DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?
In a class I'm teaching about the Puritan Commonwealth in early American history, we watched a portion of a PBS documentary entitled "God in America." In one clip, John Winthrop, governor of the colony, sits with two colleagues as judges over Ann Hutchinson, an early evangelical leader with quite a following. Winthrop knows that his authority is being challenged. Hutchinson says, and we have the transcript of the trial, "What charge do you bring against me? Tell me what I have done wrong." Winthrop responds, "We know the charge, and we are satisfied with it." Winthrop was struggling with many problems in the colonies, including dissatisfaction, shortness of supplies, and political intrigue. One way to address the problems was to place blame on a popular woman and make her the scapegoat for what was happening. One way for Winthrop to make himself comfortable was to drive Hutchinson out of the colonies.
We smile today at such superficial and misguided justice, but the various trials of Jesus which John shares in our Gospel lesson don't have much more validity. Annas produces no charge at the first trial, and Jesus is sent to Caiphas. Caiphas produces no charge, so he is sent to Pilate. Pilate engages Jesus in a famous debate about truth, but reaches no conclusions either. Only the pressure of the crowd seeking revenge encourages Pilate to realize that he can't be seen as the troublemaker here or that he can't accept responsibility for Jewish sedition. Jesus has to be seen as the problem, and Jesus has to be removed from the bema.
On the surface of the story, that's all there's to it: Pilate acquiesces to the mob's pressure and washes his hands of the matter by "letting" Jesus be crucified. However, as all of us know, there are deep issues here involving more than Pilate and the Jews. The crucixion is more than a historic event in which a popular leader gets executed by authorities who feel threatened by his growing popular authority. That sort of ritual has happened too many times in human history.
We could mention Savanarola and Hus, Servetus and Wycliffe, and Peter and Paul. It is more personal than such events carried out by ancient executors. As Johann Hermann put it in his hymn, "Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended": "Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee."
What was happening at Jesus' crucifixion, at profound psychological and spiritual levels, is quite different from just another historic execution. On the one hand, we are confronted with the problem of violence so endemic to human experience. On the other hand, this is a solution we ourselves have used. You don't have to be a burly war veteran to face this charge. Gentle grandmothers at times resolve grievances with destructive gossip and subltle neighborhood plots. The popular book and movie, The Help, has us laughing because the heroine bakes her stool in a chocolate pie to get even with an obnoxious woman in the community. Yet we laugh because, secretly, we would have done the same thing to this woman because she deserved it! That's how we feel. Getting even, settling our differences with revenge, blaming others to move attention away from our own faults-that's how we do it.
And we do it not just in our families, but also in our work relationships and our professional lives. The TV series "The Good Wife," for example, hatches one plot after another in the corporate legal world. We follow this intrigue with fascination because we can either take lessons from the lead characters-or we could teach them a thing or two. This is who we are as well.
And at international levels, we have done this for centuries. In the Crusades, kings and popes deflected criticism by pointing to the atrocities created by Muslim rulers. During the McCarthy era in our own country, we failed to address major concerns because we were led to believe that we were under the control of communists hidden behind every door. And in more recent times, we have ignored the strategic planning needed in eduation, in highway and bridge infrastructure and in health care. Instead, we foolishly looked in other directions to find our real problems, problems to which we could apply our passion for violence in bringing about a solution. Osama bin Laden, Sadaam Hussein, and Mohamar Gadhafi became our scapegoats. Combatting terrorism became the national passion for a country gripped with paranoia it may never have faced before.
Enter the crucifixion of Jesus. What does this say about violence? From a faith perspective, this is what it says to me. Humans have a long-standing relationship with violence as a means to resolve conflict. God wants to challenge this approach, so he allows us to take the Innocent One as a scapegoat to the cross. There God brings us face with the violent people we are. There we realize how inhumane and how brutal we can be. In the crucixion, God cannot combat our violence with his own. That would not be godlike. In the crucifixion, God submits to our violence by allowing the Son to die so that we can see what violence leads to. There at the foot of the cross, with Mary and John, with soldiers and disciple-- there we may weep at what we have become.
And there God seeks to emancipate us from the need to destroy life with death by restoring Jesus to life again. God simply will not accept our human desire for revenge and violent approaches to conflict resolution-the very center of the meaning of sin. He accepts Jesus' death as the end to such dead-end solutions and he gives us along with Jesus a life which is both different and fruitful.
Some years ago, one of the great missionary scholars in the field of missiology, Dr. Eugene Bunkowske, told me how to understand enculturation, the way in which the Gospel comes to be resident within a culture. In Nigeria, he said, many thousands of people had become Christian. The chief, however, resisted the claims of the missionaries. He listened, he gave advice, but Christ was a stranger to him. Then one day, at a great gathering, as people were talking about the place Christ had taken in their lives, he rose to speak. He said, "It is no longer necessary to kill a lion to be a man. It is no longer necessary to kill a person from another tribe to demonstrate that you are a man. For Jesus Christ has died once and for all, and death no longer has power over us."
"What the chief had come to understand," Bunkowske said, "was that the Gospel had claimed a place in his personal life. He understood that in Jesus' death a new beginning had taken place, and it was true for him as well."
God is the God of life, and He will not accept the dead-ends created by our destructive approaches in human relationships. He will not accept the life-defying forces that place blame on others and that ultimately lead to a dead end like a cross.
Instead, the God who loves us insists that Jesus' life will no more end in death than will our own. He offers through Jesus'resurrection from death a resurrection of our own. In this promise, we know the forgiveness that heals our mistaken attempts at life to be refashioned with a new life born of God's own love.
Did Jesus have to die? In God's love, there are perhaps no "musts," but it is his choice to show us the unstoppable power of life in place of the dead-ends to which our approaches to revenge and violence inevitably lead.
Although this day brings us face to face with Jesus' death and our own, it does not stop there.
The God of life places us this day on the threshhold of hope and eternal future. It is the day from which we set behind our pasts and prepare to live again and forever.