Ted Grimsrud—London, 9/09
In considering Jesus as Savior, we face a tension between two seemingly incongruous aspects of the story. On the one hand, Jesus taught and practiced a ministry of love. He demonstrated the reality of God’s mercy and placed his message squarely in the mainstream of Israel’s faith traditions. And yet, on the other hand, Jesus died a criminal’s death. The religious and political authorities joined to crucify him, the most painful and humiliating of executions.
I see three general options for deciding how to interpret the relationship of these two seemingly contradictory elements of the story.
We may think within the logic of retribution and resolve the tension by minimizing the first element, Jesus’ life. For salvation’s sake, only two points truly matter: (a) Jesus’ sinless life and (b) Jesus’ sacrificial death. Jesus’ crucifixion was the means to achieve salvation.
A major problem with this approach is that it brings into play a notion of salvation foreign to Jesus’ own thought and foreign to the Old Testament salvation story. We are not prepared by the story up to now for this kind of innovation. “The scriptures as a whole provide no ground for a portrait of an angry God needing to be appeased in atoning sacrifice.”
A second approach goes to the other extreme and argues that all that matters is the truthfulness of Jesus’ message of love. That he was crucified is tragic, even extraordinarily evil, but that event adds nothing to our understanding of salvation. We best simply name the crucifixion as something terrible that should never have happened and then drop the subject.
However, the story of Jesus’ death may be import for our understanding of salvation even if we deny that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice was necessary to change God’s disposition toward human beings. To minimize the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion is to risk avoiding one of the deepest challenges people of faith face—how do we deal with violence and evil in the world?
So, I propose that Jesus’ crucifixion is crucial for our salvation, but not because it adds a needed element that makes salvation, for the first time, possible. Rather, it illumines what is at stake in God bringing healing to the world, what opposes God, and how the opposition may be overcome. Jesus’ crucifixion illumines the close connection between Jesus’ way of living and our possibilities of finding healing. The story of Jesus’ helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us see how to respond to violence without adding to the violence.
The story of Jesus’ death shows the extent that humanity resists God’s saving initiative. More than providing a one-time drama centered on a unique work of redemption, the story reflects the on-going pattern of history. We see this pattern in how Jesus’ life evokes resistance from the structures of human culture, leads to suffering, and ends in vindication.
The story of Jesus’ death tells of love in the “real world.” We have not resolved the issue of salvation until we face the reality that God’s love is resisted. We may accept the portrayal in the Bible of salvation as pure loving initiative from God; God requires nothing to be made willing to save. Yet we know from the Bible and from human history that this loving initiative meets with resistance. So we must go beyond simply establishing the centrality of love to learn more why this resistance happens and how to respond to it.
Three types of social structures opposed Jesus: (a) Cultural exclusivism centered in the legal system that regulated society’s sense of right and wrong and served as an identity marker (that is, the interpretation of Torah practiced by the Pharisees). (b) Religious institutionalism centered around a institution that served as the center of the culture and brooked no opposition to its monopoly on sacred power (that is, the temple in Jerusalem). (c) Political authoritarianism in the form of a nation-state that exercised its control through force and responded harshly to challenges to its political hegemony (that is, the government of the Roman Empire in Judea).
The law, temple, and empire may all be understood in terms the imagery of principalities and powers, most explicitly articulated in Pauline writings but implied and assumed throughout the Bible. The Powers may be seen as the basic social structures of human life (language; cultural mores; laws; institutions such as governments, schools, and organized religion).
Like human beings, the Powers are created good and are necessary for human beings to function socially. An example would language. There is no language without human beings; at the same time, language exists outside each particular person. Each new person is born into a world shaped by language. We can say languages “exist” even if they are completely dependent upon the existence of human beings for their existence. We may even speak of languages as “fallen” in the sense our languages may lead us to see the world in distorted ways.
Other Powers, such as Law, Temple, and State may more clearly be seen as fallen. These Powers link with structures that inevitably make up human social life—and are necessary for human social life. Yet, these structures often become too important in our eyes. Biblically, the Powers are meant to serve God’s purposes by providing structure to social life—the Law provides guidance for practical living; the Temple provides a center for ordered religious life; the State makes sure material needs of people within it are met.
However, the Powers as fallen tend not to respond to God’s loving initiative. The Bible shows the Powers causing trouble for those who manifest God’s love. It is as if, in their rebellion, the Powers seek worship to enhance their control over human beings. Precisely in embodying God’s love the way he did, Jesus threatened the existing structures of power in his culture. These structures provided substitute forms of meaning and security that exploited human fears and insecurities. Jesus’ way lessened the importance of the Powers linked with the Law, the Temple, and the State. They did not like that, to say the least.
