What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice. It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.
Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s. It is dated July 16, 1944.
Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)
One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula. It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.
The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images. It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation. The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation: “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death. Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”
Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world. It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity. The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news: In sin, there’s no way out. The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional. Then, the invitation to salvation follows.
We must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation. But, the whole transaction is in the abstract. The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin. Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama. There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God. God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice. So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself. Somehow, that’s grace. If we personally believe this backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted. The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.
I have a problem with this transaction. But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand. Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems. Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation. But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients. There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.
Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good. Individually, this may be true. However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice. The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.
Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous. But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears. The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world. In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.
As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world. The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being. Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this. Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations. The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history. The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway. Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.
Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.
Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life. The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire. Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence. They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access. Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable. Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice. Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive. Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order. The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.
In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world. In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin. The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story. The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power. But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”
Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives. My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges. It is not that I don’t “deserve” them. Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them. Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges. In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals. Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism. Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.
The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours: “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?” Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance. What is my responsibility? Should others share in my life’s abundance?
Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus. Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important. It bears critical insights. Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now. Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst. (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels. We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ. Discipleship means believing upon him.
But, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world. The cross is God’s death. The cross is not an indictment against the Jews. It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians. Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus. Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire. It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death. The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign. The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death. The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives: Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me. The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now. Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture. It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.
The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption. It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will. The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience. On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh. His death is the death of every person. (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)
Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross. Some come as victims. Some come as casual observers. Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence. Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire. We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death. Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19) Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.