I was gearing up to write a post about the slaughter of the Canaanites, a topic that came up in my class today. And then I finally got around to watching this Saturday Night Live video, “Djesus Uncrossed,” which several blogs I read had already shared:
I could not help but connect the two, since the same themes – the use of violence, morality, Old Testament vs. New Testament, all come up in connection with this as well. And this connects up with Tony Jones’ question about progressive Christian answers to the question “Why the crucifixion?” And so what follows is my contribution to that discussion as well.
The video above should be related to the quotation from Brian McLaren I shared yesterday, since the “revenge of Jesus” scenario in the video is in fact the very one McLaren was talking about, just pushed different distances into the future. And so, while some may find the video offensive, it actually gets at a very serious question – and in fact, those who find it offensive may feel that way precisely because it is exposing some problematic assumptions about Jesus and violence.
Is Jesus the crucified someone who was committed to nonviolence in the face of death in principle? Or do you think of Jesus as someone who underwent death just to be able to justify more effectively a violent retaliation against his enemies at some later point? That is certainly how Bryan Fischer sees things:
The role of humans allegedly carrying out God’s judgment through violent means is a key component in the account of the conquest in the Book of Joshua as well. One of my students mentioned in class today that Joshua essentially has the role of a divinely-appointed “hit man.” That observation ought to lead to a question about the concept of God that is presupposed. God seems not to be depicted as an all-powerful entity who can be left to take care of his own battles, annihilating the Canaanites himself so as to leave the land open for the Israelites to enter without having to wage war themselves. Some group of human beings is apparently felt to be required to bring about the punishment of the Canaanites. Or, if their involvement is not in fact essential, then that is perhaps even more disturbing, since it suggests that this is a sort of training exercise in the art of killing the disobedient, something that they are apparently to make a custom.
From any sort of Christian perspective, this ought to be felt to be disturbing. And it is not enough to find fast apologetics-style “answers” along the lines of “it is God’s land anyway” and “God can do whatever God wishes with sinful, disobedient humans who deserve what they get.” None of that gets at the heart of the matter, which is that most of us would find it deeply disturbing were anyone today to make the sorts of claims the Book of Joshua does, and then to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the way the Israelites are there depicted as acting there. There are some books (and even some longer online resources) that really wrestle with these texts from a conservative Christian perspective, and anyone wanting to tackle the issue needs to treat the texts with that level of seriousness. Anyone who thinks that stories about mass slaughter can be justified with single-sentence or even web page length answers is, in my opinion, not treating the matter with the seriousness it is due.
From my own progressive Christian perspective, the meaning of the crucifixion is that justice is not always done in the way that we as human beings hope, and that the appropriate response is not to keep hoping that such retributive justice will be done, but to embrace the path that finally accepts this outcome fully and stops longing for vengeance.
In the story told in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is not welcomed, his message is not embraced, and the kingdom he predicts does not dawn. His followers respond in various ways, including pushing his vindication into a spiritual realm, and pushing it into the not-too-distant or the undefined future, or some combination of the above. None of those attempts to make sense of what happened are inherently binding on Christians. The diversity of explanations and attempts to make sense of what happened to Jesus, and what didn’t happen in the decades that followed, leave room for us to offer our own perspectives and interpretations into the conversation.
But what does actually happen in the years and centuries following the crucifixion is also to be noted. Jesus’ message of human transformation through non-violence eventually “conquers” even Rome, whose representatives generations earlier had put him to death. That happens through a much larger number of people being willing to be true to their principles without retaliating. And so part of the message of the cross is that it is better to “fail” true to your principles than to sacrifice the principles in order to “win.” This recent cartoon from ASBO Jesus puts it well:
The message of the cross is that failure while being faithful to our moral convictions is greater than a so-called success that sacrifices them. From a Christian perspective, this sort of “failure” ought to be the only thing we consider success. And our hope should not be that eventually we’ll get to see our opponents suffer, but that eventually we’ll get to see them transformed, through love and non-violence, into friends. That is the sort of victory Christians should hope for.
What do readers think? Would you agree that “success” is faithfulness even unto death, and “victory” is seeing enemies become friends through persistence in love?
Of related interest around the blogosphere, see also David Hayward’s cartoon about holding Jesus hostage, Tony Jones’ post responding to Frank Schaeffer about progressive Christianity, Roger Olson on why he is not a conservative or fundamentalist, and Bo Sanders on liberals and progressives.