In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the fallen Powers? They rely on belief. As long as we trust them for security and meaning, the Powers rule. Jesus challenges us to change our allegiance. He models disillusionment with the claims of the Powers in his own life. And, when we recognize that they brutally murdered Jesus we will see them as untruthful. The more one knows of Jesus’ way and Jesus’ close connection with God, the more the treatment he received from the agents of Law, Temple, and Empire will foster disbelief in their claims.
The story of Jesus’ death highlights the bases for our rejection of the logic of retribution. The Powers responded to Jesus retributively. Jesus did violate their rules and values. The penalty such violation is, in this case, death. Jesus died according to the logic of retribution. The Powers that killed Jesus were the ones following the logic of retribution—not God. The logic of retribution applied to Jesus reflects a rejection of God’s will, not its fulfillment.
The Gospels understand Jesus’ death as the key event in the story. But, why? Does Jesus’ death overshadow his life and teaching, providing for salvation via a violent sacrifice, rendering peripheral his teaching concerning salvation I summarized? Or, does Jesus’ death actually confirm that the basic message of salvation throughout is God’s unqualified mercy?
To see the murder of Jesus as an expression of the Powers’ idolatry frees those with eyes to see from giving ultimate trust to the structures responsible. Such freedom allows people to recognize and appropriate God’s mercy as indeed the central life-enhancing force in the universe. Also, in facing death as he did, Jesus models authentic faith in the true God.
The story concludes by vindicating Jesus’ way of life. God raises Jesus from the dead, emphasizing that the Powers acted as rebels against God, not as agents of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection clarify the earlier biblical salvation story, reinforce its truthfulness, and heighten disillusionment with the Powers that try to obscure that story.
Let’s look briefly at each of these three structures Jesus came into conflict with.
Jesus’ conflict with over the law. The Gospel of Matthew first mentions the Pharisees by name in chapter nine when Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him and then joins with “many tax collectors and sinners” to sit at dinner. “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”
From this time on, tensions escalate. Matthew 12 illustrates Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus allows his disciples to gather grain and eat on a Sabbath day because they were so hungry. The Pharisees who learned of this confronted Jesus. “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus responds with biblical examples of how the Sabbath Laws are not absolute.
Mark’s version tells of Jesus summarizing the issues in this way: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” This saying makes it clear that the basic issue is not that the Pharisees believed in the Law and Jesus did not. Rather, we have 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 wellbeing. The other points more to strict consistency, assuming that each piece of the regulations carry equal weight and that to violate one is to violate the whole.
A second altercation Matthew 12 escalates the conflict. The Pharisees point to a man with a withered hand and ask, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” Jesus answers, of course it is. As central as Sabbath observance is to living in harmony with God, one must realize that all the regulations are meant to foster human wholeness, not to be ends in themselves. To underscore his point, and to defy the apparent assumptions of the Pharisees that the letter of the Law matters the most, Jesus concludes the encounter by healing the man’s withered hand.
We have here a deadly serious set of differences, made clear by the Pharisees’ response. “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:14). Refusing to be intimidated, though, Jesus, after he becomes aware of the Pharisees plans, leaves the synagogue, is followed by many people, “and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15). He reiterates his understanding of what is appropriate for the Sabbath—bringing healing to those in need.
We may see at the heart of the Pharisees’ response, according to these stories, the conviction that the integrity of their purity project might require the use of violence to be sustained. That is, they would follow the logic of retribution in responding to someone who violates their understanding of God’s will for their society.
The Pharisees committed themselves to the survival of the covenant community. This survival required strict adherence to the Law as they interpreted it. Violations of the Law, if left uncorrected, threatened the community’s survival. For the Pharisees the covenant community was the central structure that demanded their loyalty. This loyalty required strict cultural exclusivism, with clear lines of demarcation between insiders and outsiders.
Jesus works against sustaining the boundaries (he ate with tax collectors and sinners, thereby violating the eating purity codes; or healed Gentiles, thereby disregarding the clear separation reflected in the practice of circumcision; or allowed his followers to eat freshly picked grain on the Sabbath and then, himself, healing on the Sabbath, thereby disregarding the Sabbath regulations). Jesus thus threatens the very existence of this Power that had become an absolute for these Pharisees. Hence, he deserves vengeance.
Jesus’ conflict over the temple. The Old Testament salvation story as interpreted by the eighth-century prophets and then reiterated in Jesus’ life and teaching minimizes the role of the temple. It understands the temple to be secondary, even extraneous, to the core salvation dynamic. At most the temple plays a role as the scene for sacrificial acts that convey the community’s commitment to God. In Mark, Jesus’ altercation with the temple leaders in Jerusalem became the final catalyst triggering his arrest and leading to his execution.
