Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of the crucifixion, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.
On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday.
Or so it seemed.
But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.
Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:
- The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
- He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.
We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.
So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?
I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.
That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.
Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice.
The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.
When he invited his followers to take us the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love.
And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.
*An original version of this post was first published on April 5, 2015