What do you do when the hymns we sing reinforce a theology which is, and continues to be, detrimental to the marginalized, those who liberationist theologian Jon Sobrino called “the Crucified People”?
“Would you be free from the burden of sin? There’s power in the blood, power in the blood; Would you over evil a victory win? There’s wonderful power in the blood,” one hymn states. “There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.”
We have so embraced a theology of substitution that to question its authenticity feels as if we are on the verge of heresy. And yet, this theology of substitution is but an interpretation — an interpretation which, at best, is wrong and, at worse, damning to the disenfranchised.
Our current understanding of this interpretation was developed during the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury (1033?-1109) to replace the earlier understanding of the crucifixion advanced by Origen (184?-254?) that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to Satan on behalf of many.
Anselm instead advocated for a theory of satisfaction. Jesus’ death was not payment of some ransom, but to satisfy an angry God. Because human sin requires punishment, blood must be shed, specifically the blood of an innocent scapegoat.
A younger contemporary of Anselm, Abelard (1079-1142), furthered this interpretation by arguing that God demonstrated exemplary love by offering up God’s only begotten child to serve as the basis for atonement and reconciliation. Nothing best expresses the love of a father than filicide — the more tortuous, gory and bloody, the greater the love.
Of course, God, portrayed as a snowflake in this interpretation, cannot look upon sin. Hence, when Jesus, on the cross, was carrying all the sins of the world, God looked away, forcing Christ to cry out in abandonment: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Because Christianity is such a bloody faith, eurochristians have interpreted salvation through the shedding of blood. Humans can divert the wrath of God only by accepting Jesus as their sacrificial substitution.
Mere humans deserve crucifixion for their sins, but Jesus paid the price (Origen) and/or took their place (Anselm). If the sinner rejects God’s gift of Jesus being their substitution, then they deserve the full wrath of God for their sins.
This might explain the righteous indignation which has led God-fearing eurochristians to launch crusades, religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, witch trials, colonialism, the genocide of “pagans,” the enslavement of “infidels” and the Holocaust.
Christianity’s fascination with blood made it the cause for most of the world’s bloodletting.
The “salvific-ness” of the cross creates a Christian way of being that glorifies pain, humiliation and abuse as the means of imitating Jesus. For those on the margins of society, such a theology provides false hope that their present suffering in the here-and-now will be rewarded in the hereafter. Suffering now is confused with suffering for Jesus, a redemptive act.
Consider the words of ethicist Stanly Hauerwas criticizing theologian Gustavo Gutierrez’s call for liberation.
In his book After Christendom, Hauerwas argues: “For the salvation promised in the good news is not a life free from suffering, free from servitude, but rather a life that freely suffers, that freely serves, because such suffering and service is the hallmark of the Kingdom established by Jesus.”
The world’s disenfranchised should always be afraid — deeply afraid — when privileged euroamericans call them to be good Christians and “freely suffer … freely serve.”
What if crucifixion is not salvific?
Womanist scholars, like Dolores Williams, insist that Christ as surrogate victim is too painful for the Black woman’s experience, reminiscent of the role in which they were coerced into playing during and after slavery.
There is nothing redemptive in suffering. And here is the danger: when euroamericans — especially those complicit with institutional racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism — insist suffering and servitude is expected from those on their margins.
Maybe the question is not why Jesus had to be crucified — a question which leads to the glorification of suffering as redemptive — but what do we do with the fact that religious and political leaders tortured and killed him.
If this Jesus has become complicit with today’s religious and political authorities who support white Christian nationalism before a silent God, then it becomes the theological work for today’s crucified people to resignify the Jesus of the dominant culture by rejecting their bloody theology.
The cross is what it is: a symbol of sadism and evil. Jesus’ death is no more redemptive than his birth, life, his teachings, his miracles or his parables.
For those who believe, if he was instead to have died of old age, then his existence would still have been redemptive. Crucifixion’s only signification is the unjust death of a just person at the hands of religious and political leaders.
Jesus’ death neither pays a ransom nor is a substitution for us. Crucifixion is an act of radical solidarity, specifically, Jesus’ choice to accompany in solidarity those dying on the crosses of religious and political oppression.
Rather than romanticize the disenfranchised by claiming they “freely suffer … freely serve,” Jesus shared their suffering, their plight, so that they have someone who truly understands their pain, and so that God (if the incarnation is believed) can learn what it means to be human in an unjust world.
To pick up our crosses and follow Jesus is an invitation not to suffer but to stand in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, a solidarity which might cost us everything.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.