Killing Jesus

Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, 2001

When Jesus was killed by authorities charged with keeping the Roman Pax, his friends and followers were not without cultural resources for dealing with the violent end of his life.  As they began to reflect on Jesus’ death, they soon came to see it not as a tragedy or calamity, but as an inevitable part of his life, an end fitting of the kind of life Jesus led.  They began to develop ways of speaking of the death of Jesus that would connect it with his life and draw attention to his life as decisive for their own lives.  That is why they told the story of Jesus primarily as the story of a martyr.  From Greek and Roman literature they knew the pattern of the Noble Death, in which heroes die for the cause to which they had devoted their entire lives.  In Jewish literature this idea was expressed in court tales, in which the hero remains faithful to God even under threat of death.  They died as they had lived, true to the things they believed in.  

This is how the followers of Jesus thought about his death.  His death mattered to them because his life had mattered to them.  They spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life, and reaffirmed their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.  In his life, they had come to know God.  To the followers and friends of Jesus, his death was important in its particularity—as the fate of him who said and did certain things, who stood for something so important to him that he was willing to give his life for it.  That something was the vision of life he called the Empire of God.  They too believed in this vision of a new empire.  And if this vision was indeed God’s Empire, then the bearer of this vision was not dead.  No executioner could kill what he was.  To kill Jesus, you would have to kill the vision.  This is what the cross could not do.

When Christian believers and theologians approach the question of Jesus’ death today, these are generally not the concerns that lie close to hand.  The things Jesus said that lead to his death are not at issue.  What he lived or died for is of no concern.  The event of Jesus’ death has lost its particularity, its connection to the course of real human events that brought it about.  In this abstracted status, Jesus’ death has become for us a mythic event connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life.  As we fret over the moral and ethical failures of our lives and dread the perils and punishments that might lie beyond the grave, we are comforted by the knowledge that Jesus died “to save us from our sins.”  His resurrection assures us of our own immortality.  If Jesus came to fulfill his cosmic destiny and die on the cross so that we might be saved, then anything else he might have done in his life—his own aspirations, his own values and vision, his carefully chosen words and daring prophetic deeds—pales by comparison.  Ethics are never so important as salvation.  With salvation it is life itself that hangs in the balance, our lives, which we desperately seek to preserve, even in the face of death, whose threat confronts us all.  Thus, Jesus’ death and resurrection have become the universal saving events in which we find God’s graciousness extended even to us, hopeless sinners, who have no intention of giving up the lives we live, oblivious to the vision of human life Jesus espoused and the God he embodied.

The eclipse of Jesus’ death and resurrection in their particularity, and their elevation to the status of mythic events in a cosmic struggle, is invited perhaps by the way Paul and other early Christians placed Jesus’ death and resurrection at the center of their own traditional apocalyptic hopes.  Apocalypticism casts the struggle between good and evil in terms of a great cosmic battle, with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the Evil One.  In Jewish apocalyptic the power and victory of God is marked by the resurrection of all those who have been slain by the forces of evil.  In the final struggle their faithfulness and sufferings are vindicated.  This is the framework in which Paul interpreted the resurrection of Jesus: he was the first fruits, the first of those countless ones slain in the struggle against evil to come back to life (1 Cor 15:20).  The resurrection was for Paul a signal, a cosmic alarm clock sounding the arrival of the final battle, which would begin any day.  But Paul and others who interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection in this way did not detach the death and resurrection of Jesus from his life.  The cosmic battle they believed they were witnessing was being waged over a specific idea, a real cause.  The struggle in which they were engaged was the struggle for the vision of human life their crucified messiah had espoused.  For Paul, to experience the resurrection of Jesus was to become possessed by his Spirit, to share “the mind of Christ,” and to embrace the life of Christ as his own.  And Paul and others formed communities that would be the “body of Christ,” embodying the life of love and mutual care that Jesus had died for.  What he died for, they would now live for, until God would finally establish the Empire of God as the universal rule of love and justice in the world.

As time passed, however, and that first generation of friends and followers who had known Jesus and actually remembered his life passed from the scene, the connection between the particulars of Jesus’ life and the mythic structures of cosmic battle became ever more tenuous and eventually were lost.  The struggle became less and less a struggle for a particular set of values connected to Jesus, and more a clash of powers.  The power of Christ was pitted against the religion of the Jews, against the pagan gods, and ultimately against the universal foe, death itself.  One can see this already in the Apostles Creed, where the life of Jesus has been diminished to a mere comma, a blank space residing quietly between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  The elements of the Christian creed are the elements of the cosmic drama common to many ancient religious traditions: miraculous birth, death, resurrection, ascension.  Jesus became simply another of the many dying-rising savior gods of antiquity, association with whom would assure safety in this world and the next.  His table fellowship would for some become a mere dispensary for the “drug of immortality,” the pharmakon athanasias, as Ignatius would come to speak of the communion bread (Ephes. 20).  

Eventually Jesus Christ would become the greatest savior god of all.  His cross would become a logo, a talisman emblazoned on the shield of Constantine and his soldiers to protect them in battle.  Jesus became a partisan, whose name would strike fear in the heart of anyone who by chance had not been born under his sign.  In the Middle Ages his cross would become a sign of terror, before which Jews and Muslims would cringe in supplication, begging mercy from marauding hordes of crusaders, or stand in defiance only to be slain.  The symbol of weakness Paul embraced became the symbol of merciless power, where it remains today for many Christian believers.  One can see this still in its infinitely trivialized American form on any given Sunday—afternoon—where the warriors of sport pause to cross themselves as a solemn prelude to the touchdown victory dance that is sure to follow, taunting those poor unfortunates inexplicably abandoned by Jesus in their moment of greatest need.  Today the cross is for winners, not losers.

Is Jesus dead?  Not yet.  But what the cross could not do, Christians could.  We are killing Jesus.  Jesus was a sage, or if you prefer, a prophet.  Sages and prophets live by their words and deeds.  In this sense, for most of us who assemble in the name of Jesus, he is dead.  His words and deeds mean little to us, if anything at all.  We do not look to Jesus for a way of life, but for salvation.  “He died that we might live.”  Indeed.  It seems we have to kill him in order that we might live whatever lives our power and privilege will allow us to lead.  When real life is at stake, most of us will take personal salvation over the Empire of God any day.  And so we prefer our Christ crucified, a once living Jesus silenced by a higher calling.

But this was not so for the friends and followers of Jesus.  For them, the Empire of God was salvation.  They saw God’s care for them in the communities of mutual care and love founded in Jesus’ name.  They experienced the acceptance and welcome they received around the tables of the Jesus movement as redemption.  Beggars, lepers, prostitutes, and expendables of every sort—the “nothings” of the world, as Paul puts it—embraced Jesus’ Empire of God as their one great hope and longing.  And others did, too—people like Paul, who gave up lives of considerable status and importance to enter into these communities of the new Empire.  Why did they do it?  They were responding to the compelling vision of Jesus, who lived on for them, alive in their midst.  For them, this was no existential metaphor for commitment.  Jesus was really alive, spiritually present with them.  Whatever it might mean to speak thus today about Jesus—to say that he is “alive” in our midst—it must above all else mean that he somehow still offers us the vision of a new Empire, into which we are still invited in a very real way.  Apart from his words and deeds, the living Jesus would have meant nothing to those who encountered him in the private and public places of antiquity.  Neither can Jesus be alive to us apart from his words and deeds.  He is alive to us only as he was alive to them, as a real invitation into a way of life we can see reflected in his own life, and the God to be encountered there.  


Adapted from Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus (Fortress, 2004)