Why Do You Have to Die, Jesus (And Take Us with You)? (First posted 2/23/2021)
Following Peter’s confession and Jesus’ orders to keep it quiet, Mark moves to the central focus of his account. “And Jesus began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected as deficient by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed,” Mark writes in 8:31, “and after three days to rise up” (my translation).
What, according to Jesus’ teaching, was “necessary” if in fact he was the Messiah? In our reading and theologizing, we tend to focus on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, to the exclusion of his resurrection. Like Peter (and the blind man at Bethsaida), we tend to see only half the picture and then draw the wrong conclusions.
Ira Brent Diggers discusses this “necessity” in his excellent commentary on workingpreacher.org. “When this passage is taken out of context, it seems to suggest that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to suffer and die,” he notes. “However, when we read it within its narrative context, we come to see that the mission of Jesus and his disciples is to give life,” he writes, “knowing that earthly powers will violently oppose them.”
What is “necessary,” Diggers points out, is not the suffering and death that will be a focus of Markan account. Instead, Jesus’ mission is necessary. The responses of human and demonic powers are not “necessary” but rather contingent. “Jesus dies,” Diggers writes, “because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brings to established law and order.”
There will be no victim-blaming in this account. Jesus responds to his Messianic vocation with faithful obedience. It is the powers of this world who are to blame for their own responses. “So, the real epiphany of Mark 8:31 is not that Jesus’ mission is to die,” Diggers explains, “but that his faithfulness to God’s healing mission will inevitably result in his death. In Mark, Jesus “must” die,” Diggers concludes, “because his commitment to human healing will not falter.”
I find this to be a critical insight into the text. The favorite tactic of oppressors, abusers, and tyrants of all kinds is to blame the victims of such authoritarian regimes for their own suffering.
If only the spouse had been more submissive and less demanding, the abusers would not have put her in the hospital with a broken jaw. If only Emmitt Till had followed the unwritten rules of conduct for Black men, he might have lived to see his fifteenth birthday. If only impoverished people had the good sense to work hard and make lots of money, the rest of us wouldn’t have to penalize them with even deeper poverty. When Jesus’ suffering and death are treated as the goal of the process, then abuse and murder can find grounds for excuse.
“Essentially,” Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”
When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces. What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, live, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.
James Cone tracks this dynamic in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” he writes, “because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2).
Cone does not suggest that suffering and death are the goal of the process any more than Mark does. Instead, Cone describes the opposite impulses of the reign of God and the dominion of death. “Both the cross and the lynching tree,” Cone writes, “represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning” (page 3, with Cone quoting Mircea Eliade).
Cone describes how violence, suffering, and death result as the system of white supremacy responds to the work of human liberation. “Although white southerners lost the Civil War, they did not lose the cultural war,” Cone writes, “the struggle to define America as a white nation and blacks as a subordinate race unfit for governing and therefore incapable of political and social inequality.” Whenever that system was “threatened” by black courage and progress, the predictable result was public and horrific violence and death.
Cone’s direct connection between the cross of Jesus and the white American lynching tree is precise and powerful. The Romans used crucifixion to terrify and traumatize, to shame and shackle subject populations. That was especially the case with slaves and rebels. Following the Spartacus slave rebellion, for example, the road from Rome to the seaport of Puetoli was lined with six thousand crosses as a warning to any and all who might consider such behavior. The sign or titulus attached to Jesus’ cross was a similar tool of terror and oppression.
Jesus teaches that suffering, cross, and resurrection are “necessary.” But necessary for what? Large parts of western Christianity are committed to the Penal Substitution theory of the Atonement. The cross, in this theory, was necessary in order to pay a “debt of honor” owed to God by sinful humanity. Sinners could not pay such a debt, so God provided the payment in the form of the Beloved Son. The Father hands the Son over to such death in order to make “satisfaction” for sin and thus to remove the obligation. Victimization is necessary to balance the books in the Divine economy.
While there is certainly language in the Christian scriptures to underwrite such a theory (formulated most clearly by Anselm of Canterbury in the 10th century CE), the more ancient and life-giving metaphor sees the cross as necessary to God’s victory in Christ over the powers of sin, death, and evil that seek to suck the life out of the cosmos. Gustav Wingren describes the ancient imagery in detail in his classic work, Christus Victor.
Luther, Wingren notes, embraced and deepened that ancient imagery in his theology. God’s work of forgiveness, life, and salvation is hidden under the form of its opposite, Luther tells us. In other words, one cannot use the tools of evil in order to defeat evil. Instead, suffering and death become necessary for Christ on the way to life beyond the grave – the life which the Creator has intended for us all from the beginning.
In our gospel text, Mark assures us that Jesus declares this Divine necessity and the systemic response “openly.” The Greek word has to do with public proclamations and declarations. It is the word Paul uses frequently to remind his readers that he and others have preached the Gospel of Christ with “boldness” – that is, in public and with no holds barred. Jesus has kept things relatively quiet until now, but the time for reticence is past (at least in his conversations with the disciples).
The sequence in verse thirty-one takes us from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. That “open” declaration will be required of those who wish to follow Jesus in the future. Part of the painful irony of Mark’s account is that Peter, who makes the first open declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, will be the one who later denies that he ever knew him. Thus, Peter will be the first to deny Jesus before others.
In spite of that massive failure, Peter becomes the head in some sense of the churches in Rome. If Peter can be restored in the wake of such an apostolic collapse, then there can be hope and a way forward for other disciples as well. There could be a word of gracious discipline and hopeful forgiveness for Christians in Rome who had succumbed in the face of persecution (perhaps the persecution in which Peter was himself martyred).
There is a stern warning about the possibility of such failure and an implied hope for restoration and new life. Our imagined baptismal candidate might indeed know Christians who had failed and been restored to the community. Perhaps some of them witnessed to our prospective new Christian. This passage would help the community understand and interpret how to deal with such lapses and restorations.
Perhaps it is also a challenge for us to declare openly the necessity of our own proclamation of justice and the inevitable response of the systems of sin, death, and evil among us. We should be able to see that a primary expression of such systems is that of white, male supremacy in the Western world (and church).
“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar,” Cone writes, “that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (page 31). Peter’s response, coming from his half-sight of self-interest can help us white, privileged, powerful people confront our own willful blindness and move toward real life. More on that in the next post.
References and Resources
Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.