There are times when it seems that right theology seems to drown out the deeper dynamics and meanings of some of our most significant and meaningful texts. This very reality seems to get exasperated on Good Friday and then, in turn, on Easter. Right theology leaves behind the living breathing aspects of the text for propositions and truths that are to be believed if one is going to go to heaven. In many regards, this makes Christianity a much safer thing, it ends up losing it’s truly countercultural core and in turn becomes a legitimizing force “for the ways things are.” In Protestant circles the dominant caricature is that Jesus was put to death for preaching a message of justification by faith. According to some, this message was so revolutionary that that’s what motivated the Pharisees to murder Jesus. Though, I’m not entirely sure how such a message would prompt such men to go through the efforts they went through to oust Jesus. After all, there was a would-be Messiah at every turn preaching various messages. The reality is that such a message would not have caught the attention of a Caiaphas or a Pontus Pilate. Why would they even care so long as the revenue from taxation kept flowing into the holy city? Something much deeper was going on.
In order to understand this we need not look at the gospel texts, at least not right away. Instead we can simply look to those who have lost their lives for speaking truth to power, for standing up to the powers that be. The 20th century is full of such persons from Oscar Romero to Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X to Dorothy Stang to Mohandas Gandhi. These persons sacrificed their lives for the sake of a greater cause and were killed at the hands of the powers that be. They were killed by what some have called the Domination System. They offered a counter message and counter way to the dominant messages and ways of the day. Oscar Romero spoke out against the oppression of the poor and marginalized by the Junta and was assassinated by the bullet of a gun. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against racism and when he began speaking out against Vietnam and for workers’ rights a gunshot found him as well. Malcolm X spoke out against racism and began moving towards fighting for human rights for all people and in due time gunshots came at him as well. Dorothy Stang fought for the poor, the oppressed, and the Amazon and was shot at point blank range. Lastly, Mohandas Gandhi was also shot at point blank range. The motive for Gandhi’s assassination: he was too welcoming of Muslims.
Invariably, in most of these assassinations there is a Caiaphas figure extolling the pragmatism and logic of ridding the world of the aforementioned figures. There is also the Pontius Pilate figure as well. One who is ruthless, cunning and stuck in the midst of the real politick of competing interests. In the case of Jesus spies came down from Jerusalem to investigate him and figure what all of the commotion was about. Similarly, the FBI infiltrated groups associated with King and X, they went so far as to wire tap their phones and conversations. Oscar Romero had similar problems with the Junta. As his popularity grew he had to be watched and followed. How dare the crowds go after him! Two men just randomly happened to show up to murder Dorothy Stall. It’s not hard to imagine the conversations that took place regarding the planned assassination of these figures. It probably went something like, “If we don’t put an end to this we will lose our nation and our way of life!” “If we don’t get her out of the way we stand to lose money and to upset investors, there’s no way of knowing what this could do to the economy.” “If we don’t shut him up now who knows what effect his speeches will have on public morale and support for the war.”
In such scenarios innocence and justice mean absolutely nothing though it’s often claimed otherwise. Rome claimed to uphold justice and yet Pontius Pilate knowingly put an innocent man to death. Ahh, yes nations love to talk about truth, justice and the… but all too often action betrays so-called ideals. It had to be done. There’s always “give and take” in politics especially when it comes to those you rule with. Crucify Jesus, placate the crowds, and get an IOU in the process from Caiaphas and company. Besides, if need be we can always builds monuments to such prophets. Have you seen the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in D.C.. Pretty cool, huh?
Nonetheless, there are such martyrs all throughout the history of the world because the world has been held captive by what Paul called the powers and the principalities. Jesus was put to death for a myriad of reasons, none of which has to do with his preaching against works’ righteousness or upholding some Anselmic notion of justice. Jesus was crucified because he bore witness to God’s life giving ways. He started a movement preaching the empire of God in the midst of another empire that claimed to have the blessing of God. He attacked the economy of the Temple by healing many such as lepers, forgiving debts, and healing on the Sabbath. He spoke out against the injustices of misogyny, wealth, and abuse. He was inclusive of the unclean, Gentiles and women. He was subversive and revolutionary and this was simply too much for the aristocracy in Jerusalem. Jesus simply signed his death warrant when he began flipping tables and shut-down the economy of the Temple which had simply become a representation of the corrupt and oppressive temple system. He was too much, he was uncontrollable and the crowds were going after him. Thus, if Rome caught wind of such hype they might take matters into their own hands and all would be lost for God’s chosen people. The people of Palestine had suffered the wrath of Rome before, they knew what they were capable of. Therefore, Jesus must die and he did.
But do not confuse Jesus’ willingness to do with a sort of codependent behavior. Jesus bore witness to God’s life-giving ways which resulted in death. He did not go looking for the Cross rather he knew that the Cross would find him just as bullets found those above; because that’s the world’s response to what Gandhi called ‘satyagraha’ or truth force. He gave himself over to God’s Way, he was obedient to the point of death. The Cross is the power and principalities response to the Way. Death comes on Good Friday. But vindication of Jesus’ entire life in the form of Resurrection comes on Easter Sunday. Thus Paul could write,
“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
Thus, we are set free, liberated, rescued from the powers and the principalities. Not through wrath but through all consuming, all suffering love. One thing is made clear by the gospels: we are now invited on such a mission. We are now called to be such a sacrifice for the world…