(some content ed. & reposted from 2014)
The cross of Christ is much more than just a reminder of the most horrendous method of torturing someone. The cross reveals itself as that which would proclaim law/legislation over love/inclusion. The cross reveals to us the willingness to kill at the heart of humanity, rather than any sort of “wrath” at the heart of the Father (even where “God’s wrath is satisfied”, never is there a mention of just what satisfied the wrath; and so perhaps “Father forgive them” is that which satisfies wrath—a subject of a separate discussion). The cross gives us a reminder each and every year of the depths of human depravity and violence; just how far we’ll go to make sure our legalism remains in-tact. The cross reminds us that the One who created all life continues to side both with and in the victim; while offering us a glimpse of the satiation of the so-called “wrath of God” (forgiveness).
For the life of me, I cannot make sense of any atonement theory that says that God punished Jesus, emptied his wrath upon Jesus, used Jesus as a cosmic go-between to save people from the fury and anger of The Divine Dungeon Master, or any variation thereof. To propose that the God turned his back on Jesus is diametrically opposed to the One who the psalmist declares is near to the broken hearted. To declare that God poured out his wrath on Jesus, or otherwise judged him for our various “sin” (again, itself another discussion), we say, to put it bluntly, that Jesus is not Lord. Rather than Jesus being God, God is somehow distant from Jesus, as if to say God was outside holding Christ to the cross rather than inside “..reconciling the world to himself”.
The issue with any atonement theory that offers us a picture of God needing to be paid, or conversely a God who has to pay anyone or anything for our so-called “sin”, “guilt” or anything similar is decidedly not that God becomes a monster (though this might happen theologically, God’s actual being doesn’t change). The issue is in the assignment of fiduciary exchange to a kingdom that doesn’t operate in that way. “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything” fits nicely for a proof-text, if we’re going to proof text God into a box, let’s at least do it in a favorable light.
So then what is the cross and what is it all about?
Brad Jersak said (in a class, something I’m likely misquoting a bit)
the crucifixion was what we did to Jesus, the cross is the Father’s reply.
Which means, bluntly, we (human beings) killed him (Jesus). The Father used that rage and hatred, the worst parts of us, to bind us up in the son, hence “God was in christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses against them”. I would remind that Jesus is just as much “a part of the world” in the moment of his death as his contemporaries and those who followed. To then assert that Jesus was somehow “absorbing the wrath of God” as punishment for sin says that God was in fact, imputing trespasses against us. Jesus was human. I know, I know. Isaiah says “he was bruised for our iniquities” well…that little word “for” could actually more rightly be read “by” (Thank you Sharon L. Baker). He was bruised by our iniquities. In other words, our collective condition of sin (propensity to violently defend our legalism in the name of our deity) bruised him, beat him, murdered him, and God’s reply echoes down through the halls of history “it is finished” or in other words “you’re all consummated (reconciled, at one)”.
In looking to The Crucified Lord we see no retaliation, no revenge, no anger or malice, no retribution. And the justice that God offers is a justice that is distributive, not retributive (Thank you Marcus Borg). In other words, payback, revenge, punishment, are all the antitheses of real justice, which always culminates in mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
In a time when the Jews—due to a loudmouthed prophet or two—were expecting a violent, vengeful messiah to come and wipe Rome off the earth, Jesus comes in the most subversive way, reprimanding his disciples for brandishing their swords, and telling them to “love their neighbors” (Jews, living alongside Roman occupiers). And just in case they didn’t get what he meant, he cleared it up with “love your enemies” (Fine Jesus, also Rome). Today Jesus looks us all in the eyes and asks us once again to love our neighbors, love our enemies, love ourselves, and love our God.
The crowd’s demand “Barabbas, give us Barabbas” doesn’t really do justice to what was happening. The more literal would be “Jesus Barabbas, give us Jesus Barabbas”. Coincidentally, the name Barabbas means “Son of Abba” (Bar-Abba). So there’s this guy in prison for murder and theft, Jesus Barabbas. And there’s this other one, Jesus, who says his Father is Abba. This is speculative, but it seems to me the author might be suggesting that there are two “Messiahs” on the scene, one peaceful and one retributive. One that reveals the heart of a Father and one that reveals the heart of Man. One that says he came to bring peace and another that gave the Jews exactly what they wanted, violence and rage. (Note: Rome nearly wiped Israel off the face of the map just 40 years later. It seems calling for the Son of violence renders nothing different in the human experience.)
The cross then is the full revelation of the depths of human insistence upon violent retaliation, as well as God’s reply to that insistence. We demand violence and retribution, and God fully subverts it by surrendering to our violence. We demand that “Rome” (ISIS, Big Government, the left, the right, the middle, the foreigner, ad infinitum) be dealt with, and God answered by pulling all that is or will be into Jesus; “if I be lifted up, I will draw ALL MEN unto me”. Our issue is not, nor ever will be Rome, Iran, Islam or even far right or far left politics. Our issue is and always will be our own desire to see Jesus Barabbas released in hopes that he will respond violently to those we hate.
The cross reveals our utter failure at discerning the power of violence. We give preferential treatment to the smart bomb toting messiah and all the while the Man of Sorrows is quietly whispering “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”.
The death of Jesus has everything to do with humankind’s wrath, our sense of justice, judgment and revenge. And Jesus has forever shown us what we receive in exchange for our tendencies—our own vicarious death. In him, we died.
And every time we insist on violent retaliation, we die a little more. Thank God that Easter teaches us that death and the grave will not have the final word. But we’ll only realize that when we allow our violence to be nailed to the cross, beaten and bloody by the hands of our oppressors, pierced, bruised, broken and dying.
It is only in the death of violence that we will ever see the resurrected Lord in full glory. It is only in the death of death that we find the truth of Jesus’ atonement. In taking our rage, he forever revealed to us what will happen when we insist upon retribution; Rome will lay waste to our lives.
We can choose: Jesus the Christ, or Jesus Bar-Abba. We can worship empire, nationalism, legalism, violence and war; or we worship peace, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and hope. We worship fear and trembling, or we worship grace and truth. We cannot have it both ways, and each Easter we are once again faced with the choice;
“Will I demand violent retribution or release the Prince of Peace?”