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Australian eJournal of Theology 9 (March 2007)

The Passion of Jesus: Responding to James Alison
Michael Elphick
Abstract: James Alison rightly rejects a view of the cross premised on a populist reading
of the Atonement. His recent article An Atonement Update is an attempt to rescue
atonement when the notion should instead be jettisoned. Here, Michael Elphick agrees
with Alisons argument that the notion of sacrifice can best be understood in the socio-
cultural religious context of the Ancient Near East. However, Elphick argues that Alisons
treatment entirely ignores the political context of the event. The significance of which is
to continue to provide opportunities to privatize the Gospel story and reject its public
and political implications. This article suggests a socio-political reading of the Passion
that is far more accessible to modern Christians.
Key Words: Atonement; Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ; crucifixion of Jesus
Christ political dimensions; problem of suffering
evisiting our theology of the crucifixion brings into play an entire set of principles
that we learnt early in our lives and which have been reinforced constantly and
continually over the years in our liturgy, our prayers and our hymns. I hope to
demonstrate some ways in which the populist view of Holy Week is inadequate and leaves
us with some rather inaccurate and unhelpful images of God and of Gods involvement
with the rest of us particularly in our suffering.
A Popular View of the Cross
The popular view of what occurred at Calvary is that Jesus ransomed us back from sin;
that he paid for our sins with his blood. It is not difficult to find examples of this theology.
Gibsons film The Passion is a well executed instance. In the movies opening scene the
devil challenges Jesus with the question do you really believe one man can bear the full
burden of sin? The question and answer text that has been produced to accompany the
film further drills the point,
After the fall human desires become self seeking and disordered, Christs redemption
for us - His taking on the burden of sin restored our relationship with God.

The study guide adopts the view that Jesus is the New Lamb, a sacrifice of atonement that
parallels and indeed replaces the Passover event of Exodus,
The Passover event of Exodus is a foreshadowing of Christs death on the cross. The
blood of Jesus, the perfect Lamb, would be sprinkled on the cross (the doorpost) for
His followers. All who accept Christ and keep His commandments will be saved by His

Tom Allen, A Guide to The Passion: 100 Questions about The Passion of the Christ (Westchester, PA: Ascension,
2004), 14.
Allen, Guide, 15.
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References to this viewpoint are numerous throughout the text. It is worth noting that the
study guide carries an introduction co-signed by the Archbishops of both Sydney
and Perth. What are some of the theological presuppositions behind this view? Where
does it come from? For our purposes there are several points to consider.
The first is that this theology fitted neatly into the broader religious modality of the
Ancient Near East. It was through sacrifice that human beings pleased and placated their
God. The Gods of the ancients were offered the first fruits of the harvest; animals were
sacrificed to appease the Gods when they were thought to be angry. Sacrifice was used to
divine the future, to seek the right path. The Apostles, including Paul, were themselves
steeped in this tradition. It was their culture, a crucial part of their cosmology. It was
central to their religious world view. It is not surprising then that this culture formed part
of how the early Christian community explained the Jesus Event. In fact it would have been
odd if they had not. Tissa Balasuriya explains the role of culture in the development of
Many elements contribute to the evolution of a theology. The vision of the founder is
interpreted according to various factors, such as the culture of a people, the myths that
give a people its identity, philosophies, popular culture and its cultic practices, group
interests and ideologies, and other factors. It is necessary to try and understand the
origin of the content of teachings that constitute a theology and the beliefs that form
part of a religious faith. They do not necessarily derive from the founder.

Any attempt of the early church to devise other ways of talking about the death of Jesus
however were sidelined in the fourth century when the conversion of Constantine brought
a new influx of former pagans into the church. They brought with them their socio-cultural
perspectives on sacrifice.
My argument begins then with this question; does the notion of sacrifice as it is
presented here still speak to us with any authority? In attempting to describe what
occurred at Calvary it is no longer a helpful metaphor. Is it possible to find a better one?
The second presumption that stands behind this popular view of the crucifixion is
that of original sin. There developed over the centuries a view of original sin, and
formalised around the Council of Trent, quite different to how the Jewish people
themselves interpreted the Genesis story. To quote Balasuriya once again,
I question the hypothesis of original sin as propounded in traditional theology,
according to which human beings are born into a situation of alienation from God
because of the primary original sin of the first parents.

This theology has several drawbacks; the most obvious being that it treats the Genesis
myth as literal and historical fact. Reinhold Niebuhr writes,
Christian theology has found it difficult to refute the rejection of the myth of the Fall
without falling into the literalistic error of insisting upon the Fall as an historical event.

Balasuriya explains the whole process this way,
The traditional interpretation understands original sin as alienating the whole human
race from God and requiring a divine-human redeemer to appease the anger of God the
Father. Jesus has to pay the price for the sins of humanity as expiation to the Father.
Such a theology of original sin, based on certain texts of Paul was evolved especially by
Augustine, and the need for atonement to the Father was further developed later in the

Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation: The Story and the Text (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1997),
Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation, 132.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: C. Scribners Sons, 1964), 267.
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Middle Ages by Anselm. These are extra historical interpretations of the fundamental
human condition and of the life and death of Jesus.

