Driving home from the beach yesterday we were listening to one of the comedy channels on XM Radio, Laugh USA (it’s the only one that is without raunchy profanity). One of the shorter segments was from an old Mort Sahl routine that he must have performed in 1960, because he speaks of the U2 incident as currently taking place. I tried to find a transcript of his act but I’ll have to rely upon my memory.
Sahl was a groundbreaking political comedian and he stepped on a lot of toes that deserved stepping on, both Left and the Right feet. He had sort of a rambling stream of consciousness type of delivery and in the course of this monologue he mentioned religious people and that they were in support of capital punishment, even if it meant that the occasional innocent victim might be killed. Sahl found this to be ironic, since an innocent victim of capital punishment figured so heavily in our theology (he must have been referring to Christians).
I think it’s interesting that nearly fifty years ago a Jewish comedian accurately nailed what is wrong with so much of the church. We have placed so much emphasis on the necessary sacrifice of Jesus – necessary so that we might benefit – that we forget that what was done to him was evil. Those Roman and Jewish leaders who conspired to have him crucified did so in order that the status quo, an uneasy peace, might be maintained. It mattered little to them whether or not Jesus was deserving of execution and they knew nothing of God’s atoning ‘plan’ for his death. They chose to overcome political rivalries and intense dislikes in their mutually assured destruction of this thorn in everyone’s side. Everyone who was in power, that is.
We forget this when we are willing to support a justice system that allows the sacrifice of innocent victims in order that we may exact vengeance on those who deserve it. Jesus, as God incarnate, did not die of disease or in an accident or of old age; his life and death should still have satisfied God’s substitutionary demands (according to some of the prevailing atonement theologies). Yet he was made a political scapegoat and then executed in a tortuous manner that was well known to the people of the time, so well known that there apparently was little need for the early church to make an icon of the cross. They knew fully well what crucifixion was and what kind of people were killed in that manner. As victims of Rome’s persecutions they could easily empathize with those crucified. Yet they knew that it need not be their fate, that Jesus had destroyed this need for scapegoats. Even so, if such a fate befell them, they had already been vindicated by Christ. He had pointed out the illegitimacy of systems of sacrifice.
Throughout the scourging and nailing to the cross Jesus presented a blunt yet nearly silent testimony that what was taking place was wrong. Yes, I do believe he had to go through with this, that it was the Father’s will. Not to satisfy his Father’s demand for innocent blood, but so that we might understand his indictment of us all, for our ( if, at times, ignorant ) collusion in these sacrifices. Every time we stand by and allow someone to suffer or die because it is in some way expedient or necessary for peace, harmony or the well being of the majority, we hammer another nail in the Cross.
The world continues on a never ending cycle of sacrificing one scapegoat after another. We rationalize this violence, saying it is necessary so that peace might be made and ‘justice’ served. Whatever benefits come from this violence (or threat of violence), they are only temporary and soon the world cries out for more blood. Satan creates the problem and Satan provides the solution.
But the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross took place only once and with his resurrection Jesus cheats Satan of his victory. We need to only look towards this supreme act of self-sacrifice, the ultimate expression of love, to understand how we can break this evil sacrificial cycle that plagues us. The example of the Cross teaches us that we may be resurrected from this mire of selfish death. We must learn how to die for God. This means that, like Jesus , we must be being willing to die for others, not requiring that they die for us. This is hard stuff to swallow and history has shown that we have little appetite for it.
As Mort Sahl reminds us, Jesus was also an innocent victim, a scapegoat, unjustly sacrificed by worldly powers to satisfy worldly needs. Jesus said that what we do to others, especially our victims –even the lowest of the low – we also do to him.
Another Jewish fellow, not so funny, once said this:
With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6: 6-8