Over at Tony Jones' blog, he has launched another of his "#progGod Challenges." This one deals with the question of the crucifixion, an appropriately Lenten topic.
I can think of several ways to approach this question, but at heart, I assume the question that Tony wants to raise is "why did Jesus have to die on a cross specifically, rather than -- say -- of old age or by tripping down a flight of stairs?" In other words, what is it about the cross that is of theological significance? What does it tell us about the nature of God-in-Christ?
Christian theology is founded on the idea that the death of Christ is somehow at the heart of the possibility of human salvation. Through is death we are redeemed. The Christian doctrine of atonement is rooted in this idea. But the central question is how it might be that his death redeems us, and the fact of the cross is at center of the answer to that question.
It is deeply theologically significant that, not only did Jesus have to die, but he had to die this death. The cross reveals something of both the problem at the heart of the human condition and what the nature of its solution is.
In his book The Crucified God Jürgen Moltmann addresses the question by noting that the cross was a particular kind of death -- a political death -- imposed by the Roman Empire, not against common criminals, but against political enemies. The fact that Christ died on the cross revealed that the Gospel message is incompatible with, and stands in opposition to, the civil religion of the Roman Empire, which is a form of idoltry.
In his death, Jesus is revealed to be the victim of the structures of political oppression and subjugation. He is subjected not simply to death, but to the horrible, brutal, humiliating, and public death of the subversive and the insurgent. In his death, Jesus Christ is declared by the Empire to be the enemy of Empire. What's more, through his death, Jesus is revealed to stand in solidarity with all of the victims of Empire.
Jesus dies, abandoned and alone, forsaken by all, even God, to die the death of a social outcast and a political pariah. But in his death, Jesus reveals that the Good News of the Gospel is precisely that God stands on the side of all of those who are abandoned, alone, and forsaken, that God is with them in their forsakenness, has shared their suffering in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the resurrection of Christ, has overcome and redeemed it. As Moltmann writes:
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”
What's more, through his redeeming of the suffering of the victims in his death and resurrection, Jesus also opens up a new possibility: That of redemption and forgiveness for the perpetrators as well. They are not left with their crimes, but may be forgiven in repentence, and ultimately reconciled with both their victims and with God. Again Moltmann:
The one will triumph who first died for the victims then also for the executioners, and in so doing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind with a new humanity. Only where righteousness becomes creative and creates right both for the lawless and for those outside the law, only where creative love changes when is hateful and deserving of hate, only where the new man is born who is oppressed nor oppresses others, can one speak of the true revolution of righteousness and of the righteousness of God.
This ties in as well to some themes raised by Rene Girard, who is my other "go-to" thinker on this subject. Christ is, in Girard's model, the final scapegoat, who through his unjust death reveals the corruption and evil at the heart of the entire sacrificial system of human religious consciousness, exposes its illegitimacy, and thus breaks the sacrificial cycle once and for all.
Much more, obviously could be said on this topic, but I'll stop there for now. Perhaps for Easter, Tony will present a #ProgGod challenge about the necessity of the Resurrection, which is the other, equally important and indispensible, part of this equation.