8/2/2008 8:20 AM
I have come to believe that the church's communal language in creed, doctrine and liturgy, and especially Scripture, from which the others are derived, is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms. Hans Frei was describing Karl Barth's position when he said: “There can be no systematic ‘pre–understanding,’ no single, specific, consistently used conceptual scheme, no independent or semi–independent anthropology, hermeneutic, ontology or whatever, in terms of which Christian language and Christian claims must be cast to be meaningful.” (Hans Frei, Types of Theology, p 156). Which is to say that in the end it is the texts that judge us rather than the other way around.
So what is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the thickness of the scriptures. To do that there are several features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross.
1. Many of the critics do not have what George Hunsinger called “a robust view of sin.” It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree.”
So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of civilization, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best, which is a reminder of the pernicious nature of sin. So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens in a fallen sinful world. So when the fingers get pointed at who killed Jesus, the Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.” Toward the end of my ministry I started replying, well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have. Likewise, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but not the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.
2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I think it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”
But as Reinhold Neibuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. In 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Sometimes non-violence can be complicit with evil.
3. Many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver puts non-violence in such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.
This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.
Copyright ©2008 Richard Floyd