There was no “Damascus Road” experience. My understanding of Jesus’ death was challenged – and, ultimately, changed – slowly, gradually, haltingly.
Encountering the work of René Girard – and others who built upon and adapted his interpretation of Jesus’ death through the lens of mimetic (imitative), scapegoating violence – began to raise many questions.
What would Jesus’ disciples think about the Friday before Easter being referred to as “Good Friday”? Would they find it baffling? Appalling?
Do we rejoice and celebrate Jesus’ death on Friday afternoon, or do we rejoice and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning? Can we do both?
Some popularized Christian soteriology (efforts to explain how we are saved, what we are saved from and who does the saving) tries to do so.
Yet, as I continued pulling at this thread and re-reading the Gospel accounts, it became impossible for me to reconcile rejoicing on both days because no one in these narratives is portrayed as happy on both Friday and Sunday.
As the Gospels present it, this is an either/or not a both/and matter. We have to choose one day or the other.
As my faith was unsettled and I sought a new understanding, I became increasingly troubled by hymns that appear to celebrate Friday’s unjust execution rather than Sunday’s resurrection.
“What can wash away my sins?” asks one familiar hymn. “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” is the answer given, followed by a celebration of blood flowing out of Jesus’ body: “O precious is the flow that makes me white as snow.”
“Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?” asks another hymn. The “cleansing power” is revealed in the next question: “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
“Is this not celebrating the wrong day, the wrong event?” I wondered. “Is this not joining Jesus’ executioners in celebrating his crucifixion, when blood flowed out of his body until he died?”
I couldn’t – and still can’t – shake the feeling that some atonement models encourage Christians to celebrate Jesus’ death, an event the Gospels demonstrate was an act of injustice, resulting from betrayal and false witness.
Jesus’ death is a source of great grief and mourning in the Gospels. In certain hymns, and in the atonement models that inform them, it is a source of rejoicing.
At some point in the deconstruction and reconstruction process, the proclamation of several Hebrew prophets about sacrifices came to mind:
Hosea 6:6: God desires mercy, compassion and forgiveness to flow freely from the lives of human beings, not bloody sacrifice and death (my translation).
Micah 6:6-8: “Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? No! God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jeremiah 19:4-5: “Judah has forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods … by filling the Temple with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal — something I did not command or mention nor did it enter my mind.”
Their message is clear: the sacrifice of animals or humans is a system of salvation that its practitioners attribute to divine command, but that God rejects. The sacrifice of humans and animals is not God’s way of reconciliation; it is humanity’s.
So, if God does not desire animal sacrifice, and if child sacrifice is something that never entered into God’s mind, why would God require the death of Jesus, God’s “only begotten only son,” to forgive humanity?
The conclusion I’ve come to is that God did not and does not. No bloody sacrifice — animal or human — was necessary or desired. To suggest otherwise is to worship a false god.
Rather, Jesus died in humanity’s scapegoating system, which God demonstrated as erroneous and unjust by raising Jesus from the grave.
This is why Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon, is when Christians should celebrate.
We rejoice not in Jesus’ death but in his resurrection. We celebrate the day when the one who fully embodied profligate love, and who proclaimed and embodied a divine reign and rule that would overturn and transform the injustices of humanity’s reign and rule, was raised to new life after being unjustly executed.
Atonement models that proclaim the necessity of Jesus’ death to forgive humanity often result in expressions of Christianity that focus largely on obtaining life after death in “the sweet by and by” when we all “fly away.”
These models often produce “vampire Christians,” as the late Dallas Willard referred to them, who want Jesus for his blood and not much else.
And how could it be otherwise if you see Jesus’ primary function as dying to secure forgiveness from God’s wrath (or to escape the devil’s snare or pay the penalty owed by humanity due to sin, depending on your preferred atonement model) in order to provide a way to heaven and “eternal life” after death.
Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard once said, “The destiny of the world depends less on the battles that are fought and won than on the stories the world loves and believes in.”
Our theology leads us astray when it loves and believes in the wrong story, causing us to celebrate the very act of violence that the resurrection condemns and overcomes.
Our theology is faulty when it loves and believes in a story of scapegoating violence, a narrative so common and insidious that we don’t even realize we are in bondage to it.
Jesus is a victim of scapegoating violence in which the sins of the many are heaped upon a single entity (the scapegoat), and through the scapegoat’s death the community seeks reconciliation and peace in its temporary unity against the one. This is humanity’s, not God’s, proffered means of salvation.
Recognizing this, we are challenged not simply to be content with a “ticket” to heaven after we die, but to work, as Jesus did, to be a part of the reign of God that is in our midst by rejecting scapegoating violence.
It gives us courage to follow in the way of Jesus by working to overturn the tables of injustice in our world and to offer everyone we meet the hope and healing of profligate love, which refuses to let oppression and injustice go unchallenged but seeks the healing and redemption of all, both oppressor and oppressed.
There are two primary stories with numerous variations from which to choose: one celebrates and rejoices the events of Friday afternoon; the other, the events of Sunday morning.
So, what story is it that we love and believe in? Our answer makes all the difference not only in how we understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but also in how we live out our days.