HomeCommentaryFrom 'Why did Jesus die?' to 'Why was Jesus killed?'

From ‘Why did Jesus die?’ to ‘Why was Jesus killed?’

A young mother who was quite disturbed by the seemingly weird ‘theological’ questions of her seven-year-old son once told me this story. It was Holy Week and they were making the stations of the cross in the church. On their way home, the boy asked his mother why Jesus died.

The devout mother replied with the classic answer from our catechism: Jesus died to save us from our sins. The son replied: “I don’t believe you. I think he has done something wrong. Otherwise, they would not have killed him.”

The mother was so bothered that she wrote me. I told her that her son’s objection was the deepest theological insight I have heard from a seven-year-old.

The boy’s answer was referring to the socio-political model I am trying to elaborate on here. In short, this framework says that Jesus really did something “wrong” in the eyes of the powers that be. That is why they killed him.

His commitment to the kingdom of equality, freedom, and justice made him say and do things that put into question the social, political, and religious structures of his society. His crucifixion was the necessary consequence of such a commitment.

One Latin American theologian, Ignacio Ellacuria, who was also murdered by the military forces of his country — El Salvador — for defending the oppressed, once wrote an article entitled “Why was Jesus killed?” He said that our question should shift from “Why did Jesus die” (satisfaction model which I explained earlier) to “Why was Jesus killed” (the historical question on the socio-politics of Jesus’ time).

Ang tanong ay hindi lang kung bakit si Jesus namatay. Ang mas malalim na katanungan ay kung bakit siya pinatay. Pinatay siya dahil nakanti niya ang mga prebelihiyo ng kapangyarihan.

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A colleague of Ellacuria, Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Recife, says: “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a ‘communist’.” And in the context of many societies, to be called a ‘communist’ is dangerous to one’s health. But that is the real meaning of the cross of Jesus.

The German Lutheran theologian, Dorothee Sölle, reminds us that the crucifixion is a political act. In contemporary times, there is a temptation to look at the ‘cross’ in a Madonna-like fashion, that is, as some sort of decoration item on walls, as pendants, or as structures on church steeples. Or, we are also told by some preachers that our little toothache, a nagging mother-in-law, or heavy traffic are our “crosses” that we need to bear.

All these have de-historicized and trivialized in some way the experience of Jesus who suffered a violent death as a criminal under the Roman law. We have to remember that crucifixion was a political punishment for rebels from a powerful state, the Roman Empire. What led Jesus to the cross was his option for justice and freedom in defense of the marginalized of that society.

Today, well-meaning Christians emphasize the “separation of Church and State”. That we leave politics to the politicians and, as church people, should concentrate on the Christian values. But this is not the message of Jesus. This is not what Jesus did.

From the start to the end of his life, Jesus’ words and work were a stinging critique of how political and ecclesial power was wielded by those who held power. The lashing out of the money changers in the temple was the last of those acts.

According to Sölle, there are three moments to our understanding of the cross. First, Jesus totally and freely accepted the will of the Father for him. It was not imposed on him. He could have said no, he bargained maybe, but in the end, he said “yes”. Second, there are inevitable consequences of this option. He very well knew that confrontation, struggle, harassment, and finally death would follow. Third, in the absurdity of the cross itself, one can already glean the glory of the resurrection – not quite different from what the Roman centurion said in front of a man breathing his last: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15: 39).

Söelle wants to tell us that Jesus’ resurrection is only possible in the light of the violence on the cross which in turn is a consequence of one’s commitment to work for the fullness of life in the Kingdom. What she wants us to avoid is a cheap Christianity that takes the cross as a mere magical symbol and “not as the sign of the poor man who was tortured to death as a political criminal, like thousands today who stand up for his truth in El Salvador.”

Such a religion and there are many around, believes in a “God without justice, a Jesus without a cross, an Easter without a cross — what remains is a metaphysical Easter Bunny in front of the beautiful blue light of the television screen, a betrayal of the disappointed, a miracle weapon in service of the mighty.”

A controversial Catholic liberation theologian follows up the idea of Dorothee Söelle. In a work that won the Catholic Book Award in 1987, Leonardo Boff outlines his understanding of the paschal mystery and its relevance to our difficult times. He analyzed the whole life of Jesus as a “historical project”, that is, as a fundamental option, a basic decision marking the orientation of his life. Such an orientation determines his choices of action, frames of analysis, and values leading to a direction in one’s future.

Boff started analyzing the socio-political context of Jesus’ times and lay bare the political-cultural dependency between the powerful Roman Empire and the small province of Palestine, the socio-economic oppression in such an arrangement, and the religious exclusion that goes within the context of the dominant Jewish religion.

Thus, it was understandable that the Jews were longing for a political messiah. But, surprisingly enough, Jesus resisted being identified as one. His response was not to become a “revolutionary” like many zealot rebels; nor did he just preach the conversion of hearts and consciences like John the Baptist, his cousin. His project was to place into question all existing paradigms around him as he advocated the upturning of all systems, values, and hearts in his preaching of the Kingdom of God.

Of course, this total reversal was seen as a threat to all the dominant systems (religious, political, and economic). In the end, his was tried, sentenced, and led to the cross.

In the words of Boff, his death was a “crime”; he died a criminal. And that small group that followed him considered that such death was almost the logical end of the life of any prophet.

But Jesus’ historical project gave way to the total in-breaking of God into the history of Jesus: he is risen from the dead. This event was not only a vindication of Jesus and the values he stood for.

Resurrection is also the manifestation of the Kingdom of God that he preached about, a demonstration of what men and women can hope for and become. The victim, the marginalized, the accused, the poor man Jesus that rose up on Easter day became a symbol of the poor everywhere announcing to them that the “messiah is in fact one of themselves.”

It was not only his ‘incarnation’ (emphasis on Christmas), nor only his passion and death (emphasis on the Holy Week), but the whole life of Jesus, his total commitment to the Kingdom, his preaching, his table fellowship, his healing ministry — all activities leading up to his passion, death, and resurrection – his whole “historical project”, to use the words of Boff – that becomes salvific and liberating for all of us.

If we are to summarize, Jesus did not only die for our sins to restore the destroyed order of justice, nor did he express his solidarity with us in the midst of our pains. He was also committed to bringing about justice, peace, and love in the world as a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom.

For this, he was killed. But because of this too, his Father also vindicated him. Thus, in response, we also need to work for justice, to bring Jesus down from the cross, and with him, all the crucified peoples.

[The Socio-Political Model of the Paschal Mystery: Holy Wednesday Reflection]

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is the President of Adamson University in Manila. He is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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