In the April 1995 issue of Theology Today, theologian Murray Joseph Haar lamented what he regarded as a “rampant” sickness within the American church. He wrote, “The symptoms of this illness sound like this: ‘Jesus died for my sins, His pain my gain, He died to set us free, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away my sins, I have decided to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” With words like these, many Christians proclaim and define their faith in the efficacy of Jesus’ death on their behalf. I contend that these words of faith indicate precisely the nature of the sickness at the heart of American Christianity.” He calls the sickness, a “rampant, individualistic, self-serving redemptionsm.” (1)
The sickness continues today. The common understanding and frequent statement of many Christians is that “Jesus died for us.” Standing alone, that is a distortion of the Christian faith, for it separates the life of Jesus from his death. A dramatic depiction of this separation is seen in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of The Christ. In the film the passion of Christ was almost entirely limited to his death. There was no understanding that his death was the consequence and fulfillment of the passion of his life.
The phrase “Jesus died for us” is used to focus an understanding of the death of Jesus as atonement for sin. There are seeds of this understanding in the New Testament but it was not harvested until about nine hundred years ago by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. The origin of the concept is that all have sinned against God and thus are separated from God. In order to be restored to a relationship to God, all needed to be forgiven. In the Jewish tradition the offering of sacrifices, which were regarded as gifts, was the way of making atonement and restoring the broken relationship with God. Animals were sacrificed as gifts to God because they lived below the level of freedom and thus were sinless. It is not surprising that in the early days of the Christian church, given this background, one of the interpretations of the cross was to understand it as the sacrifice of Jesus for sin. Jesus, a sinless human being, offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice acceptable to God, thus restoring our relationship to God. Jesus died for us.
Marcus Borg tells about giving a lecture on faith and concluding by asking for questions. One person expressed her concern that he had not mentioned faith in the cross. To clarify the question, he asked, “Do you mean do I believe that Jesus died for our sins?” She said, “Yes.” Borg answered, “I don’t think that Jesus literally died for our sins. I don’t think he thought of his life and purpose that way; I don’t think he thought of that as his divinely given vocation.” (2)
I recall reading that John Dominic Crossan said, “Never, never, ever separate the life of Jesus from his death.” Following that admonition we can say, “Jesus lived and died for us.” If you say Jesus lived and died for us, we have an entirely different picture of his life and purpose. In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, when Jesus began his mission and ministry, the first words he spoke were, “The time has come: the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the Gospel. (Mk. 1:14 NEB) The consensus of biblical scholarship is that the Kingdom of God, “God’s Domination-Free Order” (3) was the central focus and passion of his life. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was already here and people were called to make it happen. He declared this good news in the context of the domination order of Caesar, his client King Herod Antipas, and the high priests of Jerusalem. Walter Wink describes a domination order as a “society of unjust economic conditions, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.” (4)
The way Jesus lived his life, what he said and did, revealed God’s domination free order for all who had ears to hear and eyes to see. His teachings focused on the character of God and God’s will for the world. The character of God was compassion and justice. Therefore, God’s will for the world was compassion and justice. Obeying God’s will, Jesus acted with compassion and justice in his encounters and relationships with people. Walter Wink has written, “Where is God’s reign? Whenever domination is overcome, people freed, the soul fed, God’s reality is known. When is God’s reign? Whenever people turn from the idols of power and wealth and fame to the governance of God in a society of equals. What is God’s reign? It is the transformation of the Domination System into a non-violent, humane, ecologically sustainable, livable environment fashioned to enable people to grow and grow well.” (5)
Jesus and his disciples, proclaiming the Kingdom of God was at hand and living lives of compassion and justice were a threat to the domination order created and maintained by Caesar and his Jewish client king and priests. To eliminate the threat, Jesus was crucified, executed by the Romans. His death was the consequence and fulfillment of the passion of his life, living the compassion and justice of God. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is reported as saying “Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me.” (8:34) To be a follower of Jesus is to “leave self behind” and take up compassion and justice as the passion of your life.
(1(Murray Joseph Haar, Theology Today, 1995
(2)Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, p.96
(3)Walter Wink, Engaging The Powers, p. 48
(4)Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, p. 39
(5)Walter Wink, When The Powers Fall, p. 10