A Refusal to Let Go of Life

Herb Montgomery | August 31, 2018

Statue of crucifixion

Photo credit: Ricky Turner on Unsplash

“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)

 “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

In our time, there are two ways to define the cross. One defines it as passive endurance of abuse and injustice, whereas the other defines it as not being cowed by a violent system that  those in power use to threaten people who stand up, resist, and push back against abuse or injustice. (See last week’s article, “The Violence Inherent In The System.”*)

But Jesus’s audience couldn’t miss the meaning in his call to take up one’s cross. Roman crosses had only one connotation: it was used on dissidents. To be passive was to avoid being put on a cross, but to stand against injustice would almost certainly land you on one. 

The cross therefore had a singular political meaning. Some scholars even see evidence that the phrase “take up one’s cross” was used as a rallying cry by Jewish insurgents, a group whose members were constantly  being crucified for their activity (see Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, p. 245-246). Jesus called his followers to nonviolent resistance, yet also used this specific phrase. hHis priority value in his nonviolence was not passive, patient endurance, but noncooperation, resistance, and dissent. The difference may seem subtle but the results are anything but when one considers the fruit that these interpretations bear in the lives of communities who daily face oppression and injustice.

This week we’re listening to and learning from voices from another marginalized community: women. We are considering the crucifixion event in the closing scenes of the Jesus story from the perspectives of various first wave, feminist theologians and scholars. 

Let’s begin with a classic and favorite article of mine, For God So Loved the World? by Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker. If you have not read it in its entirety you can do so online. It offers much to contemplate in light of the distinctions we are making this week.

“It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not am I willing to suffer? but do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18, eds. Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

When Jesus called for his followers to be willing to take up their crosses, the political context of Roman crosses and their use means that Jesus wasn’t asking them to accept suffering. Rather, he was asking them if they desired “fully to live?” He was calling them to refuse to let go of their desire to live, to stand up to the injustice and join him. Whether Jesus spoke of a cross, or used the more veiled imagery of a “baptism” or drinking a “cup,” he never spoke of these experiences as something he was to do alone. In Mark’s gospel, each time he brings the subject up, he doesn’t preach his action substituting for the disciples’, but calls for their participation right alongside his own.  

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life [by being passive or silent] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake [standing up to injustice and abuse], and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world [through their silence] and forfeit their life?’” (Mark 8:34-36; see also The Myth of Redemptive Suffering)

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with ?’ They replied, ‘We are able .’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38-39)

As we saw last week, at this point in the gospels, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to engage in a temple protest of dissent. He knows what the outcome may be, and he calls his followers to join him. His disciples understand Jesus’ call to participate with him. We know this because every time Jesus brings it up in Mark’s gospel, the disciples quickly change the subject (See Mark 8-10). Had they responded to Jesus positively rather than with denial, Calvary could have included thirteen more crosses in addition to Jesus’. 

This way of interpreting the Jesus story is important. Jesus taught resistance rather than passive acceptance of injustice. He taught self-affirmation rather than self-sacrifice. He taught speaking out rather than remaining silent. As feminist writers have pointed out, these distinctions are especially relevant for oppressed communities. Historically, Christian interpretations that describe Jesus’ teachings as sacrifice of one’s self, patient endurance of abuse, and silent passivity in the face of injustice have produced deeply harmful fruit for women. Consider the following critiques of traditional theology conducted from empowered social locations. Also take note that these comments come from theologians working from the margins.

“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 1-2)

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well-being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

“The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women.” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 77)

These critiques may challenge some of your theologies very deeply. That’s okay. We each need to be willing to consider whether our beliefs are producing life-giving fruit or whether they produce oppression, violence, and injustice. As Jesus-followers, we are called to liberation and solidarity with our fellow humans, even when that challenges us to reassess some of our most deeply held ways of interpreting the Jesus story. Remember, our sacred stories are eternal.  Our interpretations of them are not. Our interpretations can change! We can make our interpretations give way to more life-giving interpretations. And, in the future, if we discover our new interpretations also do harm, we can process them again. The goal of the gospel is always life.

