[This is the fourth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first three posts in the series.]
The story of Jesus’s death helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us answer the question of how to respond to violence without adding to the violence. This story helps us understand why the simple message of God’s love has not been readily embraced in our world. And this story helps us understand how God works to overcome these problems.
Using the logic of retribution (and its application in atonement theology) as the basis for understanding the meaning of Jesus’s death and our salvation actually leads to the opposite conclusion from what the story conveys. The story tells us that the logic of retribution was an instrument of the fallen Powers, not God—and that Jesus’s followers should see in the story a direct refutation of that logic.
In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the dominance of the fallen Powers? The Powers rely on belief. As long as we believe in their ultimacy, trusting in them for security and meaning, the Powers rule. Jesus challenges human beings to change our allegiance. He asks us to trust in God’s love and not the sense of superiority over others that legalistic belief in the law provides. He asks us to end our trust in the assured access to God that sacred rituals (at a price) provide. He asks us to end our trust in the sense of power over others that being on good terms with the empire provides. In these ways, trust in Jesus breaks the hold of the Powers.
Jesus’s death links with salvation in that: (1) it exposes the fallacy of the logic of retribution; (2) it exposes the direct link between this murderous logic and the institutions that exploit it; (3) it shows that the spiral of violence that is set loose and ever-deepened by this logic may be broken only by non-retaliation and mercy in the way Jesus embodied them; and (4) it sets the stage for God’s act that vindicates how Jesus exposed the Powers and embodied domination-free life when God raises Jesus from the dead.
Why did Jesus die?
That Jesus would be in conflict with the institutions of the status quo, political and religious, is clear in the story of his life from the beginning. King Herod’s violent response to Jesus’s birth indicates the reception that he will receive from people in power. Mary’s song speaks of conflict: “The Mighty One…has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones….He has…sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:49-53).
Jesus rejects the various temptations Satan lays before him, and sets the stage for ongoing conflicts. Reading the temptations carefully, we see a close link between the Powers of social structures (“the kingdoms of the world” and “the temple”) and the spiritual forces of evil.
When Jesus announces his ministry, congregants in his home synagogue seek to kill him (Luke 4). Not long afterwards, as he performs healing miracles and teaches, he encounters hostility from the Pharisees, establishing the pattern that the rest of the story will follow.
The story of Jesus comes to a head when he heads toward Jerusalem, arriving there at the beginning of the final week of his life. His conflict with Pharisees over the appropriate use of Torah mutates into a conflict with the leaders of the temple and eventually with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
The idols Jesus’s death exposes: Cultural exclusivism (Law)
The conflicts in the gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees over how best to understand and apply the law echo conflicts in Israel’s history. Not long after Judah’s King Josiah was killed, the Babylonians conquered Judah and took the Judean ruling class into exile. Eventually, the Persian Empire defeated Babylon and allowed Jewish exiles to return to their homeland.
Many committed themselves to avoid repeating past transgressions, to work harder to shape Jewish life in Israel according to the dictates of the law. At the core of their efforts was the establishment of “boundary markers” that provided for ways to make it clear who was a part of the community and who was not. Key markers included the practice of male circumcision, following kosher eating habits, observing the Sabbath, and prohibiting marriages with those outside the community.
In the gospels, the Pharisees are portrayed as being the main enforcers of the boundary markers with the intent of sustaining their people’s identity. The basic issue between Jesus and the Pharisees was a contrast between two concepts of the purpose of the law. One emphasizes that the deeper meaning of the law (i.e., mercy) allows for flexibility in how the details are practiced, as long as we are serving human well-being. The other points more to strict consistency, assuming that each piece of the regulation carries equal weight and that to violate one is to violate the whole.
We may see at the heart of the Pharisees’ response the conviction that the integrity of their purity project might require the use of violence to be sustained. They would follow the logic of retribution in responding to someone who violates their understanding of God’s will for their society.
