Shuck and Jive

Friday, April 10, 2009

Execution Friday

Today is called Good Friday. This is the day Jesus was executed by legitimate, established authority. It was a good Friday for law and order for the Pax Romana. Christians have tried to find ways to say it is "good" by applying to it complex and sometimes grotesque atonement theories (ie. Jesus was punished for our sins).

Here is my post from last time, Should You Plant Potatoes on Good Friday?

I have also reflected on Good Friday elsewhere, Good Friday is Not Good.

I think the idea of Jesus dying for our sins makes of mockery of the execution of Jesus. The historical person of Jesus died on a Roman cross. There were not just three lonely crosses on a hill. There could have been hundreds perhaps thousands of crosses. Rome crucified anyone who it perceived could make trouble. Rome brought the peace that way.

A good read for "good" Friday is Josephus. You can read his works on-line. He describes the bloody executions by Rome. Jesus wasn't alone. He was executed as a Jew like many of his countrymen. To suggest that his death was somehow "good" is to suggest that the burnings of Jews at Auschwitz was "good" or that the genocide in Darfur is "good." There is nothing good about it. The cross symbolizes the meaninglessness of terror, cruelty, and violence for which there is no answer. If the cross is to mean anything for us today, it is that it represents the absence of goodness. It is the horror of humanity's crimes against humanity.

If commemorating the execution of Jesus raises our consciousness regarding the inherent violence of legitimate established authorities, then perhaps some good can come from good Friday. If we can see that G-d is on the side of the executed not the executor, then maybe we can see where we need to stand as we follow the executed God. Otherwise it is little more than a sacralizing of violence and torture, turning G-d into a cosmic child abuser.

Here is one of my favorite films about Jesus, Jesus of Montreal. A group of actors remake the passion play by discovering the historical setting and are transformed in the process. This scene is the crucifixion.

If you are near our mountain, join us at 1 p.m. this afternoon for a showing of Jesus Christ Superstar (the 2000 Broadway version). The sanctuary will be open for meditation from noon until three p.m.


  1. John, I'm an occasional reader of your blog because it fascinates me. I'm pretty much diametrically opposed to just about everything you believe. In fact, many of the things you say absolutely infuriate me. But I keep reading because you challenge me to reflect upon my own theology--and that's a good thing. Usually, I don't comment on your posts because I despise debating, but today being Good Friday has me a little more fired up than usual. My response to this post is: How do you read the Bible? Is your information coming from a theological position argued from scripture, or have you simply decided that scripture is wrong? Because scripture, particularly Paul's theology on the cross is pretty clear about the atoning nature of Christ's work on the cross.

  2. Jason,

    Welcome! Glad you are fired up and impressed that you read someone who infuriates you on occasion.

    Is your information coming from a theological position argued from scripture, or have you simply decided that scripture is wrong?

    I would say the first option although interpreting scripture tends to be complicated.

  3. If your theological position here is based on scripture, how can you possibly read Romans or Galatians and not affirm the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ? It's there in the Greek. There is a lot of scholarly debate on a passage such as Romans 3:21-26, however, the debate is not over whether or not Paul believed in Christ's atoning sacrifice, but rather, what exactly that meant to him and those he was writing to.

  4. It's funny how Christianity managed to exist for the first 1000 years or so of its existence before Anselm came along without the theory of substitutionary atonement, and yet now it is claimed that this is somehow an inherent feature of the faith.

    A good source of information about this would be the latest Borg and Crossan book, "The First Paul".

  5. Mystical Seeker: I appreciate the resource, thank you. But, really, if you just look at the actual text it says it plainly. I think any Christology needs to be much more robust than any one idea. But that being said, to altogether eliminate considering Jesus as "an atoning sacrifice" ignores the center of Paul's argument in Galatians and Romans. I'd encourage you to re-visit Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:21-26 sometime and see what you think. That's not meant to be bait for an argument--I'm really not trying to (but maybe it's the inevitable result of commenting on a blog that has a different worldview). Anyway, thanks for listening.

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  7. I am trying to think of a way I can affirm that Jesus died for my sins.

    I suppose Jesus died for my sins in the way that Martin Luther King died for my sins or those killed in Darfur or Matthew Shepherd died for my sins.

