Kelley is a dear friend, a deep thinker, a voracious reader of nonfiction, and a practical theologian. Here she writes about a foundational shift in her own thinking about the cross and atonement. I especially appreciate her willingness to wrestle with mysteries and to move slowly through them.
I came of age in evangelical circles where the cross was the high ground, the holy pinnacle of faith. The cross was the symbol above all others, the metaphor not to be desecrated with any understanding other than blood spilled as a sacrifice for my sin. My personal salvation clung to that old rugged cross where Jesus died for my sins.
Everything I knew about salvation was moored to that cross, that sacrifice for me.
Years after graduating from a Christian liberal arts college, years after completing my Masters of Divinity degree from an evangelical seminary, even years after leadership in my local charismatic church I noticed a shift.
I was reading a book about Jesus written by Marcus Borg. (This was my first foray into any scholarship stemming from the Jesus Seminar, which my evangelical colleagues convinced me to be wary of.)
“According to the Gospels Jesus did not die for the sins of the world…He was killed because of the sins of the world.”
I underlined these words as I read the fuller chapter on the personal and political meaning surrounding the death of Jesus. I underlined them in a spirit of agreement. I kept reading.
It took me about three or four pages to realize what I just did. I stopped. I thumbed my way back to that page and read the words again. Jesus died because of sin, not for sin. Do I really agree with this? – because if I do then my understanding of the cross has just moved into uncharted territory.
But I did agree with this understanding of a domination system that killed Jesus, a man after peace. Jesus was crucified because He troubled the political system of the day, challenged the culture of violence and power with His perpetual insistence that the vulnerable ones mattered, that actual enemies of the state needed to be absorbed by love and the empire could not provide ultimate security or salvation.
Jesus suffered the violence of crucifixion because the system would not tolerate His terrorizing ways in their homeland. Even at the hands of the powerful, He refused to resort to violence. Instead Jesus spilled His blood absorbing the violence, the hatred and the ugliness of our sin-shaped ways that governed the world.
My recognition of agreement with those words signaled to me that a paradigm shift had already occurred. Somewhere over the last set of years I’d moved from the evangelical view of substitutionary sacrifice. My understanding of the atonement veered from the more simple claim of my youth.
And yet I was still standing – I remained devoted to Jesus and even more committed to His words and ways. I found myself in the thick of social justice practice. I never felt myself a heretic, only hell-bent on following Jesus with more vigor and less veneer.
But as my gaze rested on those words in typeface staring back at me, I wondered what this meant for future engagement. I thought about all the ways that penal substiutionary atonement theory saturated my evangelical worldview. The songs I sang, new and old, about the cross. The Good Friday service fixated on the graphic suffering of Christ for my sins. Even the words of reflection offered before communion sounded different in my ear. How would this wider understanding of the cross impact my practice of faith, especially within an evangelical house of worship where the cross was the high place?
I felt somewhat twisted, trying to unknot the language and symbol of blood spilt for my individual sins from my years of church engagement. But I also felt free. I felt free to see that the death of Jesus was both personal and political, that the implications of His death were deeper and wider and more relevant than I’d ever imagined (or been taught).
A great blessing came to me weeks later when I sat with two mentors over lunch. I shared the sentences, now committed to memory, over sandwiches and cans of Diet Coke. “Should I be worried about my agreement with this understanding of the cross?” Their response, as if in stereo, began with gentle smiles.
They spoke of church history, atonement theories of Patristic fathers and mystic mothers, of wide vistas of thought on the mystery of the cross and its salvific power. They assured me I was moving deeper into the mystery, not dancing on the edge of heresy. They also counseled me to not swap one binary for another – but allow both (and more) understandings of the cross to shape my own praxis.
And so I moved into the space between the binaries. It is not a simple space to inhabit. It makes some uncomfortable, my own conviction that Jesus died because of the sins of the world. It makes me uneasy - I still can’t sing songs about the blood shed for my sins, I haven’t gone to a Good Friday service since or ever seen The Passion of the Christ.
I believe the cross is more, not less, than blood spilt for our individual sins. And I believe that following Jesus does put us, like Him, in the cross hairs of the empire. People of peace always stare down the barrel of possible crucifixion, but Jesus has traveled that road already and given us hope in the shape of Sunday resurrection. The cross can never be divorced from resurrection at the hands of a loving God.
Kelley Nikondeha is a lover of God's justice & jubilee. She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. Read more at kelleynikondeha.com.