speak in congregations has been as a witness to the cross in the mainline church, where the crucial center of the Christian story is in danger of being lost.
For we need to keep the whole Christain story in view when we look at any part of it, and I think that is one of the problems that some of the critics of the cross have, in that they focus on the cross, wrenched out of its larger narrative.
So while I am interested in theories of atonement, and want stronger rather than weaker arguments around the “what” of the cross, I want always to view it within the larger Christian story. In that story Jesus Christ, who died on the cross “for us and for all humanity,” must be seen as the One who is “the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and who, as the divine Word, was at the beginning of creation, and will be at the end, on the Day he comes to judge the living and the dead.
But let us be clear that the cross is not just any part of the Christian story, but the very center and climax. And by the cross I mean more than just Golgotha, but, like Paul, I use “the cross” as a kind of theological shorthand to describe the whole saving center of the story as shown in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In that story I see an act of God, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death. Therefore, my view is that the work of Christ on the cross is constitutive for salvation and not merely illustrative of it. And it is this high view, with its lineage back to St. Anselm, which is particularly under attack from the critics of the cross.
So let me briefly share with you the views of those who consider the cross bad news, then let me to tell you why I think that they are wrong, and finally let me tell you why the word of the cross is good news indeed.
Why some critics of the cross consider it to be “bad news”.
As I have said, I believe that those who do violence in the name of the cross misunderstand and betray it’s true meaning. But I also consider the critics of the cross to misunderstand its true meaning as described in scripture and tradition.
The chief criticism is that the cross is an act of violence against Jesus by God. One of the chief proponents of that view is Professor Dolores Williams of Union Theological Seminary in New York. She has argued that the church should replace the cross with the mustard seed as the primary Christian symbol, because she views the cross as a symbol of violence, especially violence against woman and children.
Mennonite theologian Denny Weaver, another critic of the cross, sums this view up it like this: “The motif of Jesus as the substitute object of punishment, which assumes the principle of retribution, is the particular image that feminists and womanists have found very offensive. It portrays God as the chief exacter of retribution. God punishes — abuses — one of God’s children for the sake of the others. And the Jesus of this motif models passive submission to innocent and unjust suffering for the sake of others.” (Weaver, Violence)
The objection here, so the argument goes, is that Jesus’ obedience to God the Father in accepting the cross demonstrates passivity and submission, and in so doing encourages the acceptance of violence against women by men.
A related charge made by some liberation theologians, such as James Cone, link substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression, using ideas of submission, passivity and sacrifice to keep oppressed people in their place.
“Delores Williams calls the Jesus of substitutionary atonement, the “ultimate surrogate figure.” After depicting numerous ways in which black women were forced into a variety of surrogacy roles for white men and women and black men, Williams says that to accept satisfaction or substitutionary atonement and the image of Jesus that it supplies is to validate all the unjust surrogacy to which black women have been and still are submitted. ”
“Such examples show that atonement theology that models innocent, passive suffering does have specific negative impact in the contemporary context.” (Weaver, Violence)
Why the critics are wrong
These views seem to me to say more about the suspicions of the writers than the actual biblical narrative and the atonement theories that are their conceptual representations. After all, if you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope, everything will look small. They are looking at the social consequences of the misuse of Biblical and theological texts, but they are not looking at the texts themselves.
So what I think is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the complexity of the scriptures. To do that there are some features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross. I have identified 7.
1. Many of the critics do not have a robust view of sin. It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for according to Deuteronomy 21:23 “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree,” a verse Paul quotes in Galatians 3:13.
So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of the highest civilization of the time, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best.
So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens routinely in our fallen sinful world. And this is why the endless debate over who killed Jesus misses the point of the narrative, for when the fingers get pointed, the great Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it just right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.”
Toward the end of my ministry I started replying to that, “Well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have.” In much the same way, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but they do not see the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. So God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.
2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I agree that it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago as Max will attest, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”
But as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. For example, in 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the so called “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Which reminds us that sometimes even non-violence can be complicit with evil.
3. In a similar vein many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver, author of The Non-violent Cross, raises non-violence to such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.
This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The New York Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.
4. The critics don’t take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously enough. When we look at the cross theologically we must keep before us that it is Christ who died for our sins, not just any man, but the Jewish messiah. We need to be reminded that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but the title given him by his followers, a title previously reserved for the figure of God’s anointed, the messiah.
The pre-Markan proclamation that lies behind the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why the New Testament has so many echoes from the Old Testament.
Why is Jesus’ cross different? Crucifixions were a commonplace in the ancient Roman world, but the significance of this particular cross was the claim that it was God’s anointed who suffered and died. It was their own traditions that allowed these Jews to understand Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrificial death. For example, one of our earliest passages in the New Testament is 1 Cor. 15: 3ff where Paul rehearses the gospel that had been handed down to him that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”
And the reason it could be understood thus was because the Hebrew scriptures contained stories such as the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22, the description of a suffering servant in the Servant Psalms in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, and passages like Psalm 22, which is the source of Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Without this Jewish context the cross is hard to understand properly.
