Reflection: The Violence of the Cross

This reflection was initially prepared for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.

As I read Migliore’s text for this week, specifically the section on the violence of the cross, I found myself almost wanting to cheer along. Before this section he had outlined the three main theories of the atonement, or why Jesus had to die. Most of my life I had really only heard the penal substitution view and it had always sat a bit uneasy for me. Each of the other two presented – Christus Victor and Moral Governance – as well as some other formulations that I’ve heard have given me much more peace of mind with the idea of the atonement. Since I intend to do my final research paper on atonement theologies, the only other part I’ll say for now is why the penal substitution view was tough for me to swallow. It was obvious that God wanted to kill me for my sins and no matter how many times I heard people try to temper that with the idea of grace or how many times it was explained that God was just, I couldn’t see why justice equated to a violent and cruel death.

Sometimes in our culture we encounter those who want to be rid of the violence very evident in the cross. When it is paired with the concept that it was God’s duty as a just God to orchestrate this torturous death of his son, I am somewhat inclined to agree – I don’t really want to identify as a follower of that God either. On top of that, it is true that this theology of a suffering God has often been used to say that we must passively accept suffering ourselves because “it is Christ-like.” I humbly submit that both of those scenarios are missing the point of the cross.

My previous reflection was on the necessity of evil in the world and how evil provides us a chance to love. While I think this is a philosophically valid argument, I know it doesn’t provide much comfort in the day-to-day sufferings of this world. Evil is a reality and my challenge to end that paper was to stop asking “why” and do something about it. As I read the section in Migliore, I connected the dots and realized that God in Jesus did exactly that.

This fits within both the Christus Victor and Moral Example explanations of the cross. The first can be said because of the resurrection. If Jesus had only died and not rose again, we could simply say that it was another example of the evil in the world. What becomes astonishing as an encouragement to us in our own suffering is that God willingly lowered himself to death, even to death on a cross, fully accepting the worst of the sufferings that we have to deal with in our own lives. Jesus shows us that there is indeed pain, extreme violence, and death in life, but he then conquers that by rising again.

I think Jesus’ death also provides a moral example. Not everyone in the class will agree with me on this, but I am a pacifist. I believe that Jesus taught this and lived it, up to and including his death. As pointed out in the last class, it is necessary to clarify that a pacifist is someone who pacifies, not somebody who is passive. It is about not fighting evil with evil, but that does not mean that the only other option is to do nothing and I do consider it an abuse of this concept when an abused women is told not to go to the police, for example. That particular scenario is one often used, including in the Constructive Theology text, but I think that Jesus calls us to suffering for his sake, for the sake of love, not suffering just for the sake of suffering.

If we strip the cross of its violence, I think we strip the cross of its meaning.  Imagine Jesus had simply been carried off to heaven as soon as people wanted him dead. We would not be able to relate to him when our own pain inevitably comes along. We would be easily discouraged by the prevalence of evil in the world, unsure of the victory of Christ over all of it. And we could easily think that simply running away from danger was the best option instead of being willing to step into the pain of others in order to love them more fully. By saying that the cross is too violent for us, we are also saying that the violence that happens every day is too much for us, so we sit comfortably in relatively-safe Canada and ignore abuse, wars, genocides, etc. I think we need to embrace the violence of the cross, not as something we wish to happen or cause, but as something which is still a reality and something that we should follow God into confronting.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.