The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, who borrowed Timothy McVeigh’s strategy to blow up a public building, outdid him by gunning down dozens of young people at a camp after the explosion. Both were young Caucasian men who wanted to provoke a cosmic war to save Christendom and rescue society from multicultural religious pluralism. Both were Christian terrorists, “crusaders” in ancient terms.
Journalist Roger Cohen noted that Breivik actually attended a 2002 meeting to reconstitute the twelfth century Knights Templar, a crusading military order. In his manifesto, Breivik believed that the “Marxist-Islamic alliance…[would] annihilate European Christendom,” unless God, he prayed, would assure his success.
How is it that a religion that claims that followers should turn the other cheek and love their enemies can breed such hate and violence? Unfortunately, Western Christianity has long propagated ideas that sanctify violence and valorize killing for Christ as a means to hasten a new world order.
On “good” Friday, in 1095, the First Crusade’s pilgrims — headed to Jerusalem to take the city back for Christ — paused in the Rhineland to slaughter 10,000 Jews as “Christ killers.” This focus on genocide against all “infidels” was supported by a new idea claiming that Jesus’ crucifixion saved sinful humanity from the penalty of sin and that dying for Christ in holy war was the best, most effective form of escape from hell. In launching the crusades as Christian holy war, Pope Urban II proclaimed, “God wills it!” He promised all who died that their sins would be totally forgiven and they would go straight to paradise, effectively making killing penance, while the early church had regarded killing as a mortal sin requiring penance for a full return to the church as the paradise in this life.
In 1098 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury summarized the theological propaganda of the crusades. Anselm claimed the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world. His idea, now called “substitutionary atonement theology,” claimed that the only purpose of the incarnation was for Jesus to die. Humanity’s sinfulness had dishonored God and carried a magnitude of debt from sin that was impossible to pay. God sent Jesus to be tortured and murdered as the only way to deliver salvation. Anselm also taught a piety of stark terror of hell to drill the point home.
Anselm’s opponent Peter Abelard asked who would forgive God for murdering his own son. Abelard thought Anselm’s God was unworthy of worship. He proposed an idea based on the love that Jesus demonstrated in his willingness to die to reveal human sin. Jesus reconciled humanity to God by revealing our sins that killed him. He forgave us, his killers, unto death.
In recognizing this, our hearts are changed, and we come to love God as deeply as Jesus loved us. We are united in self-sacrificing love.
Such interpretations of the crucifixion assert that God requires violence to save the world. If people believe that God uses torture and murder, what is to stop them from doing the same or believing experiencing the same sanctifies them?
Christian atonement theory in all its forms is WAY too focused on the last week of Jesus’ life. If the state terrorism tactic of crucifixion has to be the gateway to salvation, it keeps Christians obsessed with sin, punishment, suffering, self-sacrifice, and self-righteously denouncing sin and injustice or with escape to self-deceptive innocence. Keeping people divided into the saved and the damned, the righteous and the sinful, illustrates to believers how to stay on the right side of salvation.
Christianity that is true to the LIFE of Jesus Christ tells his death as the story of resistance to the Roman Empire, not as the story of how the Empire enacted God’s will. Rome used crucifixion against non-citizens, the poor, and slaves. More like lynching than a formal execution, it began with horrible forms of torture designed to create a long, agonizing death over days. It was so horrible a death that ancient writers, except for Seneca, were silent about it, and families of victims never spoke the names of the murdered again.
Atonement theology says, “Jesus died so we might live.” It suggests that the torture and murder of crucifixion is “good.” This proscribing and prescribing life from a model of trauma after violence is a dreary way to live. It tends to squeeze all the beauty, joy, and inebriating juice out of life for the sake of a perpetually unrequited promise of post-mortem salvation.
We who refuse a faith that asks us to be thankful for the torture and murder of Jesus Christ are accused of wanting Christianity without the cross. I ask, what cross? The earliest images of the cross — dating back to the mid fourth century — symbolize resurrection, the tree of life, paradise in this world, and the transfiguration of the world by the Spirit. These crosses are not about sacrifice or debt repayment; they are about the power of life to defeat the imperial powers of death.
The bottom line on atonement theology: if God needs torture to save the world and will use violence or war to destroy evil, why should believers also not support the same strategies to protect a country or save lives, as Urban advocated? Or, in Abelardian terms, why shouldn’t people endure evil while loving and forgiving the perpetrators unto death, if Jesus’ crucifixion reveals true love? Neither inflicting nor enduring torture and war is an adequate moral answer to them.
While a lot of Western Christians today espouse some sort of atonement theology, it does not dominate Eastern Orthodox beliefs and was largely absent in early Christianity. If the Western imperial church hadn’t burned heretics and crusaded against Christians who objected to the Crusades, we’d probably still have a lot more who aren’t obsessed with the crucifixion.
It is Christian to believe torture and war have nothing to do with saving the world, and they should not be endured by anyone. We should be working to stop them. If Christians reject the imperial designs of crucifixion, we must break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress our work for economic justice, health care, and peace.
Crucifixion was designed to save the empire — we must offer a way of saving this life with wisdom about evil, with sorrow for all that violence destroys, and with profound, deep love for the beauties of creation and the source of life abundant.
Material for this post is taken from my book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, co-authored with Rebecca Parker (Beacon, 2008).