5. The critics don’t take the Trinity seriously. Doctrines are “conceptual redescriptions of the biblical narrative” (Frei). The doctrine of the Trinity understands the whole Christ event within the inter–dependence of the divine persons. Jesus’ very human experience of being abandoned by the God he called Father, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act to which the Father intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a Trinitarian act of mutual consent in love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
This goes a long way to countering the charge that the cross is a symbol of violence, exploitation or even child abuse. If you start with a big G god and a human Jesus you have a nnitarian god. But Christians do not know such a god without Jesus. And such a unitarian God, one who requires the sacrifice of the human Jesus is problematic, to say the least. But if we understand the obedient death of the Son as in some real sense a loving act in which it is God who dies for us, we move away from these problems.
The critics also say that substitutionary atonement means God is punishing Jesus. P. T. Forsyth made an important distinction here. He says the cross is penal, in that Jesus, though innocent, voluntarily takes on the sentence that we deserve. But though the cross is penal, it is not punishment, since Jesus is innocent. “For what would the Father punish him? And how could the Father punish the Son, with whom he is always well pleased.”? (Forsyth)
6. The critics have too limited a canon. Like Marcion, the second century heretic who made up his own canon, Luke is their favorite Gospel. Marcion had one Gospel and ten letters of Paul, and no Old Testament, since he believed the God of the Old Testament was a different (and not very nice) God.
The modern critics of the cross often share Marcion’s love for Luke, but not for Paul, who (after God the Father) is their chief villain, for Paul’s cross-centered Gospel. We all have favorite Gospels, and I love Luke as much as the next person, but the thickness of the biblical story is partly a result of the richness and complexity of the canon.
7. Finally, the critics have an inadequate eschatology of the cross. Again we must understand the cross within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism, with its energetic eschatological expectations for a future return of God and his messiah.
The God of Israel was expected to act in the future. Second Isaiah, for example, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. The first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” (Bauckham, p 71.) The God who acted in the Exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
When the church included Jesus, a human being, humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about the identity of God. In the dying and rising of Jesus, God had done a new thing that could only be adequately described in the language of Old Testament eschatology. It was the restoration from exile, the new creation, the healing of the rift between God and Israel and more. The sign that Pilate put over Jesus’ head on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” Who could the king of the Jews be other than the messiah of God? Meant by Pilate as a joke, the church could see the truth of it in light of their new faith that in Jesus Christ God had once again acted decisively as expected.
Why the cross is “good news”
1. The cross is the death of ideology. It provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It calls into question any ideology that would use the Gospel to further its own ends.
The cross provides the church with a anti-ideological bias that protects the Gospel from being blown about by any number of contemporary cultural winds, or co–opted by any number of alternative faiths, religious and secular. The cross also protects the church from both utopianism and cynicism, because it keeps in view that the resurrected one remains the crucified one.
Likewise, the cross helps the church to understand its life and discipleship in other ways than by the canons of success and power that the world so values. It teaches the church to recognize its true hope in the God who raised the dead from the illusory hopes the world holds out for both individuals in the face of death and for human history in the face of futility.
So the church is able to live in real hope only because the cross has taught it where properly to look for hope. Christian hope lies beyond all human endeavors and accomplishments and beyond all possibilities inherent in the natural world. Christians love the world God made and for which his Son gave his life, and we work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, we know that our true hope lies only in the God who raised the crucified, who is the God who raises the dead. Such hope transcends both personal death and cosmic futility.
2. The cross shows God’s solidarity with all human suffering including suffering caused by human violence. On the cross Jesus suffers an agonizing death, but perhaps more than his physical suffering was the anguish he experienced by the total abandonment of the One he called Father, which he expresses when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46))
In this experience of abandonment Jesus knows solidarity with all human suffering, and if we take his divine nature seriously then God knows this, too, and in some sense experienced it on our behalf, and by doing so redeemed it, which we can only see in Easter hindsight. So not only did Jesus suffer (which is what passion means) but his suffering and death are not incidental to the glorious story of divine atonement and human redemption but quite literally crucial.
Now some of the critics charge that the cross exalts human suffering, and encourages people to accept it. We must admit that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive, and so we should be careful not to romanticize suffering. But suffering is such a universal feature of the human condition that surely it must be good news to know that our God understands our suffering, and in Jesus, was himself “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53)
3. The cross models forgiveness. From the cross Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” and in doing so embodies the loving mercy of God.
This radical forgiveness is the only power that can break the cycles of revenge and retribution that fuel so much of our world’s violence. One of the most powerful moments of Christian witness in my lifetime was when Pope John Paul the Second forgave the man who had shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In 1983 he visited his assailant in prison and spoke privately with him for about 20 minutes. He later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”
How ironic it seems to me that the word of the cross is being accused of causing violence, when its message judges and condemns violence
4. The cross is all about God’s love. When we look at the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, they more often than not reference the cross as the chief evidence. For example, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Or Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or Romans 8:31, 32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
And not just in Scripture, but in our traditions, too, we see a cross-centered understanding of God’s love. So the Heidelberg Catechisms beloved first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is answered thus: “That I belong– body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins…so that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation… he also assures me of eternal life….”
Far from being the cause of violence the word of the cross is God’s love at work, and only that love offers healing and wholeness to our broken world.
It is true that the word of the cross is not a word everyone will hear. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23ff)
(Note: This address was given at the First Congregational Church UCC in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 1, 2012. It is essentially a re-working of my paper “The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?” delivered at the 25th Craigville Theological Colloquy, July 2008. I have shortened it and edited it for a lay audience, eliminating most citations and footnotes. The original can be found here.
(The photo is of the burnt wooden cross at Coventry Cathedral after it was burned by bombing in WWII)