book reports
APRIL 2016


Searching For Love In History's Most Famous Execution

Tony Jones

All I wanted for Easter was to paint eggs and drink wine and have breakfast with my friends, but of course Kubilay and Hüseyin started asking me questions that I had no answers for, and I was confronted again with the fact that I have never understood or particularly cared about the implications of the Christian Easter story. Jesus being born and living - "pleased, as man, with men to dwell" - has always been cooler and more meaningful to me than his dying, though this has not been true of most churches I have been to.

We are told to think of God as a father, and then we're given multiple bible stories about fathers killing their children at God's request, and God himself sending his son to earth to die. I have a really good dad, but many people don't, and if these stories are appalling to me, how could they possibly make someone with a shitty dad respond to God in any way besides being disgusted?

Tony Jones wants to figure this out, and he begins by pointing out that "While the early church cast out those who didn't affirm the trinity or didn't believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, the atonement never rose to that level. ... They recognized that the event of Jesus' death on the cross was much deeper and more mysterious than our explanations of it could describe - let alone there be one single explanation." He also looks through the bible and finds that it "lacks one single perspective on the meaning of sacrifice in general and Jesus' death specifically. Instead, the sixty-six books that make up the Bible display a trajectory that evolves over thousands of years." Today though, it seems like the only explanation of Jesus' death that you ever hear from christians is something like "God loves u so much that Jesus had to die so you could go to heaven becuz uuhhh u r a sinner and Jesus is a perfect sacrifice." WHAT?? So the best way to show someone you love them is to get MURDERED? And who is Jesus being sacrificed to? God? The devil? The Romans? The Jewish leaders? None of this makes any sense.

Tony clarifies this theory a little bit by placing it within the context of the Jewish sacrificial system, but he's clearly not very convinced by it. He also explains a number of other theories that christian thinkers have used throughout history to explain what Jesus' death accomplished or what it symbolizes, and how each of these theories would influence our understanding of God, Jesus, love, and violence. This part of the book was excellent. I learned a lot and had many thoughts and have been pointed towards some other books by Jurgen Moltmann, Rita Nakashima Park and Rebecca Ann Parker, and especially Rene Girard that I would like to eventually read.

What I have thought for the last few years was that by dying a violent, unjust death, Jesus was saying "Look. Look what you guys do to each other. Look what yr empires do. Look what yr religions do. The end result of every power structure you've created is the humiliation and torture and death of innocent people." Which is true - but so what? The Romans still won. Even if Jesus did come back to life, the Romans eventually killed most of his friends. The empire lasted for another couple hundred years, Constantine co-opted Jesus' teachings and twisted them into another system of hierarchy and oppression, and two thousand years later the world is still full of horrible violence and injustice.

In one of Par Lagerkvist's books, a character says something that I often think about: "It could not be the most difficult thing of all to walk up a hill and let oneself be crucified. They say that his suffering and death are the greatest events ever to have come to pass in the world, and the most significant. Perhaps; that may be so. But how many there are who must suffer without their suffering having any significance at all!" By the end of his book, Tony seems to be saying that through Jesus, God was not only trying to help humans understand God, but that God was trying to understand humans. God doesn't only abstractly "love" all the people who have endured meaningless suffering and died meaningless deaths, more than that, God is one of those people. And not only does God "love" people who feel abandoned by God or who think the idea of God is meaningless or absurd, as Jesus is dying, God is abandoned by God. "God experienced the absence of God. God experienced atheism."

Although Jesus' death is frustrating to me because I don't understand what the point was or what it symbolizes, I love his life and the things he said, partly because they're so bewildering. Maybe he did die and then come back to life and it did something totally cosmic; who knows. Feeding people, healing people, forgiving people, praying on mountains, sleeping on boats, eating and drinking, spitting in the mud and writing in the dirt, telling bizarre stories, mocking every empire, "love God and yr neighbor and yrself and yr enemy," cooking breakfast for his friends: that's my favorite Jesus.



other books I read this month:
THE IDLE YEARS - Orhan Kemal