2 Corinthians 4:10
…the significance of Christ’s cross must always first be grounded in history: Jesus was executed as a dissident by the Roman Empire. The primary meaning of ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is that he was killed because of sinful humanity…the inevitable consequence of prophetic practice in a world of violence and injustice.
Ched Myers & Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009)
In my last post, just in time for Easter, I homed in on the interpretation of Jesus' death on the cross and what it might mean for people of faith and conscience today. This conversation is important, I believe, because of how much is assumed about what key concepts like "gospel" and "salvation" actually meant (historically) and what they (should) mean today.
My claim--shimmering from the work of scholars from a diversity of Christian traditions: Rene Girard, Ched Myers, Marcus Borg, John Howard Yoder, Jim McClendon, Elsa Tamez, Jon Sobrino, Richard Rohr and others--is that Jesus' death was a result of his prophetic confrontation with the powers-that-be in 1st century Palestine and that this brutal death exposes the violence and scapegoating that proliferate amongst those in power. The cross must move us towards an imitation of this nonviolent prophetic practice.
It also ought to be consistent reminder that human transformation doesn't just happen. It follows the process of death and resurrection, a killing of the destructive copings and patterns have led us to a counterfeit life of anxieties, alienation & addiction.
My piece was posted to the Menno Weekly Review blog and a reader commented:
I get the sense from this article that the “meaning of the cross” on which Jesus died is mostly being presented as a social justice issue. What happened to the main message of the gospel of Christ – that He died willingly so that all sinners who repent and believe in Him will never perish but will live eternally with Him? Also, that Jesus died on the cross, in our place, for the sins that we have committed? (“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:9,10).
The "main message of the gospel of Christ" that she defines is actually what most churches and leaders have preached since Emperor Constantine baptized organized Christianity into Empire in the 4th century. It is a message conveniently committed to privatizing and futurizing Christian faith. I write "conveniently" because once the gospel is confined into a separate realm bifurcated from "social justice" or economics/politics, it can maintain a respectable place in the lives of both rich and poor, both privileged and disadvantaged. It doesn't speak to the policies and decisions that lead to these income inequalities and political power gaps. Charity, of course, is praised, but a serious critique of injustice is either sensitively tip-toed around or overtly bemoaned. As Dom Helder Camara famously proclaimed: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
I just want to make two quick points. First of all, as the late "baptist" theologian Jim McClendon wrote, Christianity is itself an essentially contested concept. The main message of Christ is up for grabs. Don't get me wrong: it's not "anything goes." I'm not advocating relativism. Yet, put simply, there are certain aspects of the death of Jesus that Christian communities and leaders will inevitably prioritize & emphasize. An overwhelming supermajority of Christians whom I've encountered commit themselves to the penal-substitutionary model of atonement, as exemplified by the Menno Weekly blog commenter: that He died willingly so that all sinners who repent and believe in Him will never perish but will live eternally with Him. This version of the atonement was made famous in the 20th century by Billy Graham.
But Martin Luther King took a different stance. And this leads to my second point. Our interpretation of Jesus' death has implications. Graham's leads to an obsession with getting souls saved from going to hell when you die. King's leads to an all-out commitment to getting people saved from hellish conditions in this life and what it will take to make that happen: "the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear." At this point in the discussion, most sincere and meaningful Christians often seem to point out to me that both Billy Graham & Martin Luther King are needed. All questions of theology aside, I would highly encourage all Christian communities, then, to divvy up their focus, energy & resources on both Graham and King's interpretations of the cross 50/50. Honestly, though, this is far from happening.
Of course, we all want to get at what Jesus, John the Baptist & Paul (and the rest of the NT authors) meant by "gospel." This will take large doses of biblical study, prayer, dialogue and a rigorous research of the brutal history of Western Christianity since Constantine--a tradition that consistently turned a blind eye towards injustice, violence, greed & oppression while concentrating tireless energy and resources on converting people so that they will be assured to "live eternally with Him." And if that's the main message of the gospel of Christ, then that's what you are going to get.