Up until Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, the temple plays a peripheral role in the stories of Jesus’ ministry. In large part, this is because the gospels portray Jesus as spending his time in the countryside and not in close proximity to the temple. However, that he does so reflects Jesus presenting his program as something entirely independent of temple religion. For the kind of faith he seeks to foster, the temple and religious institutionalism are irrelevant.
In particular, in pronouncing people forgiven, Jesus circumvented the temple’s role in the process of dealing with sins. William Herzog points out: “When, for example, Jesus declares God’s forgiveness of a paralytic’s debts, he steps into the role of a reliable broker of God’s forgiveness, and by assuming this role, directly challenges the role of the temple.”
The stories in the latter part of Mark’s Gospel leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion highlight how Jesus’ conflict with the religious institution of the temple became overt—and fatal. As Mark’s drama approaches its climax, he has Jesus entering Jerusalem. Right away, Jesus visits the temple. The sense of conflict is established: Jesus versus the religious leaders, the temple authorities. The conflict escalates when Jesus returns to the temple a second time and proceeds to “drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple” (11:15). With these actions, Jesus expresses his hostility toward the temple ritual.
We are told that in response to this “cleansing” of the temple, “the chief priests and scribes…kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]” (11:18). These people, the religious leaders, were, for a time, restrained by the popularity Jesus had with the crowds. But they fully intended to do away with Jesus. He threatened their purity-based system of religious control. He not only has shown himself to be cavalier towards the purity regulations, but he also had gained wide popularity. These factors caused alarm, exacerbated by his direct confrontation with the temple.
One of the main charges against Jesus after his arrest is that he allegedly said he would destroy the temple (14:58). This charge is false on the surface. Jesus did not say that he would destroy the temple. Yet, ironically, the charge is true in the sense that Jesus’ actions and words in directly offering forgiveness render the temple’s functions meaningless.
Mark’s treatment of the temple concludes in 15:38. When Jesus died, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This final event links with what immediately follows, the Roman centurion’s confession that “truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). The torn “curtain of the temple” juxtaposes Jesus and the temple as alternative places of divine presence. It provides perspective on what follows, the centurion’s confession. The death of the Servant opens the way to God for all the world by exposing sacred violence and depriving the temple of its mystique. The self-proclaimed locus of God’s presence on earth is revealed actually to be an institution that responds to the true revelation of God on earth with violence.
In the end, the temple curtain is torn. Jesus, even on the cross, fulfills what the temple was meant to and did not—engendering worship of God by Gentiles as well as Jews. The centurion confesses, “surely this was God’s Son” (15:39). Jesus’ conflict with the temple was costly. Many forces in his world benefited from people being subservient to institutions. Seeking to break free from that subservience provoked resistance. However, Jesus points to the need to seek such freedom, and witnesses that, at least in part, such freedom may be attained.
Jesus’ conflict over empire. From Genesis through Revelation, the biblical stories take place in the shadow of some sort of empire. Various other empires shape biblical faith—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. As well, political elites within Israel itself tended toward empire-like political authoritarianism. Biblical prophets voice sharp critiques of power politics within their communities because such politics echo the practices of the world’s empires.
So, it comes as no surprise to find Jesus enmeshed in issues related to the Empire of his day—to the point that he gets executed by the Empire using the form of killing, crucifixion, that was Rome’s tool for retribution against political criminals.
Jesus’ condemnation of authoritarian types of leadership reflects his rejection of Rome’s power politics: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42). With this, “Jesus stated that the existing ‘order of peace’ is based on the oppressive rule of force. The alternative Jesus puts forward shows that he is not fatalistic. He rejects power politics and proposes something to take its place. Peace based on oppressive force is not what Jesus wants.”
Jesus’ famous confrontation concerning the payment of taxes presents his listeners with a choice between two competing claims for loyalty. God or Caesar; one or the other. Those who trust in the true God will deny Caesar’s claims for their loyalty. “If God is the exclusive lord and Master, if the people of Israel live under the exclusive kingship of God, then all things belong to God, the implications for Caesar being fairly obvious….Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.”
The language of “kingdom” (the Greek word, basilea, may also be translated “empire”) itself indicates that Jesus saw himself posing a contrast between his community and Rome. Just as Torah originally countered the Empire-consciousness of Egypt, so its renewal in Jesus’ ministry countered the Empire-consciousness of Rome.
Jesus challenge to Rome’s hegemony meant, according to the logic of retribution, that he must be punished. Due to his agenda, Jesus indeed was a revolutionary. That he 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 these values than the agents of Empire even realized.
