So here I stand, with the spectre of the cross looming large, staring up at a Jesus who seems to me to be at once completely alien and yet so intimately familiar. The more I have read, the deeper I have delved into Jewish thinking in an attempt to better understand this most beautiful of men, this revelation of the fullness of God, the more conscious I have become of the paucity of my understanding. I know that somehow what I am looking at is Jesus’s understanding of himself as the fulfilment of Torah, as the living Temple from which the reign of God will be inaugurated upon the earth, who – in this act – calls people from all nations to be God’s chosen priesthood, to bear the divine image so that the world may come to know God. But the richness of the Jewish allusions and imagery in the gospels and in the writings of Paul is largely lost on me. I can feel its significance but I just do not know enough to make the connections. I cannot escape the fact that the story of Jesus happens in a time and place so far removed from my own that I can see it only as an imperfect caricature, a shadow. Something about the Passion story leaves me painfully aware of the limitations my own cultural and social filters place on me in terms of knowing this God-man.
But there is more to it too. There is something transcendent about this moment, something that I do not believe is so difficult to comprehend that it requires sophisticated scholarly engagement. Something about this moment is so compelling that it moved people from all walks of life in the first century Mediterranean region to embrace a radically different way of being in the world. Somehow this story was so powerful that people who had no vested interest in the Jewish metanarrative that undoubtedly informed the teachings of Jesus, and which shaped the way the disciples interpreted the events of the Passion, could identify with. In short, there must be something in it for me too, removed as I am from 1st Century Palestine.
I do know this: the gospel writers devote the bulk of their narratives to describing the Passion story – the death and resurrection of Jesus. They fully intend for the cross to be the lens through which we attempt to understand Jesus. So what do we see – what should we see – when we look at the cross? That’s not such an easy question. As a couple of church leaders who are very dear to me pointed out in a comment to one of my posts, it is entirely possible that the Jesus I see – despite my most concerted efforts to understand him on his own terms – is merely an accretion of the Jesus constructs of the last two thousand years, as interpreted through a liberal post-modern lens. It is more than possible – it is probable. For every last one of us. And that means that my job now, as I look up at the cross, is to strip it of all of the meanings I have added to it through my reading, my cultural prisms, my twisted God-constructs, and simply describe what it is that I see in ways that speak to the commonality of human experience, regardless of context.
Let me tell you what I see. Throughout the gospels, I am presented starkly with a world gone wrong, where the guardians of the people, the leaders and the visionaries, use power to exploit others. I am confronted with my complicity in perpetuating a world where the powerful prey on the powerless, and use the authority and influence they have to enrich themselves at the expense of others (is it any wonder that Paul describes his war as not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities?). It is a world where the brutal exercise of power is used to legitimate ways of relating that dehumanise those who are not members of the in-group, where paranoid cabals of (mostly) men feel so threatened by the existence of anyone whose values or beliefs or interests do not correspond with their own that they prescribe terrible and oppressive rules for membership of the group, from which nobody may deviate, and then use non-conformity to their rules as justification for the brutalisation of those who threaten that sense of identity. I see a world where the powerful brand the marginalised as sinners and on the basis of that, abuse them. I see a world where the victims of its oppressive systems have no voice. I see a world where those whom God appointed as stewards of the earth, as image bearers of the divine, have used their power to ravage that which was entrusted to their care. In a world of beings who are fundamentally relational, I see only broken relationships.
And then, into all of this chaos and depravity, comes the most powerful man of them all, one who commands the very elements, who has power over disease and deformity and even death, who could summon legions of angels to his defense, should he choose. But all he does is serve. He will not let them crown him king; he socialises with the outcasts and the marginalised of society – the tax-collectors, the lepers, the Samaritans, the women, the Romans (to the Jews), the sinners. And he acts as a servant to those whose power pales into insignificance beside his own. And this unveiling of the injustice of their ways of relating, this exposure of their abuse of power and authority, angers those who would hide behind the bulwark of so-called divine ordination. And I watch as he lets them kill him. I see God being beaten and humiliated and savagely murdered, and as they mock and pummel him, his response is to forgive them. I see him abandoned by those who promised to follow him til the end. And when it seems all over, and they find the tomb empty, as they cower in fear before this risen God-man, whom they have forsaken, his first words are not words of condemnation, nor of judgment, but of peace and reconciliation – be not afraid.
