by Morgan Guyton
Ever wonder how God turned into Darth Vader, Jesus became Luke Skywalker, and Christians came to look like storm-troopers? It’s the product of a particular way of understanding the cross that is the centerpiece of Christianity. I call it the Vader cross, a cross that makes Jesus bleed so that his Sith Lord Father can have a cathartic release for His anger.
This Vader-ized cross was recently the subject of a controversial decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to drop the popular hymn “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal on account of a line which says the purpose of Jesus’ cross was to ensure that “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The stormtroopers of the Christian blogosphere howled in protest, chalking it up as yet another example of mainline Christian denominations eschewing uncomfortable Biblical truths under popular pressure.
The irony is that the Bible never says Jesus was crucified to satisfy the wrath of God. It certainly says God is angry about sin; it says Jesus died to save us from sin; but nowhere does it say explicitly that the cross’s purpose is to be a dumping ground for God’s wrath. This widespread misunderstanding of the cross’s purpose is modern Christianity’s most significant theological problem with devastating ethical consequences manifested in the intransigent misanthropy of many Christian stormtroopers today.
This theological problem has its source in the well-intentioned but tragically misappropriated teaching of an 11th century monk named Anselm who sought to explain why Jesus had to be both God and man. Drawing from his medieval honor culture, Anselm imagined God to be a king whose honor must always be protected. He reasoned that human sin had offended God’s honor infinitely, so just as dishonor in medieval culture had to be “satisfied” through a duel, someone had to die to satisfy the king’s honor. Since the offense was infinite, only a life of infinite worth could satisfy it; since the offenders were human, only a human could pay the price. Hence, Jesus had to be an infinitely divine, sinless human being to satisfy God’s dishonor through His death on the cross.
Anselm’s theory became the default explanation of the cross for Western Christianity even though there is no Biblical basis for making Jesus’ sacrifice into a medieval honor problem. The Anselmian view of the cross does two important things to Christian ethics. First, it declares that God’s expectations for human behavior are infinitely impossible to fulfill. Second, by defining sin in terms of God’s honor, it makes sin an abstract offense against God whose actual human victims are irrelevant, which makes justice about paying God back instead of making things right between offender and victim. This is the foundation for the curious assumption in Western criminal justice that throwing someone into a cell for a certain number of years “compensates” the victim of that person’s crime.
As an infinitely impossible question of satisfying God’s abstract honor, Christian ethics becomes a nihilistic enterprise. It makes God into a Darth Vader whose anger about sin has to do strictly with honor rather than love for the victims of sin. God’s infinitely impossible grading scale gives Christians the basis for concluding that non-Christians who seem like reasonable, decent people are actually profoundly wicked in God’s infinitely perfectionist eyes.
An infinitely picky Vader God obsessed with His own honor produces Christians who believe in the total depravity of everyone else, whether it’s the heathens of past centuries who needed to be “Christianized” through colonialism and slavery, or the heathens of today in the other political party with whom any compromise is a betrayal of the God who disapproves of their ideas even if they seem reasonable from humanity’s less than infinite vantage point.
If sin is defined as dishonor to God instead of harm to other people, then the goal of Christian living is purity, keeping your stormtrooper uniform bleached and uncontaminated by contact with people who dishonor God, rather than charity, which would involve seeking to undo the harm of sin in the lives of people who suffer. Hence, Christianity becomes a gated community of people who consider it their only ethical responsibility to keep their families pure and safe and who never remove their spiritual latex gloves when they do go out into the world on mission projects which are understood as means of rescuing more people for the gated community.
This monstrous misrepresentation of the purpose of Jesus’ cross directly undermines the proof of God’s solidarity with humanity that the cross is actually about. God isn’t the Vader who pours out His wrath on a Luke Skywalker Christ. We are the Darth Vaders whom God subverts and overcomes nonviolently through His Word made flesh in Jesus.
