Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which, for Christians, invites a reexamination of how we understanding Jesus’s crucifixion. Given that so much of our interpretation of the cross centers on atonement, it’s odd that Jesus steers his death to occur during the Passover, which is not about sin, guilt, or atonement, rather than on Yom Kippur, which is precisely about setting aside the people’s sin. For that matter, if Jesus’s crucifixion is a religious sacrifice, as the language of atonement implies, why was Jesus crucified rather than stoned to death?
My theological muse, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of the crucifixion that are insufficiently historical, that is, those “atonement theories” that are exclusively religious or theological.
The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that “God willed Jesus to die for our sin” is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly.
“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’
One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.
Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.
If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.
Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.
Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.
It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.
This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.
It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.
Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…
Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.
If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.
And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.
I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.
Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.
He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.
In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.
In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.
In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…
This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.
And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”
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