Two thousand years ago the Jews expected a Messiah who whose justice would come at the edge of a sword, who would give the unrighteous what they deserved. They got Jesus instead.The radical message of Jesus is this: while the world longs for a Messiah to restore justice, the only way to make the world right and just is through reconciliation, which must begin with the offering of forgiveness. I think theologian Miroslav Volf explains it magnificently (https://themathesontrust.org/papers/christianity/volf-forgiveness.pdf) . We need to ask ourselves, he argues, to what end is it that we struggle towards justice? Is our goal simply to give everyone what they deserve? Is that all that justice is? Or do we press towards the far greater goal of healing relationships? While “strict justice” might be seen to meet the first goal of retribution, Volf contends, it can never meet the far greater one of healing relationships.
Part of the reason for this is that what constitutes justice for one party is not always perceived as just by the other. Nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. This is compounded by the fact that “an eye for an eye” logic is not strict justice: it would be if the situation were one of exchange (I’ll give you my eye if you give me yours), but the situation of an offense is invariably a violation, not an exchange, that requires more than merely the offering of the eye in compensation. It is why the family members of murder victims will frequently feel that justice has not been done, even if the death penalty were enforced on the murderer. But this more-than-a- life for a life will be perceived as unjust by those who identify with the offender’s perspective and their subsequent pursuit of their own justice can only further escalate the conflict. Consequently, the pursuit of strict justice will invariably result in new injustices, so that any action becomes simultaneously just and unjust, making strict justice, Volf contends, impossible. He goes on to argue that even if strict justice could be satisfied, the enforcement of that justice would preclude communion between the conflicting parties and the relationship could never be “fully healed”. The pursuit of strict justice would only ever “bring us peace only as the absence of war, but not as harmonious ordering of differences”.
That is why Volf sees the pursuit of reconciliation and not of strict justice at the heart of the gospel message’s pursuit of justice. God is in the business of restoring relationships through reconciliation, not of giving people what they deserve. True justice cannot be achieved through a “clenched fist”, because this does nothing to restore the broken relationship. He argues that the “clenched fist” model of “first justice and then reconciliation”, on which the penal substitution theory of atonement used my most Evangelical churches to explain the cross is based, is seriously flawed. Indeed, if forgiveness could only be granted after strict justice had taken place, then it would not be forgiveness at all. Rather, Volf argues, justice requires us to “embrace”, which is how Volf labels the act of relating in love.
As a starting point for relating in love, Volf argues that we require first the “will to embrace”, which he defines as “the will to give ourselves to others and to welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them”. This, he argues, “is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any reading of their action with respect to justice. This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil””.
But this act of “embracing” is not indifferent to justice; on the contrary, it demands we attend to justice. Thus the will to embrace “includes in itself the will to determine what is just and to name wrong as wrong”, as well as “the will to rectify the wrongs that have been done” and “to reshape the relationship to correspond to justice”. But this does not, Volf stresses, require the establishment of strict justice. Strict justice prohibits such reconciliation.
Reconciliation, then, has to begin with forgiveness. But forgiveness, Volf insists, “does not stand outside of justice”, it does not disregard the need for justice. Forgiveness entails blame, so that the act of forgiveness condemns the deed and receiving forgiveness accepts that blame. But forgiveness also accepts that strict justice has not been – nor indeed can ever be – done. Instead of insisting on strict justice, which would leave the relationship irreparably broken, forgiveness looks to the far greater priority of the healing of the relationship, and thereby the restoration of social harmony, as the ultimate goal of all justice. As a result, the offering of forgiveness is unconditional and is not predicated on the repentance of the offender. Rather, the offering of forgiveness is “to invite [offenders] to self-knowledge and release, which – if accepted – carries the promise of an admission of guilt, repentance, and healing”. Thus repentance is the possible result of forgiveness rather than a prerequisite for it.
