I’ve not read it put any better than this when it comes to how Jews respond to the cross and how Christians depict it: “There is a glaring contradiction between a theological tradition [of anti-Semitism] which sets the cross against Israel and uses it to justify setting the Christian community against Israel when the event at the foundation of the tradition was an event for Israel and one which had as its purpose the uniting in reconciliation and fellowship of Jew and Gentile, the nation and the dispersed children of God.” Well, maybe I’ve seen it more concise — but at least you’d admit it is all here.
This quotation is from John Kelly, “The Cross, the Church, and the Jewish People,” in J. Goldingay, Atonement Today, pp. 166-184.
Most Christians simply don’t realize how people of another faith (in this case, Judaism) hear and understand what is central to them. Children of Christians find the cross, because of how it is taught, a good thing — something to which they attach almost nothing but good ideas. Others, however, find it barbaric and for many Jews it evokes the holocaust. This cultural perception issue should factor into our articulations of how we understand the atonement.
Kelly is hopeful that a genuine theology of the cross can recover a theology that is neither anti-Semitic nor empty of redeeming power. Such a theology is, he says, should not produce a Christian theology that depends on “guilt-ridden and guilt-driven responses to Christian failures.” He hopes to find a theology of the cross that can reconcile Jews and Christians.
It begins with a Jewish Jesus who was in solidarity with Israel and who summoned Israel to the kingdom and whose cross was the high point of his solidarity with Israel. Kelly is not alone (and I’m with him) in seeing a Jesus who was abandoned by the powerful but not by the people. The cross, in part, is the suffering of the innocent and obedient on behalf of the people. Jesus, therefore, absorbs Rome’s wrath for his people. This theory anticipates Irenaeus’ recapitulation theory, and is found today best in J. Moltmann’s The Way of Jesus Christ, N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and I’d like to suggest in my own Jesus and His Death.
Jesus’ death, then, is identification with Israel’s suffering rather than judgment of Israel. (This is not a false dichotomy, but a ranking of claims.)
And here is where an emerging theory of atonement comes into play. As you may know, I’m working now on a theology of atonement for the emerging church series with Abingdon, edited by Tony Jones, and one element, which I am just beginning to explore is that atonement theology is also praxis and not just theoria. Let me get to the nub of it: the reason Christian theology cannot be anti-Semitic is because its theory of the atonement demands that the Jesus who suffered for the oppressed summons his ecclesial community of faith to identify with those who suffer. It cannot identify with the suffering and inflict suffering at the same time.
The instrument of reconciliation continues to reconcile.