Crucifixion and Liberation

Crucifixion and Liberation March 26, 2013

[Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, and violence against oppressed groups]

I recently wrote a blog post for Rachel Held Evans in which I talked about how many popular images of God are abusive. Someone left this comment:

I read something once -and it has troubled me since – that God requiring Jesus to die on the cross ‘for our sins’ was the equivalent of child abuse. I would love to hear some opinions on this matter.

Image by Aaron Douglas

A few commenters jumped in to say that since Jesus IS God, it was a personal choice and therefore not abusive and, well you know the rest. I’m sure you’ve heard justifications for this theology many times. My opinion on the matter was that penal substitution is still a terrifying theology about an abusive God.

I’m guessing many people that I know (including some of my readers) would be shocked to hear that I do not believe that God had to die because humans were just so evil and God was just so wrathful and required a blood sacrifice. I even know many self-identified progressive Christians who would probably assume that I wasn’t really a Christian if I told them I didn’t believe that Jesus died in the place of wicked human beings in order to save us from our sins.

I take a more, shall we say, literalist viewpoint.

God didn’t kill Jesus. People in power killed Jesus. 

My friend David Henson recently said on Facebook:

If atonement is literally at-one-ment — being at one with — perhaps it is God that experiences atonement in the crucifixion by being with us and being at one with us in death.

I would take this even further. Christ didn’t experience just any death, but a death reserved for those who challenged the oppressive power structures of the time. Jesus’ teachings of liberation threatened Rome. But even more so, they threatened the religious leaders of the day: spiritually abusive leaders who had turned their backs on Judaism’s message of justice and mercy and had twisted the teachings to oppress others.

Jesus stood with the oppressed. He healed on the Sabbath. He advocated for the poor. He spoke out against the abuse of women.

And those in power killed him for it. They silenced his message (but it couldn’t quite stay dead, could it?).

Maybe this is the real message of the cross. That the God of all creation loved the oppressed enough to become one with them, even in death–the ultimate tool of oppressive forces. 

I think of an article about the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by liberation theologian James Cone. Cone makes a comparison between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in the society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. Hengel asserts: “Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock. . . . Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame.

I don’t think many white people like this comparison (as a white person myself, it is challenging and sobering). So white theologians shy away from this comparison, as obvious as it seems. Instead, they embrace a spiritualized version of Christianity in which Jesus is nothing but a sacrifice, meant to save us from some abstract idea of inherited sin. Where Christ’s life of healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, touching the untouchables had nothing to do with his death. Where the promise of liberation and justice  given by the Old Testament prophets to the oppressed in Israel is not considered part of the gospel. Where the only real result of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free from our sins (though we still sin), and go to heaven when we die (maybe–if we ask nicely).

If we did embrace the similarities between the cross and the lynching tree, it would open the doors to comparing Christ’s unjust death with the many other injustices that go on in our society.

The wife who is raped and beaten by her husband, and then told by her church to stay with him.

One of the transgender people that are murdered every three days. 

The Muslim people who are bombed by the United States just because some people who looked like them happened to be terrorists.

The people in poverty who starve to death because they cannot afford food, or die slowly from illness because they cannot afford healthcare.

The woman on the street corner in Detroit who was forced into prostitution at age 11.

The young black man who is shot in the back of the head because he looked threatening.

The young woman from Steubenville who was gang-raped and then shamed for it.

The gay, black mayoral candidate who was beaten, set on fire, and killed in Mississippi.

Christ is crucified again and again as injustice goes on and on. 

But the cross means, to the oppressed, that God is on our side.

As James Cone says,

The cross is the most empowering symbol of God’s loving solidarity with the “least of these,” the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.

The cross can empower those who are suffering. It can give us hope. But as James Cone continues,

But we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

The cross cannot just mean that we are “saved from sin,” and “going to heaven.” Our speaking about the cross cannot just sound like those cliched platitudes that Christians often tell those who are hurting. The cross that Jesus reclaimed from the Roman Empire has fallen back into the hands of oppressors, becoming a tool of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of heterosexism and transphobia, of the military and prison industrial complex, of those who wage warfare on the poor. 

But I want to reclaim it, like Christ did.

If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.

The cross of Jesus reveals the ugly truth behind oppressive power, and then the cross mocks that power through the resurrection.

The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed–in a world that tries to convince us that we are not even human–that we are not only made in God’s image, but that God came to earth to be made in ours.

The cross of Jesus tells the oppressed that we can take up our crosses and our protest signs and join together, armed with the power of love, to defeat the powers that rape, abuse, and murder us.

The cross of Jesus tells us that they can kill our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they win. 

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  • I love that last sentence!!!

