Questions about Jesus’ death can be pretty complicated. We can ask why Jesus died in historical terms—looking at the actual human actions the resulted in his execution (e.g, he died because the religious and political leaders colluded to have him crucified because they didn’t like what he stood for). We can ask why more in theological terms (e.g., he died as a necessary sacrifice that enables God to bring salvation) or in personal faith terms (he died so I can go to heaven when I die). We can ask in terms of what we think biblical prophecy had in mind.
In my reflections here, I want to focus on the big story the Bible tells. More than on later theological constructs or on the popular views of Christian tradition. There are points even in the Old Testament that help us understand why Jesus died. I’ll mention just a few, chosen almost at random.
Right near the start, we read of Abel’s untimely death. Why did Abel die? Well, as least in part, because he was imitating God, following God’s expectations for him. So from the beginning we get the message that faithfulness to God’s ways can actually be a reason for suffering and even death. Abel died because he did what God wanted. A troubling thought, indeed.
Two famous texts that allude to death are Psalm 23 and Isaiah 53. When we read Psalm 23 together with Isaiah 53, we realize God’s presence does not guarantee no suffering. God’s presence does not keep us away from the valley of the shadow of death. Not at all. In fact, if we enter that valley and refuse to take others with us through violent retaliation we may actually point to what is necessary to heal our broken world—breaking the spiral of violence.
Why did Jesus die? Starting from the Old Testament part of the story, we might say that Jesus died because in this world, there is brokenness. God seems to have tried massive retribution against human wrong-doing but this leads only to massive death—as seen in the story of Noah and the flood. God seems to have tried establishing a kingdom based on geographical boundary-lines, and reliant upon violence for its survival—and this ended when the greater violence of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires left the Hebrew kingdoms heaps of ruins. Continue reading
I recently heard again a speaker raise as a central ethical question for pacifists the issue, as the speaker put it, of what do you do about a bully? This is one version of a standard question, usually asked by those who reject pacifism, of how a pacifist proposes to deal with the evil-doer (the background assumption generally being that only violence can effectively take care of the problem).
Now, I am a bit disconcerted to hear this question raised by a Mennonite who professes to be a pacifist (it is important to state right off that I am good friends with this speaker, I respect him greatly, and know that he is indeed a deeply committed pacifist Christian—but in some ways this all heightens my concern with his question).
As part of the question the speaker stated that the story of the Good Samaritan is a great story for Mennonites in that it valorizes service, picking up the pieces after violent deeds, and going the second mile in helping victims out. But, what if the Good Samaritan had come along in the midst of the mugging? If this Samaritan were a pacifist, what would he do? Again, the implication here is that the only choices would seem to be to attack the attacker violently in order to stop the mugging or to stand by helplessly. Continue reading
Ted Grimsrud—March 13, 2011
Many say that a pillar of human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life—hence, we put efforts into health care, education, sanitation, and agriculture. Powerfully countering this momentum toward enhancing life, warfare has treated human life as expendable, as do continually expanding efforts to enhance war-making capabilities. The best and most creative resources of western civilization have focused on killing not on enhancing life.
In the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek in his book, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy: “the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”
The extraordinary resources that the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism did not yield commensurate human well-being. Those efforts did not recognize the problem of violence as fundamental. By using violence to counter these ideologies, the U.S. itself descended toward self-destruction—a descent now continuing apace in our response to “terrorism.”
One issue Kosek mentions, “the color line,” provides a counter-example. The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, did keep the problem of violence at the forefront and challenged a devastating social problem in light of that problem. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the Civil Rights Movement made enormous progress in genuine social transformation.
Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2011
I am thinking about writing a paper offering a theological critique of the “just war theory,” using World War II as a test case. Theological reflection on this conflict has tended to start with the assumption that for the U.S. and its allies, the war was self-evidently a “just war.” Hence, few have examined the war carefully in light of the main just war criteria. The war simply stands as evidence that war is sometimes necessary and capable of serving just ends using just means.
The Christian just war tradition drew heavily on political philosophy from the Roman Empire and found its paradigmatic application during the high Middle Ages in Christian Europe. Its core affirmations emphasized limitations to the prosecution of warfare such as noncombatant immunity and a sense of proportionality where the damage done by the war did not outweigh the good it hoped to accomplish.
The emergence of modern warfare, characterized by the waging of war against entire societies profoundly challenged just war philosophy—precisely in relation to these core principles of noncombatant immunity and proportionality.
Over the course of the 20th century, the challenge of coming to terms with modern warfare pushed just war adherents in two different, even seemingly contradictory directions. One side moves toward what we could call the “blank check” approach, where Christian citizens recognize the appropriateness of their national leaders making the decisions about when and how to wage war—the citizens’ job is simply to obey. This perspective actually has strong roots in Augustine’s thought. The other side moves toward pacifism, the principled rejection of the moral acceptability of all wars and the concomitant expectation that Christians will never be willing to participate in war.