Jesus: A Death Like Ours

03/25/2015 08:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
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We Christians are approaching Holy Week, the week we set apart to contemplate the events surrounding Jesus' arrest, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. We don't ordinarily go for the morbid -- most of us don't, anyway -- but the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection lies at the heart of our faith. In baptism we are joined to Jesus in his death, Paul writes, so that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, "we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4, NRSV). We contemplate those realities at all times, but we do so in a particular way during this season.

Jesus' death holds unique significance for Christian believers, yet in a fundamental sense it was not unique. That fact, often overlooked, is extremely important.

Many Christians tend to glorify Jesus' death, as if somehow Jesus suffered in ways no one else does. Surely Jesus died an agonizing death. Betrayed by an intimate companion, humiliated and tortured, suspended on a wooden plank on nails that were driven between his bones. Anyone who has ever truly struggled to breathe, even just a little bit, shudders to imagine the terror a victim of crucifixion would have experienced. For Jesus did not bleed to death. The weight of his body eventually snuffed out his ability to catch a breath. For each breath, Jesus had to press down on the nails that transfixed him in order to slide up that rough wood. Each effort drained him of the energy necessary for the task. Like most victims, Jesus died because the trauma exhausted him. He just couldn't breathe.

Others have noted how the manner of Jesus' death recalls the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was suffocating from an illegal police chokehold. Many others, not least the theologian James Cone, have observed the similarities between Jesus' death and the thousands of African Americans who were hanged from trees after being subjected to torture and public humiliation. In noting these parallels to Jesus' death, I am adding nothing to a conversation that is well underway.

But this is precisely the point. Jesus' death does not distinguish him from the rest of humanity so much as it unites us with him. If we begin to argue that Jesus' death was somehow unique, we embarrass ourselves. How many millions of people have died in horrific ways, ways even more tortuous than crucifixion? Dare we contemplate the horror of those who have died from diseases that inflict intense pain over extended periods of time? Are we willing to consider those who die completely alone, bereft of comfort or love? Jesus, at least, could look out on the courageous women who followed him even to the cross. None of us would volunteer for Jesus' death, but countless others have endured equally harrowing fates.

The Gospels reinforce this point. They remind us that Jesus was crucified between two others. According to Luke, one of the criminals (Luke's word) acknowledges his guilt, calling it "just" (23:41), but the other Gospels remain silent on this point. In addition to these two, the Romans crucified countless Jews and others. Jesus' death unites him with all of those most unfortunate people. Indeed, Jesus' death unites him with all of us, as we face injustice and mortality and as we contemplate the prospect of great pain. When we recall that Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for justice (Matthew 5:6), we also know that most of the world's inhabitants, throughout most of human history, have never tasted true justice. Jesus' death unites him with those countless billions as well.

I am not denying ways in which Jesus' death may have been unique. If one takes seriously the Christian notion of incarnation, the death of one who was both human and divine certainly sets him apart. I am, however, calling attention to the ways in which Jesus' crucifixion unites him with humanity, which are just as significant.

Again, if we take incarnation seriously, Jesus' death reveals that God has taken the fullness of our human situation into God's own being. Through Jesus God has taken the weight of human suffering, even our capacity to inflict enormous pain upon one another, and God has brought these awful realities into the core of God's very own self. God has taken sides with us in our plight, and in doing so God has experienced the awful consequences of human evil. In Jesus' death God has drawn close to us in the fate we all share.

Christians do not commemorate Jesus' death without celebrating his resurrection. Apart from our resurrection hope the cross would stand simply as a disappointment and as an indictment. As a disappointment, the cross would put an end to any hope Christ could have offered. "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel," lamented two of his own followers before they encountered his risen presence (Luke 24:21). As an indictment, the cross shows the evil of which we are capable -- as if we lacked evidence. Together, the cross and the resurrection bring God's love and power into communion with our mortality and our corruption, transforming death into life and transformation for all of us.