Drinking the Cup of Poison: What Jesus Christ Superstar Gets Wrong About Gethsemane

Jesus Christ Superstar gets “Gethsemane” all wrong.

I hate to say that, because I have grown up on this rock opera, and its images and songs have given shape and voice to my doubts and my faith. It has long been my tradition to watch the 1973 movie every Holy Week, and I was thrilled to kick off the Easter season with NBC’s masterful live production.

And while some of the theology may be questionable, I so greatly appreciate this show for the humanization of both Judas, who is almost always demonized, and Jesus, whose humanity in too many interpretations gets lost in his divinity. The passion stirs my soul. The pain breaks my heart. The music opens my mouth and moves my feet. But “Gethsemane,” the climactic ballad of this passion play, is a problem.

Don’t you get me wrong. It’s not that I object to seeing vulnerable, frightened Jesus, or lonely, doubting, even angry Jesus. I believe the emotion conveyed in the show’s garden prayer was very true to Jesus’ agony-ridden plea in the final hours before his betrayal. After all, Jesus knew he was about to be abandoned, rejected, scorned, humiliated, and crucified. The physical pain alone was a terrifying prospect, but he was also about to become utterly outcast, to lose the support of his friends, to feel the weight of the entire hostile, bloodthirsty world crush him. The Bible claims he was in so much anguish that he began to sweat drops of blood. Jesus Christ Superstar does a fine job of rendering Jesus’s emotional state in his last anxiety-ridden hour before his arrest.

But the cold, distant, aloof God to whom Jesus prays? The God whose only presence is absence, whose only voice is silence? The cruel and vindictive God to whom Jesus yells in exasperation and despair, “Nail me to your cross and break me, bleed me, beat me, kill me?” This is not the God of scripture but the god of misguided interpretation, the god of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. It is a god who answers human sin with righteous anger that can be appeased only by the death of an innocent. It is not the God Jesus seeks for comfort in his hour of need, not the God with whom Jesus shares intimate relationship. This is not the God whom Jesus reveals when he heals the sick, comforts the afflicted, and feeds the hungry. This god does not exist.

Jesus is vulnerable, afraid, grief-stricken, and angry in the garden, and he does pray for God to remove the “cup of poison” he is about to drink. But it is not a cup of God’s wrath poured out for humanity that Jesus is on the verge of draining. It is, rather, a cup of human violence, poured out and administered by human hands.

To get a far better sense of what happens in Gethsemane, read Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible by Dr. Anthony Bartlett. Though I kicked off my Easter season by watching Jesus Christ Superstar, I have continued to observe it by using this Bible study guide to light my way as I explore what it means to live into the new life that Jesus opens by absorbing human violence and dissolving it in forgiveness. In Seven Stories, Dr. Bartlett interprets the Bible as a record of humanity’s ongoing journey from violence to compassion and rivalry to reconciliation. The new and eternal live growing within us is the ongoing reparation of our relationship with God and humanity as we take into ourselves the truth that “God is Love, and in God there is no darkness at all.”

In other words, scripture is the record of humanity’s developing relationship of God, whom Jesus fully reveals as unconditional Love. Seven Stories helps us recognize the violence in scripture, including the violence attributed to God, as our flawed, incomplete human comprehension. As Jesus says, none of us truly understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all.

Humanity from the foundation of the world has found ultimate power in violence – in the power to defeat our enemies and bend them to our will or kill them. Seven Stories is guided by — in addition to a historical-critical and literary-critical theology – the anthropology of René Girard, which gives an explanation for our propensity for finding the sacred in violence and a glimpse as to how we will be redeemed. Girard’s great articulation of the human condition is that we are relational beings, and our actions and desires are formed in observation and imitation of one another. Indeed, being relational creatures is what it means to be made in the image of God, whose identity is the Trinity, the relationship of full and perfect Love.

