Violence and the cross

Challenging the notion that some violent responses to violence are justified often seems to cause people to respond with greater vehemence than if their most deeply-cherished convictions about the nature of God had been questioned.

I suspect there are two reasons for that. First, if such people were to be convinced that the taking of human life by the state or its citizens is inherently unjust, they would lose the meaning of the national narrative that forms their identity as Americans. That may be too much for many American Christians to bear, but if so, it’s symptomatic of nothing short of idolatry.

A second reason became evident to me after I shared to my Facebook profile a link to Fisher Humphreys’ ABPnews Blog post “Should We Abolish the Death Penalty?” One comment in response objected, “It seems like the cross shows that God believes in the death penalty.”

While I disagree, I think the author of that comment was on to something.

Some common ways of understanding how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God portray God as one who engages in redemptive violence. Human virtue reflects the divine character, so if the cross reveals the justice of a violently redemptive God, it stands to reason that people are justified when they fight violence with violence.

The cross is undeniably violent. But who is responsible for the violence of the cross event?

People, of course, crucified Jesus. But there is a trajectory of Christian atonement theory—theological reflection on how it is that the cross of Christ makes God and humanity “at one”—that identifies God as the one that ultimately visits violence upon Jesus in the crucifixion through the instrumentality of those who crucified Jesus.

According to this perspective, God subjects Jesus to the penalty of death due humans as the punishment for their sin, a penalty we cannot sufficiently pay because of our sinfulness. The result is that the relationship between God and humanity is objectively changed from alienation to reconciliation.

That trajectory runs from certain medieval perspectives on why the cross was necessary for our salvation through John Calvin’s influential synthesis of the theological insights of the Reformation to widespread forms of contemporary evangelicalism.

In my judgment—and that of a great many other recent and contemporary theologians—that theology of the cross must be re-thought because of what it communicates about who God is in relation to us and who we ought to be in relation to others.

The root of my disagreement with that popular approach to atonement theory is a differing location of the ultimate source of the violence of the cross. If it is God, then the cross reveals God as violent and the endorser of violence. If it is humanity—as I think is the case—then the cross exposes humanity’s violence as sinful. It also reveals God’s solidarity with those who suffer violence and Jesus’ nonviolent way as that which triumphs over violence.

In the latter view there is still objectivity to what the cross of Christ changes about the relationship of God and humanity, but it is not the satisfaction of God’s wrath or the payment of a penalty required by God’s justice. Rather, it is the divinely-provided end of the universal human impulse to do something sacrificial to please the divine—something Abraham learned about God at Mount Moriah.

The cross no more shows that God believes in the death penalty or other forms of “redemptive violence” than Jesus’ scourging suggests that God believes in torture. That’s my conviction, but others’ mileage may vary.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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