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Is crucifixion salvific? Sometimes.
Lessons from Danielle Allen, the Little Rock 9, and Herbert McCabe
On September 3, 1957 Elizabeth Eckford left for high school. Her family didn’t have a phone so they missed the instructions from Daisy Bates of the NAACP who had called the other families, the first to integrate Central High, to tell them that their children should first go to a group of white ministers who would escort their children to the school (the Superintendent instructed parents not to accompany their children to school).
Elizabeth was mobbed on the way to school. She tried twice to enter the school but guards were there, thrusting a bayonet into her chest. She escaped with the help of a white reporter and another white woman. They barely made it on to a bus. Her encounter with an angry mob of white mothers is iconic of the Civil Rights movement.
Elizabeth spent the night silent in shock then screamed through the night in her dreams. Her parents believed in the democratic right for her to attend school with equal protections as her white peers and through a coordinated effort with the other families of the Little Rock 9 let their daughter participate in the first school integration in Arkansas. “The result,” writes Danielle Allen, “was psychological terror for them and for their daughter, which was endured in hope of future benefit. This constitutes a sacrifice.”
Since reading Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers, this is the image that comes to mind when the we come to the part of the Christian year where Jesus, in obedience to the Father, willingly and wittingly takes human life unto its conclusion — death.
In activism and organizing, sacrifice is ubiquitous. I’ve watched people chain themselves to the gate of a police station. Young people are murdered protecting trees and priests have died by the guns of militarized police because they made their ministry among campesinos. Because they believe in liberation, activists have gone to prison to challenge the power of the state. Some were disowned by families.
Hundreds of thousands of anonymous sacrifices precede my life. Someone believed that there was a better life, a freer life, for them and for the future and they were willing to risk to bring me closer to freedom. I’m grateful.
But Danielle Allen helped me think more about the terrain of sacrifice — what it can and cannot do. We negotiate sacrifices. We explore them in community. We calculate their purpose. We discover the ways we can bear the emotional weight of sacrifice. And we determine when a sacrifice is actually a form of self-harm or self-negation.
Elizabeth Eckford clearly did not want the mobs anymore than Jesus wanted the cross. Elizabeth’s parents did not offer her up as a sacrifice because they wanted her to be harmed. But they did see that there was a future for her, for their people, and for all of us.
One of the best pieces of writing on atonement is a sermon given by socialist comrade and Dominican priest, Herbert McCabe. He offers one insight into atonement that I think helps us to better understand sacrifice. McCabe explains that he human condition is that we have settled for being less than human. We have scrapped by on hierarchies and hoarding. We have chosen fear and destruction. Some are the winners of this delusion, others are its victims. The wasteland of human history makes this clear. The seething crowds outside Central High testify to it.
Jesus comes to us as “the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human.” He lives a life of obedience to being fully human as God intended us all to live, as we were created to live within a life of love.
McCabe explains that this is a threat — “the threat Jesus posed to the established church and the colonial power is the historic sign of the threat he poses to each individual and to every human society and establish.” The structures we create inevitably turn towards violence. One of the most vicious of those is capitalism, “the most violent large-scale society that history has known, the society that has invented and produced means for killing on an unimaginable scale - even to destroying the whole human race.” In principle, McCabe point out, Jesus lived in the same kind of society.
McCabe’s thesis is this: Jesus died of being human.
His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist.
The cross unmasks the sinfulness of the world, this condition of turning ourselves towards destruction. Jesus does what we cannot do — lives as a person of perfect love. And then we are invited into this life, welcomed through the Spirit to exist in the one life that lives all the way to the end a perfection of love.
We don’t have to choose a particular meaning for this. Jesus death is a sign, a model, a sacrifice, a liberation. But we cannot separate the life Jesus lives from the death that inevitably follows.
All around me there are people like Elizabeth Eckford who show me how this life of being perfectly human, perfectly loved erupts into spaces of destruction and death. I acknowledge that this comes with sacrifice, that my own life of being drawn up into perfect love will also come at a cost for the world that destroys those who threaten its power.