I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary, where they have a funny habit of changing the words to hymns. I remember one time at a large event we sang the modern hymn “In Christ Alone,” one that I know by heart. But when we came to the line, “On that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” I found myself awkwardly singing the wrong words; they had been changed to, “the love of God was satisfied.” The variance felt jarring, but as I thought about it later, I found in myself wholehearted agreement. I don’t believe God needed to vent his terrifying wrath on Jesus in order to love us. Something else happened on that cross as Jesus died—but what?
Last year I taught theology at a high school, three sections of a course called Jesus and the Gospels to squirrely ninth-graders. We spent a lot of time on the metanarrative of the Bible and the red thread of Empire that runs through it like a streak of blood. Oppression and violence in a constant cycle. I taught my students that when Jesus died on the cross, instead of leading an overthrow of the Roman oppressors, he consciously absorbed the violence and stopped the cycle.
It’s true, but there’s obviously something missing in that explanation. One only needs to look at the news the past couple weeks to see that the cycle of violence has not stopped. The conflict in Israel is frustrating, heartbreaking, even maddening.
As the daughter of an Israeli, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, it’s impossible not to feel personally intertwined in the mess. I keep thinking about the terror my grandmother endured as a teenager, and I’m filled with fear and rage at the fact that there are still people out there who want to see Israel—the Jewish people—wiped off the map, out of human history. It is a “war of perception,” the newspapers are saying, and as I read of children and civilians killed, or Hamas using human shields, I don’t know what to think or what to believe. My anger and fear grow.
As a follower of Jesus, it’s confusing to know how to respond. Jesus absorbed violence into himself to stop the cycle. How does that translate to this conflict? I don’t want to absorb the violence—I want to fight back. I want my family and my people to survive, but not at the expense of hurting others, especially the weak and innocent. Is there a way?
This morning I read a daily meditation by Richard Rohr entitled, “How Jesus Takes Away the Sins of the World,” referring to John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God who does just that. Rohr points out that negativity unites people more quickly than love—something we are witnessing everyday on our Facebook feeds as friends polarize into pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian (and worse: anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian). But when Jesus hung on the cross, Rohr states, “he did not return the negative energy directed at him. He held it inside and made it into something much better…He absorbs evil until it becomes resurrection!” That’s what Jesus did on the cross. That’s what takes away the sin of the world—not redirecting God’s wrath so as to satisfy it, but by expressing God’s love in his sacrificial absorption of pain and evil, so he might take it away from us, if we are only willing to let him take it away.
Jesus not only takes away the sins of the world, but he buries that evil under the pressure of his love and goodness until out of the ground—resurrection, beauty, life!
Practically, what does this mean for us, today? Here in the U.S., many of us have very little influence on what happens right now in Israel and Gaza. But we do have control of our responses, of our hearts.
Jesus, as the true human, showed us what to do with the evil and violence around us. We must refuse to return it—whether “it” is the fear that emanates from news stories flashing on TV, or the hateful status update that pops up in our feed, or the vitriol spewed by a coworker in the lunchroom. We meditate on Christ on the cross, where God’s love was satisfied, and, as Rohr suggests, we “refuse to project our anxieties elsewhere, and learn to hold and face them within ourselves and within God.” Then we wait, with the weight of the fear and evil and anxiety of the world heavy on our hearts, with the whole earth groaning together in anticipation, for the resurrection that has already come.
Some Israel-related posts from the archives, if you’d like to see:
“Middle East Conflict Spreads to…Norway?” – my experience of being tear-gassed at a pro-Israel demonstration in Oslo!
“Jerusalem, If I Forget You…” – reflections on my trip to Israel in 2007