(Author note: From time to time, as my theological perspectives change, I revisit articles that I find important and give them new life with a new perspective. This is one such article).
I have an article that I wrote about 4 years ago that is making its way around social medial again. The title of it it “God Did Not Kill Jesus on the Cross for Our Sins.” It starts off by asking, “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”
It’s a question that theologians have asked for ages. The problem is that they ask this question with the assumption of a very high providence of God. In other words, they believe that God spends a whole lot of time mucking about in the lives of humans making things happen.
Sometimes just for fun. Sometimes to teach us a lesson. Sometimes to punish us for our past (or biblically for our ancestor’s past). All kinds of reasons.
The point is, that’s their starting point for the question of “why did Jesus die on the Cross?” which they assume is yet another example of God mucking about in the course of human history. So, it follows that the question isn’t really why did he die on the cross (they believe it’s because God wanted him to), the real question is for what purpose did God have Jesus killed on a cross?
Now, most Christians feel like there is a very simple answer to that question. That being, “to save us from our sins.” Exactly how it saves us from our “sins” is up for wild debate amongst those who believe it did. And frankly, in my opinion, believing that he died to save us from our sins makes no logical sense when matched up to some of the rest of their beliefs, because they also believe that those who have “sinned” and not repented will live in eternal fire and damnation even though 2 of their 3-in-1 deities got together and did something horrific so we would be forgiving of our sins. I guess it just didn’t… I don’t know, “take”?
I know that seems like a somewhat odd beginning to an article about “Jesus the Activist,” but stick with me on this. We will get there, I promise.
So, the reality is that they aren’t actually asking “why Jesus died on a cross?,” (but I will get to my thoughts on that as well), the real question they are asking is “how does Jesus dying on a cross save us?”
Regardless of your personal belief, I think it is important to recognize that even within theological circles that’s debatable. And, it may come as no surprise to you that I have a completely different reasons for how it saves us than most theologians, not to mention a completely different understanding of what it saves us from.
For me, what isn’t debatable is why he was crucified, and it has absolutely nothing to do with some deity reaching out of the heavens and mucking about with the lives of humanity.
You see, it is basically undeniable, that Jesus was crucified because the Roman authorities of the day saw him as a real threat to the state, a threat to political order, and (most importantly) a threat to those in power. He didn’t end up hanging from a tree for being NON-political. Wandering spiritual teachers (which in those days were as plentiful as TV evangelists are today) posed no threat to the state if they weren’t political. The things Jesus said and did were very much political – and the Roman government sentenced him to death because of it.
American Christians tend to get confused on this point because we tend to impose the separation of church and state that we have (as tenuous as it may seem now-a-days) onto the religious and political process of Jesus’ day.
What you have to realize is that the primary governing body of the time in Judah was not Roman. The Romans frequently left governing to local leaders in the territories they occupied. For Judah, this meant the governing body was the Sanhedrin which was made up of Sadducees and Pharisees. Yep, the primary governing body of Judah was made up of religious figures. The Sadducees who were primarily wealthy conservatives and the Pharisees who were more like what we think of as the business class.
Now, even someone with a cursory familiarity with the Gospels knows that Jesus was constantly bumping heads with the Sadducees and Pharisees. Every time the Bible speaks of the Sadducees and Pharisees approaching Jesus you can almost hear an announcers saying, “Let’s get ready to rummmm-ble!” Jesus rebuked them, frequently pointing to their hypocrisy and errant interpretations of Hebraic Law. (Matthew 23:27-28).
You see, Jesus was no friend of the religiously and politically powerful. As a matter of fact, in one of the most surprising stories about Jesus (and I would argue the story that most influences his receiving a death sentence), he strikes at one of the most essential elements of the powerful – money.
It’s a story of standing up for the marginalize and abused. It’s a story of standing up to systems of dominance. It’s a story of confronting unjust structures. It’s the story of a true activist.
That story is the story of when Jesus starts flipping the money changers tables in the Temple courtyard. In that moment, he is actively striking at a very important source of power for the Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus called it a “den of thieves” (Mark 11:17) because it was. Those who were already wealthy were taking advantage of those who had little – some would even be considered “the least of these.”
In the Temple courtyard, the Sadducees and Pharisees profited outrageously in outranges exchange rates for changing Roman money into Jewish currency which was the only acceptable coinage for buying the animals. Those animals were also sold at a large prophet and they were the only animals approved for sacrifice which is what the people were all coming to do – present a pleasing sacrifice.
Now, that courtyard itself was surrounded by a giant wall and, during Passover (which was the timing of Jesus’ table flipping), those walls would have been lined with Roman guards who were insuring nothing got out of hand during a festival that celebrated the Jewish people escaping the heavy hand of a oppressive ruler. I mean, if you are the heavy-handed occupying Roman government, the last thing you want is a story like that to give the commoners any ideas. So, you make your military presence felt.
Jesus walks into the watchful eye of the Roman guards, into the seat and source of power for the local ruling Sadducees and Pharisees, and then he loses it. He confronts the corrupt system that takes advantage of its power and oppresses those in need. He literally and figuratively begins flipping tables on the powerful. He makes a political statement calling them a “den of thieves.” And, he does it all under the watchful eye of armed militants.
It is laughable to say that Jesus wasn’t political. He wasn’t simply political, he was an activist.
Jesus confronted the very political structures and people who were twisting and using religion to step on those thought of as “the least of these.” He confronted the politically powerful Sadducees and Pharisees at every turn, calling out their hypocrisy and distorted use of the Hebraic Law. And, he then taught about what the Law was really meant for: the expressing of what he called “Heaven on Earth;” a place where grace, love, equality, and justice were practiced. Not just any justice, but the justice of love, the justice of equality.
Jesus was an activist.
He died on the cross because he was a political threat to the Powers that Be. He died on the cross because he could not fathom sitting quietly by has others suffered at the hand of the powerful. He died on a cross because he was an activist.
So, for me, the answer to the question of “why did Jesus die on a cross?” is, he died on a cross to show us how far love will go to protect those who are used and abused by the powerful. It was not sin that he was saving us from. In many ways, it was our own complacency and our own feelings of being too overwhelmed to confront those who abuse their power. For me, that is what he was saving us from.
Jesus was an activist. If we consider him to be of any spiritual importance in our lives, I believe that we should be too.