[This is an adapted version of a talk I gave recently for the Birmingham Diocese Catholic Justice and Peace Lent Retreat, 2019]
“The Passion Of Christ Is The Most Overwhelming Work Of God’s Love”
– St Paul Of The Cross, Founder Of The Passionists
In what way or ways is this true, how can it be that the Passion of Jesus is “the most overwhelming work” of God, and of love, in the words of St Paul of the Cross, Passionist founder? I want to reflect on two aspects of this overwhelming, unexpected, love of God. The first is expressed in the phrase “The Crucified God”. The second aspect of God’s love, is expressed in a dimension of Jesus’ life and teaching that led Him to be tortured and executed, and that can be called “Active Non-Violent Resistance”, which is something Pope Francis wrote about in his 2017 World Peace Day letter, “Nonviolence: A style of politics for peace” .
The Passion and Cross of Jesus as the Suffering of God
In the Marlon Brando film, “The Waterfront”, set in 1930’s USA, a young woman’s brother has is murdered by the gangsters that run the dockers so-called Union, and the priest is called to anoint his body. Just before he leaves, the priest says to the sister, “If you need me, I’ll be in the church” . Her response is one of anger. In effect she says, what is the use of a priest who stays in the safety zone of the church, while injustice and violence are happening around him? If the priest is going to remain in his comfort zone, in the safety of his church and house, it is no use to her, or to her brother and those in situations like them. She – and they – need him to come out of his protected zone – recognise where suffering humanity is, and to be willing to risk suffering with them.
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(watch this scene here: from 4.15 – 4.45 minutes)
Soon, another docker is killed by the gangsters, this time for being willing to stand up to them. This time, the priest goes down into the hold of the ship where he died and gives a powerful speech, which is possibly the most powerful Passionist sermon I have ever heard. He says “whenever these things are done – whenever a docker is a victim of the violence or oppression of the mob – whenever no-one speaks out about what they know – it’s a crucificxion.” His words are a clear and powerful confrontation of the mobsters who are listening. The mob threaten him and throw fruit and a tin can at the priest, leaving him with a bloodied head. I believe this story can help illuminate what I am going to say.
(watch this scene here) On the Waterfront: Boys, this is my church
In a Nazi concentration camp during WW2, a loaf of bread was stolen. Since the authorities could not find out the identity of the thief, a number of people were randomly chosen to be executed by hanging. One of them was a small boy. The other occupants, mainly Jewish, were forced to watch the execution. As they watched, a voice cried out “Where is God now!?” . An answer came from behind: “On the scaffold with them”.
It seems to me this is fundamentally true. Either, in the face of such evil and pain, it is impossible to believe in a loving God, and so that God is dead – that God has died on the scaffold with those executed that day, and on so many other days. Or, God is in fact ‘on the scaffold with them’ – is suffering with them – and so many others – that day and every day. In the face of such evil and suffering, it is only possible to believe in a loving God, if that God is ‘on the scaffold’ too, alongside them, and us.
And of course for us Christians, that is where God is: ‘on the scaffold’ – on the cross.
This insight grew from the painful experiences of two World Wars, and the Holocaust of the Jews. It is some kind of answer – or at least response – to the question, “in the face of such evil and suffering – where is God now?” This question, will perhaps always be posed most powerfully by the Holocaust, since as Jewish Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote, “Since Auschwitz, we know what [humans are] capable of.” Austin Smith, who was a well known English Passionist, was talking to a Dutch Passionist about the upheavals in the Dutch Church in the 1960s. The Dutch Passionist said to him, “Of course, you cannot understand unless you have seen your fellow countrymen – people you thought were decent people – in a Christian country – shoot and kill innocent people in cold blood. We have a desperate need to know that there is goodness in the human heart. We have a desperate need for evidence of God, of the goodness of God. Words are not enough.”
In the face of such evil in the world, it is not possible to believe in a loving God who is all-powerful and controls everything, and therefore causes such evil and suffering. Because if that God controls everything, then He – or She – must cause that evil. How could such a thing be caused by a loving God? Such a God would not be a god of love. Either that, or as many said in the years after the Second World War “God is Dead” – God has metaphorically or literally died on that scaffold. Which is why a theologian said since, “We are all atheists now”.
What about if God only allows such suffering? Even so, God is responsible. God created us and the whole world, the whole universe, after all. At least, that is how we feel – or at least, how so many of us do. I can get angry with life – or with God – as Job did – for something as simple getting a puncture on my bike when I’m already running a bit late when I have to be somewhere…
So, not only is it not possible to believe in a God of love who could cause such suffering, neither does it make sense to believe in a loving God who allows such suffering – and just ‘stands by’ so to speak – impassively watching what is going on, and the pain that is endured. If God is a God of love, we need to see that Love, experience it. There needs to be some evidence of it.
Love compels involvement, action, solidarity, suffering with. Can we imagine a parent who did not do everything possible to save their child who was suffering and dying, even to the point perhaps of at least wishing they could risk their own life to save their child? Can we imagine a parent who did not ‘suffer with’ their child in such circumstances? Would there be love in their hearts?
And of course for us Christians, we do see such evidence of God’s love. God is involved, God does suffer with us, God is on the scaffold with us, in Jesus, in the Cross. This is fundamental. This is why books like “The Crucified God” by Jurgen Moltmann were written in the post-war era. And it is in part because we have forgotten, or never recognised this truth, that somewhere inside of us, “we are all atheists now”. We are not all atheists literally, but our faith is weak, is weakened. There is this nagging voice inside our heads that stops us from proclaiming our faith from the house tops, by word and deed. A voice that says “this God is not real”, or “you cannot trust God”, or “this God is not worthy of my commitment” , or “ I do believe in this God, but its hard to explain why, or “its embarrassing”.
That is how it often is for us. For others, the truth that such horrors were committed by this so-called ‘Christian continent’ of Europe, is one of the factors that means that Christian faith, and religious belief in general, is impossible. Because they see no evidence of this loving God, and no other kind of God is worthy of faith or belief or worship. As an anarchist I met once said, “If I meet God, I’ll kill him.”
And many of the others do not believe – at least in part – because they do not see the love of God lived out by those who do profess such belief, such faith. Whether by the Church as institution, from the top, or by the church as people, as you and me. They do not see people speaking and acting clearly, unmistakably, prophetically, willing to suffer, to pay the price for their beliefs, for the protection of the vulnerable and the powerless: for love, for justice, for peace – and nowadays – for planet.
Most currently, they see the Church not as protecting those who suffer, the ‘crucified of today’, not as ‘suffering with them’, but in the abuse crisis being one of the crucifiers, as perpetrators, as protecting the victimizers not the victims. It is also a scandal in the original sense of ‘that which harms the faith of the people’.
Philosophers might say that God cannot suffer. But I know God suffered in Jesus, and that Jesus suffered because His commitment to Love brought Him into conflict with the powers of this world. And for me that is enough to say, “God suffers with us, for Love”. And this is what saves us. This is what makes it possible to believe in, to have faith in – to put faith in – to put our trust in – this God who tells us we are Loved.
That is why the Scriptures say, “ We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). And “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” ( 1 Corinthians 5:18) . There are a number of other similar texts, for example Ephesians 2:16, and Colossians 1:20.
Or in the words of Ephesians 2:16, “[he was] reconciling … them to God in one body through the cross”. And in Colossians 1:20, “through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross”.
It was not God who needed to be reconciled to us – but we who needed to be reconciled to God.
That is to say, Jesus did not die to buy off an angry God, or to pay satisfaction for our sins to a God who would otherwise punish us because we offended Him by breaking His rules. It was not God who needed to be placated, or to be changed, or turned back to us. It was – and is – we who need to be turned back to God. It was we who needed to know that, despite all the suffering in the world from time immemorial, God is nevertheless, against that evidence, a God of Love. On the cross, the suffering – loving heart of our God has been revealed, and planted in our world. In the words of the Benedictus, of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, (Luke 1:78)
“the loving kindness of the heart of our God
[has] visited us like the dawn from on high”.
The loving kindness of our God was revealed in the love-full life, mission, deeds and words of Jesus, which culminated in, which were fulfilled on, the Cross. And fully vindicated in the Resurrection.
It is not God who has turned away from humanity, but humans who turned –and continually turn away – from God. That is what sin is – or is a consequence of sin – that we turn away from God, go in an opposite direction, follow our own path, and no longer trust in God. That is why St Peter says (1 Peter 3:18) “Christ suffered once for sins… that he might bring us to God”
There are many ways that Scripture explains what happened on the cross, how we are saved by it. Some of them we clearly understand as symbolic language, such as the words of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9 – 10) about Jesus being the High Priest who takes us into the ‘real’ heavenly Temple and goes into the sanctuary, the ‘Holy of Holies’ to make a sacrifice of himself. But it helps to understand that every way of explaining this mystery, this truth, is using symbols, is one that is used to explain to the readers and the hearers in a way they will understand.
Of course, the Passion story does not end with Jesus dead up on the cross. The resurrection and the empty tomb follows. We understand the darkness of suffering and pain in the light of the Resurrection. Such suffering love is not meaningless. God is not mocked, humanity is not mocked, life and love and joy and peace and justice are stronger than death and evil and suffering and loss. Such is our faith in the God of the Crucified and Risen One.
The Passion And Cross Of Non-Violent Love In The Gospels
Jesus’ Passion was not only an expression in time of the eternal suffering-love of God. His suffering and death on the Cross was also the logical, probably inevitable consequence and fulfilment of – His passion for life, of His life and ministry, words and deeds. So I want to trace some of the words and deeds that led to that final confrontation with the authorities who decided to execute Jesus. In many of these incidents, Jesus broke the laws of his time, and engaged in a form of civil disobedience, or non-violent action, challenging the established ways and therefore the establishment powers who maintained and benefitted from them, in a way that ultimately led to his execution. These incidents I am going to look at are certainly not the only ones in the Gospels, but they are some of the most dramatic and obvious.
Jesus comes proclaiming the ‘Kingdom of God’
In both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, Jesus begins His mission by proclaiming “The Kingdom of God is near at hand”. Jesus’ use of the text of Isaiah 60 in Luke’s Gospel, “I have come to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4) would also have been understood as also a proclamation of the coming of God’s reign.
For the Jewish people at the time, to live in the ‘Kingdom of God’ meant not to be under any foreign ruler. This was in stark contrast to their actual situation of being an occupied country, dictated to and heavily taxed by the Roman army and Empire. For some, the ‘Kingdom of God’ meant not having any Kings or rulers at all, other than God – going back to the days of the Judges and the tribal confederacy, that existed before the Kings of Israel – who also imposed taxes on the poor to pay for their palaces, their Temple, and their standing army. For them, the ‘Kingdom of God’ meant literally ‘no King but God’, so that God’s laws that protected the poor could be fully observed. This would obviously be seen as a threat by the ruling classes of the time – the Romans and their collaborators, their local appointees like King Herod, and the Temple priesthood.
John has been preparing the way for Jesus, also proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Mt 3) and at his baptism handed his mantle on to Jesus. So it should come as no surprise that as soon as John is put in prison, Jesus starts his mission. The Passion is present right from the start: John started this movement: he is in prison, soon to be executed. Jesus will suffer the same fate.
Picking Grain on the Sabbath
In this scene, Jesus defends his disciples breaking the Sabbath Law – or certainly how it was interpreted by the local authorities of the time. It must be remembered that in that society, as in many today, there was no distinction between religious and secular laws. And the Sabbath laws were the most important laws of all. This was in a context where the Pharisees strict interpretation of the Law, and the poverty of the people, meant that most of the ordinary people – the peasants – could not survive without ‘breaking the law’. Perhaps a bit like the way dockers and others regarded it as part of their wages to take some of the goods that passed through their hands, or people coming into this country from impoverished parts of the world – as well as people from this country in various situations look for cash in hand work – because they don’t have the right papers to be allowed to work and survive. Jesus quotes David’s actions, as justifying the right to ‘break the law’ when in need, to take ‘direct action’ to get what you need, even when it is an act of ‘civil disobedience’.
“Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath” he says. Law is for our good, not the other way around. Or as St Thomas Aquinas said “an unjust law is no law at all.”
The Healing of the man with the withered hand – in the synagogue – on the Sabbath : Mark 3
In Mark chapter 2, Jesus had an argument with the Pharisees in the grain field. Immediately after, He picks another battle!
He regularly healed people on the Sabbath. This time, he heals a man with the withered hand, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath. He does it in front of the gathered community and the local leaders, with his potential enemies present. He could have waited and done it quietly with no fuss and no trouble. He could have said “I’ll see you later” or “I’ll see you tomorrow”, or “ See me round the back afterwards”. He wasn’t even asked – it has been pointed out that in other healings, those in need asked Jesus to do so – on this and other Sabbath healings, it was Jesus who took the initiative. So he chose to be confrontational
Jesus is confrontational. In the classic tradition of ‘civil disobedience’ he breaks the law to raise a deeper issue. “What is lawful, to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill” (“kill” – is the word used for ‘execution’) Which is another way of saying, as he said in the grain field, “Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath” he says – Law is for our good, not the other way around. Or as St Thomas Aquinas said “an unjust law is no law at all.”
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”
The Passion returns! The Pharisees and the Herodians hate each other. The Herodians are friends and supporters of King Herod, who is a puppet of the hated occupying Roman Empire and army, and who exploits the people by imposing heavy takes to finance his lavish lifestyle and building projects. The Pharisees are a revival movement among the people, calling for a renewal of righteous living in the Jewish people that would bring the reward of God’s action to free them from Roman occupation, as He had brought them to freedom from slavery in Egypt. They want the coming of God’s Kingdom as Jesus does, but by different methods. So they follow the old saying in politics “Your enemy’s enemy is your friend” and start to plot with the Herodians against Jesus, “how to destroy him” – how to have him killed.
The [Palm Sunday] Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem
We are approaching the Passion proper, now.
First of all, Jesus sends his followers off on what seems to be an undercover mission, to find a ‘colt’ or a ‘donkey’, with a code-word phrase. Then he enacts some street theatre – a street demonstration that would have communicated to the people of the time that the Kingdom of God was imminent!
He was enacting the prophecy of Zechariah, that the Messiah – the King sent by God – would enter Jerusalem riding on a colt, the foal of donkey, would banish armies from Jerusalem and rule God’s people and God’s land. It is clear that this would be seen as a threat by the Roman military occupiers in Jerusalem, and by their collaborators in the Temple system. Plus, it wasn’t just Jesus but a crowd of followers waving palm branches in a parade, which was always a sign of a victorious King returning home from battle, or just entering their home city. The symbolism of this parade is not unlike the symbolism of Presidents riding around their cities in a column of limousines, with ticker tape being thrown down to welcome them.
Of course, this king was coming in peace: the usual instrument of war was a horse – as in the text of Zecharaiah here- a ‘war-horse’ – the equivalent then of a tank today. But Jesus, as with Zechariah, was riding what was perhaps a baby donkey. And as Zechariah says, this king would “banish… war horses [and] battle bows” and bring peace. This is a non-violent, symbolic, street demonstration that Ched Myers in “Binding the Strongman” calls a ‘non-violent siege’ that says that God’s kingdom, and God’s king, is coming, and will bring freedom from armies of occupation and war. This is clearly, at least in principle, a threat to the power and privileges of the Romans and their allies in Jerusalem.
How will the authorities – the Roman occupiers, and the Temple priests, the Saducees – react?
The Cleansing of the Temple
What does Jesus do next? He stages another symbolic demonstration, this time in the Temple itself. Again – He is deliberately seeking out confrontation, at a time and place that suits Him.
What do we know about the Temple? The Temple was a centre of political power as well as the centre religious power in the land. The High Priests helped the Romans keep order and collect taxes. It was also the centre of the economy of Jerusalem and of the whole of Palestine, where pilgrims came from all over the Roman world and paid their temple tithes and taxes, changed Roman and Greek currency for Temple currency, and bought and sold animals for the sacrifices. These economic activities were in many ways essential to the operation of the Temple sacrifice system, although they were used as a means for additional exploitation as well.
The original Jerusalem Temple had been built – without enthusiastic support from God’s prophets – for King Solomon, to provide religious and ideological justification for his rule. Such Temple and monument building to provide the cover of legitimacy is common for rulers of all kinds, and certainly was then. The Temple was also where the record of debts were kept, and debt was a hot issue in the country, as the poor were forced further and further into debt by the combined heavy taxes levied by the Romans, the Temple authorities, the local Kings like Herod and the cut the tax collectors took on top of that. The build up of the debts of the poor led to the taking of peasants’ ancestral lands originally given in perpetuity under the Jewish law, and increasing landlessness and poverty. So the Temple system was hated as much as it was revered. It should be no surprise that during the Jewish Revolt in AD70, when the Zealots and others drove the Romans out of Jerusalem, the first thing they did was burn the record of the debts. And when the Romans re-captured the city, they deliberately burnt the Temple to the ground.
So the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ can be seen as a symbolic act of ‘destruction’ of the Temple system, a ‘non-violent protest’, enacting the prophecy of Jesus when he said “not one stone will be left upon another”. This prophecy and prophetic action was due to the rejection of His message of peace and love of enemies – specifically the Romans – since it was the seething anger and hatred for the Romans, along with the expectation of a military Messiah, which led to the Jewish revolt.
Jesus action here is symbolic because the Temple was massive, the size of several football pitches, with 12 entrances. There was no way that Jesus and his followers could have actually stopped people trading and completely shut the market down. Especially with the Temple police and Roman soldiers around to ensure ‘order’.
The scene ends with the “chief priests and the scribes looking for a way to kill him” (Mk 11:18 : Lk 22:2). In the synoptic Gospels, this is the act that leads to His arrest.
Jesus Arrest, Torture, Trial, Sentence and Execution – as non-violent resistance in action
We are all I hope well aware of the sayings of Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, “turn the other cheek”, “walk the extra mile”, and probably less familiar with ”if they take your cloak, give them your tunic [or your underwear!] also” . There is plenty to say about these words, but what I want to say is that we can tell Jesus was serious because it was exactly these principles that he practised in the passion and on the cross. He loved His enemies: he prayed for his persecutors on the cross when he said “father forgive them”: he carried his burden and took up his cross, voluntarily: he turned the other cheek when he was hit, but he also challenged those who hit him when he said “If I have done something wrong, point it out. If not, why did you hit me?” In his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was not setting down precise practices to be observed. He was teaching principles, giving examples of ways for powerless people to assert their dignity and disconcert their opponent, putting the oppressor off balance. I would assert that this is exactly what Jesus did when he was on trial. He spoke when it was not expected. When he was asked questions he didn’t answer them, instead he either remained silent or returned question for question, in a way that still disconcerts us today.
It is also worth saying that Jesus continued to practice this non-violent love after the Resurrection. He forgave those who betrayed him and ran away, coming among them as they were locked away in a private room and offering them not anger, but ‘shalom’ ,’peace be with you’. In effect saying – do not worry, do not be afraid. I am not angry, I am not going to punish you for your failures. And he invited them back into communion with him at breakfast by the sea shore. Even the resurrection itself was a form of non-violent resistance to power and injustice: when the state executes you, you are supposed to stay dead! That’s why the tomb was sealed – it would have been with the Emperors seal – and to break the Emperors seal was also a crime, like opening a sealed letter addressed to someone else. The Resurrection was illegal, and it established that the power of love, the power of this non-violent love of Jesus, of God, will not be overcome, but will, ultimately, overcome.
The Passion, the Suffering Servant, and Active Non-violent resistance
I’m not going to go through the rest of the Passion narratives as such, we know them so well. But it is instructive to watch the scene of Gandhi’s first protest action in South Africa from the film Gandhi, and to read alongside it the text of the ‘Suffering Servant’ song from Isaiah, which hopefully we also know well, and which illuminates so well the meaning of the Passion for us. I believe the example of Gandhi can also illuminate the nature of Jesus’s non-violent witness in the Passion, and of his suffering for His people, then and now.
The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 50: 5 – 9 : 52:13 – 53:12
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
13 See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him[a]
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle[b] many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering[c] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces[d]
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb[e] with the rich,[f]
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.[g]
When you make his life an offering for sin,[h]
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;[i]
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one,[j] my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
The scene from ‘Gandhi’ of his first protest in South Africa is here: Gandhi – a suffering servant
A final reflection
If Jesus is non-violent, then surely God is non-violent. What does this mean. It is surely the case that in a fundamental sense, God’s love for us is ‘non-violent’. God gives us our freedom, does not force us or coerce us, but uses the power of suffering love to change us, to bring us to conversion. As we have seen, this is a key dimension of the practice of nonviolent action. God’s love, Go’s compassion for us, is so great that God gives us our freedom, which includes the freedom to sin and therefore suffer, in order that we might also love, which can only be the act of a free being. But God does not just leave us there, but comes to us powerless, vulnerable and nonviolent, ready to take the consequences of the Divine act of creation, to bring us back to our inheritance of joy in God’s love and presence.