    Interesting way of framing it, and I agree with a lot. But I don’t think focussing only on the cross is a good idea. The most important feast in this season is Easter, not good friday… The crucifiction is only part of the bigger story, and a ‘good Friday only’ gospel (as some PSA-obsessed evangelical proclaim) is very incomplete. Jesus shared in our humanity, suffering and death on the cross, at the hand of the powers of this world, the powerful and broken humans, but that’s not the end of the story. There is no gospel without the resurrection! Suffering and death, oppression and violence will not have the last word.

    • I agree. I’m planning on posting on resurrection later this week.

    • (though woman plans and my video game system laughs)

    • I’ve always reacted negatively to hearing a Friday-only message or an Easter-only message. They’re both good news. Together.

  • Hey, thanks for writing this.

    As I read it, I couldn’t help wondering, “Why can’t it be both?”

    He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

    I think we would do poorly to dispense with the poetry and nobility of that statement…yet I also see no reason to restrict the Crucifixion to concepts of atonement. I can’t help but think the cross could have been more than just the one thing or the other.

    On a related note: I grew up in a wide range of churches, most of which preached at least a half-dozen skewed or damaging doctrines. I’ve been through the wringer on patriarchy, civic duty, shame and sexuality, gay rights, and more. But I can’t say that substitutionary atonement was ever taught—at least to me—in a way that made me think of God as an abuser or a despot. So that’s my take, anyway. Thanks again.

    • So, are you saying that because you haven’t experienced things that make you think of penal substitution as abusive it must not be abusive?

      • Not at all. I’m simply suggesting that it may be possible for substiutionary atonement to be presented in a way which does not present God as abusive, just as it can certainly be presented in a way which does present God as abusive.

        • I’m not particularly interested in how it’s presented but in what the message is (regardless of how nice the package might come in)

          • That’s why I’m wondering whether the concept of God as an abuser comes from the message of substitutionary atonement or the package it comes from.

            Might be something for me to write about….

          • Amy

            I always enjoy your posts, but this time- I had the same reaction as physicsandwhiskey.
            I guess I’m confused as to why the manner of Jesus’ death would negate anything he did during life.
            Seems to me you’re looking for permission to be angry at God. (?) go ahead- be angry at God! I believe it’s a really important step in the healing process and way too often people who have been hurt are prompted to skim over it quickly (or deny it) because it makes others feel uncomfortable.

            Some things to keep in mind though-
            Jesus said this himself: “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.” (John 10:18) Since I choose to believe Jesus, I see that as a pretty sound “justification for this theology”. (that it was a personal choice.)

            He knew exactly what was happening and he knew why. He did endure it for our sake. But that in no way diminishes his earthly ministry of healing, and his command to his followers to feed the hungry, care for the sick, advocate for the voiceless, widows, orphans, etc. (I agree w/you that that part is all too often overlooked. I’m just saying- believing Jesus lived and died for one reason doesn’t negate him living and dying for another reason. It’s bigger than that.)

            It also wouldn’t occur to me to define his death as “child abuse” simply because he was an adult when he died. (FWIW, I’m a person who knows a thing or two about abuse.) When a 33 year old man is lynched do we call it child abuse? A lot of things need to be said, but not that.

            Anyway- I’m still working through some things in my own mind in attempt to conclude that God isn’t abusive. (It’s hard to get past that “God the Father”, “Our father who art in heaven…” stuff and not assume that God is just like my own dad.) This happens to not be one of the things that trips me up anymore.
            …and somehow I doubt it would be productive to share the things that do!
            another time.

          • I’m not looking for permission to be angry at God. I’m just sharing my own theological viewpoint of the crucifixion.

          • Amy

            Yeah, I think I must have overestimated how much we have in common when I read some of your other posts.

          • Tanya K.

            I’m not so much seeing the “angry at God” thing, but rather a totally non-traditional re-thinking of the concept of redemption. This resonates deeply with me, and I don’t find it to negate nor diminish the meaning and significance of His death and the reasons for it.

          • The question comes down to whether there is justice in suffering for sins, or merit in suffering in another’s place.

          • Not really. Penal substitution is about the inherent worthlessness of a humanity that is in danger of being sent to eternal torture by a God that hates them and must take out His wrath on them. And then Jesus coming in as a substitute and enduring that torture and wrath instead. The question that you are pondering is an entirely different subject that can be discussed without embracing abusive penal substitution or similar theologies.

          • Without being too glib….if that’s the “package” that the message is being presented in, then yeah, it definitely presents as abusive.

            If I may ask (and forgive me if it’s something you’ve detailed elsewhere; I’m new here), what was your fundamentalist background? SGM? IFB?

