This is not going to be a predictable Christian theology lesson about how Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Though I’m a Christian, that explanation rings hollow to me. Why would a just God punish his innocent son so gruesomely, effectively unleashing his rage towards mankind for all of our sins? Is God so full of rage, and unable to control it, that He must unleash it somewhere, so He chose His son, because He is so merciful? I think God is greater than that, and does not NEED to punish anyone.
But this does make me better understand our Islamic cousins. Like me, they too cannot believe this explanation, which defies all logic and our most basic sense of right and wrong. In Islam, they teach that Jesus wasn’t actually crucified, but that he ascended into Heaven, and Judas the betrayer was turned into the image of Jesus, and crucified in His place. That is certainly a more just narrative, that Judas would suffer the very tribulation that he was prepared to subject Jesus to.
Despite that, I don’t actually believe the Islamic narrative of the crucifixion. When I hear the words, “Jesus died for our sins”, I think of something very different.
About 4 years ago, an attractive Serbian performing artist named Marina Abramovic subjected herself to what could be 6 hours of torture. For 6 hours, she let anyone do whatever they wanted to her, using anything in the room. The items included:
A rose. A feather. Grapes. Honey. A condom. A whip. A scalpel. A gun. And a single bullet.
So, as a man, I can imagine many possibilities. What would you do? You can be a gentleman. Hand her a rose, feed her some grapes. Sit her down, make her comfortable. You can be silly, put her on one leg, tickle her with a feather, see if she can keep standing. You can give in to your baser instincts, and take all manner of sexual advantage of her to your own immediate pleasure, with no regard for Marina’s feelings whatsover. Selfish, indeed, but it can get worse. You can engage the darkest corners of your soul. You can torture her, whip her, cut her, you can even kill her.
In our lives, most of us like to think we are good people. Most of us are “nice” to others. A few of us maybe even volunteer to help others from time to time, and then go out to lunch and pat ourselves on the back because we are such “good people”. But what happens when we are really put to the test?
Abramovic was willing to risk 6 hours of pain, molestations, and possible death, to answer this question. Not surprisingly, she was groped. We all knew that was coming. But that was just the beginning. She was undressed, cut in many places, someone was very close to shooting her, and another nearly raped her! Fortunately, when it came to rape and murder, some people had the decency to stop it from going that far. But for hours, she stood there, or moved into any position they put her in, while she was sexually violated, while a scalpel cut into her flesh, while someone drank her blood, while she stared death in the face.
When the act was over, she walked towards the audience, naked, bleeding, with tears in her eyes. They all ran away! She was human again, and none could confront what they had done to her! Not only could the would-be rapist not face her, but even those who stopped it from going that far. To look at her, was to look into the darkest corners of their souls.
Jesus dying for our sins
I’m glad that during Holy Week, the week leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, that I came across this article about Marina Abramovic. I was probably about 5 years old when I was first told this gruesome story, exposing the darkest depths of the human soul. In Sunday school, a man told us every sadistic detail of the crucifixion story. Jesus was flogged 50 times, His blood covering the ground around Him, hardly any flesh remaining on His back. A crown of thorns was placed on His head, piercing his skin, the blood dripping down His face. His beard was ripped from His face. In all this pain, he was forced to carry the cross, the very instrument of His death. He didn’t have the strength, and an innocent man was forced to carry it for Him. One by one, the nails were driven into him, two for his wrists, and two for his ankles. As He anguished on the cross and passed out from the pain, a rag soaked in vinegar brought Him back to consciousness, insuring that He would find no release from the pain until death, finally came mercifully to Him.
As I heard this story, I sat stunned in silence. What would you have done? Would you have begged them to stop? Would you have been as the penitent thief, asking Christ to remember me in His kingdom? Would you have done as Peter, and Pontius Pilate, and the many “good people” who ran from Marina Abramovic? Pilate tried to avoid the crucifixion, but gave in to the masses. He then washed his hands of it, and likely tried to forget. Peter almost worked up the courage to join Him on the cross, but when confronted with what that meant, he backed down. If that wasn’t enough, he then denied Christ three times. He was probably afraid that he too would be crucified. But he was also ashamed. Here, Jesus was being humiliated, in addition to all of the excruciating pain. Peter didn’t want to admit that he was associated with that seemingly pathetic man who can’t even carry His cross!
Would you be as the Pharisees and Sadducees, fearful of losing their power, disdaining the way this gentle man has outsmarted you in debate; would you turn Him over to such a horrible and unjust demise just to be rid of Him?
But what about the masses? Would you be as they were? Despite all of the kindness Jesus has shown, healing the sick, feeding the hungry; would you then cheer for His humiliating and needlessly torturous death? What about the Roman soldiers, who went beyond merely “following order”, and took particular pleasure in torturing and taunting Him? Given the opportunity, would you unleash the desires of the darkest depths of your soul, knowing that you could do so with no legal of social consequences?
A few came to Abramovic’s rescue when she faced rape and death, but none came to rescue Jesus. This is why Jesus allowed this to happen. Abramovic seemed weak, but she showed great strength. She could have stopped it at any time, but she endured the full 6 hours. But Jesus showed even greater strength. He knew exactly what was about to happen, even begging His Father in Heaven to release Him from it. But He still went through it, every lash, thorn, and nail.
The evil that men do
My Jewish friends are likely disturbed by my reference to the Pharisees and Sadducees above. For them, this touches on something deeper. There’s a long history of Jewish people being tortured and murdered in retribution for what was done to Jesus. This, of course, is fundamentally and theologically flawed. It rests on the assumption that it was the sin of the Jews. Yet Jesus died for the sin of the world. In our Palm Sunday liturgy, we do not say “The Jews did it”. We ALL did it! Even Peter. Peter was as close as anyone to taking up the cross, but even Peter couldn’t. Even Peter denied Jesus. Jesus died for the sins of Peter too.
When certain Christian blame the Jews and persecute them, they are really punishing themselves. They’ve decided to take what they know is the darkness deep inside them, the darkness that crucified Jesus, and place it onto the Jews. They think in punishing the Jews, they are punishing what crucified Christ. But in truth, they are the crucifiers.
This last Palm Sunday, while Coptic Christians were worshiping in Egypt, ISIS bombed two Coptic Churches, killing at least 49 people. This they do in the name of Islam! Islam! That religion that is so horrified at the crucifixion that they can’t even accept that it happened! ISIS does not do these things because they are Islamic, any more than Christians who have persecuted the Jews do so because they are Christians. Christianity does not teach us that “the Jews” murdered Christ, and Islam certainly doesn’t teach that Christians who are peacefully worshiping deserve to die. It actually goes directly against the teachings, and promises, of their prophet Muhammad, who promised that Christians living under Islamic rule would be protected.
These things have been done because of the darkness that exists in all of us. Jesus didn’t come to deny the darkness. He came to face it, and to suffer it. The Pharisees tried to deny the darkness, and in so doing, in their cleanliness and “Godliness”, in their strict adherence to laws and traditions, they were just as guilty as the Roman soldiers. But Mary Magdalene (See note), a prostitute, found forgiveness and a new life. The tax collector, penitent and asking the Lord’s forgiveness, found it, while the Pharisee, not facing his darkness, which was likely far less dark than the tax collector, was not forgiven. We can only find forgiveness and renewal in penitence, and we can only be penitent by first seeing the darkness.
That is why Jesus was crucified.
Since writing this, I’ve learned that the claim that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute is entirely based on assuming that the prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus was also Mary Magdalene. There is actually no evidence of this, and it is highly unlikely that Mary Magdalene was the same woman. But I would stand by my point that the prostitute did find forgiveness by confronting the darkness.