One of the salient political aspects of the early church is that they claimed allegiance to a king who was not there except by dint of having his spirit poured out on all his followers. The claims of kingship are deferred in the ascension and then disbursed at Pentecost in a way that is — if you’re the powers that be — unsettling and anarchic.
The Romans called the early Jesus followers “atheists” for their refusal to sacrifice to the Roman Gods but, given the political significance of the imperial cult, “anarchist” is not too far off the mark. “Christarchist” works but it comes to much the same thing: where is this Christ to whom we profess our loyalty? Where do we find him except in our midst as we make decisions together, or in the face of the stranger or the enemy? It is, in the logic of the market or the state, one hell of a way to run a railroad.
If Christ’s is an upside-down kingdom, Christians have managed in many cases to keep the language of inversion while turning most of it right-side up again. We’ll toss out phrases like “servant leadership” much faster than we’ll grab a towel and basin. We’ll invoke authoritarian structure as a hedge against chaos by calling it accountability. Even some of us who claim a pacifist ethics do so partially by acquiescing to the idea of an eschatological violence. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, says the Lord, and we assume this means that we can love our enemies because God will smite them if need be — if not in this life then in the next. John Dominic Crossan makes a distinction between distributive justice, which is the purview of the church, and retributive justice, which God reserves for himself.
Logically, it’s a neat package. If God wants to use the Allied forces to stop Hitler (just as he might have used the Assyrians or the Babylonians or even the Romans to accomplish his purposes), that’s his prerogative. Such a reading of history is, I think, available to us (more outlandish readings have certainly been offered). We cannot claim with definitude that God has acted in this way over and against the normal interplay of powers against one another, but it is possible. And it doesn’t justify Christian involvement in armed conflict, because we are called to a different ethics of the kingdom. We are living God’s future, as Miroslav Volf puts it, but God is still God of the nations, lord of the saeculum. How God orders the powers is none of our business. It allows us to maintain the integrity of divine sovereignty while embracing the ethical ramifications of the lordship of Jesus. On a certain level, this works very nicely.
This has become, however, less and less satisfying to me. I’ll be honest: I’ve struggled with claims of Jesus’ divinity, not because I’m metaphysically challenged but because I can’t quite reconcile Christos Pantocrator with the man on the cross. I’ve been leery of substitutionary atonement, not because that kind of forensic language is absent from the New Testament witness, but because it’s one of many metaphors and our focus on it to the exclusion of other metaphors seems to aid and abet our cultural narcissism: Jesus died for me, me, ME. Isn’t he grand?
But what if those claims of Jesus as YHWH tell us less about Jesus than they do about the true nature of YHWH? Much of the way Jesus’ story is narrated is paralleled in the wider culture of the time (Mithraism and all that) and some critical scholarship suggests that these claims were made of Jesus in order to present him as a player on the cosmic scene. I don’t know that we need to be afraid of this idea, but I am wondering if this doesn’t miss the point; what if these are, like so much else about Jesus, actually inversions?
The various and varied claims made of Jesus, whether they parallel ideas from Jewish messianism or the imperial cult or mystery religions, mean something very different when they are applied to someone who willingly suffered crucifixion. Maybe we miss the point by embracing a politically subversive Jesus but hold in reserve an ass-kicking apocalyptic Jesus who can beat up Mark Driscoll.
What if part of the beauty, even the utter necessity of substitionary atonement, is that God, who reserves the right of retribution, has already rendered judgment — meaning that we love our enemy not simply because God has forgiven us (when we were still enemies) but because, in the Cross, God has already forgiven our enemies? True, it seems a bit scandalous — talk about your foolishness to the Greeks and stumbling block to the Jews — and it plays fast and loose with our whole sense of justice. Do we dare go that far?
In the passion narratives, Jesus is given a purple robe, and a crown of thorns, and is hailed “King of the Jews.” We see this as sadly ironic, of course; those poor saps, they didn’t know that Jesus really is the King not only of the Jews, but the whole world. Too bad for them when he comes in his glory. But what if the irony goes deeper? What if this plays out the way it does because the early believers recognized the passion not as an ironic prelude to Jesus’ true lordship, but as the example par excellence of exactly what that lordship looked like? That the christological scandal is not that we crucified God but that we claim as God the one whom we crucified? That the passion is not something that obfuscated Jesus’ true identity but unveiled God’s?
It would mean that the resurrection, ascension, and cosmic reign of Christ are not something from which the passion is a tragic but necessary detour, but are instead a way of affirming the Cross, and the Way of the Cross, as the realpolitik of the Gospel:
Here is your king.
Author Bio:: Ted Troxell is the only janitor at Central Michigan University who is also an adjunct instructor.