The Cross and Our Enemies


Christ on the cross, Diego Velazquez, 1632

“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”   Luke 23:34, ESV

He was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by one he had allowed into his inner circle, one who, even at the last, he singled out for favor in offering bread. The religious teachers he had met over table fellowship and openly debated, indicted him in a twilight trial that made a mockery of even their idea of due process. A brutal Roman governor caved to political pressure, sentencing him to death. He was mocked, spit on, crowned with thorns, and brutally flagellated, where his back was turned into hamburger (Mel Gibson’s The Passion was no exaggeration of the brutality he endured). He was forced to carry a heavy cross piece to the place of his execution, weakened though he was. He was stripped of clothing, utterly humiliated. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles. What was brutal about crucifixion was that the way one hung made it difficult to breath. To get a good breath mean raising oneself against the spikes through one’s ankles and wrists.

Crucifixion was a political act to terrorize subject populations. Words alone struggle to capture the brutality of all that Jesus underwent. So many kinds of human evil from betrayal to cowardice, to cravenness, to banal delight in torment, to the executioner’s efficiency come together in the last twenty-four hours before the death on a Friday afternoon.

And then the prayer pleading for their forgiveness. We may wrap this up in our atonement theology that Christ died that all may have the possibility of forgiveness, which is utterly, and unbelievably true, as I read it. But to say these words in the midst of such agony, in the face of such brutality and mockery, injustice and betrayal, when to all appearances the people who put Jesus to death knew very well what they were doing, were utterly culpable for their acts–this staggers my imagination.

Yet isn’t this how it is with all the evil we and others do? We know what we are doing, and yet we don’t fully grasp what we are caught up in, whether it is the web of our own hidden motivations and fears, or the external natural and supernatural powers of evil into which our acts play.

Those who follow Christ believe the dying act of forgiveness indeed broke the power of evil, a power that exacts a punishment or a vengeance for every wrong. The Forgiving One in word and act takes punishment and vengeance upon himself and bears it to death.

Do we believe the word of forgiveness and “they know not what they do” for the ISIS bombers in Ankara and Brussels and their compatriots who even now are likely plotting further evil? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for those closer to home who may have deeply hurt us? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for ourselves, who in our most honest moments wish we could erase many deeds from the record of our lives, and perhaps have done more ill than we know?

The forgiveness of enemies is hard. None of this mitigates efforts to prevent someone from causing further harm. Nor is forgiveness the same as reconciliation which involves a truthful and genuine admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard because it means bearing the wrong done against me on myself and putting it away, dying to the option of obtaining either judgment or vengeance against the other. Forgiving ourselves is hard because it means giving up on either justifying ourselves, or trying to pay back what can’t be repaid, to undo what can’t be undone.

For Christ followers, forgiveness has been done before us, for us, and in us. And the Christ who died and rose wants to forgive through us. The scriptures tell us that we have a choice between living in a forgiveness world and a world of vengeance and punishment. The world we choose for our enemies is the world we choose for ourselves as well. I know the choice isn’t easy. Perhaps all we can do at times is acknowledge the challenge and ask to be helped to begin on the road to forgiveness, and even to the love of our enemies. A former colleague of mine just posted an article that included this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that may help us take the first step on the road:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Perhaps there is no better day than today to begin praying that prayer.

What Would Bring Them Together?

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

What would bring together a Libyan, at least two criminals, urban natives, provincial dwellers, and diaspora people, women, children, the religious and cultural elite, and forces of an occupying army? On the first Good Friday it was the execution by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If you don’t believe me, read the narrative of Luke 23:26-56:

  • Soldiers lead him away (v. 26) and mock him (v. 36).
  • Simon of Cyrene (a town on the coast of Libya) is impressed to carry the cross (v. 26).
  • A crowd of people including women follow (v. 27). Likely this included both residents of Jerusalem and diaspora Jews in town for the feast of the Passover. From Jesus’ words in v. 28, living and children yet unborn might have been there as well.
  • Two criminals were executed, one on each side of Jesus (v. 32).
  • Rulers of the people join in mocking Jesus (v. 35).
  • A Roman centurion (the officer leading the group of 100 troops garrisoned there and probably participating in the crucifixion) praises God and says “surely this was a righteous man” (v. 47)
  • Joseph, a Judean member of the religious elite, secures Jesus’ body and lays it in a grave (vv. 50-51).
  • Women from Galilee, a provincial region from which Jesus came, followed Joseph and noted the location of the tomb so they could return with spices and perfumes (which would mask the smell of the decaying body).

Only recently did I reflect on the wide array of humanity that the crucifixion brought together–people who otherwise would not associate. Different social classes, urban and rural dwellers, Jews and Gentiles, people from Palestine, Africa, and Eurasia, men and women, oppressed and oppressors, criminals and those who sentenced them all were at the cross.

This was not a “kumbayah moment” by any means. And yet this gathering in a strange way pre-figured the new humanity, the “beloved community” that would arise from the death of Jesus on a Roman gibbet. It didn’t happen all at once, but within fifteen years or so there was a community like this in Syrian Antioch consisting of both Jews and Gentiles that reflected this kind of diversity–so much so that outsiders coined a neologism to describe them–“Christians”–and it stuck.

Diversity and inclusion is a big thing in the university context in which I work. And yet I’m struck by the stark contrasts that I’ve witnessed this week in the realization of this vision. On one hand, I listened to the newly invested first African-American president of the university where I am engaged in ministry speak of “inclusion with excellence.” It was a moment not unlike the inauguration in 2008 of President Obama. In the same week, I listened to the news reports of a university campus in Kenya with students with aspirations much like those with whom I work that was turned into a killing field.

It is hard to be flung back and forth between such high aspirations and such virulent hatred. Yet Good Friday reminds me that the followers of the crucified One, when most faithful to their calling become a community drawing together all the polar opposites and scattered peoples found at the foot of the cross and more. The apostle Paul wrote about this saying, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV).

If you don’t share my Christian convictions and have read this far, I thank you for extending such grace to my words. Truthfully, I’m writing more to speak to myself and perhaps to those who share my convictions. Against all the polarities we are tempted to create, God’s story is one of surprising us again and again by turning the “other” into a brother or sister, the despised “enemy” into my neighbor, and the criminal or oppressor I consider beyond hope to one with whom I’ll share paradise.

And it all began one Friday afternoon at a crucifixion…