The Executed God
First Presbyterian Church
April 5th, 2009
First Presbyterian Church
April 5th, 2009
Is it a contradiction that Christians pray to and adore their imprisoned and executed God while supporting or tolerating the execution and imprisonment of so many today? The United States is now on a lockdown craze, and many confessing Christians have played a key part in building it up….this nation now incarcerates more than two million citizens. The massive number now confined—70 percent of whom are people of color—is nearly quadruple the figure of 1980, being "the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world."That is how my former seminary professor, Mark Lewis Taylor, opens his book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Mark Taylor is Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.
I took a number of courses from him because he was one of the few professors of theology who made sense to me. He helped me to understand the political and social realities behind the symbols of religion. More importantly, he helped me understand that unless we use the symbols of religion to do good we are wasting time, or worse, doing harm.
To quote James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, quoted in The Executed God, pg. 1):
If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.In The Executed God, Taylor helps us reflect upon a symbol, the cross. What might the cross have meant in the first century and what might it mean today? How has its power as symbol been distorted to serve Empire rather than serve those who were victims then and who are victims today?
In our sanctuary we have a large cross. Quite beautiful. Christians wear jewelry in the shape of crosses. I am not criticizing that. But there is an irony there. It would be good for us to reflect upon what this symbol represents.
What is a cross? In the time of Jesus, in the time of Paul, and in the time of the Gospel writers, the cross was an instrument of state-sponsored, legitimated torture. It was a means of execution. This execution was public and dramatic. It was an instrument of the theater of terror through which the Roman Empire controlled the populations of its occupied territories.
As one entered the city, especially on Holy Days such as Passover, travelers would be greeted with the symbols of Rome’s power: soldiers, horses, and crosses. The soon to be executed would partake in a forced march through the city carrying the cross beam. Humiliation and beatings were all part of the show. It was a show. The crosses would be erected on a hill for all to see. The message was clear:
"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."
Rome did these things not because it was especially cruel. It didn’t think of itself as such. As Empires go, it was better than most up to and including the present day. A great movie for Holy Week is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It is the best film about Jesus that I know. Although, it is about Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah. It is of course an irreverent spoof. But very insightful.
In one of the scenes the Jewish Liberation Front is making demands of Rome. In its Monty Python way, the leader asks what has Rome ever done for us? A voice speaks up.
“The aqueduct? Sanitation?”
"Besides the aqueduct and sanitation, what has Rome ever done for us?"
"Education?... Roads?... Trade?... Peace?
As the Monty Python folks point out, Rome was the "normalcy of civilization" to use a phrase from John Dominic Crossan. Rome saw itself as a benefactor. It was good for the world. Through its executions and its public displays of order and power, it was preserving the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.
Rome’s emperor was a bearer of good news, the savior, and the one to bring peace. Those were the kinds of words used for him. Its enemy was the terrorist. Its enemy was the one who did not respect civilization.
Its enemy was…Jesus.
Jesus was executed by legitimate, established authority. It wasn’t a mistake. Jesus, in the eyes of Rome, was considered a threat to its peace. His pithy little sayings and poems preserved in the gospels such as "blessed are you poor," "forgive us our debts," "give us our daily bread," were subversive statements. They reflected political, economic, and social realities of those who did not benefit by Empire’s peace. They were about real poverty, real debts, real hunger and a system of economics that elevated some on the backs of the majority.
What then is the cross?
We could contemporize the cross by wearing around our necks hangman’s nooses, or replicas of electric chairs. Perhaps we could wear a little gas chamber, a syringe, or maybe a little gold-plated bucket of water to symbolize the interrogation method of choice in America’s war on terror.
A clergy friend of mine when I was in New York state opened my eyes to the power of symbols. He was retired and he would preach at various congregations. I asked him to fill in for me a couple of times when I was on vacation. At first he was a little bit of a shocker to the congregation. When he preached he wore his robe like I do. But instead of a stole which is a symbol for my ordination, he wore a heavy chain.
