‘Theories’ of the Cross Die on Death Row

Jason Micheli —  April 30, 2014 — 4 Comments

Jesus-the-Prisoner‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

I first heard those words from Brother Alois, the prior of the Taize monastic community, last May during a pilgrimage to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

His words hit me with converting clarity.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

imagesI thought about those words again last week at Pub Theology as I listened to a friend and lawyer in my church, Brian Stolarz, reflect on his experience of working for nearly a decade to get an innocent off death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

At one point in his story, Brian shared a memory of meeting with Brown on death row and afterwards coming upon:

“a church group passing out bibles. They were also passing out fish platters for the prison staff because they were “doing God’s work,” according to a banner draped over a table.

I didn’t want to debate the fact that God would probably not be cool with an innocent man being executed, or probably executions at all, and they should check themselves a bit. I just took the bible and said thank you. I grabbed one and remember reading some Psalms and some of the New Testament on the plane ride home.” 

One Big Setup, 222

Brian went on to mention the dubious reaction from the Christians when he suggested to them that maybe he too was doing God’s work by advocating for the condemned.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that those same Christians believed their ‘Christian duty’ was to prepare the prisoners (vis a vis the sinner’s prayer) for eternity, not accompanying them in the present.

Here’s what hit me about what Brian shared:

The ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Alfred Dewayne Brown, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when as I listened to Brian the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ has made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about those innocents wrongly condemned to die at the hands of the State- just like, it’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, Jesus?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.

We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brian’s words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Put differently, there’s something profoundly wrong about any ‘theory’ of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross that doesn’t lead straightaway to Christian solidarity with modern-day prisoners.

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By making the cross theologically ‘necessary’ for atonement, penal substitution obscures the real, messy, historical fact that Jesus’ indictment, sentencing and death were all unjust.

When we abstract Jesus’ execution out of its historical context, it becomes too easy for us to stop identifying with those in Jesus’ place in our own contemporary context.

That 100% of Christians in America worship a God who was executed by the State but the majority of Christians in America support execution suggests that we’ve so theologized the story that we’ve lost the plot.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Houston. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

Listening to Brian, I realized again that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies

A) because of us and

B) as one of us.

With us. In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears, even if it’s from behind bars. That’s what I realized again listening to Brian.

The cross is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

Jason Micheli

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4 responses to ‘Theories’ of the Cross Die on Death Row

  1. Great post Jason.

  2. Seems to me that this is also may have been the point Paul was making in verses like 1 Corinthians 1:23 when he uses the words “Christ crucified.” He sure did seem to want to drive that point home.

    • I agree. Somehow- perhaps b/c we don’t crucify people anymore- the shock of a crucified lord escapes us.

  3. thank you so much for this piece. it’s compelling, powerful, and speaks truth to power, which is something I really respect.

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