Seasonal Reflections on Soteriological Oomph

At my church in Cambridge, we’ve had the Vice-Principal of Westcott House preaching throughout Holy Week. This is a mixed blessing; I end up giving over more attention to refuting him than is really meet or right. He said a lot about what the crucifixion isn’t about: it’s definitely not about placating a wrathful deity, and, perhaps more interestingly, it’s not really about Girard’s supposed scapegoating mechanism, either. I am inclined to agree on both counts. But he never really said much about what the crucifixion is about. I want to stick my hand up and ask him where he thinks the soteriological oomph of the cross lies. But I can’t, because I’m in church. So all the theoretical speculations I’ve been piously suppressing I now let loose on the blog.

There are various motivations for stepping back from the immediate context of cross and passion. The crucifixion can only be fully understand in the light of the resurrection; this man’s death bears the meaning it does only because this man is incarnate God; Christ’s atoning work is the entirety of his earthly activity, and so on and so forth. These are all excellent points. The point I want to make now, though, is distinct from all of these. That is: the death of Jesus is not merely something he suffered, but something he did. From Gethsemane to Golgotha, the passivity of the passion overpowers the narrative. That it does so is important, but it is best appreciated at a later stage of reflection. We should begin with the activity of Jesus.

Jesus brings his death upon himself. That is, he pursues certain courses of action in the knowledge that they will probably provoke a violent response. Determining what exactly were the motives behind his execution is difficult. But the simple answer is surely that he got up in everybody’s grill. He persistently challenged the power structures of his place and time. This challenge could not be tolerated, especially not at so fraught a time as the passover, and so Jesus had to die. Jesus invades the Roman province of Judea on behalf of the kingdom of God, and he accepts the consequences. If we want to home in on the crucial act of self-giving love, it is here we must look, and not simply at Jesus permitting himself to be nailed up.

For a start, this helps us to avoid one of the many pitfalls in thinking about the passion. Partner the story of Jesus’ passivity with prooftexts about denying x and obeying y, and you confect a gospel that glorifies the taking of hard knocks as an end in itself, and worse, enjoins us to compliance in the face of injustice. Jesus does not comply: not with the Pharisees’ interpretation of the sabbath commandment, not with the practice of trade in the temple, not with the Emperor’s claims to divinity. Really challenging such injustices in God’s name, however, requires not rousing up a mob or sending down legions of angels supported by lightning, but a naked, costly witness to the divine righteousness. Jesus tolerates, or endures, the injustice wrought against his own person, but only within the context of a wholesale rejection of human injustice as such, and commitment to realising the divine justice on earth.

Apart from protecting us against that particular perversion of the gospel, looking at the choices that won Jesus the wrath of his killers points us, I believe, towards the soteriological oomph of the passion. It is this witnessing to the righteousness of God, even to death, that effects our atonement.

To see how this might work, let me bring to bear the second main point of this piece. If we want to identity what difference the death of Jesus makes, we should ask what difference it makes: how would things have been if the story did not reach such a bitter end? We can imagine Jesus living out his days quietly in Galilee, healing and teaching but not challenging the Jerusalem authorities in any serious way. Or we can imagine Jesus challenging the authorities, but by fight or flight avoiding the consequences. It’s pretty clear that neither of these options is palatable. Such a Jesus might have been the light of Galilee, but no light of the world. I think the sticking point is this: what if the stakes had been lower? We can imagine Jesus challenging corrupt authority, but without putting himself into such great danger. Do decent, generally upstanding folk like you and me really need a sacrifice quite so costly as Christ’s?

Jesus goes to a city somewhat like the historical Jerusalem, preaching the kingdom of God in defiance of a worldly power somewhat like the historical Rome, and denouncing the waywardness of religious authorities like the pharisees and the temple cult. But everyone’s that bit more mature and conscientious. They don’t like Jesus and are threatened by his challenge, but they find less aggressive means of ignoring him and sidelining him. The Jesus we read about up until the passion narrative remains more or less intact. Not wholly so, obviously, but we get enough of the Galilean teaching and healing to be attracted and inspired, and enough of the denunciations and the calls to repentance to be deeply challenged. The problem wold be that this challenge is a little too easily ignored. Jesus would be dangerously close to the figure of liberal humanist legend. ‘He’s a great moral teacher, that’s for sure, and he seems to have practiced what he preached. And the challenge he offers is still relevant today: it is a noble, rousing call to moral and spiritual arms. I ought really to do more to meet that call. But I’m so swamped with x at the moment, and I have y to think about, and really I’m not doing so badly. The folk in his day, after all, were plagued with all such of prejudices that have happily been overcome’. And so our evasions, excuses, and apologies flood in, and we keep saying ‘no’ to Jesus’ challenge.

What the crisis of the passion does is clamp that floodgate shut. Yes, we feel the impulse to say ‘no’, and give into it far more often than not. But we recognise the same impulse to say ‘no’ in Caiaphas and Pilate, and how it drove them to kill Jesus, as well as motivating the myriad betrayals and denials and complicities along the way. It’s important to stress that this does not require supposing that there are no morally salient differences between us and Caiaphas: that gets us to the paralysing delusion that our every minor failing corresponds to another lash on Jesus’ back. What we need to see is that the impulse is much the same, and, when unchecked, the crucifixion is where that impulse leads. This insight, which so frighteningly forces itself upon us in the passion narrative, brings us the grace of moral clarity. Jesus has challenged us, and we can take the path that says ‘yes’ to that challenge, or the path that says ‘no’. Both paths lead to the same place: Calvary. Take the yes path, and we stand with the crucified. Take the no, and we stand with the crucifiers.

To say that this brings moral clarity is not to deny that there are real moral difficulties. The important point is that these are not usually what we find most difficult. Our worst difficulties are generated by our own evasions, excuses, and apologies. When we hear Jesus’ challenge, and see the two paths opening up to Calvary, the evasions can’t get their usual grip. Things are all too clear, and our self-deceptions begin agonisingly to unravel. Integrity and sound judgement are brought a bit closer to our grasp. Thus are we healed.

Nor is it just what goes in within us. There is also our relationship with God. That relationship is damaged by all our ‘no’s. God remains generous in mercy and steadfast in love, but without movement on our part, no reconciliation is possible. The clarity of the cross enables us to see the history of our ‘no’s for what it is: so many steps along the crucifier’s path. Owning this, we can face God honestly and openly. ‘I have said so many ‘no’s, am now saying them and will say them again. But I want to say ‘yes’. I have seen the ‘no’ path, I understand where it leads, and I reject it. I have see the ‘yes’ path, I understand where it leads, and I accept it. Lord, have mercy’. And we behold Christ crucified, who bears upon his body all our most brutal ‘no’s, and forgives them all. Thus are we reconciled.

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