Holy Week is supposed to be a painful time for followers of Jesus.
However, I worry that it is painful for the wrong reasons.
For many Christians, the suffering and death of Jesus is simply understood as a sacrificial act on our behalf. Jesus, though without sin himself, had to die on a cross so that humanity’s sins could be forgiven. This requirement of a sacrificial victim, so this logic goes, stems from the idea that God requires perfection, or sinlessness, and cannot, in any way, accept the stain and corruption of a sinful humanity. The sin must be atoned for, and thus, Jesus steps in and takes our place as a substitute.
This idea is called “substitutionary atonement,” and is the standard evangelical Christian view of what happened during Holy Week. This idea gives rise to an extremely sentimental and individualistic view of Jesus’ passion. I’ve heard preachers say things like, “You were on his mind, when he was on the cross.” I’ve sung songs that assert, “I owed a debt I could not pay/He paid a debt he did not owe.”
In the end, Jesus came to die. That’s it. Nothing else. Even the resurrection is not necessary — all that had to happen is that Jesus die as a substitute for our sins.
I will say it plainly here: this view of Jesus, salvation, the kingdom of God, history, heaven and hell is plainly incoherent, incorrect, and destructive.
That is why I wrote the Alternative Holy Week (#AltHolyWeek) stories on this blog. I wanted to engage with the original purpose, motive, and strategy of Jesus, and contrast it with our usual way of thinking about the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.
First of all, it should be clear that Jesus’ mission was to proclaim and inaugurate the kingdom of God. This is what he himself said on numerous occasions. His first sermon was, “Repent, for the kingdom has come near” (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:15). Everything he said and did flowed from that self-understanding. His parables illustrated what life in the kingdom is like. His miracles were pointers in the direction of kingdom-life.
Everyone who followed Jesus seemed to understand this mission fully only after his resurrection. To some extent, they thought that Jesus was going to set up the kingdom on earth. They thought that this kingdom of which he spoke, was going to look like the Roman kingdom, only better. Thus, when Jesus was crucified, they truly thought everything was over. They believed they had been likely mistaken about Jesus’ identity, because the powers of evil had defeated him.
The resurrection overturned their resignation, however, and they came to see that Jesus was himself the kingdom, meaning that he had truly inaugurated a new order of things, that new life was possible, that God’s shalom could be found on earth. This is what the original Christian creed meant: “Jesus is Lord.”
The second point flows from the first: the kingdom of God is a radically different kind of thing than any of the earth’s kingdoms. For one, it cannot be ushered in by the world’s standards of power and authority. God’s kingdom purposes cannot be accomplished by violence and force. This is the simplest explanation of my story last week. We should take note of the simple fact that Jesus was nonviolent. Though his mission was to establish a kingdom, he did not gather an army, nor did he amass weapons.
This is why the story is so jarring. Jesus came to announce that there is a new king and a new order of things. Yet, he didn’t try to oust the people in power by force. He didn’t even seem interested in that. He simply lived in the reality of the kingdom of God at all times, and refused to acknowledge the idolatrous claims of the various kingdoms around him.
Not only is the kingdom of God nonviolent, but it inverts the values of the world. In God’s kingdom, the poor are lifted up, the sick are made well, the humble are exalted, the last are first. There is no selfish competition, no self-aggrandizement, no jockeying for position and power. Relationships are open, transparent, trusting.
But in the story I wrote last week, Jesus’ kingdom-building was not only physically violent, but also suspicious and cynical. This kind of kingdom rewards the powerful, centralizes authority in a single figure, and creates idols.
There is one more important point to be made, but it is one that is often skipped over, or ignored. Because the kingdom of God is fundamentally different from that of the earth’s kingdoms, many Christians jump over its implications for life on earth, and relegate it to a description of heaven. Then Jesus’ death becomes a substitutionary atonement performed on our behalf, so that we can go to heaven and live in the kingdom of God when we die.
But that is not what Jesus said!
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is here amongst you!”
Jesus said, “Let anyone who hears, listen!”
If we are going to participate in Jesus’ mission, if we are truly Jesus’ followers, then we must live in the kingdom of God now, just as Jesus did. We must be nonviolent. We must be merciful and gracious. We must reject the values of the world. We must live as if we truly believe the poor are being lifted up, the sick being made well, the humble are being exalted, and the last are becoming first.
If we don’t, then maybe we don’t really believe that Jesus is Lord after all.