    They died because of sin (war, greed, racism, ignorance, homophobia, etc.) for which I bear some responsibility either by action or inaction.

    It is in these deaths that we become aware of, can 'see' the executed God, or the way of the cross.

    We become atoned to this God or become 'at one' as we recognize our culpability and work toward non-cooperation with the forces that are behind these executions.

    Maybe that is what Paul was getting at.

  8. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the product of Anselm's book "Cur Deus Homo?", which was written in 1097, about 1050 or so years after Paul lived and wrote about Jesus.

    As Borg and Crossan write, seeing the cross of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin is bad history, bad anthropology, and bad theology. It is bad history because it projects back onto Paul an understanding of the death of Jesus that did not exist in his time. (p. 129). In other words, a lot of people are projecting back onto Paul ideas that are the product of people like Anselm, and his theological descendants (like Mel Gibson). This leads people to assert that Paul's texts clearly supported a later theology, when in fact they did not and were not interpreted that way until later on.

    Borg and Crossan also point out, Dying 'for' someone and 'sacrifice' do not in themselves imply substitution. This is true in ordinary language and also in the Bible. In ordinary language, when people talk about someone dying 'for' somebody, they seldom if ever mean in that person's place. Rather, they mean for that person's sake or benefit. A parent risks her life and dies in order to save her child from a burning house. A soldier leaps on a grenade in order to save the lives of his buddies. One might say that the mother and the soldier died instead of the child and the buddies, but one wouldn't mean as a 'substitute.' Rather, they gave up their lives for the sake of others. They died that others might live. (p. 141)

    Paul's idea that Jesus died for us has nothing to do with a theological necessity based on the idea God having a bloodthirsty desire for punishment that someone had to suffer through and which Jesus took all of that on himself. The world is full of martyrs who die for others. They did not die in anyone's place, but they still died for others. This is the nature of sacrifice. This all means that Jesus sacrificed his life for others, but not in order to take on the sins of others as part of some bizarre concept of Divine justice.

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, folks. But we'll just have to agree to disagree. I'm familiar with Borg's work, but just disagree with his conclusions. I think his scholarship is quite flawed. So, it's at this point that we'll have to agree to disagree. The point about Anselm's contribution to the argument is an important one, but I happen to agree with the scholars who affirm that Paul held that Christ died as "an atoning sacrifice" or propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:21-26, and "hilasterion"). It's, in my view, the beating heart of the entire work of Romans and Galatians. It's the radical conclusion that all have sinned and likewise, all are invited into the redemption found in the faithfulness of Christ (pistis Christou). And I think I'm in good theological company.

    And now I realize that after I said I wouldn't argue, I'm still claiming to be right (I know). My apologies. Have a blessed Good Friday and Easter.

  10. Jason,

    You are a good sport and have a good spirit. I appreciate your engagement with Seeker and with me on this.

    "Agreeing to disagree" is a good provisional point to land for the time being.

    But as conversations continue and we see others' points of view we discover the nuances of them as well as the motivations for them. They can, as you wrote, help us clarify our own views.

    You are welcome to comment anytime and to continue on this thread if you like.

    Blessed Easter to you too!

  11. One of the problems that I see with this issue of substitutionary atonement is not just that so many Christians take for granted that this 11th century theology goes all the way back to Paul, but that a lot of non-Christians think this as well, and they further assume that this is an inherent doctrine of the Christian faith, which of course it is not. Trying to explain to non-Christians that Christianity doesn't have to mean believing that Jesus took God's punishment away from us is hard when they get their ideas of what Christianity is from Mel Gibson. And it gives them a really negative conception of what the Christian God is all about, making "him" out to be a brute with a bizarre sense of justice and an equally bizarre sense of some Jesus serving a role as God's Get Out of Jail Free card.

  12. 'This is the day Jesus was executed by legitimate, established authority.'

    Paul has something to say on the subject. (He usually does)

    Romans 13
    Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.

    For some reason, this is not a popular passage to be read out on Good Friday.

    There is only so much cognitive dissonance that people can cope with!

    Rome crucified anyone who it perceived could make trouble.

    Why was Barabbas languishing in a jail, totally uncrucified after taking part in an uprising?

    How recent had that uprising been?