I know plenty of people who have turned away from Christianity partly because of the violent imagery of the cross. My sister is one. She is legitimately repulsed by the savagery of our central symbol, and the extension of that symbolism in the Eucharist. She is not alone. From the beginning critics of Christianity have zeroed in on the morbidity of our broken and dying savior, and the carnal brutality of our rituals.
There are good theological grounds for criticizing the violence of the passion narrative. Certain theological schools utilize the metaphor of the cross as just another example of the myth of redemptive violence. If violence is what saves us, then it becomes the perfect justification for further violence. Worse still, if God is the purveyor of violence on the cross, then the nature of existence, and the nature of love is at its heart violent. Then what hope do we have? Christian love, following this pattern, has too often demanded violence. The worshipers of a crucified God have frequently erected crosses.
Many Christians, like me, have sought to describe the atonement nonviolently. The weight of atonement can be shifted to the Resurrection, or to the Incarnation. We can even get away from atonement theology altogether and talk about original blessing, and a return to paradise. At the very least the violence can be framed as the result of the system of domination, a violence which destroys love, not in anyway itself an expression of love. In this way we can erect theological bulwarks against the charge that God is violent, or that violence is necessary.
Many of us who prefer a nonviolent atonement also prefer worship language which avoids gruesome descriptions. We don’t use songs or prayers which talk about blood. We choose the scripture passages on the lectionary which are the least graphic. We lean on the metaphors of covenant and feast in the Eucharist. We say “The bread of life” and “the cup of salvation” instead of “the body and blood of Christ.”
I keep saying “we” because I have done all these things and I understand the reason for them. I too reject the abusive father God who murders his own son as part of some convoluted scheme to protect vile sinners from God’s wholly terrifying wrath. I too have cringed at the bad theology expressed in so many of the hymns which utilize bloody imagery.
But no matter what I do, every year on this day I find myself summoned to reflect on the messy physicality of Jesus’ death. I return to the blood. I acknowledge everything I’ve said above and I also know in my bones that I need this blood.
The violence and the blood are necessary to my faith because this world is full of both.
The spilling of blood is what divides us. The violence of this story is there because I need to be reminded how sharply we are cut off from one another.
In Syria, over the past four years more than 200,000 people have lost their lives in a brutal civil war. The blood on the stones in the image above is from a suicide bombing in Damascus. The crucifixion is not something that happened once on a hill outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Everyday our species is pouring the blood of our enemies into the dust.
I need Jesus to bleed because my enemy bleeds. Their blood is on my hands. This bread is their body, broken by me.
But blood itself is not a symbol of human division. On the contrary.
Blood is life. Blood is oxygen and nutrients and water carried to every cell in our body. Blood is energy and vitality. You are not a being of light. You are not your thoughts, or emotions, or past. You are a creature covered in skin. A physical being. You have curves, and aches, and sensations, and odors.
Jesus, like us, is flesh and blood. An impervious savior who floats above the earth is no use to us at all. He sweats. He breaths. He bleeds. He dies. And when he dies he shits himself like almost everyone does.
I need Jesus to bleed because I bleed. Blood unites us. This cup is a new covenant, poured out in my blood.
The whole Earth is groaning. The church and all her saints are groaning. I too groan as I yearn for the day when every tear will be wiped away. When we will finally dwell in the peace that passes understanding and learn war no more. I trust that on that day the blood on our hands will be washed completely clean, and the blood in our veins will make us all a single family, and the bread and wine will really be just bread and wine.
Till then I still need Good Friday. I still need to remember the cross. I still need rituals which make me confront suffering and death.
So I return to the blood, and I weep.