The Violence Inherent in the System

by Herb Montgomery | August 24, 2018

Mosaic of Jesus carrying a cross


“Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same ‘class’ today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized.”


“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Mark 10:32-33)

In our last eSight/podcast (Jesus From The Edges), we focused on the importance of listening to the theologies that arise from the experiences of communities of people who daily bump up against oppression, marginalized, and/or subjugation. These sources are contrasted with theologies that come out of a more privileged social location in our society. 

As womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant writes, “Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 1, 10). 

James Cone also writes, ““Few, if any, of the early Church Fathers grounded their christological arguments in the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, little is said about the significance of his ministry to the poor as a definition of his person. The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State” (God of the Oppressed, p. 107). 

From my own experience I know that those on the margins of society see things in the Jesus story that those more centered in society simply miss. This doesn’t mean that some people have no blind spots. We all have blind spots. But in learning to listen to one another, especially the voices of those rarely given the mic, we discover our own blind spots and can move toward a path of compassion and justice for everyone. 

Given this reality, I would like to spend the next few eSights/podcasts contemplating the closing events of the Jesus story through the lens of the experiences of oppressed communities and the life actions these insights call us to engage. 

One of these insights has impacted my own theology for the better, has been life giving, and borne healthy fruit for me. That insight is the interpretation of Jesus death that holds that the crucifixion was not for the purpose of satisfying divine wrath, honor, or justice, but instead was an act of injustice, an expression of the violence inherent in unjust political, social, economic, and religious systems.

To the best of our knowledge, the earliest version of the Jesus story is the gospel of Mark. Three times in  that gospel, Jesus reveals that he understands that his actions in Jerusalem will lead to his arrest and crucifixion by the Romans (see Mark 8:31-34; Mark 9:30-32; and Mark 10:32-34). 

Mark’s point is that  the crucifixion was a direct response to the political, social, economic, and religious actions Jesus took in the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of the Temple State.

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way [and] this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order.’” (Kelly Brown Douglas. Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

When one interprets what we call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” as climaxing in his temple protest, it makes a lot of sense to understand the cross as the response of the powers in control at that time. “Crucifixion was and remains a political and military punishment . . . Among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least Judea . . . These were primarily people who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state ” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 87, emphasis added).

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t die so that people can go to heaven when they die. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus dies because he stood up to the status quo. One’s social location enables one to either see the relevance of this story detail or miss the point entirely. James Cone makes the same point in his classic book A Black Theology of Liberation: 

“What is most ironic is that the white lynchers of blacks in America were not regarded as criminals; like Jesus, blacks were the criminals and insurrectionists. The lynchers were the ‘good citizens’ who often did not even bother to hide their identities. They claimed to be acting as citizens and Christians as they crucified blacks in the same manner as the Romans lynched Jesus . . . White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.” (James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 158-159)  

Yet for Cone, his own experience as a Black man in America enabled him to see the cross as a violent act of injustice by an oppressive system. Seeing Jesus’ crucifixion in this light helped him to make sense of his own experience and to stand up to the injustice he faced. “The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross . . . I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Introduction)

In Mark’s gospel, we read: 

“When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:1-11)

This was a planned demonstration by Jesus. Echoing Zechariah 9:9, Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem that day was to culminate in a dramatic Temple protest. Yet according to Mark, there was one flaw in his plan. When he finally arrived at the Temple, it was already “late in the day” and the majority of people had returned home. For a demonstration or protest to have effect, it must have witnesses. So what does Jesus do? He returns with the twelve and spends the night in Bethany, most likely at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and delays the final act of his demonstration for the following day.

“On the following day . . . they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” (Mark 11.12 -16) 

Notice that these two events were supposed to be connected. They were not to happen separately but together. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and then overturning the tables in protest against how the poor were being exploited by the Temple state was intended to be one  action, not two.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ action on that second day was enough to threaten the powers, and before the end of the week, he was arrested by the “police” (Luke 22:52, CSB) and  hanging on a Roman cross. 

What does the cross say first to those facing marginalization within their larger society? 

Those who read the Jesus story from within communities of people facing marginalization regularly see in Jesus’ crucifixion a deep solidarity with those on the margins in Jesus’ day and also those in that same “class” today. Jesus and the God Jesus preached are on the side of those who are being marginalized:

 “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day. (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 26)

What, then, is our first takeaway from looking at Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of the experiences of those who belong to oppressed communities? That Jesus ended up on a Roman cross tells us that Jesus and Jesus’ God stood with those being marginalized over against the violence inherent in the system. Today, when we stand alongside those who are being marginalized, who face the violence inherent in our system, we are standing with that same Jesus and his God. We’ll consider another insight next week. For this week, contemplating this much is enough. 

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10.32-33)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What does standing up to injustice look like for you? Share with your group.
  2. As a group, choose and read about an injustice that doesn’t apply to you. Make sure that what you read is by a member of the affected community and directly impacted by the injustice.
  3. How does what you’ve read impact you? What would it look like to stand up to this injustice alongside those impacted? Consider, as a follower of Jesus, doing so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love, justice, and compassion reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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