Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Cause and Meaning of Jesus’s Death: History, Theology, and Interpretation


Yung Suk Kim

There are historical facts about Jesus's crucifixion that cannot be fabricated or oversimplified. History is one thing, and what it means to people after the event is another thing. We must know why he was brought to death. The main reason is that he said and did something against Rome. He could not overcome violence and torture.  

Now all those who hear the story of Jesus and his crucifixion are challenged to live differently because of his tragic death. On the one hand, people must say his death is a tragic one and wrong. Evil and torture are wrong. How can an innocent person be crucified? Injustices must be named and those who responsible for his death must be judged and condemned. It is not God's character that allows his innocent Son to be killed for vicarious death paying for sins. On the other hand, Jesus's terrifying death is a holy sacrifice of love for God and the world because he did not spare his life to proclaim the good news of God in the world.

Therefore, the statement "Jesus died for us" (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:14) can be understood as a moral challenge, as opposed to the payment understanding of sins. Namely, the challenge is that people must live a moral life of justice for others, moving away from an egoistic lifestyle.  

We need the correct interpretation of Jesus’s death. In other words, not all interpretations are valid. Especially, the problematic interpretation is found in the following lyrics, which show a most selfish form of religion: "The Lamb of God in my place, your blood pour out, my sin erased. It was my death you died. I am raised to life; Hallelujah, the Lamb of God." In other words, the point of the song is simple: “Jesus died for me, and I don't die. I am raised to life. All done and no worries."  

A Proposal to an Alternative Christology: Messiah in Weakness

Yung Suk Kim

In 2016, I published Messiah in Weakness: A Portrait of Jesus from the Perspective of the Dispossessed (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). The book's synopsis is as follows:

Kim raises a perennial question about Jesus: How can we approach the historical Jesus? Kim proposes to interpret him from the perspective of the dispossessed--through the eyes of weakness. Exploring Jesus' experience, interpretation, and enactment of weakness, understanding weakness as both human condition and virtue, Kim offers a new portrait of Jesus who is weak and strong, and empowered to bring God's rule, replete with mercy, in the here and now. Arguing against the grain of tradition that the strong Jesus identifies with the weak, Kim demonstrates that it is the weak Jesus who identifies with the weak. The paradoxical truth with Jesus is: "Because he is weak, he is strong." In the end, Jesus dies a death of paradox that reveals both his ultimate weakness that demands divine justice and his unyielding spirit of love for the world and truth of God.

I have an issue with the "strong" Messiah, which is the Western view of Jesus characterized by triumphalism, colonialism, and supersessionism. In this view, he is fully divine and all-powerful. He defeated death and evil and completed salvation for humanity through his voluntary redemptive suffering. This is the Western Jesus of triumphalism. In this Western view, Jesus also appears as a colonial ruler who is the way. Likewise, John 14:6 ("I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me") is interpreted exclusively. All countries and cultures must accept him as the way and the truth. Non-Christians and their countries are forced to convert to the Western gospel of Jesus. It is our known history in the 19-20th centuries that commerce and Christianity went to other countries hand in hand. Colonialism and Christianity are hardly distinguishable in many colonized countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Similarly, this kind of a triumphant, colonial Messiah opposes Judaism or Israel. Namely, the issue is supersessionism or Antisemitism in that Jesus replaces the old covenant with Israel. Jesus's sacrifice is perfect once and for all and completes salvation. The law's time ended with Israel. Now is the new time for the church through Jesus. Old religion and tradition are rejected and relegated to inferior things.

But Jesus was born into a poor abnormal family and experienced weakness as a poor Galilean Jew. He did his best proclaiming God's good news and was executed by the Roman authorities. He showed God's way and truth; nevertheless, his work is not complete, the end did not come yet with his resurrection, and his work must continue with his followers.

Jesus was a devout Jew who never denied his Jewish identity and his loyalty to God. He affirmed the law and prophets. He did not preach about the heavenly kingdom of God. Rather, his primary concern was the rule of God in the here and now. His claim is: God rules, not the Roman emperor. He proclaimed "the good news of God," not that of Rome. He broke the laws of Sabbath and purity to advocate for the sick and the marginalized. This led to his death. In other words, he did not come simply to die for sinners but to testify to the truth of God (John 18:37). His death is the result of what he said and did in proclaiming God's rule, not Caesar's. His "dangerous" teaching and action cost him a life.

The Western view of Jesus with an emphasis on his power and glory is in error because we ignore his humanity with weakness in the first-century Palestine where so many people suffer, including Jesus. There are physical ills, social ills, famine, economic exploitation, and slavery. Why should we deprive him of his humanity and his weakness? Why do we not talk about his struggle to understand the chaotic world lacking God's rule?

In 2 Cor 13:4a, Paul also admits the fact that "he [Jesus] was crucified 'by or from weakness' (eks astheneias)." That is, he insinuates that Jesus could not avoid or overcome Roman violence because he had to continue preaching God's kingdom against Rome. In this regard, the often-made translation of "in weakness" for eks astheneias does not convey Paul's meaning. In fact, Paul contrasts eks astheneias ("by or from weakness") with ek dunameos theou ("by or from the power of God") with that phrase. Paul's point is clear in 2 Cor 13:4: 1) Jesus was crucified because of his humanity, which is weak; 2) But he lives because of the power of God.