Baptist, Belief, Finding, Seeking

How Necessary Was the Crucifixion, or, How I Am Maybe Not a Christian

Last night I mentioned to Zach that I’m sort of “meh” about the crucifixion.

That came out terribly wrong.

No one should be crucified. I’m not ambivalent about the act of crucifixion. There are no great ways to be executed; each, like a Cabbage Patch Kid, comes with its own unique problems. But crucifixion is up there for me with “burned at the stake” and “beheading” as far as Terrible Ways to Go That Aren’t Natural Causes Like Dying Peacefully in My Sleep. When I say I’m “meh” on the crucifixion, what I mean is: I don’t think it’s necessary to Christian faith.

That also came out terribly wrong.

Of course the crucifixion is necessary to the Christian faith. Christianity is based on the birth (at least in Matthew and Luke), life (all four gospels), ministry (again, all four gospels) and state-mandated execution of Jesus of Nazareth. For some sects, the crucifixion is muy importante because Jesus is a sacrifice to atone for…something.

I mean, I know what the “something” traditionally is, but I don’t believe in Original Sin, so Jesus’s death can’t be for that, at least for me. I don’t believe humans need redemption via capital punishment as much as they need the love and care of each other to make it through any given day.

What I am saying, though, is that the crucifixion is not the salvific mechanism that establishes a relationship between you, the person who is pursuing Christianity, and God.

Sacrifice is a complicated concept to follow through both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. One of the things that made the Israelites unique in the Ancient Middle East is that their God eschewed human sacrifice. That is, allegedly, one of the “morals” of the Abraham and Isaac story: it looks like God is asking for a human sacrifice, but last-minute he pulls the worst PSYCHE! of them all and Isaac is spared, if not saved. “We don’t sacrifice people,” the Israelites said.

There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Book of Judges, about a man named Jephthah who, for job security reasons, swears aloud that “Whoever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

You know how this story ends, even if you don’t know how this story ends. Jephthah returns, triumphant, and sees his daughter (who isn’t named in the text, like most women aren’t named in the text) running out of the door of his house. And because he has made this oath, aloud and publicly, to God, he has no choice.

This is human sacrifice; however, it’s not God-mandated human sacrifice. God didn’t ask Jephthah for his daughter’s ritual murder (in the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, a first century re-write of the Hebrew scriptures, she is given a name, Seila); that was something Jephthah came up with all on his own.

There is another story about an evil king named Ahaz (who still ends up listed in Jesus’s genealogy in the Matthew*) who sacrifices his children to Moloch, a Canaanite god. But again, within the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, God didn’t ask Ahaz to sacrifice his children to Moloch. That’s something Ahaz thought to do all on his own.

(* I will write a longer piece about this, but quickly: there are two versions of Jesus’s genealogy in the Christian scriptures: one in Matthew, which starts with Abraham and ends with Mary and Joseph. In Luke, Jesus’s genealogy is traced back to Adam. Both gospel writers have an agenda behind their genealogies. Mark doesn’t list a genealogy for Jesus at all — and doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative. John comes along, very late in the game, and doesn’t bother with a genealogy at all, and instead claims that the Christ — and there’s a difference between Jesus and Christ — was present with God at the very beginning of everything.)

So why would God ask for a human sacrifice when we get to the New Testament? He hasn’t required human sacrifice up to this point. Some might argue that the taint of Original Sin is so thick on humanity that a human sacrifice of a maybe divine being is what is necessary to clear the slate. I’m not convinced. I worry that we place too much faith in buckets of blood.

(There is this wonderful back-and-forth between two Puritan theologians in the Olden Timey times where witches were hanged and we called people Goody Osburn or Goodman Brown and the devil was everywhere. Roger Williams writes a tract titled “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.” Which causes a man named John Cotton to reply with his own tract, titled, “The Bloody Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb.” Williams responds — and essentially drops the mic — with, “The Bloody Tenet Made Yet More Bloody by Mr Cotton’s Endeavor to Wash it White.” In my household we stan Roger Williams. John Cotton can choke on a bloody cloth.)

I think, as believers in God — and by God what I really mean is the Divine Mystery surrounding us all — and followers/fans of Jesus, who said a lot of great things about caring for the poor and needy, and opening his heart and life to everyone, we should sit down for a spell and really think about the crucifixion. Why are we so eager to pin salvation on the state-mandated capital punishment of a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew? Why is this incredible theological gift of universal love capped by murder? And what does that say about us as believers? Are we working backwards from the execution of Jesus in order to make him fulfill the promise of The Christ?

Which is where I am. Not sure about the necessity of the crucifixion. Not convinced about the Divine Origin of Jesus (but very convinced by his acts and his works). Not sold on the resurrection — but also not not sold at the same time. Probably, actually, if I give it my whole thought, not even really a Christian.

I deeply believe in God — or however you name the Divine Mystery. Maybe it’s Nature. Maybe it’s Pan. Maybe it’s whatever you need it to be when you stare at the night sky in all its dark crystalline wonder and hope something out there cares as much for you as you care for it. Maybe it’s science. Maybe it’s magic. But what I mostly want it to be is Love.

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