I recently watched Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion,” a powerful interpretation of the last hours of Jesus’ human life, which I’m sure will resonate with the dominant culture.
Yet for some, the movie has become inerrant. It is true that the movie does a superb job in historically depicting the suffering of Christ in all of its gore and horror. But is the movie historically accurate? Of course not. Just open up the Bible and read the accounts of the Passion found in all four Gospels. One quickly discovers that Gibson took poetic license, adding events and dialogues not found in the biblical text, while excluding parts of Scripture.
Like all of us who read the Bible, he deciphers the familiar story through the lens of his social location, hence emphasizing certain parts of the story while minimizing others. Does this discredit the movie? Of course not–as long as we remember it is an interpretation of events arrange in such a fashion so as to advance a particular theological perspective concerning Christ’s Passion.
For many Euroamerican Christians, the death on the cross of Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” becomes the ultimate sacrifice, which serves to reconcile God with sinners. Because of human sin, God’s demand for justice and/or God’s demand for the satisfaction of offended honor is required. The death of a sinless Christ, as substitute for a sinful humanity that deserves God’s punishment, restores fellowship between God and humans. Jesus paid the ransom by his death so that others might live. Suffering and death becomes salvific.
Yet, this concept of sacrificial substitution is not limited to the Christ event. The forced globalization of our economy is a sacrificial system which worships money as its fetish, sacrificing the subjective corporeality of the world’s poor. The center of power can participate in all the riches that life has to offer because those on the economic periphery die in producing those riches.
To a great extent, the wealth, power and might of the few literally create suffering and death for the many. The death of those perceived to be inferior is the sacrifice offered as ransom so that the few can enjoy their excess. Like Christ, the marginalized of the earth die so that those with power and privilege can have life abundantly.
Thus, for those on the margins, God understands the plight of today’s crucified people, who hang on the crosses dedicated to the idols of race, class, gender and heterosexual superiority, because there are nail wounds in the flesh of Christ.
More important than any theology that reduces the crucifixion to a doctrine of substitution (I should have been crucified, but instead Jesus took my place), is the understanding that the crucifixion of Christ is God’s solidarity with the countless multitudes who continue to be crucified today.
Jesus’ death on the cross should never be reduced to a sacrifice called for to pacify a God offended by human sin. Ignored for centuries by Eurocentric Christian theology is that Jesus, as fully human, was put to death, like so many today, by the civil and religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their power.
There is nothing redemptive in the suffering of the just. The importance of the cross, for the world’s marginalized, is that they have a God who understands their trials and tribulations because God in the flesh also suffered trials and tribulations.
The good news is not so much that Jesus was crucified, but that Jesus rose from the dead, not to show off God’s power, but to provide hope to today’s crucified that they, too, will be ultimately victorious over the oppression they face.
Forgetting that the cross is a symbol of evil allows for the easy romanticization of those who are marginalized as some sort of hyper-Christian for the “cross” they are forced to bear. Such views tend to offer honor to the one suffering, encouraging a form of quietism where suffering is stoically borne, rather than encouraging actions which can lead toward ending suffering.
If salvation exists in Christ’s life and resurrection, as well as Christ’s death, then his crucifixion can be seen for what it was–the unjust repression of a just man by the dominant culture of his time.
The crucifixion becomes an act of solidarity with those relegated to exist on the underside of the dominant culture. The importance of the crucifixion becomes Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed, Christ’s understanding of how those who are oppressed suffer, reassurance for the disenfranchised that Christ understands their sufferings and, finally, the hope that final victory exists due to the resurrection.
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.