            At it’s most basic level, substitutionary atonement depends on the idea that people who sin ought to justly suffer for sin, and that it’s meritorous for a person without sin to voluntarily suffer vicarously in order for those people who sinned to be justified. Those are the only two conditions which need to be satisfied, so those are the questions that I’d think need to be answered first. Then, we can talk about whether this fits into what we know of Jesus Christ.

          • Look, if you don’t think your theology is abusive, than this post isn’t about you. That is all.

          • Yeah, maybe this isn’t the place for a broader discussion of theological paradigms.

            I did enjoy the post, though.

          • brambonius

            To whom is a sacrifice given? I do not see in the OT that any wrath is poured out on a sacrifice at all, there is some magical idea behond it about life being in blood and stuff that we as moderns don’t understand, but no wrath poured out on the animals. The scapegoat, onto which the sins of the people are passed, does not endure real ‘wrath’ either. There surely is substitution in some sacrifices, like the scapegoat or the paschal lamb, but no punishment that is being transferred at all as far as I can see…

            I find the older views from before PSA (that was more common in the 1500 years before the reformation, especially the first millenium) and is still the norm for the orthodox, in which Jesus suffered the wrath not of God but of the Powers of evil, or of the fallen people themselves… And an emphasis on the resurrection and not just the cross. A good example of this classic view would be the substitution of Edmond by Aslan in the Narnia story. Edmond is not going to be punished by God, but has given into sin and is enslaved by the evil one… sin is a problem that destroys, even without punishment is it true that the wages of sin are death. It’s the natural outcome, and Jesus did not just come to take away punishment, but to ultimately destroy sin itself, an death and evil… To think that punishment itself is the main problem is to think very lowly about how destructive sin is!

          • brambonius

            ** the first sentence of the second paragraph makes no sense and should read something like:
            I find that the older views from before PSA make a lot more sense ( those that were more common in the 1500 years before the reformation, especially the first millenium and are still the norm for the orthodox church), more Christus Victor or Ransom based ideas in which Jesus suffered the wrath not of God but of the Powers of evil, or of the fallen people themselves…

  • Michael J.

    What you write is the “dirty” secret or should we say “denial” of most “insiders” who love to talk of “sin” but not this ugly, degrading, repulsive lynching that is fully revealed on a late Friday afternoon on one who is oh so good. For all time this lynching exposes the political AND religious, and dare I say personal/interpersonal powers for what they are. Spent the last 30 years watching and observing the same damn behavior. Scapegoating, blaming, but never weeping about the revelation that “I” could be he problem. I walked away from it all last year tired of listening to them talk of their cheap “sin(s),” pointing their fingers at others, never owning such betrayals. I’m ranting now and could go on and on. So keep on ranting because there is yet much that needs to be exposed. But like Jesus, many will still have to pay a serious, serious cost to expose the nonsense that goes for “church.”

  • Hannah

    I always like “rounding out” the meaning of what Christ did in his life and death and resurrection. Too often we minimalize it to just a single refrain: “he died for our sins so that we could go to heaven”. But it was a lot more than that. It’s a many-faceted diamond. Looking at the death and resurrection of Jesus as a “middle finger” against oppression, as you say, I’m reminded of how oppressive the Jewish legal system was, the long list of laws, myriad states of uncleanliness, and complex system of blood sacrifice for different sins and things. Jesus as the sacrificial lamb dying for our sins once for all was a “middle finger” to this religous and bloody system, which ended it for good. It set so many people free from it (and animals too!). It was a huge upset to the oppressive system of the Jewish legal system that I think we in our modern non-Jewish mindset can’t really ever grasp. For the Jews of the day, and the women and Gentiles who wanted to approach God but were kept to the outer courts because of their birth-origin/gender, it was a huge liberation.

  • SO POWERFUL. Wow, Sarah. This is especially eye-opening having just watched “The Passion of the Christ” last night. It’s so incredibly true! I think what hit me the most is Pontius Pilate’s reaction to the injustice being done to Jesus. As he brings him before the religious leaders ripped to shreds after being whipped and beaten, they still call for his crucifixion. He doesn’t understand it. The man did nothing wrong. Even Herod says “He’s no criminal. He’s just crazy!” Yet the Pharisees still pay people off to cry out for his death sentence not because he is a criminal but because he was a threat to their oppressive power over the people.

    But I have to say I identify with Pilate. I recognize the injustice, but I’m afraid of taking a stand against, too aware of the conflict it will cause, the trouble it may bring me, but where is Christ in all of that? He’s being crucified while I pretend I’m not the one who stood by and let it happen.

