The Anti-Human Cross

In this day and age, Jesus’ death should be offensive to everyone. And that’s a good thing.

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I took a step back a few weeks ago. After twelve months as the president of my campus ministry, I passed the torch in mid-March to other young leaders around me. Now advising and serving under others are the only tasks I have left — when problems come up between people or cliques, those current leaders I’m friends with ask me to help resolve them. While I try not to actually get involved, I do my best to give my friends the tools to put out their fires. One such conflict arose recently as Good Friday approached.

A few of my friends were promoting a ministry-wide screening of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s brutal depiction of Jesus’ death on the cross, and several other friends of mine posed valid concerns. Smart and thoughtful people have argued that Gibson’s film is offensive to Jews, they said, and thus should not be watched. The promoters weren’t quite sure what to say and consulted outside voices before responding. “Why do people say it’s offensive to Jews?” one of them asked me. I told him it has a good bit to do with how the church has historically oppressed Jewish people, some of whom The Passion (accurately) depicts as conspirators and happy spectators of Jesus’ execution.

The story of the cross has convinced generation after generation of self-proclaimed Christians that all Jews deserve to be mistreated because a very small fraction of their ancient ancestors goaded Pontius Pilate into crucifying Him. From the horrors Catholics committed against Jews in medieval Europe to Martin Luther’s ardent anti-Semitism to the destructive pogroms of Russian Orthodoxy, just about every Christian tradition has a history of being absolutely awful to people of Jewish ancestry. I guess none of them read Romans 11; either that, or they chose not to listen to it.

On the surface, then, it makes sense that The Passion, a film that depicts Jewish religious leaders and their cronies as the Bible does, would have to beat back cries of anti-Semitism. The film reminds Christians that Jesus was crucified because a number of influential Jews wanted Him to be. Even still, it should not be hard at all for us to draw a distinction between several hundred Jewish people 2,000 years ago and anyone today who claims the heritage of Abraham. Sadly, many of our forebears in the faith — along with an inebriated Gibson and other less-visible moderns — haven’t been able to do so. That counts for something.

So I told my friends to be conscientious as they screen the movie. The darker parts of our religion’s history shouldn’t be ignored, but they also shouldn’t stop us from viewing a film that is both incredibly moving and purposefully consistent with our sacred texts. There are two truths that 21st-century Christ-followers need to acknowledge: first, that a group of Jews devised a plot to kill Jesus and mocked Him as He died; second, that throughout church history many Christians have done the exact same thing to innocent people simply because those people were Jewish. Some of their tribe did a bad thing a long time ago, but plenty of ours have done the same, and we’ve done it much more often and much more recently.

You might have noticed that I haven’t actually responded to the claim the “anti-Passion camp” makes — is the film offensive to Jews? I think the answer depends on what you think “offensive” means. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two options, one of which defines the term as “actively aggressive” and “attacking.” Based on this definition, I highly doubt that The Passion is offensive to anyone: unless the writers, producers, or Gibson himself went out of their way to make the Jews in the film look especially bad, it is very difficult to levy that epithet. (Remember that the Roman executioners don’t exactly come off as delightful folks in the movie, either.) The movie tells the truth, a truth that sometimes hurts, but a truth nonetheless.

However, Columbia students — the promoters’ “target demographic” — are far more likely to buy OED’s other definition, which considers anything “causing someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed” to be offensive. If the first definition says “facts don’t care about your feelings,” this one says “your feelings are the facts.” Based on this definition, yes, of course the film is offensive to Jews, many of whom wrote scathing reviews. “It must be emphasized,” one group said, “that the main storyline presented Jesus as having been relentlessly pursued by an evil cabal of Jews, headed by the high priest Caiaphas, who finally blackmailed a weak-kneed Pilate into putting Jesus to death.” According to the Bible, the described storyline is what actually happened, the church’s unacceptable mistreatment of ethnic Jews notwithstanding. If we follow this second definition, we can say that the story told by The Passion is both true and offensive at the same time.

