Posts Tagged “God and Empire”

Part 2: Crossan on the Meaning of Christ’s Sacrifice


The following is excerpted from John Domonic Crossan’s book, “God and Empire”:

“THE MEANING OF SACRIFICE”

Apart from narrativity, let alone historicity, there is the deeper question of the theology within which Jesus’s execution is understood then and now by Christian believers. For The Passion of the Christ and millions of Christians, it was a theology of substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Here is its content:

God was offended by human sin, and because that sin was a human affront to divinity, no adequate satisfaction was possible. Therefore, in his mercy, God sent his only begotten Son to suffer and die in our place. That is why Mel Gibson’s film is two hours of unspeakable suffering as Jesus bears punishment for all the sins against God since the dawn of creation. In that theology, God is imagined as a Divine Judge who can no more forgive everyone than a human judge could walk into the courtroom and forgive all those under indictment.

Notice, however, that the traditional metaphor for God is Father rather than Judge, and that in human courts we expect a father to recuse himself from judging his own child. We do not think one can be Judge and Parent at the same time

My purpose here, however, is not to highlight the transcendental conflict between Divine Parent and Divine Judge, but rather to point out the confusion in that theology between sacrifice, substitution, and suffering, as well as the mistaken presumption that whenever the New Testament mentions the sacrifice of Jesus, those other two aspects must and do accompany it.

Think about how we ordinarily use the term “sacrifice” today. A building is on fire, a child is trapped upstairs, and the firefighter who rushes in to save him manages to drop the child safely to the net below. Then the roof collapses and kills the firefighter. The next day the local paper bears the headline “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” We are not ancients but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving her life up to save the life of another. So far so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that the firefighter had made a sacrifice because she died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution and said that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.

Human beings have always known two basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another— the gift and the meal. Both the proffered gift and the shared meal represent the external manifestation of an internal disposition, and both events have their delicate protocols of what and whom they involve and when and why they take place.

These elements of the gift and the meal came together in animal sacrifice. How was one to create, maintain, or restore good relations between a human person and a divine being? What visible acts could do that with an Invisible Being? If by gift, the animal was totally destroyed, at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and the smell rising upward symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven and from human being to God. If by meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, it was not so much that the offerer invited God to a meal, but that God invited the offerer to a meal.

That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, that is, to make (facere) sacred (sacrum). In a sacrifice, the animal is made sacred and given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal.

Sacrificial offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer or that the greatest sacrifice was one in which the animal suffered lengthily and terribly. Whether for a human meal or a divine meal, an animal had to be slain, but that was done swiftly and efficiently— ancient priests were also excellent butchers. Likewise, sacrificial offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Blood sacrifice should never be confused with or collapsed into either suffering or substitution, let alone substitutionary suffering. We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we should neither caricature it nor libel it.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death— or in fact the death of any martyr— a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.        [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]

,

13 Comments

Shameful Revelation


Thank God, I will get a view of the Battle of Armageddon from the grand stand seats of the heavens. All who are born again will see the battle of Armageddon, but it will be from the skies (Carl McIntire, 1965)

What then should be the believer’s attitude to the destruction of the world by fire? First of all, he should welcome it and pray for its nearness (Robert Gromacki, 1970)

The world has one great war yet to endure…. The slaughter that will take place is too frightening to imagine. Just be thankful that you’re not going to be around (Chuck Smith, 1977)

The Tribulation will result in such bloodshed and destruction that any war up to that time will seem insignificant (Jerry Falwell, 1983)

Some day we may blow ourselves up with all the bombs…. But I still believe God’s going to be in control…. If He chooses to use nuclear war, then who am I to argue with that? (Charles Jones, 1986)

-from “God and Empire” by John Dominic Crossan

I’m sorry, but the Book of Revelation should never have been included in the Bible. There. I’ve said it. No more pussy-footing around. I’m no longer going to compromise, rationalizing that it needs to be read, as Augustine said,  ‘spiritually and not carnally’ (metaphorically and not literally).  I  think it would have been better never read at all.

Rather than underlining Jesus’ (and Paul’s) radical message of the just and peaceable Kingdom of God to be found right now and right here on this earth, Revelations depicts a kingdom somewhere “out there” that will some day come, but only after Jesus returns and and initiates the violent destruction of civilization.

In the Gospels, Jesus offers us a meal of bread and wine- hospitality, friendship, community. In Revelation he offers the birds of the air a meal made up of the flesh of millions of dead.

In the Gospels Jesus talks of his return AFTER a violent apocalypse but an apocalypse that is the result of man’s ‘worldly’ and violent way of life. His return does not precipitate this apocalypse but follows it, bringing the Kingdom’s non-violent redemptive power. Revelation, on the other hand, has Jesus accepting and adopting as his own modus operandi this ‘worldly’ violence, no matter how ‘other worldly’ it is portrayed.

In the Gospels he enters the Jerusalem  meekly,  on a donkey, pointedly lampooning the triumphal entry of the Roman governor.  In Revelation he is on a white charger, wielding sword and with a  blood soaked cape flowing about him.

Is it any wonder that this vision of a doomed and temporary earth violently destroyed by a blood-thirsty Messiah who then selectively redeems it has led to 20 centuries of Church sanctioned violence? Well, not when we realize that it didn’t take long for the Church to stop opposing violent empire and become violent empire. The Book of Revelations proved to be an excellent tool in furthering the worldly ideals and goals of empire.

Americans easily recognize that the fundamentalist theology of Islam, of a disposable world followed by paradise for the fortunate faithful, has eagerly led many to commit acts of horrific violence. But can’t we see that the contemporary dispensationalist theology of Rapture and Armageddon also leads to similar contempt for this world and a a similar eagerness for violent retribution?

