The Cross, Violence, and God: Some reflections on the eve of Holy Week

I’ve been thinking about the violence of the cross the past few days. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, walking the familiar streets around Capitol Square while carrying a cross and reflecting on Christ’s suffering and death offered a new perspective on the suffering that occurs in our city. Earlier in the week, I participated in an ecumenical conversation around the atonement, violence, and non-violence. I was particularly intrigued by the comment of an Armenian Orthodox colleague who said that they sing a hymn during Holy Week, “He lifted himself up on the cross.” In other words, instead of the cross being something God did to Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion is something Jesus himself did (as God, of course).

That conversation was in my mind as I tried to choose hymnody for our our Holy Week services and began working on my sermons. Our hymns tend to focus on Christ’s suffering on our behalf and the necessity of the shedding of Jesus’ blood. There are other images but for the most part, our devotional focus during Holy Week is on our guilt and Jesus’ suffering.

As part of my sermon preparation, I listened to the Working Preacher podcast, in which one of the speakers asked the question, “What does the cross say about God?” The answer is obvious if one accepts substitutionary atonemenent: that God is violent.

But is that the only possible answer? J. Denny Weaver argues in A Nonviolent Atonement and The Nonviolent God for a different perspective. If Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God in the world, Jesus’ nonviolence offers a key to understanding the character of God. He makes the case that the dominant understanding of atonement in the Early Church, “Christus Victor” puts the focus on the resurrection of Christ, not the crucifixion and thus God is seen as renewing life and creation through Christ’s death and resurrection (rather than seeking satisfaction for human sin).

How then to understand the cross? If Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t necessary to appease a vengeful God, what does the cross mean? Here, the Working Preacher question takes on significance.

What does the cross say about God? The cross shows God’s love for the world, God giving Godself for humanity; God dying because of human evil and sinfulness, yet in the end triumphing over that evil. The cross helps us encounter God in the suffering of the world. The cross helps us experience God’s love in the midst of our pain and struggles. The cross, to use St. Paul’s language, is “power made perfect in weakness.”

What might devotional practice and devotional imagery that emphasized those themes look like? Perhaps a downtown, public stations of the cross that connects Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on our streets is one answer.