In other words the Genesis story cant carry the weight of the theology we have built
around it. Likewise, the atonement theology of Anselm arises from a feudal period and
reflects the political, economic and social order of its day a sacred mimic of the secular
order. It has persisted even though the social order that gave it meaning has faded.
With these thoughts in mind my key difficulty with the traditional theology of the
cross is in what it suggests about Gods nature. In atonement theology God becomes some
kind of divine shylock requiring his pound of flesh, literally in the form of his own son. Is
this consistent with what else we know about God in the New Testament?
Joseph Ratzinger, before his elevation to either Cardinal or Papacy commented that
atonement theology was untenable,
To many Christians it looks as if the cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of
injured and restored right, and as a consequence, for many Christians, faith in the cross
visualizes a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the
sacrifice of his own son; One turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister
wrath makes the message of love incredible. This picture is as false as it is widespread.

To elaborate on Ratzingers point is it likely that the God Jesus calls abba would setup
and require such an economy of redemption? This position should be rejected because it
supports an image of God fundamentally opposed to what else we know about God as
loving father. Even in human terms how would we regard someone who had a hand in the
brutal death of another human being? What would be his legal and moral status? Some
argue that Gods ways are not our ways but consider that God must be at least as good as
the best of us.
Our rejection of atonement theology clears the way for us to say this - God is not
complicit in the death of Jesus. The Crucifixion was not part of Gods plan. It was not
willed, organised or ordained by God. This is not to say, of course, that God is uninvolved
in the death of his son but that his involvement is radically different to that which
atonement theology suggests.
Why is this important - simply because if we fail to release God from responsibility
for the death of Jesus then God remains responsible for the suffering that afflicts the rest of
us too. To get God off the hook for the one is to free God from the other. By doing this we
can shift Gods whereabouts. We can move God from being the author of our suffering to
someplace else, perhaps somewhere ultimately more helpful.
This movement is essential not only for our own personal encounter with God but in
our communal appreciation of the social forces that might oppress us. Balasuriya argues
that the populist position fails to provide a solid platform for social engagement and
action, something which was central to Jesus ministry.
From this perspective, the gospel story of the death of Jesus is neglected in its
contextual, socio-economic, religious and political implications.

The need to recover these implications drives our search for an alternative view.
The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Social and Political Perspective
The first step in creating an alternative theology of the crucifixion is to see the event not as
part of Gods plan but as a consequence of the Incarnation. When God became a human

Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation, 169.
Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (London: Burns & Oates, 1969), 213-215.
Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation, 170.
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being God became subject to the full consequences of being human; so much so that the
outcome of Jesus life would be subject to the same vagaries of living that each of us is
subject too. Jesus would fall victim to all those things that befall us, from happenstance to
the active malice of others. The outcome of Jesus life would, like ours, be influenced by
both his own free will and the free will of others. The Passion of Jesus would be a result
not of a plan designed and intended by God but a result of how Jesus chose to live out his
own humanity. This is not to say that God was uninvolved and disinterested in the event,
far from it. It is to say that the crucifixion was a result of Jesus living like he did, a
challenging, confronting, revolutionary life style. Jesus led a life that offended and
threatened those in power until they moved violently against him. Before it is anything
else, the death of Jesus is a political killing. The Sri Lankan Jesuit Aloysius Pieris writes,
We express the mystery of redemption with our eyes on Calvary where, in a historically
recorded set of political circumstances, Jesus revealed himself as the Christ, the
Messiah, the liberator in the context of a social conflict, a public confrontation between
the world he dreamt of and the one we had constructed.

Jesus was crucified not in fulfilment of a plan to buy us back from sin but because Jesus
preached a Gospel, a good news that was politically offensive to those who held power
in Palestine. Jesus insight into what God required of his covenant people critically
confronted those who had made other deals and other arrangements. Balasuriya is of this
view when he writes,
(Jesus) opted for the liberation of the oppressed, as he announced in his mission
statement in Luke 4:18. He therefore took up a stance against the oppressors of the
poor and the weak; his whole life and message contested the falsehood of the dominant
religious and social order of his day.

Common Objections to a Political Interpretation of the Cross
Whenever I present this material in a classroom, be it at university, high school or in an
adult education setting there are always a set of standard objections to the notion. Below
are the most predictable objections and some responses to them.
1. What about all the references Jesus made to his own death? Doesnt that suggest
there was a grand purpose, a plan unfolding that Jesus was aware of and participated in?
For the three years of his ministry Jesus had created a following and steadily
confronted the power elite of Palestine - both Roman and religious. Undoubtedly he had
the political nous and intelligence to read the signs of the times. He was aware of the
impact his ministry was having on the local elites. It would be foolish to think Jesus so
nave that he did not see his arrest or some other action coming. The Gospel record itself
seems to acknowledge his suspicion that Judas had betrayed him and he knew too that
Peter would not stand firm under pressure. Jesus does not need divine insight to know
these things; he would appreciate all this simply by virtue of his native wit. There are
many examples of political leaders both state and civil, who like Jesus, knew when events
had taken a turn for the worst. In the weeks leading up to his assassination Archbishop
Oscar Romero spoke often about the likelihood of his own death and what this would
mean for the Church in El Salvador. Martin Luther King fell to his knees on his kitchen
floor and had his own very painful Gethsemane moment. For those who confront
injustice the end is too often painfully predictable.

