Updated: May 24
When I think as a Christian theologian, which is not that often, I often ask myself where is Jesus Christ today? Some say he is in their hearts. I don’t know what is actually in their hearts, but it’s not the Jesus Christ I know. Some say he is in the church, but I don’t know why he would be there. To answer this question, I think one has to engage in Biblical scholarship, as I did years ago.
So, Jesus was a Jew. He spoke Aramaic. Some scholars see evidence that he belonged to the Zealots, which was a group fighting against Roman occupation, which I tend to agree with. In any case, his identity is bound up with his execution on the cross.
As I understand it, his community was rather dumfounded. We really don’t know what happened next, because the story was written on this side of whatever happened in an attempt to made sense of it all. His community decided or maybe acknowledged that he was the Messiah. Other Jews disagreed. The Jewish tent, so to speak, was big enough for both views. To acknowledge that this person who had died on the cross was the Messiah went against a lot of assumptions. It found some confirmation in the writings of the suffering servant in Second Isiah. The larger Jewish community in Jerusalem didn’t get a chance to figure all of this out, because in 70 AD the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple and the Jewish community that followed Jesus.
Another Jesus community emerged that was gentile and spoke Greek not Aramaic. The Christian church we know today has its roots in this community and language, which opened certain possibilities and closed others. It closed the possibility of the larger Jewish community finding a way of accepting multiple interpretations of the Messiah, and the inclusion of the Jesus story in the larger Jewish story. It opened the possibility of non-Jews learning about the hope of the coming Messiah. In Greek, of course, instead of speaking of Jesus as the Messiah, the talk was about Jesus Christ (Christ is the Greek word for Messiah).
Without the context of the Jewish people, the gentile church did a lot of speculation about the meaning of the cross. Church leaders had conferences to work out their various theories and finally came up with a trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Spirit to make connections between the human and the divine. What they insisted on was that Jesus was human, and that even though the divine could be distinguished from the human, it could not be separated. Compared to the Jewish view of the suffering servant, the Greek view seems quite abstract, and yet I think it was correct in its own way.
So, given this analysis, where do we find Jesus Christ today. The theologian, James Cone, gives us a clue in his powerful book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). As Cone points out, there were multiple similarities between the Roman execution of slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists (and Jesus), and white men lynching blacks. Cone writes: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (p. 30).
It takes a while for Cone’s insight to sink in. It’s not the usual view. The usual view is closer to the view of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who used the Christian religion as the religion of the Roman Empire. How ironic that the Roman Empire that killed Jesus later made Christianity their State religion. Empires do that you know; even our own.
Cone’s unusual view may be closer to the truth. When I visited the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery in February, I experienced it as a sacred place. There are other sacred places and experiences. Think of the hospitals, the doctors and nurses, the separation of loved ones. Think of how the coronavirus is ripping through our communities. How it attacks the vulnerable.
And how will the privileged respond? How will we experience the suffering and death of others? Will we respond as whites did to the lynching of black people? Will we respond as the followers of Jesus when they found a meaning in his death? How will we respond to the losses of this epidemic?