    When we leave the injustice out of the gospel we weaken Christ’s message significantly, even at times silencing it altogether once again with the oppressive behaviors that crucified Him in the first place. I love the line “Christ is crucified again and again as injustice goes on and on.” SO important to remember. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Tanya K.

    Sarah, stunning, once again. Thank you.

  • “If we are to find liberation in the crucifixion, then the cross must stand as a middle finger to oppressive power structures.”

    ::: standing ovation :::

  • I read this hours ago and needed to sit with it. Mostly because I am a cradle Christian of the Catholic persuasion and these images are very important to me. But they have always represented liberation to me. Jesus brought a new covenant and a new law. His death sealed the deal, saved us all and left us a path to walk in our own lives: service. His was the ultimate act of love. This is consistent with the beliefs of my church. Yes, there are those among us who need the Old Testament God, for whatever guilt and shame they carry in their lives. But that is for them. That is not representative of Christianity. Right?

  • I am something of a Deist, but I think you might want to read Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald (available on project Gutenberg). His opinion about substiutionary atonement is that it is the “spiritual charlatanry”. He was also something of an universalist, although he was hopeful rather than certain that all will be saved. CS Lewis called him ‘master’ but rejected his universalism.

  • Andrew

    I think you’re kind of privileging the oppressed here. Maybe this isn’t a good reading, but it appears to me that you’re saying the crucifixion was a way for Jesus to rush in and save the oppressed from their oppressors. But didn’t Jesus come for the oppressors, too? Or are they, as they are empowered, somehow more evil than those they’re oppressing, and therefore too evil to be reached by the power of the cross? You say it’s not about “evil” when what you mean is that it’s not about our collective evilness, but the evilness of the bigot and the rapist and the lyncher.

    I think the cross IS about justice and mercy, as you said, but who gets to be justified? Or who NEEDS to be justified? Certainly those being oppressed have committed their own injustices against God, and certainly their state as “the oppressed” cannot exempt them from God’s desire for holiness?

    To say that the oppressed need to be justified implies their right to be justified. It implies that Jesus came to make their lives easier, and to save them from “bad” people. Jesus came to save us form ourselves and to justify us to Himself. It’s not as “progressive” or catchy to say that we’ve sinned against God and therefore need to be atoned for, but I know it’s true about me.

    And while the cross/lynching tree comparison is an attractive one, there is one crucial difference in that Christ knew no sin. Those who’ve been lynched or wrongfully killed or discriminated against, unjust and truly awful as those things are, KNEW sin. Hebrews tells us Christ was crucified once, for all, because his crucifixion was unlike any other wrongful death in the course of human history. His crucifixion was the ultimate injustice because he was entirely blameless. I’m not advocating discrimination on any front or in any form, but no sin committed wrongfully against me can compare to Christ’s crucifixion, and it would be horribly egoistic for me to compare my sufferings to His.

    • I wrote: “The cross of Jesus calls those of us who are oppressors (most of us–myself included–are oppressed in some contexts and oppressors in others) to humility, repentance, and a new way of living.”

  • “Father, if it is your will, take this cup”
    Father, if it is your will…
    Jesus made the decision to let God handle the situation.

    Jesus knew what was in store. He could have theoretically ran away from Gethsamane, or killed Judas for that matter. Or called the legions of angels. Or talked Pilate out of his crucifixion.

    But he didn’t.

  • Wow! Thank you for posting this. Very powerful words. Love James Cone… haven’t read “The Cross” by him yet though.
    One problem I have with penal substitution is that oftentimes its proponents make it out to be the ONLY way to view the crucifixion/atonement/soteriology/etc. You know, the whole “It’s what the bible says…” while quoting literally a COUPLE of verses from Romans and offering a highly perverse anti-judaic understanding of sacrifice (angry God, humans bad, God likes blood). That theology just makes me uncomfortable, especially considering the dynamics of shame, guilt, and power that may potentially be proclaimed from the pulpit. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that PS is really a recent development in the big picture of things. It’s interesting to note that it has become so prominent in American Christianity- perhaps there might be some political connections. Personally, I think that the penal theory would be more related to an obsession with a robust and authoritarian justice system of clear-cut morality than the metaphors we find in Scripture.

  • Annie

    Hi Sarah! I’ve really been enjoying your blog, having only discovered it 3 days go I’m entertaining myself by reading older posts! I have lots to say but today I will say only this: you might really like Dorothy Sayers screenplay about the life of Christ called “The Man Born To Be King”. She puts a really different, and very Human Experience spin on the old stories, some of it kind of blew my mind. (Especially read the scene setting bit about the thief on the cross, that made me cry and I’ve never been able to return to the more standard view of things since reading it).