In the beginning, Cain murdered Abel—a horrific act of violence between two men closely related to one another, no less. It’s the first time the Bible actually uses the word “sin.” And as Cain goes off to other people groups, violence followed him. Unjustified violence is at the heart of humanity’s first sin. And it escalates throughout the story as one reads the Old Testament. Violence becomes our universal language. It is what we resort to when all else fails. All communication. All love. All civility. All law. All order. All humanity. Remove all of these things, and one is left with violence.
Put two people in a room who speak completely different languages, and I promise you if one of them hits the other, both will understand exactly what’s going on.
Violence reached a fevered pitch in the Roman world when Jesus arrived. To illustrate how bad things got, Herod had toddlers put to death in Bethlehem and no supervisor called him into the office to explain. This is not to say that Herod’s actions failed to incite anger. Actually, at the moment that Jesus began his ministry, Jews were hopping mad. Many were looking for just the right moment, and just the right military ruler, to lead Israel into war against the Romans, putting “tactical genius” at the top of the qualifications for the long-expected messiah. They were looking for a Patton.
Jesus proved to be not even close. Instead of filling his sermons with images of the wicked getting punished, Jesus preached about grace and reconciliation. Literally, if the Romans slap you on one side of the face, offer them the other. If they take your coat, offer them your shirt. What kind of language is that! To make matters worse, he commanded his followers to “Forgive one another.” And to add force to it, he said, “If you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you” (Matthew 6:15).
What?! Is he wanting us to be cowards? We want plagues and fire and brimstone and angels smiting the gentiles!
After a while, the crowds had had enough. They threatened, persecuted, tortured, and ultimately abandoned Jesus, leaving him with nothing more to say. He had explained his revolutionary ideas about the Kingdom in every way possible, even using spectacular miracles as object lessons, and his audience still didn’t get it. There was only one thing left to do.
Crucifixion on a cross.
The cross was necessary because humanity had chosen violence as its universal language, making execution and torture the only way for God to communicate His incomprehensible love. In other words, at Golgotha, humanity spoke violence and God spoke love, and the cross became the Rosetta stone.
The cross becomes the one place where all peoples–Greeks, Jews, Romans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, etc., can understand what God has been trying to say to us all along. Since we all speak the language of violence displayed on the cross, then at a very primitive level, when we see a man beaten and bloodied and suffering while surrounded by an angry mob, no words are necessary.
But then, God does something truly profound and beautiful. Right in the middle of the violence and evil, the Son of God spoke, “Father, forgive them.” And he taught us our first words.
But now the world has two languages: violence and love. And the latter is far more difficult than the former.
Odds are, we will never face evil and suffering at the level Jesus faced. And yet, he was still able to say, “Father, forgive them.” How does one pronounce THOSE words in THAT context? Yet, if Jesus can forgive his enemies while nailed to a cross, then any excuse we might offer as to why we can’t do the same looks anemic. Ridiculous, even.
Forgiveness is as the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It is an integral part of the strategy with which the Kingdom of God will prevail over the gates of Hell. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “Love your enemies.” And the first century Christians understood this. It became a litmus test for inclusion in the community of faith. But ever since Cain murdered Abel, humanity has become quite fluent in the language of violence. Just scan the top stories of any news app, and you’ll see.
But imagine a world in which the Church was able to convince every single person to forgive. To respond to all evil and suffering inflicted on us by others with grace. Say we could even pick a day, like next Friday, where we all agree to wake up that morning and offer love to our enemies—where we literally turn the other cheek. What would our world look like?
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them. (Isaiah 11:6, NIV)
Idealistic? I know. Impractical? Yep. And see, already the excuses have started….
Perhaps the most powerful lesson of the cross is found not so much in answering questions about atonement or theodicy, but about showing us how to respond to the very real suffering and evil that is in the world—and in us—and in doing so, we learn how to speak love.
My guess is that if God were to administer a doctrinal test at the gates of heaven, not many would get a passing grade. I get excited if my students just know what the words atonement and theodicy mean. Rather, I think God will be looking at how our theology shapes who we are.
How did we respond to the person on the other side of the political or theological fence? To the unfaithful spouse? To the unethical pastor? To the school bully? To the lazy coworker? Even after they deeply hurt us. Did we respond by frightening and intimidating them or by listening and trying to redeem the situation? Did we lash out or love? Did we advance the Kingdom? Or the boundaries of Hell?
As you may recall, this meditation on the cross began with a story about my seven-year-old daughter going through a crisis of faith in the throes of nausea. Though she had never heard of atonement or theodicy, at a very basic level she was grappling with these ideas. And as a result, she was forced to redraw her connect-the-dot picture of God as she faced a page with words like “sin” and “love” and “grace” and “justice” with no numbers to guide her.
She asked for my help.
And after a decade of schooling to get a Ph.D. and more decades of teaching historical theology to students while pastoring a small congregation, I was stumped.
“Why did God make sickness?” she said tearfully.
In that moment, I really wished I had had an answer: but if the Father refused to give Job and Jesus an answer as they faced suffering, then what could I possibly say?
So I had to just hug her tightly and confess, “I don’t know.”
And as I did, I wondered how her picture of God looked now that she was forced to draw it herself. I decided a long time ago that I can’t speak for God about why He created sickness. I have no idea what He’d say. It’s one of those questions so complex that only Sophomore Bible majors know the answer.
But I can respond to her trauma with the language of love. I can snuggle her and share her frustration. I can speak to God on her behalf. I can clean out the throw-up bowl, place a cold washcloth on her forehead, and sit with her through the night. I can tenderly hold her hair back as she throws up again and again, in the hopes that as she connects the dots picturing God, she remembers that God didn’t just make sickness.
He made daddies, too.
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors atkellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott