An insight picked up somewhere many years ago has stayed with me — especially when considering the cruel cross of Jesus which looms on the horizon of our spiritual journey.
Societies seek to oppose and eliminate that which is considered below the acceptable standards of behavior. To accomplish such, laws are created and enforced. Prison cells and various methods of life-taking punishment have long occurred.
Yet, there is another side to this societal reality. It is the strong discomfort and opposition to value-based behaviors that are considered above the standards at which a society wants to live.
Likewise, in those situations, there is strong opposition and a willingness, if not eagerness, to eliminate anyone who dares to live and love beyond the comfort level of the community.
Jesus is chief among the many martyrs who have dared to live above community standards in a way that cost them their lives.
This reality — that loving too much is threatening to insecure and authoritative people — is found in the biblical story as well as throughout history. And it can be found in prophetic music.
In the mid-’80s, the preeminent songwriter and gravel-voiced prophet, Kris Kristofferson, penned: “The holy one called Jesus Christ, healed the lame and fed the hungry, and for his love they took his life away.”
The song — covered by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Highwaymen — also pays tribute to the sacrificial lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and “the brothers Kennedy.” Each verse of tribute concludes with, “My God, they killed him!”
Jesus’ death due to the unacceptable extent of his love and the wideness of his mercy comes through quite clearly in the Gospels. Yet, this reality — that living above society’s standards is unacceptable and leads to elimination — is not the way many professing Christians choose to view and explain the crucifixion.
To do so would reveal our continuation of being fearful of, and threatened by, acts of love, acceptance and forgiveness that go beyond our controlling levels of comfort. Therefore, it is easier and less personally convicting to just pin the act on God — as if the whole episode was part of a divine scheme that played out beyond human choices.
Scapegoating Jesus’ death — by placing the evil act into God’s hands — gets off the hook those whose religious and political powers were at play. And it avoids the reality that those same attitudes that justify discrimination, injustice and restrictive grace are largely embraced today by many who claim to follow Jesus.
Love beyond degree is still quite threatening within our religious and political societies. Therefore, efforts are continually made to rid it from our presence.
Even the sermonic words we might have heard about how “my sin” helped put Jesus on the cross didn’t go into specifics. Those accusations had more to do with some generalized and innate sinfulness within humanity — a debt — that had to be paid off by God through some horrible means.
We don’t tend to ask the hard question when looking upon the cross. That is, how are those same attributes of bigotry, exclusivity, legalism and fear — that led to Jesus’ death — present in our lives that result in us still driving nails in people’s hands today?
Aussie theologian Michael Bird has noted that the image of the cross for many of us “is sanitized and mundane; it is no more affronting than a McDonalds sign or the Apple logo.”
He reminds us that “crucifixion was the Roman way of saying, ‘If you mess with us, there is no limit on the violence we will inflict upon you.’”
The cross is not only offensive in its cruelty — but also in its use (or attempted use) to snuff out love that reaches too far for those who seek to control its extent.
It is no wonder so many people would prefer to present the crucifixion as something God (yes, the God of all creation) had to do to get out of a self-made fix in order to hand out limited passes to heaven.
Yet, the reality is that the magnified love of God revealed in the crucifixion is more healing and hopeful than that — if we dare to admit that humanity’s propensity (then and now) to exclude those whose love exceeds our acceptance is life-taking.
To confess such a reality just might lead to an honest attempt to follow Jesus in that same inclusive, expansive and risky way of love.
Unconditional love, unmatched mercy and unexplainable grace are quite threatening to those who prefer the controlling methods of unequally applied justice, restricted grace and selective enforcement of law and order.
A willingness to give up control, however, is at the heart of needed conviction, forgiveness and redirection.
“On the road to glory where the story never ends, just the holy son of man we’ll never understand,” Kristofferson’s song continues. “My God, they killed him!”
Why? Because nothing is more threatening to our security than expansive grace and uncomfortable love.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.