The other day someone promoted on Facebook an article declaring that in his crucifixion Jesus was not a victim because he gave himself willingly as the necessary and only effective sacrifice for our sin. Not a victim? Jesus completely in charge of his own passion? Let me think.
How is this choice with which the article presents me really an either/or? The Gospel of Mark reads, “He [Jesus] came a third time and said to them [his disciples with him in the Garden of Gethsemane], “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Mark 14:41 NRSV) In the more obviously theological Gospel of John, Jesus says no one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly. Beware of too-neat choices that tend to be simplistic and so falsify truth by allowing only one side of it.
A wise seminary professor, speaking of Christianity’s historic wranglings over Christology (the nature of the Christ), warned us that it would always be Jesus’ humanity that most needed defense, not his divinity. Christians like emphasizing his divinity for at least two reasons that hurt our faith. One, we find it more comfortable and convenient to make him as different from us as possible, to elevate him as high as we can above the messiness of flesh and blood, to make him exceptional in the extreme. When he’s too much like one of us, we squirm. Two, elevating Jesus to power and glory empowers his regents on earth to claim power and glory for themselves. The humble Christ who takes the lowly way of service and self-giving love does not appeal to people in love with authority and control. His humility judges our pride. His compassion for flawed people challenges our contempt for them (and our foolish pretense at not being among them).
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann, especially in The Crucified God, insists that Jesus suffers humiliation and pain in solidarity with all people who suffer, whether by their own doing or someone else’s. He suffers both for us and with us, but the tendency of dogmatic Christians has been to leave out his suffering “with us.” He is shamed in solidarity with all who are put to shame. He is tortured, and so when if we go back and look at the photographs from Abu Ghraib, we should see Jesus with a hood over his head or on his hands and knees with a leash around his neck, not because those prisoners were innocent of wrongdoing but because they were victims of torture and humiliation. He is one with all who are mocked, who have been rendered too helpless to “save themselves.”
Is it good Christian theology to understand Jesus’ passion as his own act of giving himself willingly for love of God and of us? Yes, because he was not simply the hapless victim of a plot. Is it good Christian theology to see him as the victim of betrayal, injustice, torture, humiliation, and execution? Yes, because he was betrayed into the hands of people who did all they could to victimize him. What theology must not do is remove him from people who sin, people who suffer, people who cannot help themselves, people who indeed are victims.
We do more than enough of scorning society’s victims. We blame women who are beaten physically or “just” browbeaten in their own homes. We blame the poor for their poverty. We blame the unemployed and under-employed rather than the more powerful who have broken the labor unions, de-skilled and dehumanized the workers, and laid off many to make companies “lean and mean.” We blame even the sick and broken for not taking care of themselves and making better healthcare choices. As Christians, we need to realize and keep realizing that Jesus died in solidarity with all those people we blame. By mocking them, we join in mocking him.
Yes, he gave himself willingly for us. Yes, he suffered and died as a victim with us. Let us not in a fit of philosophical and theological conceit take him away from the victims. He is one with them, one of them, and they belong with him.