DeYoung’s Argument Summarized
Recently, Kevin DeYoung wrote a piece explaining the reason for Christ’s execution. DeYoung makes a case that Christ’s murder had less to do with His social attitude and more to do with His equating Himself with God (or blaspheme, Mark 14:62-64). DeYoung is deeply concerned that Christians, pastors, journalists, theologians and institutions as a whole have decided to settle for the “sentimentality” of our day which portrays Christ as more of a “Sesame Street” character instead of depicting Him as God incarnate. For DeYoung, Christ’s crucifixion was primarily due to his blasphemous statements and to suggest He was crucified as a result of His social (also read political) constituency is to surrender to the “platitudes” of our culture.1
The impetus for Christ’s death was simultaneously political and religious without one taking precedence over the other. Christ being crucified via the Jewish religious leaders (manifested in Caiaphas, John 18:24; Mark 14:60-64) and the Roman Empire (manifested in Pilate, John 18:28-38, 19:12-16) was both a religious and a political verdict. Here, I will expose how both the religious and political implications of Christ’s crucifixion are predicated upon one another.
Crucifixion in 1st Century Rome
Rome’s 1st century technique of crucifixion had a multitude of religio-political implications. Theologian James H. Cone observes in his book that “crucifixion was… reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels” (pg. 2). New Testament scholar Paula Frederickson in her work on the historical Jesus says this regarding the crucifixion:
“Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience” (pg. 233-234).
Pilate, despite his original apprehensions, agreed that crucifying Christ was a politically expedient move as it strengthened his political clout and ousted a radical miscreant who claimed to be King (Mark 15:15; Luke 23:12; John 19:12). But not only did Christ claim to be King, he also claimed to be God. It is in this claim that the Jewish religious leaders decided to curse Christ through hanging Him on a tree (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).
Stated differently: through Christ’s verbalization of His deity (Mark 14:62-64; John 8:58), along with His actualization of God’s Kingdom within the social order (Mark 3:1-6, 11:15-18), Christ was judged a nuisance and condemned to death.
Biblical scholar Scot McKnight on his blog The Jesus Creed quotes fellow blogger Brian Zahnd as Zahnd acknowledges the relationship between the religious and the political motivations for Christ’s execution when he asserts, “Caiaphas and Pilate both judged Jesus. Using religious criteria Caiaphas convicted Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death. Using political criteria Pilate convicted Jesus of treason and condemned him to death.” Christ’s death (AND life… but that’s a different post), properly understood, demonstrates the conjoining of the religious and political.
God Crucified (Conclusion)
Theologian Elsa Tamez has passionately suggested that Christ’s crucifixion must be read in a religio-political context:
“… A theological reading sees in this divine act his maximum solidarity with the excluded and the innocent victims of history. Here we perceive something of the significance of the justice of God” (pg. 767).
Should this claim be taken seriously? Or is it simply a promotion of cultural “platitudes” and “Sesame Street” sentimentalities? Furthermore, does Christ truly most identify with the victims of injustice?
Christ promotes both peace and justice but these virtues are substantially costlier than the worldly ideal (Matt. 5:38-42, 6:14-15, 7:12; 12:18-20; Luke 14:25-27). To imitate the grace of Christ comes at a price while the world would have us believe that justice and peace come cheap.
Cheap grace is simply purchasing clothes to support a cause. Cheap grace occurs when speaking about the poor becomes a fashionable pastime. Cheap grace is the in vogue apathy and nihilism of 20-something middle-class Christians regarding various institutions. Costly grace is embodied in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critique of consumer-capitalism which hastened his assassination. Costly grace existed in Archbishop Oscar Romero’s plea to the Salvadorian government to “stop the repression” of the poor resulting in his martyrdom. Costly grace manifested itself in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s pro-active resistance of the Nazi regime which lead to his hanging. Costly grace is the unique motif of Christ Jesus, who was judged a criminal so that the world would know that God’s “Government” is one where the “foolish things” are exalted and the “least” are made heirs to the Kingdom (Matt. 20:16; I Cor. 1:27).
1. A friend of the blog, Alex, had this to say after reading my post: “It’s worth noting too that the death penalty for blasphemy was stoning, not crucifixion.”