What is it about Jesus’ crucifixion that is different from any other crucifixion? It’s not what physically happened to him. The bulk of what Jesus experienced in being crucified is what everyone crucified experienced. Some like to fetishize that violence, and make the crucifixion about the violence itself. Yet beyond being an example of a dehumanizing execution, there isn’t anything about it that was extraordinary.
There’s Jesus’ innocence, but is that really unique? In the U.S. we’ve learned a lot during the last two or three decades about the reality that we kill people who are innocent more often than we like to admit. That’s something as true of prisoners on death row, as it is of people declared non-combatant victims of a drone strike, or an errant smart missile.
What was different then? I think if we focus on the violence of Jesus’ death, the reason to do so is to face the darkness we’re caught up in. If the purpose of the how is anything, it is to show us what we do. How far the impact of Original Sin reaches. I’m thinking of posts I saw on Facebook today, lauding a speech Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel gave expressing grave concerns about the announced framework for an Iranian nuclear arms control deal. People were supporting Netanyahu’s conviction, and strength. Reading the text, I didn’t see strength, I saw a lot of fear mongering. Our propensity towards violence includes that. We scapegoat the other side, and believe that we are right. And because we are right, if we have to be violent, our violent response is justified.
What makes Jesus’ death different isn’t how he died. It is that when he died he forgave us. That forgiveness is what changes everything. We are forgiven. Because we are forgiven, we can forgive. James Alison has wonderful phrasing here:
“Now, this is vital for us: it means that in this picture “sin”, rather than being a block that has to be dealt with, is discovered in its being forgiven. The definition of sin becomes: that which can be forgiven.”
How often do you beat yourself up because you aren’t the way you want to be. Because you make the wrong choices, about love, about work, with family, and your friendships. You keep trying to be different, think differently, act in another way so that you can somehow overcome this monolith of inadequacy by which you define yourself. And just like that Alison is saying, this monolith that you have built. It’s your block. It’s not God’s block. It’s yours. You know Jesus’s perspective. If you’re a church going Christian, heck, if you’ve watched a single movie about Jesus’ life you know he says: “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
What does forgiveness look like? Alison says,
“It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free.”
God doesn’t think the way we do. We want her to. We keep trying to impose our sensibilities on God. You are already being forgiven. God is not looking at you like a parent sometimes does before saying “Billy, tell your sister you’re sorry, and this time make it sound like you mean it!” This is what atonement is. God forgives. That experience breaks our hearts open, so that like Seuss’ Grinch they can grow three sizes, or more, and we can fully embrace life and all it holds.