So much hinges on our understanding of the word offensive, both here and elsewhere. Can truth be offensive? These days, the answer is yes. Remember when Charles Barkley, an African-American who grew up in 1970’s Alabama, got in trouble for saying that black-on-black crime victimized more of his community than police violence? But it’s not just social justice activists acting this way: an ACLU spokesman can say a self-evident truth, that “In this country, whites are still advantaged in many ways,” and somehow provoke claims of reverse racism from offended white people. Those who call The Passion anti-Semitic follow similar logic. In any of these cases, those taking offense are not as much offended by the veracity of a claim as they are by its being broached. “Maybe it’s true,” one might say, “but you still shouldn’t talk about it.”

Read any one of the four gospels and you will realize that 2017’s prevailing definition of offensive is nothing new. Indeed, it is the reason those Jewish religious leaders wanted Jesus dead. When they forced the people to follow extra-Mosaic Sabbath laws, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” When they treated their charitable giving like good PR, He called them hypocrites. And, when Christ’s parables attacked them for rejecting God’s authority, they took offense and began to plot His demise. These men were offended by how right Jesus was about them. They knew what He said was true, but they still didn’t want Him to talk about it.

We can understand why the Pharisees and Sadducees were offended by Jesus, but some modern Christians have a tendency to paint Jesus as a “nice guy” who only showed off His mean streak when standing up for the oppressed. My friends, let us not try to make ourselves feel better by falling into this trap. Jesus spent plenty of time with “tax collectors and sinners,” but He didn’t affirm their lifestyles — He told them to “sin no more.” He called the crowds who came to see Him “evil” and “a perverted generation.” He spoke again and again about Hell, a place of conscious torment, and even remarked that humans on their own were doomed to separation from God unless He intervened. To add onto these maledictions, He went through one of history’s most grisly, agonizing deaths against His will, only because it was necessary to atone for the sins of humankind.

In other words, the death Jesus chooses to die is Him sending a powerful message to us. Through it He says, “You deserved to be beaten, tortured, spat on, and nailed naked by your wrists and ankles to a block of wood. You deserved to hang on that block of wood, wounds stinging; hungry, thirsty, and completely hopeless; until you got tired of keeping yourself up and let yourself suffocate. You deserved to have your Father, who loves you more than anything in the world, reject you because He couldn’t bear to watch your humiliation. You deserved the ugliest capital punishment you can fathom.” And He took that punishment knowing full well that you and I would go about our lives acting like we’re basically good people who occasionally tell a white lie to our parents.

No. You, me, and everyone we know deserved everything that Jesus took for us — not a bit less — and that is perhaps the most offensive truth of all. The story of the cross is not nearly as much anti-Semitic as it is anti-human. If we view The Passion accurately, we will realize that we are just as terrible to Jesus as the characters who conspire to murder Him. I’m offended by the portrayal of human beings in the movie; in this day and age, I imagine most of us are. And that’s a good thing.

Seven weeks after the crucifixion, the apostle Peter spoke to a crowd of thousands, most of whom were not at all involved in Jesus’ death, about the events of Passion Week. “Let all the house of Israel know for certain,” he said, “that God has made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter is blaming the execution of Jesus on people from every tongue and every nation, and they’re offended. The writer of Acts describes them as “pierced to the heart.” But this was a good thing, because offense gives birth to action. Vexed and frustrated, the people asked, “What shall we do?” and Peter knew his message had stuck.

Under the message of the cross, at once offensive, true, and terrible, is history’s clearest sign of love. Jesus died that death for the Jews who lobbied for His execution. He died for the Christians who have abused innocent Jewish people over the centuries. He died for the foreigners at Pentecost, for immigrants and terrorists, for Trump and Hillary, for you and me. You have every right to be offended by the cross, but you also ought to be amazed by His love and astounded by the fact that He rose from the dead. Peter certainly was.

When the people asked him how they should respond, Peter’s advice was simple and everlasting: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Countless people were offended that day by the truth he had told them — that the cross was as much their fault as the Roman executioner or the Jewish high priest — and 3,000 of them turned their offense into action. They are known today as the first converts to Christianity.

From the first Christian sermon at Pentecost down through the ages, the anti-human cross has made people uncomfortable and forced them to respond. Even today, we should all be asking that same question those first converts asked: “What shall we do?” On this Easter Sunday, if you haven’t done so before, I encourage you to heed Peter’s advice. Take action against the offensiveness of your sins and celebrate Christ’s resurrection alongside your own.