Crucifixion of Christ can teach us much
about the ugliness of religious intolerance
Asheville Citizen-Times, April 18, 2004
By Casey Hurley
Readers of science fiction and fantasy literature “suspend disbelief” to understand the messages within the story. Readers of this column must do the opposite. They must “suspend belief,” to understand the messages within.
This column is about the crucifixion of the human being, Jesus of Nazareth. In order to understand what follows, Christian readers must suspend their belief that Jesus is God, and that the meaning of His crucifixion is that the Son of God was sacrificed to atone for our sins. Readers who cannot suspend those beliefs, should not read further.
Recently Mel Gibson released his version of what happened on Good Friday. The headline from Ash Wednesday’s front-page captured one meaning of the crucifixion: “Gibson Film Sharpens Season Spotlight on Christ’s Sacrifice.”
And Lonnie Ray, director of outreach and evangelism at North Asheville Baptist Church, said about the movie, “You’re able to see the love of Christ. When you’re in your praise and worship, it gives you something to reflect on.” (ACT, 2/25/04, p. A1)
When looking through the “Jesus as Son of God” lens, we see the crucifixion as an act of love and redemption.
Several months ago I was looking at the crucifix in church, and I asked myself, “Why was Jesus hung on a cross to die like that?” I knew the Christian theological answer, but I also sensed that this gory image had other meanings that ought to be uncovered by those who call themselves Christians. In order to find other meanings, I looked through a “Jesus as human” lens.
In his 1983 book, “Living the Richness of the Cross,” Father John Dalrymple wrote, “A spirituality which is based on theology but not on the history behind that theology is lacking an important ingredient, and is likely to be unhelpful for people today who want to base their Christian lives on the man Jesus as he lived in history.” (p. 17)
It occurred to me that day in church, that the Crucifixion is both a secular story and a religious one. Accordingly, religious scholars are cautious about reading the Gospels as history, and historians are cautious about diminishing the religious significance of the historical event.
Scholars on NBC’s Dateline recently hypothesized why Jesus was crucified, and speculated about who was responsible. But the combination of history and Christian teaching in the Gospels prevents us from being able to separate fact from narrative. How much were Pontius Pilate and the Romans responsible? How much were Caiphus and the Jewish high priests responsible? The Gospels differ, and historical accuracy may not have been the purpose of the writers, who were apostles trying to establish Christ’s church.
But these were not the questions that occurred to me as I looked at the Crucifix that day. I already knew the Crucifixion was a powerful event that has been described and observed through the ages. Instead, my questions were: (1) Do Christian religions understand and teach the secular meanings of the Crucifixion? (2) What can we learn from the secular meanings of the crucifixion of the human Jesus?
In “A History of Medieval Christianity: Prophecy and Order” (1968), J. B. Russell points out that Western civilization has two different educational traditions. “One stresses the needs of order and insists that the young are to be taught both the conventional values and morals and the skills useful in performing tasks deemed valuable by society.” (p. 49)
The other tradition is the “prophetic” tradition. It “encourages independent thought and original ideas. It concentrates on teaching the young not only the contents of a specific subject but also how to think.” (p. 49)
One of the reasons Jesus was crucified was that he was of the “prophetic tradition,” which has never been popular. Russell (1968) explains, “the independent thinker, like the prophet, is often obliged to stand in opposition to the accepted values of society. Socrates was obliged to drink hemlock, and Jesus to carry his cross to Golgotha.” (P. 49)
Jesus, a teacher in the “prophetic” tradition, was crucified because he challenged the values, norms, and beliefs of his day. It is ironic that so many of the churches bearing His name teach from the first tradition, foregoing the opportunity to be like Jesus – to teach in the prophetic tradition. Like the Medieval Church, modern Christian churches stress order and acceptance of moral absolutes and church teachings.
Many Christians take it for granted that their churches adhere to the first tradition. For example, Protestants expect their ministers to interpret the scriptures so the congregation can live according to God’s word (the Bible). And Catholics take for granted that their Bishops tell them which movies to attend. The Office for Film and Broadcasting classifies movies as suitable for children, adolescents and adults. The most objectionable category for adults is “O-morally offensive.”
Dalrymple (1983) recognized that Christian Churches have this dilemma. He asked, “How does a conservative institution keep alive the message of a radical reformer? How does the establishment we call church represent Jesus who was a critic of the church establishment of his day and was actually put to death by that establishment?” (p. 26)
Jesus of Nazareth, was a person of exceptional courage, strength, intelligence, honesty, love, and humility. He was crucified by religiously intolerant people; who were fearful, weak, small-minded, dishonest, hateful, and proud. The cross and the crucifix are images of the ugliness of religious intolerance. Do our Christian churches see this?
Dalrymple (1983) suggested they sometimes do not: “The shock is when the institution is found to be developing a life which is contradictory to Jesus’ ideals.” (p. 29)
So the human Jesus was crucified by the institutional church of His day. Is this just another case of the human tendency to “crucify” prophets? As I looked more, and thought about the specific teachings of Jesus, I began to see additional meanings in the Crucifixion.
All Christian churches and congregations are different. Christians have to decide for themselves if their church follows the teachings of Christ, in addition to teaching about Christ. The crucifix is a graphic reminder that this is the minimum expected of those who worship Jesus. And Dalrymple (1983) points out that true followers of Christ are especially vigilant about questioning their churches.
Like Bill Fishburne (AC-T, 2/29/04, p. A13), I was moved by “The Passion of the Christ.” But, unlike Mr. Fishburne, I do not believe it is a simple matter.
He wrote, “The point of ‘The Passion’ is that Christ willingly took the burden of our sins upon himself. All we have to do is believe. Is this too simple for the complex mind?”
My answer is, “Yes. It is too simple.” Extreme blood and violence does not help us understand more about the Crucifixion. Suspending belief in the teachings of our Christian churches, however, enables us to understand more.
When we look through the “Jesus as human” lens we see that, in addition to being about God’s love for us, the Crucifixion is about the ugliness of religious intolerance, and about our human tendency to “crucify” prophets -- no matter how loving and humble. Finally, we might see the crucifixion as a challenge to not only accept Jesus’ love, but also to follow His teachings about love.
A final warning: This may put you at risk of being “crucified.”