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THE CROSS OF NONVIOLENCELeo Hartshorn, minister of peace and justice
Mennonite Mission Network
Lent is the season when the church takes a liturgical journey toward the cross and Good Friday. When we gather for worship we may see the brooding colors of deep purple and black draping our sanctuaries, smell the scent of candles extinguished in a service of shadows, hear the words "take up your cross" solemnly intoned from the pulpit, and imagine the sting of piercing nails as we meditate on the passion narratives. The cross stands at the center of Lent. For centuries the cross has also stood at the center of Christian doctrine. The church has believed the crucifixion of Jesus to be a necessary event in the salvation of humanity. During the celebration of Lent Christian peacemakers will again be confronted with the paradox of God's salvation for the world coming to us by means of an extreme act of human violence. To put the question this teaching raises for peacemakers straightforward: Was the violence of the cross necessary for human salvation?
The link between the violence of the cross and salvation of the world has become problematic for some Christians. The traditional doctrine of atonement says that the violence of the cross was necessary, even preordained by God, as the means of salvation for sinful humanity. To believe that the violence was necessary for our redemption goes against the grain of the nonviolent story of Jesus. So, how does the one who believes in nonviolence deal with the violence of the cross? A variety of new understandings of the cross has been proposed which seek to sever the "necessary" link between violence and redemption. Not every perspective presented here deals with the problem of violent atonement directly, but may shed some understanding on the violence of the cross and its relation to human transformation. The following rough sketches of diverse views of the cross are not exhaustive. They are meant to help Christian peacemakers look at the cross of Jesus through new lens.
The cross was an instrument of political terrorism. Crucifixion was a form of humiliation, torture, and excruciating death used by imperial Rome to terrorize the populace against considering any kind of revolt or resistance against the empire. It was a way of maintaining the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. The victims of crucifixion were displayed like billboards alongside roadways so passersby would "get the message." Jesus became a victim of the power, violence, and terrorism of the state. From this perspective the violence of the cross is not viewed so much as a symbol of redemption as it is a symbol of violent political power that continues to claim its victims. If there is any redemption that comes with this view of the cross, it comes in the form of those who resist the continuing violence and terrorism of the state and seek to liberate its victims, as did Jesus.
The cross calls us to solidarity with the suffering and oppressed. Jesus was crucified among the abandoned and outcasts under the power of an oppressive political system. And God was present in the crucified Christ. In this view the cross is not simply a statement about the human Jesus. It is a statement about God. God was in Christ, even on the cross. In the cross God identifies with the crucified and suffering Jesus. In so doing, God becomes one with us in our utter humanity. In the cross God suffers with all those who are oppressed, particularly victims of political power. Again, the saving power of the cross is not in the violence of the cross, but more in God's and our solidarity with the suffering, the oppressed, and victims of systemic violence.
The cross sheds light on the human story of acquisitive desire, rivalry, vengeance and scapegoating. The narrative of the crucifixion, encapsulated in the cross, is a dark drama that reveals the human nature to "get what others have," "be at odds," "get back, and "pass the buck." Jesus was a victim of these human dynamics. He became a scapegoat for the violence within others. Religious people and institutions are not immune from these violent, dehumanizing tendencies, as the passion narratives reveal. The cross brings to light the nature of "sacred violence." This view of the cross focuses on the psychosocial dynamics that led to Jesus' death on the cross. These dynamics are universalized to encompass the perpetual human tendencies to want what others have, to end up in rivalry, to seek vengeance, and then to blame others for the violence inherent within ourselves. To blame the crucifixion on the Jews or the Romans is to participate in the very scapegoating this perspective seeks to bring to light. The cross exposes the lie at the heart of the myth of "necessary" or redemptive violence and the need to "sacrifice a scapegoat" in order to keep social order. In this view the cross of Christ uncovers the human dynamics of desire and violence, potentially transforming our ways of living in the world.
The cross reveals the ultimate nonviolent example of Jesus. Rather than focusing on the violent human dynamics at work in Jesus' crucifixion, this view of the cross is centered in the nonviolent response of Jesus as an example to follow. The crucifixion is the culmination of Jesus' nonviolent teachings and lifestyle. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, including the Romans, who would carry out Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus condemned Peter's drawing of the sword upon his arrest by the Roman soldiers, though he could have called upon the "armies of heaven." Jesus did not return violence for violence. He willingly endured the cross rather than avoiding it through violent resistance. Jesus serves as an example to follow that can transform how we deal with violence. Mennonites, and other pacifists, have found this to be a compelling understanding of the cross as a supreme example of nonresistance.
The cross is an irredeemable symbol for salvation. Due to traditional views of the cross, which link violence and redemption, some Christians see the teaching of the cross as a saving event or as an example to be imitated not simply as problematic, but as dangerous and "irredeemable." There are those Christians who are troubled by the violent image of a heavenly Father, who offers his beloved Son to be abused and killed for the sins we have committed and for which we deserved the ultimate punishment. Some have described this image as "cosmic child abuse." This view of salvation through the cross is known as the substitutionary theory of atonement. It is the Father's will that Jesus endure the violence and death as punishment for our sins. These images of salvation make violence a necessary part of salvation. As an example to follow this view of the cross has served to imprison women in abusive relationships compelling them to "endure their cross" as God's will. Feminists, among others, find this view of the cross, with its inherent violence, as unsalvageable for Christian teaching in today's world.
The cross is victory over evil powers. In order to avoid the link between violence and salvation intrinsic to some traditional theories of atonement, some have revised a once held view of the cross as Christ's victory over the powers of darkness. The updated version of this teaching connects the narrative of Jesus non-violent life with the victory of God's reign through the cross. As a manifestation of God's reign Jesus nonviolently confronted the powers of this world, even unto death on the cross. The cross was not a required act of violence whereby Jesus' death becomes a substitute for ours. Rather, Jesus lived the nonviolent way of God's reign unto death. By raising Jesus from death, God has manifest the way of Jesus to be victorious over the powers of darkness, including the violence of systems of domination.
During the season of Lent Christian peacemakers will once again be confronted with images of the violence of the cross in liturgy, song, and sermon. Lent can be a fruitful season for us to reflect on the role that the violence of the cross plays in our understandings of salvation, our pursuit of justice, and our call to be peacemakers in the world.