An Easter Reflection on Violence and Theology in the Christian Tradition
Warning: This is in some ways an R-rated sermon. Which is why I billed it for adults only. For it focuses on one of the central images and central premises of the Christian religion as it has come to be taught and practiced.
Not the religion of Jesus, but the religion about Jesus. And part of the dogma, and part of the attraction, is the centrality of what is often described as redemptive suffering.
There would be no Easter story without it, and, indeed, for many believers, there would be no faith without it.
Brutal horrifying torture and death, and then resurrection and eternal life.
And for many former believers or those who were brought up in some Christian communities, the reason for their own understandable and intractable religious disenchantment.
Perhaps some of you here this morning.
No doubt, there were pictures in the paper or on the broadcast news this Easter weekend — there always have been — of some young man with nails in his hands and feet, dragging a heavy wooden cross down some foreign street, dramatically and deliberately reliving the tortured last walk that Jesus took towards his death by crucifixion at a place called Golgotha. Which means “Skulls Place” in Aramaic, the oral language of the Jewish people.
An act of, perhaps, extreme devotion more than 2,000 years after the death of the one who some saw as Messiah, the One who had come to save Israel from the suffering and humiliation of foreign rule, of oppression and servitude in their own country.
It is in this symbolic journey through the stations of the cross, repeated many times worldwide, that we get a glimpse of the real horror of Jesus’ death, which, indeed, was the death of thousands of now anonymous Jews in Israel at that time, criminals and troublemakers and those who challenged Roman authority.
In fact, in the years following the death of Jesus, when increasing numbers of men rose up in rebellion, the hillsides around Jerusalem were reported to have been nearly deforested as the trees were chopped down for the wood for the crosses they, too, bore to their certain deaths.
While all deliberate ways of being put to death are, in my mind, horrifying, crucifixion may indeed be the most unimaginably cruel and painful. One that would be agonizing, not only to the one who was made to die this way, but to anyone who might accidentally or deliberately be forced to witness such an execution.
Yet alone, recreate in picture and word and song for twenty centuries. Rubbing deep into the consciousness of now billions of people.
Bruce Chilton, who teaches religion at Bard College, tells the story in his new book Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography, about a visit he made when he was just shy of 18 years old to Dubrovnik, in the former Yugoslavia. One oppressively hot day, he recalls, he ducked into the dark confines of a medieval church. It was cool inside, he writes, and very still.
His steps echoed as he walked down the aisle between worn wooden pews, where he was drawn to a frieze behind the altar depicting Christ on the cross.
It was a typical portrait from the deep Middle Ages. None of the gory details had been spared. The figure’s head in bluish stone was askew, lolling.
Spikes were driven through palms, and blood ran down through the ankles.
The figure was slumped, his body twisted and broken.
Chilton had, as he describes it, a momentary, but searing, impression of agony and the crushing pain, he writes, of our common mortality. This image of the suffering Jesus was not a moment of repulsion for him, but the point of reconnection to his original Christian faith tradition. The moment when he started the path toward ordination in the Anglican Church.
Though a Christian, Chilton has researched the life and the theology of Jesus from what he views as the Jewish perspective, at least one Jewish perspective, of the first century. For him, the crucifixion event, or what he calls the Kabbalah of Fruition, and Jesus’ rising from the dead are consistent with essential Jewish teaching, that a resurrected humanity will be angelic, not literally brought back to life, but one with God and in the company of other angels gathered around God’s magnificent royal throne.
Part of this journey towards the Kingdom of God, from Jesus’ understanding as a first century Jewish mystic, called for a discipleship of risk, the risk that all prophets had assumed and paid for with pain and often death. Rabbi Jesus, according to this story, insisted that his followers be ready to suffer if they truly wanted to serve God and walk along the path he walked, to angelic status and everlasting life.
A theology of Jewish martyrdom. An emboldened and prophetic way of living and looking at life and death that not only anticipated, but expected and rewarded, torture and murder for the sake of the world to come.
The price and prize of torture and death in this religious scenario is to live forever as an angel, carried by the Holy Chariot into the realm of the divine.
Jack Miles specializes in writing books which, though grounded in his own Christian beliefs, are presented as efforts to trace and explain the acts and motivations of God, as just that, a good and enduring work of fiction. His most recent book is Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.
In the prologue, he proposes that The Crucifixion, from his point of view, the primal scene of Western religion and Western art, has lost much of its power to shock.
At this late date, he suggests, perhaps only a non-Western eye can see it. He tells about a Japanese artist now living in Los Angeles, recalling the horror most Japanese feel at seeing a battered corpse displayed as a violently obscene religious icon and of their further repulsion when the icon is explained to them.
They ask, she said, if he is so good, why did he die like that? In Japanese culture, good people end their lives with a good death, even a beautiful death, like the Buddha. Someone dying in such a hideous way — he could only be a criminal.
On the contrary, Jack Miles reminds her, reminds us. This victim of such a grisly spectacle is not just innocent, he is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.
In Christianity’s epilogue to the God-story inherited from Judaism, God becomes human without ceasing to be God and, unrecognized by all but a few, experiences the human condition at its worse before winning, in the end, a glorious victory.
The God who has promised an earthly Promised Land to his Chosen People has broken the promise a thousand times in the defeat and in his role as commander in chief, God has failed. The God who divinely intervened in the bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt (a fictional story as much, if not more than, the Gospel of Jesus stories), but who failed to save Israel from the Babylonians and the Assyrians, the Greeks or the Romans, admits failure. God cannot and will not any longer be the God of just one tribe, will no longer go forth into battle for one physical nation. God will intentionally suffer death Gods-self to redefine God’s role and God’s covenant. To free all people from bondage, not from Rome, but from sin. In exchange for a new creation and eternal life, a scandalous, divine suicide. Atoning once and for all for God’s inconsistencies and failures, his broken promises.