As Klaus Wengst writes: “That Pilate had Jesus executed on the cross shows that the death of Jesus is indissolubly bound up with the political peace that there was at that time, the Pax Romana, produced and guaranteed by Roman power. In the view of the procurator this execution, like many others, was virtually an act to secure the peace. Extent reports of the implementation of Roman punishment of crucifixion at Palestine at the time of Jesus mention only rebels as criminals….In the eyes of the Roman provincial administration Jesus was a rebel who endangered the existing peace. A disturber of the peace was done away with, by legal means, by the power responsible for peace.”
The “trial” before Pilate reveals the political authority’s profound cynicism, closed-mindedness, disinterest in the truth, and the deep-seated violence of both Pilate and the Empire in general. Pilate begins the encounter by asking Jesus if he is “the king of the Jews.” As Jesus tries to explain how he understands his “kingship,” and the role of seeking the truth as being at the heart of the genuine kingdom of God, Pilate simply quips, “what is truth?” and then leaves, not interested in listening to Jesus. He has Jesus tortured, then uses Jesus as a pawn for manipulating the religious leaders, and in the end sends Jesus to the most terrible of executions.
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the final months of his life he instructed his followers, “take up your cross and follow me.” He called them to live free from political authoritarianism, to recognize that discipleship puts them directly in opposition to the Powers of Empire. That the authorities (human and spiritual) would put Jesus to death absolutely proves their idolatrous nature—and the need for people of faith to distrust them.
Jesus resurrection. The collaborative work of the Powers succeeded in eliminating Jesus. Jesus’ followers desert him in his time of crisis. The representative, and deeply tragic, example of Peter drives home the depths of these ruins. Peter’s denial of “ever knowing Jesus” underscores vividly that Jesus’ movement approached its death as he neared his.
Though the story tells how Jesus alluded to resurrection when he discussed his death, no one likely understood him to speak of his personal resurrection prior to the general resurrection at the end of time. Even if his followers did understand him, to have been the Messiah in the days before his execution, it seems that no one would associated a messianic identity with personal resurrection. That is, the events of Easter Sunday took everyone by total surprise.
Jesus as savior welcomed people even across the boundary lines of cultural exclusivists, reiterated the message of Torah concerning God’s mercy and human responsibility, challenged the Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism and loosened their holds on people’s loyalties, and simply demonstrated God’s love. This approach led to his being killed in the most public, physically torturous, and humiliating way possible.
The story of Jesus, should it have ended with his followers scattered and the murderous Powers triumphant, would not have provided much hope. The lesson would have been that the Powers of violence, oppression, and death will likely use whatever means necessary to eliminate those who challenge their hegemony. Jesus’ life, morally exemplary as it may have been, would not have been seen as reflecting God’s will for human beings so much as a tragedy, an approach that was admirable to a few who might remember it but also a warning to all who might be tempted to follow his example. Walk this path and you too will end up abandoned.
However, following Jesus’ death his followers regather and are transformed into people who believed (and lived in light of this belief) that Jesus’ life indeed expressed God’s will—and that God did not abandon the one who lived that way. Jesus’ resurrection led to clarity concerning his identity. When his followers realized he still lived they concluded that he was indeed Israel’s Messiah. They did so not because of the some pre-existing belief that the Messiah would be resurrected but because of how resurrection validated his life.
Jesus’ life gave hope that healing for the world may be found through persevering love even in the face of profound resistance to that love. This hope found vindication in an act of God that actually went beyond the dreams of Jesus’ followers.
When God raises Jesus from the dead, God not only endorses Jesus, but also rebukes the Powers that killed. Jesus’ resurrection shows that his critique of those Powers for usurping God came not from some marginal whacko railing against the status quo. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection proves that Jesus’ critique reflected the will of the God of the universe. In rebuking the Powers, Jesus’ resurrection unmasks their use of the logic of retribution as antithetical to salvation. God does not operate according to the logic of retribution in bringing salvation to the world. Rather, the Powers operate according to this logic in trying to destroy the saving efforts of God.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, God made it clear that this logic of retribution was not God’s will. Salvation is rooted in God’s deep, persevering love, not God’s holiness and anger that must be appeased when holiness is violated. The punishment of Jesus, though given in the name of God and peace and order, ends up being exposed as an act of hostility toward God.
Jesus lived and taught mercy, not retribution. Doing so alienated the Powers and brought forth their deadly retributive violence. For God to vindicate Jesus so decisively underscores that the Powers are the enemies of salvation, not its agents. The universe rests on mercy, not retribution. The holiness of God that transforms the world from brokenness to wholeness does so by healing, not by punishing. This is the basis for our hope for wholeness.