Palm Sunday: No Hope Here
By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell
If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.
And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.
A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.
Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.
In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.
Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.
While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.
This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.
I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.
The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.
This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.
The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.
On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.
Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.