I want to take a moment now to caution some of our followers interested in specific atonement theories. As we read critiques from the margins, we cannot pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t subscribe to more violent interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion such as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Two popular, classical replacements for PSA are the Moral Influence theory and Christus Victor. Consider that even these two alternatives are not immune to the critiques we are considering this week from our sister theologians.

First,  consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive through moral influence.

“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 20.)

Next consider the interpretation of Jesus’ death as redemptive in the context of the Christus Victor narrative.

“The believer whose thoughts and feelings have been shaped by a tradition that teaches or ritualizes in liturgy the Christus Victor view may interpret her or his suffering in this light. In response to suffering it will be said, Be patient, something good will come of this.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.6 )

Whatever we choose to believe about Jesus’ crucifixion, I believe we must stay grounded in the insights we discussed last week. The cross was the response of those in power to Jesus as he refused to be silent in the face of injustice he saw committed against the vulnerable. He acted for justice and was kille. Remember these wise words from both Brown and Parker:

“Jesus chose to live a life in opposition to unjust, oppressive cultures. Jesus did not choose the cross but chose integrity and faithfulness, refusing to change course because of threat.” (Brown and Parker, For God So Loved the World?; Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.27)

I want to close this week with Elizabeth Bettenhausen’s story of a classroom exercise of changing the genders of the Jesus story. Reading her experience forever changed my own reading of the Jesus story. I’ll share it here with you.

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22.54-65 was one woman’s knowing by heart.

‘They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, ‘Haven’t I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?’ He replied defensively, ‘She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!’ The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, ‘Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!’ They continued to insult her. (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal?” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xi-xii, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Kandice Joyce correctly perceives the intensity of rape and the shock of using it in this way as analogous to the intensity of execution by crucifixion and the way the Romans used it in their day. All of these women scholars are calling us to embrace the reality in both our lives and in our interpretations of our sacred stories that suffering is never redemptive. Suffering, even Jesus’s, cannot be redeemed. “The cross is a sign of tragedy. God’s grief is revealed there and everywhere and every time life is thwarted by violence” (Brown and Parker). But violent theologies have had devastating effects on the ives of vulnerable people,  specifically women. The reality is that victimization never leads to triumph, regardless of what our fairytales and interpretations of sacred stories tell us, and victimization, even when survived, can lead to even greater pain if not rejected or stood up to. When we fail to refuse abuse, abuse kills a person’s sense of power, worth, and dignity. Lastly, passive, patient endurance of abuse can lead to actual death.

It is not hyperbole to say that how we choose to interpret Jesus’ words has life or death importance.

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Jamel Myles, a nine year old boy in the fourth grade at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, Colorado committed suicide as a result of being bullied by his classmates for coming out as gay.  I have a 10 year old son who is in fifth grade. This story hits home for me.  I can’t imagine my life without my son.  Leia Pierce, Jamel’s mother spoke out, “We have to stop bullying and teach people it’s OK to love each other. … We have to stop hating each other for differences, differences that make us equal and unique.” (For more of Jamel’s story see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/us/jamel-myles-suicide-denver.html) 

1. This week in your HeartGroup, share some ways that your experience in Heartgroup has challenged you to see our human differences as the rich and diverse variety within a humanity that bears the image of the Divine rather than “less than.” How have you encountered experiences of life that are different than your own?  How have these encounters helped you to move beyond fear and insecurity in relation to those who are different than you?

2.  As a group, list some ways that you can actively lean into the beautiful experiences of seeing each person as made in the image of God, a testament of the rich diversity seen in humanity, and actively move further toward a more meaningful, nonhomogenous, yet coherent view of our world and the life we, together as human siblings, live in it?  How can you more deeply love one another as yourselves?

3. Pick something from that list this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking 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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