It is done.
I admit that I am more like the Japanese artist in my view of the crucified Jesus.
When I was first a student in a Christian seminary — one where I had a mostly positive academic and formation experience — we were asked to place ourselves in the story of the Bible. Where did we most identify? What part of the story was most meaningful to us? Starting with the Creation story, then the Exodus, then the birth and living years of Jesus, his death by Crucifixion and Resurrection, or the Pentecost event, where the Spirit came into the lives of the followers of Jesus.
I remember thinking that while the hierarchical, patriarchic, classic Genesis story was not particularly appealing to me — the Morning Has Broken sense of original beauty and wonder and praise was. And there was something in me that was still moved by the Exodus journey from bondage to freedom (though the destruction and death wrought by the plagues bothered me then and now).
I was, at that time, very captivated by the teachings and life of Jesus, as I understood it, a radically inclusive Jewish revolutionary with some mystic underpinnings, very human mood swings, and a sense of humor.
I could even get into Pentecost and its celebration of a universal and loving (and female) Spirit.
It was the story of, and the image of, a tortured, crucified, and risen Christ that I couldn’t relate to, could find no redemptive meaning in at all. And this was, it turned out, the part of the story that was most gripping and most faith-producing for the majority of the students who shared that day.
The exercise I was put through had a Christological big catch. It was permissible to find a point of entry into the whole Bible story, from beginning to end, including the Revelation chapter, but it was not acceptable to totally reject any of it. To do so was to deny the Christian story in its entirety and the message and theology therein.
As a religious outsider — as a Jew and a Unitarian Universalist — I could still continue to accept or reject the parts that did not provide meaning; in fact, had the potential to add me to the ranks of the religiously wounded. Not because I could not believe the telling of Jesus’ death and his miraculous disappearance from his tomb, his appearance to his disciples, and his promise of return. Like other religious liberals, I don’t look for literal, reasonable truth in the Bible story or any other scripture, but view them metaphorically, symbolically. Like other myths and literary products, however inspired and inspiring, of human belief and imagination.
My rejection of the so-called Passion Story came from a sense of un-ease, based not so much on personal experience, but stories I had heard of, read of, what I viewed and still view as cruel and meaningless suffering — the slow death of Anne Frank from dysentery in a concentration camp, the beatings, rapes, and murders of my own relatives and those of my husband in pogroms, systematic raids on Jewish villages in Eastern Europe.
And closer to home, the beatings and deaths every day of women from domestic violence here and around the world.
The most recent issue of UUWorld (March/April 2002) features a cover story on violence and doctrine, and how, in the view of two feminist Christian theologians, each with close ties to our Unitarian Universalist Association, say that suffering redeems nothing. And, in fact, makes a story about child abuse — an all-powerful father who sends his only son to die horribly on the cross to save other children from death, perhaps unwittingly, make a story about child abuse into a narrative about salvation.
Rita Tashima Brock and Rev. Rebecca Ann Parker, president of our own Starr King School for the Ministry, believe that this aspect of Christianity, the part that emphasizes and glorifies Jesus as a slain Lamb of God, in doing so, has created an atmosphere in which family violence can be seen as acceptable and, for the victim, even a form of religious devotion.
In the excerpt from their new book Proverbs of Ashes, which I highly commend to you, Rebecca Parker relates the story of the murder of a woman named Anola Dole Reed, dead at the hand of her knife-wielding husband in front of three of their children. Stabbed 18 times with 10 different knives.
She had been battered and injured before; in fact, had pressed charges against him, which landed him for 10 days in the county jail.
She took him back though, because, as she had told another minister, she thought she was doing the right thing in the eyes of God. She was faithful to God and to her church’s teaching that an intact family was God’s will.
For her to break up the family, even in light of an abusing husband, was wrong, and staying in her marriage was the right and only Christian thing to do.
A good woman, after all, would be willing to accept pain. You know, “Your life is only valuable if it is given away,” and “This is your cross to bear.”
Jesus didn’t turn away from his cup of suffering, his horrific death. Anola believed that God expected her to risk getting battered, like Jesus.
Out of her own experiences of molestation and subjugation in marriage and her work with other women, Parker has come to object to every theology of the cross, every version of the story wherein suffering and death are means of redemption. A theology which cloaks violence and teaches people to endure it, she writes.
She no longer can look up on the man of sorrows, the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and give thanks to God without ending up a partner in a thousand crimes.
Denying the actual horror of Jesus’ death, and that of thousands of others in state-sanctioned violence, then, and to this day.
For the authors of this unwavering critique of one of the central tenets of mainstream Christian theology — salvation through suffering and death — there are other parts of the story, other ways of looking at and telling the story of Jesus.
That view repentance, not in terms of blood and violence, but through the spiritual work of changing our hearts, not through fear, but through love.
That allows us, not to accept or idealize or seek out pain and death, but to oppose it, overcome it, mourn it. Not give it glory.
Whether it is an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who blows herself up in the name of her God or an 18-year-old American woman who endures incest and beatings in the name of Jesus, whatever they do, they do in the guise of false religion.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. He lived in it and had his being there.
Emerson believed that Jesus Christ would be better loved if he was less reified, less adored.
That he be loved, not as some God-turned-sacrifice, but for so much goodness and wisdom as was in him here on Earth, which are the only things for which a sound human mind can love any person.
As a person with the inherent right to a free and independent search for truth and meaning, I reject the theology of the cross, while I honor and learn from that which we really know of the life of Jesus and of his core teachings. The Beatitudes, the view of a Kingdom of God here inside and around us, available to all who seek it, a love of God or the Good with all our hearts and minds and souls.
So Be It.