Friday, April 22, 2011

Christ Without a Cross Dies Twice

"For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life's oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion.
for my salvation." --Johann Heermann tr. Robert Bridges


Our culture denies death. Our culture denies death's power by saying that it is nothing, only a change. Our culture denies death's sorrow by making of it a celebration. And our culture makes of death's horror a cheap cologne that smells more like bacon than decomposition.

The challenge of Christ's death and resurrection is the greatest gift that the Christian church can give this culture, indeed any culture. But Christ without a cross, especially among his followers, dies two deaths: the actual death, and the death of relevance, for Jesus as just another man who died, another sucker whom the state overpowered, another dupe of the Caesar, no matter how many nice things he did or good things he taught, is doubly dead.


The doctrine of atonement, the idea by which the death of Jesus makes good for the sins of the world, for our sins, is problematic for many to say the least. The idea that this act of Jesus, casting aside his Messianic crown for us, was in fact an act of divine child abuse, God killing God's own son, or the act of a political prisoner alone, seems to me fairly pervasive.

One powerful idea given me in seminary was that instead of a Mel Gibson-style pornographic torture fest, Christ's torture and death on the cross was an interchange of God's justice for our constitutional human injustice, happening through Jesus as through an electrical conduit. More than a felix culpa, a "happy fault," that "allows" God to build something better out of our faults, this interchange is an exchange of all that is just in God for all that is unjust in a creation that goes its own way. We get a better deal.


I'm hardly a heavy-duty theologian, or a student of literature and art and cinema who can quote all of the concepts that I'm referring to here in the history of human achievement. But it seems pretty clear to me that many in the church, uncomfortable as we are with death, might seek to hide Jesus's death behind bunnies, eggs, candy, and parades.

What is an age-appropriate explanation of the crucifixion and resurrection to children? I'm by no means an expert, but talking directly about Jesus dying, and God bringing Jesus back from the dead, seems like it could be very powerful for those whom we often forget about when tragedy happens, because it seems even more difficult to explain it to children, who know something bad when they see, hear, feel, and experience it.

It seems to me that Christ without a cross dies twice, as I said above: his actual death, and the death of his relevance to us as Christians and to our or any culture, time or place. Our culture is not exclusively Christian, but it is one to which we might share a word from this perspective of death and resurrection, and at that a word of hope. Jesus without resurrection is Jesus without hope.

Perhaps we are ashamed because we cannot explain God's place in evil, either the evil of the crucifixion or the evil of natural disaster, war, famine, and other engineered acts of evil that we humans perpetrate on other humans?

Perhaps it is so difficult to believe in the resurrection that it is easier to sugarcoat it than try to explain it to others, much less ourselves and our own people? I can't say I understand the death and resurrection of Jesus all that well, but something in me believes beyond the need to sugarcoat my own impending death with the cross, to use the cross as a means of escape from reality, as must appear to many who do not share this same belief.

A church that sugarcoats the death and resurrection of Jesus with the candy of culture may well be as odious as a believer who uses the cross to deny his or her own death. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said famously in Cost of Discipleship:

"As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death--we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls people, he bids them come and die....In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both life and death" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 89-90. New York: Macmillan, 1959, Touchstone ed. 1995).

There is a broader point of forgiveness and mutual burden-bearing to Bonhoeffer's message here, but the necessity of death, and of death in Christ for a Christian, is of central moment.

Any version of Christ that can escape the tomb without the cross is not the Christ. Any version of Christ that gets caught in torture without the work of God in resurrection from the tomb is not the Christ. But my sense is that our human tendency is more to liberate Christ and ourselves through him without taking the hardest steps to and through the cross.


I wonder if a failure to encounter Jesus in all of his shame on the cross, around the crucifixion, and jumping right to the resurrection, may not be an element of what has chased people away from church by the droves?

Not only has there been a cultural shift since the 1960s that shows a marked decline in the relevance of church in much of American society, but perhaps the church itself has aided in people leaving it through downplaying its own relevance through its core concepts, and through becoming a place of trying to make people feel good about themselves in a way that a gin and tonic could do much better.

As a kid, and as an adult, direct talk has engaged me much more than beating around the bush. I don't want to hear about a Jesus who is merely a glory-machine, triumphing over death without experiencing it. That kind of Jesus doesn't make much difference to me or anyone else.

I want to hear about a Jesus who went all the way, who experienced everything I have experienced, and who came through it in a way that I can know meant a lot to him, not only an insignificant key change in the tune he was whistling, but a whole shift in the reality of what death and our relationship with God means to me and to humanity.

We crucify Christ again by forgetting the cross. We crucify Christ again by forgetting the tomb. We crucify Christ again by forgetting the resurrection. It is only with each of these elements, and by accompanying Christ in these places, and in teaching this to our children, and in insisting on our reality to the wider culture, challenging first its denial of death, that we respect most profoundly the God who has given us Godself in human form, and who has loved us so much that even death can't separate us from God.

Loving Jesus, the tomb awaits, but not yet. Nor your glorious resurrection. Not yet. Keep me for a moment from it, that its power and glitter not overwhelm me. Keep me for a moment with you in death's embrace. Amen.


  1. You're famous! I just saw your article (and large picture) in the Concord. Congrats! I also was published in this quarters newsletter but not nearly as prominent as you!

  2. Thanks--I'll have to check out yours too! I really have to get back to anti-gay bullying. The situation in Anoka/Hennepin with the School District there seems intractable, and "outsiders" such as myself don't seem to be very helpful. Yet it's still an issue that needs more than a month of focus. I'll be doing a workshop on it at an ONA statewide gathering on May 8th, and perhaps something more will issue from that. It's a spiritual issue (there's at least one book on that) as well--especially where the church has taken a stance that supports bullying in the name of "freedom."