Today, (April 2) is Good Friday. For me Good Friday has always been the most significant point in the Lenten-Holy Week-Easter drama. I remember as a college freshman sitting alone in the Duke University chapel on Good Friday, and feeling like the world was going on as normal even though for me time seemed to stand still. While I was frozen in time remembering Jesus dying on the cross, the people around me went on like it was just another day. Ever since I have approached Good Friday as a uniquely significant day, even though for many folks it is simply “business as usual.”
As important as the day is for me, I must admit I have struggled with its meaning; why did Jesus die on that cross? For years I simply accepted the commonly professed theory usually referred to as “substitutionary atonement”: that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for my sins so that I might have salvation. This theory assumes that all human beings are hopeless sinners, that God is completely holy and righteous, and that God can only have his righteousness satisfied by a perfect, unblemished sacrifice: Jesus. This view sees God thru the lens of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and professes Jesus to be the last and final sacrifice.
In recent years I have come to view this explanation as portraying God as arbitrary and petty – that God requires a human sacrifice before he can offers us grace, love and forgiveness. Such a view seems totally out of sync with the image and message about God which Jesus embodied and proclaimed. Moreover, as Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver points out, the substitutionary atonement theory depends on the idea that God requires violence in order to satisfy God’s justice, and that justice depends on punishment in order to be secured. Like Weaver, I find this violent view of God to be inconsistent and small.
Several years ago I came across a little book by Alan Walker called the Many-Sided Cross of Jesus. Walker points out that the substitution theory is only one of many explanations of the cross that have been put forth over the centuries. One of the alternative theories, known as “Christus Victor,” focuses on the fact that Jesus was a victim of violence and injustice. It also assumes that the cross was not part of God’s plan for Jesus, but when the crucifixion occurred “God took hold of it…and made it the occasion of salvation.” (p. 75). Through the resurrection Jesus gains victory not only over death, but also the powers of injustice that put him to death.
Walker then explains another theory (which it appears Walker himself affirms) which he calls “the cross of identification” in which the death and suffering of Jesus is an example and a “point of identification” whereby we who follow Jesus are “invited to share in his suffering” (p. 92). This view transforms what true power is and calls all people to live in service on behalf of those who suffer from injustice, war, violence and poverty around the world.
These days I take a position that integrates Walker’s models Christus Victor and the Cross of Identification. This afternoon I will join a large group of folks in a prayerful witness outside a gun shop in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. This shop is known to be the source of many guns used in street crimes. Just yesterday ago a 76 elderly woman in this area was shot in the cross fire of a gun battle while sitting in her car. At this vigil will be a large group of kids who every day live in fear walking to the store or school. I will be there to stand with them, to in some small way identify with them and proclaim that Jesus too, himself a victim of legalized violence and injustice, also stands with them.
On this day Jesus died on a cross. The power and the mystery of that event may never be fully comprehended. However, to the degree that I do grasp its meaning, that cross stands as a call to stand with and work with those who suffer oppression, injustice, and marginalization in our society and our world.