In Transforming Atonement, theologian Ted Jennings makes the case for an atonement theory rooted in the cross’s expressly political character. Jennings is insistent that, in fact, the robustly political character of the cross has been lost because there has been a sustained ignorance – and even, in many cases, an intentional depoliticisation – of the person, character, and remembrances of Jesus’ life. There are, no doubt, an overabundance of reasons as to why this may be the case but one can generalise naively that two main reasons might be: 1) the not to be helped, historical and cultural distance and 2) in many cases, political and economic expedience.
If we are to make sense of the cross in our time, we cannot begin with traditional theories of atonement. Rather, we must begin by basing all such theories in the historical fate of Jesus, who was understood by the first Christian witnesses to be the Christ, or Messiah of God, and whose mission was to announce and enact the coming divine rule in history. The messianic mission of Jesus comes to its apparent end in his execution at the hands of Roman imperial authorities. It is this cross, the cross of history, the cross as a public fact related to this messianic mission, that must be the basis of our reflections. (25)
With this Jennings does not only signal a political reading of Jesus’ crucifixion and the atonement, but with it a reading of Jesus’ life and the theological remembrances of it, as a whole.
Jesus was not an apolitical or “neutral” figure. Jesus cannot simply be read as probably having “an agenda” but is fundamentally misunderstood if one misses that the agenda and the person belong together in a dynamic relation, to the point that if one is missed so is the other.
Nowhere does this become clearer than during, what has now come to be called, Holy Week. Here Jesus descends upon Jerusalem (Mark 11) with explicit political and economic intentionality; bringing with him 1) all the personal rigor of a human being deeply moved by the social and economic position of those abused and ostracized by corrupt, oppressive, and violent governance, as well as 2) the crowds he had mobilised to his cause across the span of his ministry. (Mark’s gospel provides a day-to-day account of Jesus’ altercations with representatives of the then current socio-politico-economic edifice.)
Yet, what it is important to notice is that this one – crucified as a criminal under the unambiguously and quite cynically intended political charge and title, “King of Jews” – had it coming – and seems, for all the life of him, to have intended to provoke such a reaction.
It is then significant that we notice that the event that ushers in Jesus’ final week was a pre-arranged affair. Jesus has brought the crowds, Jesus’ has arranged the finding of the colt, Jesus knows of the historico-theologico-political resonance of this act – i.e. the memories and songs it will elicit, prefiguring him as a king. Not to mention the imperial march it is suspected to have countered, as Pilate, Caesar’s representative, makes his way to Jerusalem to keep the peace during the most tumultuous time of year.
The whole affair is unambiguously intended to anticipate “the title that will appear over the head of the executed Jesus: the king of the Judeans… It is this march that dictates the terms under which he will be executed” (38).
Here one should rightly note that it is not a superficial, maniacal villainy that has Priests arrange and Romans sadistically carry out this execution. Jesus’ political posturing was not a gentle affair because non-violence is not synonymous with passivity – it can be, and often is, as violent as it is non-violent (we might even say, with Zizek, that it is a kind of “terrorism”).
Judith Butler has, in this vein, famously asserted that, “Non-violence is not a peaceful state, but a social and political struggle to make rage articulate and effective – the carefully crafted ‘fuck you.’”
In this respect, it is absolutely vital we note that Jesus is crucified beside two “bandits” – that is to say, insurrectionists or guerrilla fighters – which warrants – on the basis of the events of Palm Sunday; members of Jesus’ entourage (Zealots); and plans that he find himself “counted among the lawless” (Luke 22:37) – a reading that Jesus’ movement aimed to express a revolutionary counter-politics, without re-coursing to armed violence. Jennings here writes,
“However different the Jesus movement is from an armed uprising, it certainly courts the impression that it is like one… What seems to be involved here is something like a policy to prevent the Jesus movement from being simply another small-scale rebellion against imperial power that Rome knows only too well how to crush. The aim is, on the one hand, to be plausibly mistaken for such a movement but also, on the other hand, to be decisively different. Jesus’ surrender to the authorities and the acquiescence to his fate seem as if they served the political purpose that is at work here… They point to a way that actually robs the empire of its legitimacy, forcing it to show its violence without oneself resorting to violence, and thus breaking the cycle of reciprocal violence… [and exposing] the violence, and so the illegitimacy, of those who hold power.” (39-40)
It is in this sense that, Jesus’ life, ministry, and death are not to be read as some sort of mystical and mystified, generally detached and disinterested affair. They are a sustained and grounded struggle for justice – a justice prefigured in and understood through the lens of Jesus’ poetics of the kin-dom of God.
The final week of Jesus’ life, Holy Week, is when and where Jesus, and the multitudes who followed him, express and make articulate their rage – their “carefully crafted ‘fuck you’” – to an order that systematically abused and oppressed those who where made to find themselves at the bottom of the ladder. It is in this sense that Jesus gets taken out of the picture – he has become an immensely popular political leader with a vision that challenges the political and economic climate, embodied in the then contemporary governmental institutions.
In turn, the nature of Jesus’ counter-political vision has been spelt out across the years of his ministry: in healings, exorcisms, and teachings, as well as the training of the band of Twelve. It is active, restless, and thoroughly engaged, seemingly engaging Jerusalem with a “fuck you” that signals that this movements’ program is confrontational.
The consequences of this nonviolent confrontation are nothing new, nothing surprising, nothing mysterious – but it is what a struggle for justice, peace, equality, life, and zest look like, when faced with an order that dominates and oppresses to reap the benefits of profound inequality; especially when it knows there is no serious chance of “results.” Jesus’ movement provokes even though he knows it can’t “win.” It unveils the violence and death-dealing of the domination systems, all the while birthing a vision and imagination for a new politics. It skirts the appearance of any typical revolutionary group, all the while being decisively and peculiarly different.
In all this we see the domination systems to which God is opposed because Jesus is seen to be opposed to them, and it is this to which the cross is a damning criticism because it is where a man struggling for justice, peace, and life is put for mobilising the people in such a way that they articulate their desire for something new. And it is on the cross that, in the most profound sense, a “fuck you” is articulated, because it is where Jesus goes – after exchanges with the powers that are almost dripping with sarcasm – to demonstrate their illegitimacy and embody his fidelity to a counter-political vision of a social order shaped by a theopoetics of justice, mercy, peace, and love that unambiguously centres the oppressed and marginalised.