This 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.