Forsaking a Theology of Redemptive Violence
Perhaps you were overwhelmed by the torturous details of the crucifixion in the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Me, I was fifteen years old, enjoying the delights of a typical summer camp experience, when a Christian motivational speaker explained it to all the teen campers in great detail. He spoke of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, which sounded more like an anxiety attack. Jesus—pouring with sweat, pleading with God, wrestling with what was to come. It was in the garden that we first glimpse how truly alone he was. After his betrayal and arrest, he was abandoned by the friends to whom he had entrusted his ministry. Guards beat him. Jesus endured Pilate’s interrogation in silence. He was flogged, possibly with slim strips of leather, perhaps with a shard of glass or rock at the end, designed to dig into the flesh of the back and rip it loose, not unlike the cruel treatment enacted centuries later, in this country, by self-proclaimed Christians, on their so-called slaves. After the whipping, Jesus was handed over to Roman soldiers who threw a purple cloak over his bleeding body. They dug a crown of thorns into his head. They mocked him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!” and then struck his head with a reed and knelt down in false homage. Was Mary there? Did she recall those wise ones who traveled from afar to kneel down in homage to her child? After mocking him, they stripped him naked, jerking loose the robe now stuck to his wounds. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Crucifixion was considered the most brutal and humiliating form of execution. It was enacted in public to dissuade would-be revolutionaries. A crowd gathered below to mock him. “He saved others, he cannot save himself.” At three o’clock, Jesus cried out the most painful words in all of human history: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And with a loud cry, he breathed his last.
I grew up in the church, hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection each spring. But it wasn’t until I was 15 years old, at that summer camp, listening to the terrible details of Jesus’ death, that I really felt what Jesus underwent. The mental and spiritual anguish. The deliberate torture of his body. The humiliation of nakedness.
My relationship with Jesus was a very personal one through my teenage years. I gave full intellectual assent to the notion that Jesus died at the hands of an angry God who demanded a sacrifice for our sins. The cognitive dissonance inherent in this “atonement theory” stems from the notion that a good God would demand blood, especially the blood of a beloved child. If we accept the premise that the redemptive act is necessarily violent, then we accept a God obsessed with bloodlust. We accept what Walter Wink calls a “religion of the status quo,” designed to legitimate power and privilege by perpetuating the notion that fear can only be overcome through domination. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance of “the religion of the status quo” creeps up on us and accumulates until, at last, we can no longer claim Christianity for ourselves. Other times, a particular experience collapses the whole house of cards.
If the idea of an angry God who will send you to hell unless you’re awash in the suffering blood of God’s beloved child doesn’t particularly bother you—if you accept that was the best God could come up with to close the distance between humanity and divinity, then it’s unlikely this blog will disrupt your theology. If, however, you’ve suspected that there’s something profoundly unjust and dissatisfying about a God who demands the blood of a beloved child in exchange for saving people from eternal hell, then perhaps you wonder: what other way can one possibly understand the cross? This blog post is for you.
Because the suffering of the poor was the catalyst for my most provocative questions about God, I wanted to know what the poor themselves had to say about where God was in their sufferings. Liberation theology gave me an entirely new way to understand the cross. Liberation theology began in Latin America during the socio-political crises of the 1970s by interpreting scripture through the stories of the poor, claiming God exercised “a preferential option for the poor.” It was not lost on Latin American liberation theologians that Jesus himself was not well-heeled, and his ministry systematically sought out those living on life’s margins. Latin American liberation theology kindled similar theological movements elsewhere, including Black, Womanist, Feminist, and Queer liberation theologies, to name a few.
One of the more generative understandings of the crucifixion comes by way of theologian James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology. In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone writes, “Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”
The crucifixion was a violent political act visited upon the revolutionary (those exercising a preferential option for the poor) by those in authority in order to preserve the status quo. How is it, then, that the myth of redemptive violence, which has become synonymous with evangelical Christianity, completely eclipsed Jesus’ teachings, ministry to those on the margins, overt defiance of religious legalism, and execution by the Roman state?
James Cone notes, “Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the cross—this symbol of salvation—has been detached from any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings—those whom Ignacio Ellacuria, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history.’ The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks.”
Understanding the cross as God’s solidarity with the oppressed, God’s willingness to face the evil systems of domination, and ultimately, the divine triumph of love over violence, we emerge with a very different concept of God. Here, God betrays no bloodlust, God does not require violence for redemption. Instead, in the words of Lowell Grisham, “the suffering of Jesus is a sacrament of the love of God. The story tells us that God willingly soaks up all of our systemic injustice, personal evil and violence and returns only love.”
The love that saves does not require divine child abuse. It does not use violence as a means to a redemptive end. The love that saves insists that Jesus’ broken heart is the place where divine and human suffering meet and are transformed. The love that saves insists that in every place where suffering persists, God is there. The love that saves insists that we get more than we can ever earn or deserve, mired as we are in human violence and systems that grind under the poor. But that grace invites us to enter into the suffering of those on the margins. It holds out the teeming possibility that we too might walk in the ways of Jesus, a journey that saves us more with each step toward the hurting. Radical love, indeed.