Jason Micheli will be posting reflections on Fleming Rutledge’s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, through Lent. Jason is a United Methodist pastor in DC who blogs at www.tamedcynic.org
I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’
The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked. On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.
On the other hand, my liberal colleagues, who typically had less use for the cross, applauded the sermon, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important social justice witness. They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which we’re called to minister. Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.
Both groups of hearers received the day’s message according to the reified political and theological lines we had brought to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored Paul’s insistence in his Corinthian correspondence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular. The religious will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense, and the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.
Only now, having read Fleming Rutledge’s new book, The Crucifixion, am I able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Miller Chapel.
The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting Christ’s death was of a type endlessly repeated rather than absolutely singular.
The preacher was focusing not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it. The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.
Like Matthew Shepard, Christ’s death was primarily one of shame and degradation.
I’ve long been a fan of Athanasius’ catch-phrase ‘God became human so that we might become God.’ I’ve relished the precision with it captures the plot of the scripture story; however, reading The Crucifixion, I’m now convicted the summation is too cute by half because, of course, God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.
God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.
Athanasius’ quote, if unexamined, bypasses the peculiarly godawful mode of death by which we are incorporated mysteriously into God’s own life. To say, as Athanasius does, that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death.
In her initial chapter, Fleming Rutledge makes an assertion so traditional as to sound counter-cultural and subversive in a mainline denomination like hers or own. She argues that the cross is the unique feature by which everything else in Christian faith is given its true significance. Without the cross, incarnation simply sacralizes the world as it is instead of as it ought to be. Without the cross, the resurrection risks being reduced to sentimentality rather than the resounding vindication of Christ’s self-emptying life and his victory over Sin and Death.
Having established the primacy of the cross, Fleming Rutledge moves on in chapter 2 to insist that serious students of the cross must contend with the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it.
As Rutledge points out, the common way of interrogating the atonement ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.
The better question to ask, Rutledge counters, is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’
The merit of any atonement theology must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.
Often critics of substitutionary atonement will cite the four evangelists’ own reticence in describing crucifixion as evidence that the cross is not as significant as claimed. Fleming Rutledge cites the evangelists’ same spare narration of the crucifixion to argue the very opposite point: little is said in the gospels about the cross because little needed to be said in the ancient world. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.
The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him.
They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.
No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. This is a point, Rutledge suggests, which requires a delicate, artful reading of the Old Testament rather than interpreting it as unambiguously foreshadowing the cross. On this point, in particular, Rutledge provides a helpful caution to substitutionary theology even as she avows the substance of it. The manner of Jesus’ death demands we read Jesus’ scriptures as in no way anticipating such a shameful death.
As she puts it, at best we can say that a text like Isaiah 53 offers ‘a clue of a suggestion of a hint of a prediction.’
God, so far as the disciples could surmise, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment:
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Paul takes up this law stipulation in Galatians 3.10-14, a passage which, tellingly, the lectionary can find no room for in its 3 year calendar. Only this particular method of death does the torah identify as being godforsaken. On this insight, Rutledge quotes Jurgen Moltmann:
“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”
Again, it’s not sufficient to ask why Jesus died.
Just as it would be blithely dismissive to say, vaguely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law, a manner that signaled the ultimate shame before God and marked one out under God as accursed.
Rather than asking ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder:
‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’
Looking at the Deuteronomic code in the context of the Galatians text, Rutledge draws these conclusions about the meaning of the manner of Christ’s death:
- All of humanity is under accursed.
- Rectification of the curse is impossible by way of the law.
- Only God rectify and God has done so through Jesus Christ, who actually took the full force of the curse into himself on the tree of the cross.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction, for Rutledge, expresses not merely the existential anguish experienced by him in his human nature, it narrates something objective transpiring upon the cross. God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.
This is the implication any atonement theology must wrestle with instead of dismissing out of hand. What does the extremity of such a death reveal about us? What does it say about out condition that it can only be rectified by God choosing godforsakeness? What does it say about our enslavement to Sin that God freely chose the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?
Paul writes in his powerful baptismal passage in Romans 6 that ‘we have been united in a death like his.’ The Crucifixion compels the reader to turn Rutledge’s modal question (‘Why was Jesus crucified?’) back onto the believer. What does it mean for us that we are united with Christ not in death, generically, but in a death like his?
Are we, with Christ, put in a position of grave accursedness? And in asking that question we might see ourselves as those attackers who left Matthew Shepard to die a shameful scarecrow’s death.
Or, are we by baptism joined in solidarity, as Christ, to those who suffer, like Matthew Shepard, the shame and degradation we inflict upon one another?
But of course, The Crucifixion leaves no doubt, the answer is both.