Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when Christians the world over commemorate the unique, saving death of Jesus. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to pause and ask just what is unique about this death.
If we consider Jesus’ death unusual – and if we believe that its salvific benefits are linked to this unusualness – we would do well to stop and ask what, precisely, was unusual about it.
Death by crucifixion may have been a particularly excruciating and shameful demise, but it was certainly nothing unusual in first century Palestine. Famed Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made several references to the widespread occurrence of this gruesome practice in his Antiquities. Indeed, according to Josephus, the Romans routinely crucified hundreds and even thousands of victims at the first sign of revolt. We cannot say, then, that there was anything particularly unique about the physical nature of Jesus’ death, however grisly it may appear to our modern sensibilities.
You might advance that Jesus’ death was unique by virtue of his absolute innocence. But again, I would say history is against you. If the Roman occupiers crucified two thousand people in one day on charges of insurrection, it’s a racing certainty that a good number of those strung up were either absolutely innocent or, at the very least, completely justified in their revolt against a wholly unjust oppressor.
We can thus conclude that whatever may have been unique about Jesus’ death, it was neither the appalling mechanics of it nor the fact of Jesus’ innocence.
I put it to you, in fact, that, for all Jesus’ innocence, his death was in many ways just another one in a seemingly endless series of sacrificial murders. In the words of one of my favourite cheeky theologians, the late Robert Farrar Capon, Jesus’ death was “a nasty bit of judicial murder that has no more intrinsic significance than the thousands of other such acts all through history”1.
So then, if neither Jesus’ unquestionable innocence nor the ghastly nature of his execution were unique, what, then, was at all unique about his death?
In fact, I’d say the unique characteristic of Jesus’ death lay not in his death itself but in its singular consequences.
You see, from time immemorial (since Abel, in fact), we humans have been making victims out of innocent men and women, heaping our collective animus and opprobrium on them and burying them under a mound of condemnation. We consign hated others to oblivion, and in so doing we maintain and reinforce our supposed righteousness. And so the world turns… and those who bury victims need them to stay buried, so that the principalities and powers can continue to call the shots and dominate the world.
The trouble with Jesus is that he refused to stay dead.
The oblivion to which we attempted to consign Jesus could not hold him. However well-greased the wheels of our sacrificial mechanisms were, something got jammed in them and seized them up. As the writer of the fourth Gospel put it, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
But the truly surprising thing, the thing that really threw our tried and tested system of scapegoating murder off kilter, was not just that Jesus came back from the dead, but that he did so offering forgiveness and peace. One might expect that an unjustly slain victim – the Son of God, no less – would return declaiming vengeance on his unjust killers. But no, this Prince of Peace, this Lamb of God, instead comes with forgiveness and the word of peace, “Shalom!”
The world has ever been powered by the cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance. Before you disagree, read the history books and watch the television news. Strike and counterstrike, insurgency and defeat, revolt and subjugation… this is our reality. Victims are buried at every turn, the innocent are silenced in favour of the powerful and wicked, and so it goes on.
Jesus’ death and resurrection break the cycle, not because another innocent one has been killed – this really is nothing new – but because Jesus (and God in him) refuses to participate in the cycle of death-fuelled justification of violence. Instead, he breaks back into history and announces that we are forgiven for our unjust murder of God and offered unconditional acceptance.
That sounds to me like good news.
What, then, is unique about Jesus’ death? On one level, nothing: he’s just another hapless victim. On another level, everything: he’s the only who shines a light on our endless cycle of retributive violence and, through freely-offered pardon, extends the possibility of a different way.
1 Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ… And Why We Don’t Get It (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1993), p. 62
[ Image: Gideon Chilton ]