Crucifixion is perhaps the most brutal and barbaric form of torturous execution ever devised by humans. Contrary to popular belief, the Romans did not invent it, but they did perfect it. The Jews outlawed it–except for a practice known as dead-crucifixion, but the body had to be placed in a tomb before the sun set on Israel–and the Romans reserved it for non-citizens. Given Drumpf’s recent claims that he wants to Make America Torture Again, we should pray that he does not alight upon the painful wonder that is crucifixion. Seeing that he never steps into a church, I think we are safe.
As a child I was obsessed with Jesus, which is kinda weird since I was raised as an atheist. But whenever the Jesus films came on around Easter time, I would insist on watching. But I could never make it through a crucifixion scene. Inevitably, I would end up crying and wondering why anybody would subject another human being to such horrors. In graduate school I was required to read Martin Hengel’s classic work Crucifixion, and suddenly I knew more about crucifixion than a human being should. Details like, it generally takes a day or two to die, but the longest crucifixion lasted a week; breaking the legs of the crucified is a favor, as it weakens the core and allows for asphyxiation to occur more quickly; nails go through the wrists and ankles, not hands and feet; birds of the air and beasts of the field come and make snacks of the bloody, exposed flesh and juicy eyeballs. I think you get it. This ain’t pretty. In fact, Mel Gibson made a snuff film about it.
Every year we Christians gather on the recognized (but not necessarily historically accurate) anniversary on Jesus execution, what is ironically called Good Friday. And while I may be slipping into an Alanis Morissette-like misunderstanding of irony (really, rain on your wedding day is ironic only if you are a meteorologist or Poseidon), I have to say that forcing us to confess that this event is “good” is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in double-think ever devised by humankind.
One thing I think people outside of the Christian tradition misunderstand is that our religion is about contradictions. People have no problems conceptualizing Buddhist quandaries; misquoted and misunderstood koans litter our popular imagination, and every day sayings of Confucius are muttered in racist accents from sea to shining sea. But we Christians have illogical claims at the most basic levels of our faith: in order to save your life you must lose it; power comes through humility, and victory through nonviolence; money is not wealth, but riches are buried in our hearts; God has been made flesh, so that we may be spirits. For God so loved the world, be tortured his Son. Jesus on the cross is not a victim, but a victor.
This one. This is the one that is difficult. So often I see Christians point to the cross and say, “This is what love looks like,” and I cringe a bit. I don’t cringe because I disagree, I don’t. It is what love looks like. But I always feel like I should ask some clarifying questions before saying “Amen.” (Just so you know, if I ever say Amen to something you’ve said, that’s about the highest compliment I can give.) The love is not in the blood, at least for me. If that is your theology, God bless. I get it. If it works for you, just ignore me and go about your day. But for many of us, the sight of Jesus tortured on the cross as some sort of debt relief initiated by God seems…barbaric. Its a theology that leads a person to love the sinner but hate the sin, a contradiction I just cannot reconcile. So where is the love?
Jesus did not die for nothing. And I don’t mean “he did not die in vain.” I mean that he stirred the pot, he garnered attention, he transgressed limits, he spoke truth to power, he found people whom nobody loved and he loved them. He refused to know his place and he backed up his words with actions. So, yes. Jesus on the cross is what love looks like. But let us now make his death about us; let us not just say that Jesus suffers on the cross so that our original sin is washed away. (Again, if this works for you, please know I am not judging your theology.) But for me, blood atonement makes us just passive recipients of God’s grace. It drops salvation at our feet and then walks away. Jesus on the cross is what love looks like because Jesus, despite the consequences, says that love wins. Jesus knows the limits and he blasts through them, bringing sinners and unclean persons along with him. Jesus overturns tables and lives, be brings hearts back to God and frightens away fear. He shows us what a life well-lived looks like.
So what is good about today? That God, through the life of Jesus, shows us that despite the costs of love, it is always on the right side. Today is good because we can rest assured that if we stand for justice and compassion, mercy and goodness, God will be with us, even through the most painful of times. And it also lets us know that human structures which result in the oppression and alienation of people are antithetical to God’s desires for us. It is good because once a year we are forced to look at our own lives, our own behaviors, our own priorities and ask ourselves, “what’s love got to do (got to do) with it?“