He would explain right up front what it meant. He would say something like: “This chain represents the oppression and spiritual violence against my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers who because of discrimination are denied ordination to the ministry in the PC(USA).”
Then he would go on with the service, preaching about something else. The congregation was a little taken aback at first. I wish I could have been there. It is always good to have someone fill in for you to do that kind of thing. But after the initial shock, they got it. And they liked him. After a couple of times of filling in for me, folks in the congregation asked me, “When you go on vacation get that guy with the chain, will you?”
I do wear a cross around my neck. I wear it not because I think it means that Jesus died for my sins. I don’t wear it because it means what I saw on a church signboard this past week: “The Cross: God’s love written in red.”
I don’t believe it represents God punishing Jesus for humanity’s sins, or making something sacred out of suffering, violence, or torture. I wear it because it reminds me of what side I need to be on. It means for me that to follow Jesus, to follow the way of the cross, and to follow the executed God, is to follow the way of resistance to all forms of domination and oppression.
On Palm Sunday there were two parades. As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg show us in their book on Mark, The Last Week, the other parade was a military parade. Mark doesn’t need to tell his readers about that one. It was all too well known. As Passover week begins, Rome enters with swords, helmets, shields, and horses to keep the peace at a volatile time. They come from the west.
From the east comes Jesus on a donkey. It is a spoof of Rome’s parade and Rome’s peace. This parade might be thought of as an act of civil disobedience. It is a parade of the forgotten, the indebted, and the oppressed. Symbolized by the children waving branches, it is the parade of life and hope for the little ones, their struggle, and their hope.
In which parade will we march?
When I say to be on a side, that does not mean I am proposing a duality between good guys and bad guys, us and them. Ultimately, it is a unity of all humanity, in fact all creation itself. The executioner and the executed, the prisoner and the prison guard are caught in that same matrix of disunity and oppression.
The way of the cross is a starting point. It is standing with, walking with, and yes, perhaps dying with, those who are most vulnerable, the victims of abuse in all of its forms personal and institutional. The way of the cross is standing on behalf of Earth itself. An image I saw recently had a picture of Earth imposed on a cross. That is a symbol for on one hand Earth at risk to human abuse of it, and it is a liberating symbol that the presence of God is found in our resistance to Earth’s destruction.
Some may ask, and rightly so, if I am equating Christian faith strictly with political activism of some sort. Isn’t it more than that? Isn’t it about personal transformation and so forth? My answer is yes of course. The way of the cross can be seen as a symbol of personal rebirth and transformation. It is dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.
The way of cross is more than the way of resisting social, economic, and political injustices. But as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remind us in their latest book on Paul, the way of the cross is not less than that.
If what I am saying today sounds new to some of you or at least different than what you or I grew up with (it is certainly different than what I grew up with), then it shows that Christianity has forgotten its starting point.
Today’s passion story is the account of the phony trial, humiliation, forced march and execution of Jesus. Mainstream biblical scholars do not view this story as an historical account of what happened to Jesus. It is Mark’s story writing about Jesus as a figure who represents what happened to those who resisted Empire in Mark's own time.
Jesus was not the only person executed, of course. Hundreds, perhaps thousands were executed. His story provided the framework for resistance, for the way of the cross, for the way of following the executed God. This story resonates with the stories of people still today who find themselves on the wrong side of Empires and who experience political, economic, and social oppression.
Lest we think this story is simply about the futility of resisting Empire, Mark’s story is written in the context of a greater hope, of a Lord larger, deeper, and wider than Caesar. It is the story of a Resurrection hope.
In light of Resurrection, the cross becomes a symbol of hope, the story of the reality of execution to be sure, but more importantly, a reminder that executions do not have the last word. That story is one of joyful, creative, resistance and victory.
That is Easter’s story. I’ll save that for next week.