The ancient Israelite sacrificial system through which Paul and the original Christian apostles interpreted the cross is not at all the same as the medieval honor system through which Anselm interpreted it. God prescribed animal sacrifice for the ancient Israelites not to give Himself an anger management tool, but to give them a means of removing the sublimated violence that is the curse of sin from their community.
The key verse explaining animal sacrifice is Leviticus 17:11: ” For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” The literal Hebrew for “making atonement for your lives” is “covering your soul.” It is the life in the blood that atones by covering the wounds of sin as an ointment, not the violence that caused the blood to be shed as a cathartic outlet for a Darth Vader God. Jesus’ cross is not where God goes to dump His anger against humanity; it is where God comes to absorb into Himself all the sublimated rage that humanity has created through our sin. It’s not God’s Vader-ness poured out on the cross that saves us; it’s God’svulnerability through which He invites our vulnerability in the confession of our sins, which Jesus takes from us and nails into Himself.
In addition to being our means of getting rid of sin, the cross is also our means of being convicted of sin. At the climax of the first evangelistic sermon ever preached by the apostle Peter in Jerusalem on Pentecost, he says, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s words caused his audience to be “cut to the heart” (v. 38) so that three thousand of them repented and were baptized in the name of the messiah they murdered. The way that God expresses His wrath on the cross is not by driving the nails into His Son’s flesh, but by bleeding on usthrough His Son. God’s wrath is the voice in that blood that cries out, “You did this! And you keep on doing it every time you crucify my children!”
The cross shows us very nakedly what we are doing to God when we sin, because God cares so deeply about each of us that it’s a nail in His flesh every time a kid starves to death due to the inequity of global economic systems, every time a teenager jumps out of a window because of online bullying, and even after the minor slights and disses that hurt us every day when we think nobody notices. It all matters to God, and God knows that all of us are both victims and abusers, to varying degrees, in intricately complex ways that are impossible to untangle. So God says to each of us through Christ, “I hurt with you” and “You crucified me.”
The way that we accept this solidarity and call to repentance is by becoming cross-bearers ourselves. In 1st century Palestine , taking up your cross was not about giving a certain quota of your time to church activities and mission projects or even giving up chocolate for Lent. There was one type of person who carried a cross: the condemned prisoner being marched out of the city gates to be nailed up naked on the side of the highway and left for dead.
A cross was the mark of one whose humanity had been rejected. Jesus’ call to take up our crosses means to renounce our worldly status and join the ranks of the crucified. In other words, the cross is supposed to make us the opposite of how it has made most Christians today. It’s not supposed to give us the justification for hiding beneath stormtrooper suits of privilege. It’s supposed to make us the naked disciples of a naked, bleeding savior.
One last thing about the cross worth mentioning is its integral connection to the Passover with which the Jews commemorated their liberation from Egyptian slavery. Since Jesus was crucified just before the Passover, the earliest Christians came to understand it as a ransom payment to liberate slaves from their sin. Slavery in Roman culture was almost always associated with debt, which is entirely different than thinking of “debt” in terms of medieval honor culture. As the redemptive debt-payment that frees us from slavery, Jesus’ cross is the basis for our exodus from the world’s eternal pharaoh, Satan, who had been our Emperor Palpatine.
So the cross says the opposite of what so many Christians today think it was saying. Our heavenly father is not Darth Vader, and our moral duty is not to zip up our stormtrooper suits and bunker down in our gated communities to avoid the contamination of other peoples’ sin. Rather Jesus’ cross reveals to us what our gated communities really are, an oppressive Egypt built on the backs of crucified Israelite slaves.
But instead of coming after our first-born sons like God did to the Egyptian pharaoh, Jesus offers Himself as our Passover lamb, so that we can join the Israelites in their joyous exodus through the Red Sea to a land that lies beyond the cruel hill of Golgotha, the kingdom of resurrection where all the crucified crucifiers can worship the Jesus the lamb whose blood is eternal life and give Him thanks for our redemption.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia. His blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” was recently voted #6 in Christian Piatt’s Top 25 Christian Blogs. Morgan also contributes to Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, and Ministry Matters. Follow him on twitter at @maguyton.