It may seem extreme to make comparisons between the actions of radical Islamists and those of fundamentalist Christians, but their rhetoric is similar.  Violent actions no not always follow violent rhetoric but they are always preceded by violent rhetoric.

Perhaps there is some good ecclesiastical advice in this book, advice designed to help the early beleaguered Church to hold fast and resist the temptation to capitulate to empire. But by painting Jesus in heretically violent colors John only helped spur on the Church to become empire. Did Rome co-opt the Church or did the Church co-opt Rome?

How might have history been different, if the rhetoric of violent judgment penned by John of Patmos had never been linked to Jesus’ Gospel of peace and justice?

, , , , , , ,

49 Comments

The Gospels and Anti-Semitism


In his book, “God and Empire”, John Dominic Crossan makes a good case for the claims that the popular portrayals of Jesus’ passion is at the root of anti-Semitism:

The residents of the Bavarian village of Oberammergau have staged a Passion Play every decade on the decade and also on special anniversaries in gratitude for protection from a 1634 plague. When I saw the second production after World War II, in 1960, it was the same one that Hitler had seen in 1930 and 1934, before and after he became Chancellor of Germany. Later, in July 1942, about the time the German armies were beginning their fateful push toward Stalingrad, Hitler commented on what he had seen a decade earlier:

“It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.”

Judging from that approval, Hitler would have fully applauded Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. There the “rock” is portrayed as even rockier and the “muck” as even muckier than anything ever dreamed of at Oberammergau. That reminds us that any dramatization of Jesus’s death demands a very particular level of ethical responsibility. You must get it right in the present, because getting it wrong has fed theological anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism in the past.” [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]

I loved Gibson’s “Passion” when it first came out and thought that the accusations of anti-Semitism were unfounded.  Even later, after the drunken Gibson made some hatefully bigoted remarks, I did not believe this proved the movie to be anti-Semitic. It appeared to be a faithful re-enactment of the Gospel’s account of Jesus’ torture and death.  After a careful and more informed reading of the scriptures, though, I have changed my mind.

I’ve always been puzzled at how the same people who greeted Jesus with adoration on Palm Sunday were crying for his crucifixion by Good Friday. What happened to make them change so?  Well, with the help of Crossan, I realize that they did not change, and the evidence is right there on the pages of Mark’s Gospel:

We have already seen that the Jerusalem crowd was on the side of Jesus in the anti-imperial demonstration in Mark 11:8–10 on what Christians call Palm Sunday:

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But watch the importance of that continuing support and protection as Mark’s story unfolds day by day from Sunday through Wednesday.

On Monday, after the demonstration in the Temple, Mark 11:18 comments that, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” That sets up a clear distinction between the Jewish authorities and the Jewish crowd concerning Jesus. And it is similar to the divergent reactions to Jesus in Josephus cited at the start of this section.

On Tuesday, there is a series of debates between Jesus and those authorities, in several of which they attempt to drive a wedge between him and his popular support. That, for example, is the logic of the trick question: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? (12:13–17). If he answers yes, the crowd will desert him; if no, the Romans will arrest him. But three times on that Tuesday, Mark insists, the crowd is on the side of Jesus.

First, with regard to John the Baptist, Jesus shows that the authorities were against John as they are now against him, and thus also against their own people. “The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders…were afraid of the crowd, for all”,”regarded John as truly a prophet” (11:27, 32). Second, after Jesus tells the parable of the wicked husbandmen who kill the vineyard owner’s son, those same authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them [and] they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away” (12:12). Finally, after Jesus shows from Psalm 110:1 that the Messiah is not just the Son but the Lord of David, “the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (12:37). Mark mentions Jesus’ support and protection from the crowd those three times on Tuesday to lead up to his story’s climax the next day.

On Wednesday morning, a final decision is made by the religious authorities: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people’ (14:1–2). In effect, therefore, they have given up hope of moving against Jesus during the festival days, and of course after the festival he might well go home. However big the supporting crowd was, it was big enough to stop the authorities by threatening a riot. At this point within the logic of Mark’s story, Jesus is safe: as he expected, he has gotten away with his double demonstration, and the Jewish authorities have been stopped by the Jewish crowd, who support the Jewish Jesus.

It is precisely this impasse that is solved for the authorities by Judas in 14:10–11: “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” Judas offers to tell them where Jesus is at night, away from the crowd, and no doubt their idea is to have it all over and done before the crowd knows anything about it. Betrayal, secrecy, and speed are now essential— within the logic of Mark’s narrative. And so it happens. [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]

Then Crossan reminds us that it was already Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner of the people’s choice at Passover.  Barabbas was a violent and effective leader of rebellion against Rome and it is likely that the ‘crowd’ came for his release as opposed to seeing Jesus die. When Pilate offers up the prisoner that (in his opinion) is less threatening to Rome, this ‘pro-Barabbas’ crowd refuses. Which makes perfect sense, this crowd not being the ones who were following Jesus.

Again, this is according to Mark’s gospel, the first one written and the one from which the other three all drew. But in each succeeding Gospel the crowd becomes increasing more angry and bloodthirsty and and more generically “Jewish”. Crossan says that this can be attributed to the early Christian Jews finding  themselves increasingly in conflict with traditional Jews as their ranks swelled with Gentile believers.

Crossan’s book, like most of his other work, helps to open up your eyes and perhaps even your heart.  I understand better how our theology can become twisted by the spin that small minded yet influential  people have put on it. It is easier to understand the complaints that people have made against our popular portrayals and public statements about Jesus, people who have often suffered terribly at the hands of “Christians”. It is also easier to understand how so many of these people who claim to be Christian can rationalize their bigotry.

But just as importantly Crossan clearly shows how history helps to pull Jesus out of the penal substitionary box that the Church has placed him in, allowing us to see more clearly the meaning and purpose of his mission.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: