study break

Forgiveness, Justice, and Compassion

This Friday is Good Friday, on which Christians remember the crucifixion of Christ – and on Sunday, His resurrection. Why do Christians celebrate this? What does it matter that a Jew from Nazareth died on a cross two thousand years ago, and that His twelve disciples died for their belief that He rose from the dead? In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (vs. 15:14). Why? Why is this particular historical fact so crucial to this particular faith?

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, pastor and theologian Fleming Rutledge dives into just this issue. Her work – the culmination of a lifetime spent in study – is massive, but today, we’re going to take a look at the early chapters. These consider the significance of Jesus’ death, and its implications for theology and Christian thought.

Rutledge argues many points in these early chapters. After discussing the significance of crucifixion compared to other means of death (she is convinced that God had a purpose in choosing the cross), she shows what this means for Christian life and theology. Christianity is not an otherworldly sort of faith, focused on the afterlife instead of the here-and-now. Instead, Rutledge argues, Christ’s death-by-cross means He cares for the nobodies, the oppressed, the common people, and that God has and will work against injustice.

Why the Cross?

It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed.

p. 44, emphasis original

Death by cross was not administered to just anyone in the Roman empire. It was an unspeakably shameful mode of execution, never administered to Roman citizens, but only to slaves and those who committed the worst crimes. The Christian God chose “the death of a nobody” (p. 76), and according to the Christian story, He made that choice for a reason. His death took on the sins of the world, but also paints Him as the Suffering Savior; “The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord” (p. 63). It was to save; it was to empathize.

It was also earthy.

The lack of spiritual, mystic undertones in the earthy, ungodly, suffering death of Christ sets this faith apart from many others. The crucifixion is the culmination of this theme; Jesus spends His ministry teaching all sorts of odd things – “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14). “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life” (John 6:54). He referred to Himself as a Groom (Luke 5:33-35, Mark 2:18-20, Matthew 9:14-15). Marriage, water, bread, wine – these are all material metaphors. In the case of the bread and the wine, they represent the crucifixion specifically, and are taken each Sunday in churches around the world: “This is my body which is given for you . . . This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” and “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19-20) are recited by believers everywhere.

Rutledge thinks the earthiness of Christ’s ministry, and even His shocking death, is relevant for Christians today. She draws parallels between that ancient gnostic philosophy and the modern American tendency to over-spiritualize faith without connecting it to the real world. The gnostics saw material things as irreligious and unimportant; they dismissed the physicality of Jesus and thus, dismissed death by cross. But rather than promising one day you’ll escape to heaven, Christian thought actually teaches the redemption of this earth. When Jesus uses necessities like food and drink to represent the eternal life He offers and the sacrifice He made, our faith becomes less abstract, more tangible. It is a call to a people to help the hurting, to care for others, just as Christ did two thousand years ago.

In other words, faith in Christ is less about spiritual knowledge and more about love-based action. “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” Jesus said in John 15:14. And again, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). In response to Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, Rutledge observes, “In just these three sentences, Paul does two things: (1) he shifts the emphasis from knowledge to agape, and (2) he reverses the direction of knowing. It is God who has knowledge of us, through love” (p. 47, emphasis original). Agape, of course, is the Christian concept of love – dismissed by some as merely spiritual love, but in reality, one that drives healing the sick, raising the dead, visiting the distressed, and providing for the widow and orphan.

According to Rutledge, Christian practice should not remain an intangible belief or mysterious personal knowledge. It should drive us to reach out to those around us. Furthermore, that the Creator of the universe stepped into the world to walk with His people and die a shocking death offers hope to all. Christianity is not blindly optimistic; it gives us Immanuel, God-with-us, who suffered so that we may know Him, who rose again to defeat death, who promises to return to set all things right.

Reconciling Mercy and Justice

The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.

p. 130

Peace without justice is an illusory peace . . . The wrath of God, which plays such a large role in both the Old and New Testaments, can be embraced because it comes wrapped in God’s mercy.

p. 143

Of course, the notion that Christ died to forgive our sins can be surprising. Isn’t God loving? Why doesn’t He just forgive? Because “The cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception” (Miroslav Volf, as quoted on p. 126). The cross is forgiveness for every wrong – and also, justice for every wronged.

There is, after all, real evil in the world. There is active injustice and needless suffering. But there is also a very universal human sense: what is wrong must be made right. Forgiveness without justice? That’s unjust; it lacks compassion. The author takes the time to explain why “forgive and forget” can be a bitter platitude for those who have seen real suffering.

To do so, Rutledge turns to various accounts of real evil – for example, school shootings seen all too frequently in the United States. She writes, “Young people still trembling and weeping were asked by well-meaning Christian youth leaders, ‘Do you forgive Eric and Dylan?’ Many thoughtful people, Christians and Jews among them, raised serious questions about this” (p. 114). No, that cannot be the right response to such a situation. Forgiveness cannot, indeed, it “should not be discussed apart from the question of justice” (p. 114).

She goes so far as to say that forgiveness is not “the essence of Christianity” (p. 115). Instead, the gospel depends on both forgiveness and justice. Forgiveness, after all, “cost God the death of his Son,” as Desmond Tutu put it. Jesus’ crucifixion means even more than forgiveness for anyone who believes – it is an act of justice satisfying God’s wrath against evil in this present age.

The wrath of God is an uncomfortable theme for many modern folks reading the Old Testament. But God’s wrath is not a mood swing. It is action against injustice. Christ’s death took on punishment for evil, so that any and all could believe and be forgiven. Suddenly, the shock of the crucifixion is not only the base mode of death, but that God poured that wrath out on Himself.

No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help. He, the King of kings and Lord of lords, voluntarily underwent the mockery of the multitudes.

p. 132

This is the gospel. This is why His death is noted each year at Good Friday, why His praises are sung each Easter Sunday, why each Sunday Christians gather to proclaim His death and resurrection till He comes with communion over bread and wine (or perhaps wafers and grape juice). It is remarkable to us that God took this upon Himself. That He did this “not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators” (p. 132). No one is outside the reach of God’s grace.

Because of the cross, when God forgives, He is not turning a blind eye to real evil. He took the punishment for that evil upon His own shoulders.

Comparing the Cross

It is interesting to compare this religious tradition with others. For example, Islam and Christianity are both Abrahamic traditions, but differ on the death, resurrection, and deity of Christ. Both faiths believe that God is both perfectly just and perfectly merciful; in Islam, however, God’s mercy is handed on based off that person’s actions and God’s own will (Surah 2:284, Surah 4:48). In this tradition, the God’s sovereignty is emphasized, but what can be said of justice here? Another open question: can there really be forgiveness for a deed that has harmed others but never been atoned for? How do you atone for wrong action against not only a mere human being, but God Himself?

Rutledge specifically mentions Buddhist traditions in comparison to Christian ones. Both Buddhism and Christianity possess a certain optimism, but they differ in a sense of hope. Citing another’s personal impressions of the Dalai Lama, she quotes: “In his presence, one feels that this man wants nothing except for you to be happy . . . He reduces us to the simplicity of a child who just wants things to be right in the universe.” But then she adds her own commentary on this astute observation: “Although people feel blessed in the presence of a holy man who wants the world to be right and people to be happy, the holy man cannot make that happen” (p. 124, emphasis original). She continues:

The message of the cross of Jesus Christ is that only the Creator of the universe can make perfect justice come about in the world that he created and that he has done so in the body of his own Son, and that he will do so in the future Day of the Lord. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25).

p. 124

While Buddhism tends to view suffering as something to be overcome for personal advancement of success and happiness, Christianity recognizes suffering as an evil, eagerly anticipating the return of its Risen Lord to erase it. While she admires the Dalai Lama for embodying courage and for his humanitarian efforts, she sees a lack of taking injustice and suffering seriously as a theological weakness. In response to his work The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, she writes, “His teaching often sounds as if suffering and compassion were not connected to actual suffering human beings at all, but are stages along the way to personal happiness and even ‘achieving one’s goals'” (p. 124). On a more personal note, she draws parallels and contrasts between him and fellow humanitarian and religious leader Desmond Tutu: “the Dalai Lama often uses his laugh to deflect attention from unpleasant subjects. . . . Tutu never laughs in that way. His laugh is an eschatological sign of God’s triumph over evil. He has felt the intensity of the struggle in his bones in a way that does not appear either in the demeanor or in the writings of the Dalai Lama” (p. 124). The conclusion? These two heroes of human compassion differ wildly in their worldviews. Without a Suffering Savior to make sense of it all, overcoming suffering can mean a mere, “Achievement unlocked!” The Christian worldview, however, recognizes evil, recognizes that flaming sense of injustice felt in every human heart, and promises a God who sees, who cares enough to enter into suffering with us.

The question, “Should not the judge of all the earth do right?” found in the odd otherworldly culture of the Old Testament is not a cry for ‘holy war’ or a plea to a violent deity. It is a profession of faith in a compassionate God who will one day right all wrongs, and who stepped into history to be crucified so that justice would not be overlooked in His forgiveness.

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