But this unconditional forgiveness is only the first step in the process. For forgiveness to be completed, the wrongdoer must recognize the evil of hens actions and be willing to make amends. And this may not always happen. Forgiveness is always a risk. But it is a necessary risk if true social justice is to be achieved. The ultimate goal of all justice is reconciliation, for which forgiveness is an imperative starting point and in which “the search for justice is an integral and yet subordinate element”. Sadly, often forgiveness will not result in repentance, but that does not alter the fact the only viable path to reconciliation and justice lies in offering it.
That is what I see when I look at the Passion story. I see God initiating a process of reconciliation through the offering of forgiveness. Neither Miroslav Volf nor I see any indication of the enforcement of strict justice at the cross. And that is precisely what makes it so radically powerful. Through the gospel stories in general and the passion narrative in particular, I am invited to see my complicity in creating and sustaining a world that is founded on ways of relating that are sinful (ie not founded on love) and perpetuated through the violent oppression and marginalisation of threatening “others”, where I give priority to self-interest rather than healthy relationships. Worse, too often we do all of this in the name of justice, of God, of good. And the rot has run so deep that when God revealed Henself in Jesus, we murdered Hen. But God had the final word, and that word was peace.
God took the first step – and also modeled for us in our own relations that first step – in offering forgiveness unconditionally. To everybody. God’s forgiveness, like all true forgiveness, is not conditional on our repentance, nor on our willingness to make amends. We are forgiven regardless of whether or not we say the sinner’s prayer or call Jesus Lord.
But that does not mean that justice is not important to God. It is. The profound injustice of the crucifixion, performed in the name of justice, judges the world and its systems of power. On the cross, displayed for all the world to see, is God’s condemnation of all of our corrupt religious and political and cultural systems, our abuse of our fellow human beings, our steadfast refusal to look at ourselves, to see ourselves for what we are. The cross demands that we acknowledge that this is what we are, what we have become. The potential for our salvation through the cross rests on our willingness to recognise that all of this horror is our handiwork, not that it is God’s.
The resurrection is a vital part of the story because it is the risen Jesus who offers the reconciliation and forgiveness, whose word of peace assures us that there will be no retaliation (just in case “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” was not enough). There is no threat of divine retribution. God’s wrath is off the table. And although Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we deserve strict justice, we escape God’s wrath not because we mysteriously “accept Jesus as Lord”, punished in our place, but because Jesus has unreservedly refused the right to strict justice. We are unconditionally forgiven. There is no hell.
But the restoration of a relationship requires the participation of more than merely one party; forgiveness can only ever be complete when it is accepted. Reconciliation is ultimately not possible unless we recognise the offense, accept our part in it, and choose a different way: the way of Jesus. And Jesus’s way recognises that strict justice will leave the world broken, so instead of an eye for an eye, Jesus teaches enemy love. Instead of religious piety, Jesus encourages us to go and be reconciled with our brother. Instead of using power to control, Jesus uses it to serve. And he tells us how to be reconciled to God – go and do just as he did: forgive “seventy times seven” times and love one another.
And I do believe that ultimately “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord”. But I do not see that as a threat directed at non-believers. I see it as the ultimate reconciliation of every person to one another and to God; all relationships fully restored; God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I believe in a God who has a bigger and nobler goal for us than simply punishing us for our wrongdoings, who loves us so much the Hen will not rest until all has been made whole.
So here I stand, with the spectre of the cross looming large. In this moment of darkness I cannot help but see a light. I see what I think thousands of believers across the 1st Century Mediterranean world did: the world condemned, its brokenness and its horror exposed. I become increasingly conscious of the role that I have played in creating and sustaining this world, too, whether that has been in the form of toxic masculinity, a refusal to acknowledge white privilege, indifference to the poor, religious intolerance, jokes at the expense of minority groups, or simply – sometimes – silence in the face of injustice. The cross judges me and finds me wanting. But it also offers hope for redemption. In Jesus’s unconditional forgiveness for my part in corrupting the world, the relationships, of which God has made me a co-steward, I find an invitation to start again. To participate in making it right. To begin the healing of a world.