The idols Jesus’s death exposes: Religious institutionalism (Temple)
Israel’s temple was initially constructed by King Solomon as a central element of his efforts to centralize the power of the kingly office in Israel. The temple fueled the development of an elite class of those who gained access to the inner sanctums of the temple. These elites served at the pleasure of the king. Access to God came to be thoroughly politicized, and God came ever more to be the tool of human leaders.
Babylon’s armies in 587 BCE reduced Solomon’s temple to rubble. A generation later, after the Persians had defeated Babylon and allowed the return of Israeli exiles, a second temple was constructed that provided for a restoration of a religiously oriented structured social life for Israel.
After the Romans gained control of Palestine in the mid-first century BCE, they established Herod as their client king. He understood that to link the temple with his authority would enhance his power. So he embarked on an ambitious building project. The expanded temple provided for centralized religion, enhancing centralized political authority. The leaders of the temple in Jesus’s day supported the political and religious hierarchies in Jerusalem.
Jesus presented his program as something independent of temple religion. In particular, when Jesus pronounced people forgiven, he circumvented the temple’s role in the process of dealing with sins. As a consequence, he drew the ire of the temple leaders. When he performed the symbolic act of driving money changers out of the temple, they shortly thereafter arrested him and convicted him of blasphemy before turning him over to Pilate to be executed.
The idols Jesus’s death exposes: Political authoritarianism (Empire)
Beginning with the exodus, the Hebrews’ experience of oppressive empire domination fed into a counter-cultural religious and political vision. In contrast to the gods of the empire, who serve at the will of king, the Hebrews worshiped Yahweh, the critic of kings and the advocate of vulnerable, oppressed people.
Jesus understood himself as linked with earlier biblical leaders who energetically rejected political authoritarianism. Moses, most foundationally, led the people out of the Egyptian Empire and exposed Pharaoh’s corruption and reliance upon oppression and cruelty.
When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he directly challenged the Roman Empire of his day. He believed his own work would inaugurate this kingdom. He did not accept the empire’s claims to bring the “gospel” (good news) of peace. And he rejected the claim that empire acts on behalf of God.
The Jesus died a revolutionary’s death was not a miscarriage of justice in the sense that he truly was seditious in relation to the state’s values. In fact, he was more of a threat to those values than the agents of empire even realized. With Jesus’s execution, two contradictory notions of peace met head on. The Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) relies on violence to maintain its hegemonic order. On the other hand, Jesus interrupts violence. He creates genuine peace by abolishing the notion of enmity altogether.
The meaning of Jesus’s resurrection
Jesus’s followers experienced his arrest and crucifixion as a devastating blow to their hopes and beliefs. The events of Easter Sunday took everyone by surprise. What do they mean?
Perhaps most fundamentally, when God raised Jesus from the tomb, against all expectations, God vindicated Jesus’s life as fully reflective of God’s will for humankind. The story of this life does not end with his death. By raising Jesus, God reversed any negative implications people might be tempted to draw from Jesus’s life.
Second, in raising Jesus God rebukes the Powers that put Jesus to death. Jesus’s resurrection makes the point that his critique of those Powers for usurping God came not from some disaffected prophet railing against the status quo. Rather, Jesus’s resurrection proves that Jesus’s critique reflected the will of the God of the universe.
Third, Jesus’s resurrection points to his follower’s vocation. The story links the resurrection inextricably with Jesus’s life and teaching. Its meaning lies primarily in its reiteration that the content of Jesus’s life indeed reflects God’s will for human beings and that the calling of Jesus’s followers is to do as he did—with the great likelihood of facing the same consequences.
Fourth, the resurrection of Jesus has cosmological ramifications. It reveals the true nature of reality. The creator and sustainer of the universe is the one who brought Jesus back from the dead. In so doing, God underscores that as the recipient of such an unprecedented act, Jesus inextricably connects with God. When the early Christians confess Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God—titles that seem to have been fully only understood as a consequence of the resurrection—they affirm that Jesus’s way is God’s way, the way of the cosmos.