Thinking About the Cross

6194423069This is an excerpt of the sermon I preached on John 19:31-37 this past Sunday, April 6, 2014. It is a complex topic and I commend to you the sermon in its entirety.

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I attended a discussion this past week with Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. He has written The Nonviolent Atonement, and said during the discussion that there are all kinds of problems with a god who would require the torture and death of his child. He would agree with feminist and womanist theologians who term this traditional theory (since Anselm in the 11th Century) “divine child abuse.”

So my friend Joshua Paul Smith asked him, “What about understanding Jesus’ identity not primarily as the Son of God, but as Godself? Then the cross is not divine child abuse, but a willing submission, a sacrifice God makes on our behalf.”

“That,” said Weaver, “is taking divine child abuse and replacing it with divine suicide. I don’t think that is much better.”

The problem, according to Weaver, is the very notion that God requires violence in any form. Weaver rejects the notion that God desires or requires any kind of suffering and death as a means of reconciling humanity to Godself. God is big enough to enact reconciliation without violence.

For a pacifist, his arguments make a lot of sense. If we believe God wills peace and justice, then we cannot understand the crucifixion–that incredibly violent and deeply unjust event–as being in line with the will of God.

So where does that leave us during Lent–or any time, really–living within the Jesus story that has, at its crux (literally), this story of violent death? Does God as Father require the slaughter of this Paschal Lamb to enact liberation for the people? Does Jesus as God provoke his own death because it is necessary for liberation?

It matters deeply whether or not we think violence is necessary for salvation. The idea of violence as redemptive fuels the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex; it justifies abuse and torture and war. As Christians who follow the Prince of Peace, we should be very concerned about the ways the central story of our faith gets used to affirm this connection between violence and salvation.

I’ve struggled with these questions about the cross for a long time. Now, when I see the cross, I do not see God’s violence. I do not see divine child abuse or divine suicide.

I see human sin–human tendency toward misunderstanding and fear and injustice and violence.

And I see Jesus hanging there, not because he is acting out some preordained divine salvation scheme that requires a blood sacrifice, but because he is committed to loving us fully.

Jesus’ death on the cross is not an enactment of divine violence, it is a sign of divine love. The crucifixion is central to our faith because it reveals God’s commitment to love us even in the face of our most violent and destructive tendencies; the cross shows God’s commitment to love us through our sin . . . all the way to the other side.

6 thoughts on “Thinking About the Cross

  1. Excellent thoughts, Joanna!

    I completely agree with your suggestion that Jesus was not “acting out some preordained divine salvation scheme that requires a blood sacrifice, but because he is committed to loving us fully.”

    Through several interactions with Dr. Weaver, I frequently walked away feeling like I hadn’t quite been understood. I thought “divine suicide” was a bit of an oversimplification, since what I was suggesting wasn’t that God required blood and therefore condemned Godself to the cross (which would have rightly been called “divine suicide”). Rather, God was nailed to the cross as a natural consequence of the things Jesus did and taught. If the idea of suicide necessitates a conscious decision to continue acting in a way that will get one killed, then perhaps Jesus did commit suicide, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think Jesus (like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi) probably “saw the writing on the wall” and knew that his own crucifixion was imminent, and yet continued to say and do the things he said and did out of a sense of conviction and, perhaps, even vocation. Moltmann makes a similar argument in The Crucified God (which I was surprised to find that Weaver hadn’t read), but pushes the idea even further to suggest that in the crucifixion of Jesus we see the humanity of God and, ironically, the “inhumanity of humanity” in our preference for violence over peace, even if it means crucifying the very God who created us.

    • Thanks for clarifying your point, Joshua. I think your position is actually pretty much the same as Weaver’s. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read Moltmann either, though apparently I should. What is the best work to start with?

      • I started with The Crucified God for Lent last year. It caused me to completely rethink my own understanding of the cross. Also, to clarify again, I wasn’t trying to belittle anyone who hasn’t read Moltmann, but I just figured that it would have been extremely pertinent to Weaver’s own work—The Crucified God is widely regarded among the most significant theological works of the 20th century pertaining to the crucifixion of Jesus, so I just thought that it would have been of interest to Dr. Weaver.

  2. Also, Theology of Play is really good, too, and it’s a much quicker read. In Theology of Play Moltmann suggests that the “point” of human existence is joy expressed in play. He also looks at the relationship between play and power. This book is kind of hard to find (I think it’s out of print), but I have a PDF copy that I would be willing to “loan” you if you’re interested.

    I’ve not read Theology of Hope, but I’m pretty sure it was his first major work, and it’s supposed to be fantastic.

  3. Pingback: Reflection for Good Friday | Spacious Faith

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