Crosses are the electric chairs of the past, the means by which the civil authorities punished transgressors of the law. If ancient Rome had the means of electrocution as oppose to crucifixion; I wonder if today’s Christians would be walking around wearing miniature golden electric chairs around their necks. Because we resignified the cross to point toward a religious tradition as opposed to a means of state-sponsored capital punishment, we lose the original purpose of the cross, to kill enemies of the state. All executions eliminate those who do not “fit” how those in power defined civilized society. And while today’s U.S. capital punishment system is usually geared toward those who have engaged in acts where someone lost their life (i.e. murder); we cannot ignore the fact that the poor and those who are of color disproportionately are imprisoned and executed.
The Jesus of the Gospel narratives, and the Jesús sitting today on death row share a similar circumstance; both are executed under the law that, in spite of its obvious flaws, contradictions, and biases, is presented as fair. But there is a reason we do not talk about a “court of justice,” but instead use the term, “court of law;” we as a society follow laws not seek justice. And because laws have historically and consistently been written to the detriment of Hispanics (and other marginalized communities), we are left wondering if the purpose of the cross, like the purpose of all executions, is to reinforce control over darker bodies to demonstrate what awaits those on the margins of power and privilege who dare to rebel against the current social structures. The punishments meted out by courts of laws, laws designed to the detriment of the disenfranchised, are more for the benefit of others from disadvantaged communities to serve as warning that if they too step out of place, then they can expect similar punishment (revenge).
Executions repulses. For philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, the bloody Jesus nailed to a wooden cross repels, if not sickens all who fail to understand the cult of suffering attached to him. Surely a more civilized and less gory process can be designed by the Creator of the universe to redeem the world. Yet the bloody tortured body of Jesus humanizes him, by depicting the dehumanization of Jesus’ suffering. This process crystallizes the Jesus who suffered freely, not as the single basic causality of God, but as the causality of a world that also suffers ─ a suffering and violence spilled over into the Divine. Today’s crucified Hispanics also suffer, seemingly abandoned by God. Any presence of God is not as a transcendent power over against injustice; rather, God is present from within a self-negated Jesus whose own power of love surrenders his life to the political injustices of his day. His crucifixion becomes a scandal, signifying failure and powerlessness. The powerful and privileged are not hung from trees; only Latino/as in the Southwestern United States (blacks in the South) have the historical memory of being lynched. “Anyone hung on a tree is cursed by God” (Dt. 21:23) the scriptures remind us. Crosses are places of violence, littered with broken lives and bodies. Those who are disenfranchised, those who are marginalized are the ones who can be abused, persecuted, and oppressed. To be crucified means nakedness, vulnerability, loss of control over bodily functions, and excruciating pain. Only the outcasts face this Roman form of execution, reserved for those who refuse to acknowledge the Caesars of history. There is nothing glorious or wonderful or redemptive about an instrument of death, especially when presented as some old wooden cross. It is ironic that today’s wearing of a gold cross has become a fashion statement that masks the horror of failure and execution. What the cross truly signals is how Jesus’s ministry was botched. For God in flesh to be lynched becomes a shameful disgrace that questions God’s omnipotence, it questions all that Jesus claimed.
These concerns have led theology to wrestle with the question as to why Jesus had to die. In response, many Euroamericans who follow Jesus rush to resignify the cross as a sign of hope, as a salvific symbol, not pausing long enough to dwell on the tragedy of the moment, on the hopelessness, on the failure, on the powerlessness of the moment. For them, there is redemption in Jesus’ sufferings – there is atonement. The cross becomes a necessity for a salvation that leads toward a life of bliss in some hereafter. Yet for most Hispanics seeking a life in the here and now, there is nothing redemptive about suffering. This theology of atonement was not always the norm. Anselm of Canterbury (1033?-1109) created this theology, reasoning that the cross was necessary to satisfy God’s anger, specifically, to serve as a substitute for us. Before an angry God who requires blood atonements, sinful humans could not redeem themselves. Only a sinless God-as-human-being could gratify God’s thirst for vengeance, make restitution, and restore creation. In other words, in order to satisfy God’s vanity, God’s only begotten son must be humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed, rather than the true object of God’s wrath – us humans. God is placated by filicide. The problem with Anselm’s constructed theology of atonement is that it casts God as the ultimate abuser, the ultimate oppressor who finds satisfaction through the domination, humiliation, and pain of God’s child. Such a theology of atonement becomes difficult to reconcile with the concept of a “loving Father.”
Maybe the question with which theology should wrestle is not why Jesus had to die; but what do we do with the fact that the political and religious authorities killed him. If the tortured Jesus on a cross before a silent, and seemingly uncaring God is replicated throughout history, as illustrated in numerous massacres of the innocent, uncountable carnage, and savage butchery, then should not the quest for today’s crucified be to resignify the Jesus of the dominant Christian culture that are now the crucifiers of the world’s disenfranchised? Could Primo Levy, a holocaust survivor, be right when he states that there is no God, only Auschwitz? If only Auschwitz exists, then the ethical and moral call for humans (regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof) is to become the incarnated word that stands in solidarity with those who justifiably conclude that God cannot exist after all the Christian led Auschwitzs of history. If crucifixion, rather the goodness of humans, is the historical norm, a norm in which Christians (as well as believers from other faith traditions) willingly participate to protect their perverted definition of the good; then does not a substitution theological theory of a God who employs crucifixion to satisfy God’s vanity only aid and abet all the crucifixions that have brought so much of human life to a brutal and torturous end?
For Hispanics, and others from marginalized communities, the importance of the cross is not its redemptive powers, for all aspects of Jesus’ life are redemptive. The importance of Jesus’ crucifixion is that this is the historical moment when Jesus chose solidarity with the world’s marginalized, even unto death. He invites his disciples to put their hands in his wounds (Jn. 20:27). To touch the wound of Jesus is to touch the wound of God caused by the wounds suffered by all who are crucified. Jesus becomes one with the crucified people of his time, as well as with all who are crucified today on the crosses of sexism, racism, ethnic discrimination, classism, and heterosexism that secure the power and privilege of the few. Jesus takes up his cross as the definitive act of solidarity. For us to pick up our cross, deny ourselves – that is deny our status and station – then follow and die with Jesus so that we can also live with him means that we, too, must find solidarity with the world’s crucified people. For what good is it to gain all the wealth, privilege, and power of the world, yet forfeit our soul, our very humanity (Mk. 8:34-37)? Jesus’ solidarity with the world’s so-called losers and failures leads us to become one with the God of the oppressed.
* This article is part of a larger work, The Politics of Jesús, to be released on July 2015.