But we do not yet live into the fullness of this love, and we experience our relationships with one another not only through friendship and empathy, but also through jealousy and envy. We covet what we refuse to share, striving to form identities over and against one another. When we want what we refuse to share, we fight. And as we fight, we become caught up in the adrenaline of self-righteousness, convinced that we are right, convinced all the more of the evil of our opponent, who becomes all the more convinced of the evil within us. The mimetic nature that binds us together in our desires also tears us apart as more and more people fight and violence merges together. But ancient peoples found a stop-gap to the violence as it spiraled out of control by pooling their energy together against a victim, a scapegoat. In coming together and reinforcing their righteousness over and against this scapegoat, ancient people found a transcendent catharsis in the murder of their enemy. This, Girard posits, is how human civilizations were formed and how humans first came to understand the power we call God.

So from the foundation of the world, God has been confused for violence, for the power of death. But scripture tells a different story, a story leading us out of our association of God with violence, a story in which the ultimate power in relationship with humanity is not death but Love. Scripture tells us a story of a God who made us in relationship not so that we would find ourselves in our struggles over and against one another, but so we would come to recognize ourselves in living for one another. Scripture records our journey of discovery as we find the God, in whose image we are formed, not in the violence that destroys but in the love that heals. We learn this story little by little, mistake by mistake. In Seven Stories, we see how a violent humanity comes to understand, not a God of might and wrath, but a God of mercy and compassion.

Chapter 4 of Seven Stories, “From Wrath to Compassion,” delves into the imagery of “The Cup of Wrath” and explains in no uncertain terms: the “poison” Jesus drinks is human violence. It is violence that has passed from person to person, place to place, generation to generation, as we have found pseudo-righteousness in the destruction of our enemies. The temporary victory of violence is swallowed, again and again, by the vulture of vengeance. As violence begets violence, suffering spreads and consumes the world. A humanity that finds God in violence naturally understands suffering as the penalty of God’s wrath.

The metaphor of drunkenness is an apt description of human violence – the addictive and all-consuming nature of it, the fleeting high of victory, the devastation and humiliation of being conquered. So heavily does it weigh on those who experience it, so beyond any human control, that it seems as if it must be judgment from on high.

But Jesus draws on the imagery of the cup in Gethsemane in order to subvert the notion that the wrath is from God. Humans have turned against Jesus. Humans have shunned his all-inclusive love, for to embrace the marginalized is to erase the boundaries by which people know themselves. Humans will soon come to arrest and crucify Jesus. Violence, like an intoxicant, has bewitched human minds and will spread like a contagion through the crowds. Jesus’ cries to God for comfort and relief because God knows his suffering, because God is not bewitched by violence. Nevertheless, God does not take the cup from Jesus. God does not want the violence displaced onto another or passed along. God’s will is for the violence to end. In Jesus’ body, in Jesus’ forgiveness, violence is drained to its dregs.

So in Jesus Christ Superstar, when Jesus says, “God, Thy will be done / Destroy your only Son,” he completely undermines the radical transformation and reconciliation that takes places on the cross. This change from the original, where the lyrics first read, “God, Thy will is hard / But you hold every card,” was the most disappointing moment of the show for me.

That said, there was a moment shortly afterward that redeemed everything for me, so perhaps my original judgment was too harsh. Something wonderful indeed happens in Gethsemane – not the song, but in the garden itself. Just after Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus pulls Judas into a hug. That brief, heartfelt embrace is forgiveness and reconciliation in action. It is the deepest part of one human soul meeting the deepest part of another; genuine connection in the midst of crisis and chaos. That is the work of the cross, pulling humanity in all of our violence into the urgent arms of Love. Though Superstar’s Jesus perceives wrath in God, he answers with compassion. The only thing left is to recognize that compassion has been the character of God all along, and Jesus is not separated from but intimately connected to God as he illuminates this compassion in his life, death, and resurrection.

Editor’s Note: Join Adam Ericksen and me on Monday, April 23rd at 10:00 CT to further explore how God reveals God’s self in mercy and love rather than judgment as we explore chapter 4 of Seven Stories, “From Wrath to Compassion.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “Gethsemane (I Only Wanted to Say)”: John Legend – Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert by NBC

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