Aloysius Pieris, The Christhood of Jesus: An Asian Perspective, 39:3.
Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation, 172.
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2. What about the prayer Jesus makes in Gethsemane? Doesnt he pray that Gods
will be done? This seems to imply that both God and Jesus were working to a plan?
What choices did Jesus have at this point? Clearly he had one of two paths open to
him. He could either run or stay. But what would escape have meant in political terms?
Jesus would have understood it as a betrayal; his own betrayal of everything his life and
ministry had been about to this point. To run away would weaken the power of his
preaching and discredit his ministry. So Jesus makes the choice to stay, knowing full well
that this choice would probably lead to arrest, some kind of show trial and possibly
crucifixion. This was the standard path walked by dissidents.
So how do we place notions such as Gods plan and Gods will into this kind of
scenario? First, by asking this question; how would you describe the content of Jesus life?
What had it been about? What was it that Jesus never tired of talking about, that seemed to
obsess him? What theme did he keep returning to? To sum his life and ministry up in one
phrase would be to say that Jesus lived to bear witness to the Reign of God. All his
preaching, his miracles and his parables were elaborations on this theme. His passion and
death could be no different. When Jesus speaks in Gethsemane about Gods will it is this he
is referring to. God wills the Kingdom. God does not will the death of Jesus; but like Jesus,
God will accept death as the price and consequence of remaining faithful to the Kingdom.
One of the advantages this perspective has over its popular rival is that it fundamentally
reconnects the death of Jesus with his life and ministry, a connection that is unnecessary
in atonement theology Jesus death can logically and effectively stand alone.
3. From this perspective whats so special about the death of Jesus? Isnt it now just
an ordinary event?
In many ways the death of Jesus was just another political killing. The type of death
Jesus endured was commonplace and nothing worse than what many people in our own
lifetime have been forced to suffer at the hands of brutal men. This is another flaw of the
Gibson version which relies in part on establishing the extreme nature of the death
suffered by Jesus. Tragically, for his time and circumstance Jesus died an all too common
At this point the Jesus event could be reduced to the story of just another good man
who staked his life and lost. But the Jesus narrative is not just the story of Good Friday
afternoon. What we refer to as the Jesus Event is in fact the story of Sunday morning as
well. It is the resurrection that completes the tale.
What can we say about the resurrection that is relevant to our purposes? First of all
once we argue that the death of Jesus was the result of his faithfulness to the Reign of God,
the resurrection becomes Gods faithful response in reply. This is what elevates the Jesus
event beyond just another story of a good man going down in a good cause. We participate
in the same resurrection if we, like Jesus, stay faithful to the Reign of God. The resurrection
becomes Gods singular act of faithfulness.
The Cross of Jesus and Our Suffering
This view of the crucifixion also allows us to re-work the traditional question which is so
often our first response to human suffering. We can now turn how did God allow this to
happen? into in what sense is our pain Gods pain? the question asked by feminist
liberation theologian Dorothy Solle in her treatment on the book of Job.
Part of the answer I suspect is that suffering is so much a part of human experience
that even Gods son found it unavoidable and inescapable. Jesus, like us, was unable to
fend off significant suffering from his life. Considering that we hold Jesus not just to be a
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human being but also the son of God we can come to a second critical conclusion in the
despair of Jesus on the cross we witness Gods solidarity with human kind. Gods one
with us. This is a notion effectively blunted if we hold to a theology that argues that Gods
plan required the death of Jesus.
Catholic theology has always made the claim that the crucifixion of Jesus is an
ongoing reality. That is to say Jesus continues to be crucified today in the suffering of
human beings. A point Oscar Romero was fond of making when addressing the poor and
marginalised of Latin America. There is no shortage of scriptural evidence for this
assertion. In Matthews parable of the Last Judgement Jesus identifies the suffering of the
poor with his own self. I was hungry; I was thirsty; I was a stranger, naked and you
clothed me, sick and you visited me.
After his death and resurrection Acts records a similar close identification between
the contemporary sufferings of the oppressed with that of Jesus. The moment is the
conversion of Saul. Saul has been struck down, blinded and is confronted by the voice of
Jesus: Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Who are you Lord? He asked, I am Jesus and
you are persecuting me (Acts 9:5). The Jerusalem Bible text remarks that whatever is done
to the disciples for the sake of the name of Jesus is done to Jesus himself. To balance this of
course is one further consequence of the resurrection; the anti-kingdom forces
responsible for such oppression will not have the final word. Human beings will not be
kept permanent victims of all those forces that in this life threaten to destroy Gods Reign.
Pastoral Implications of a Changed Perspective
From this perspective God is no longer responsible for human suffering; instead God
stands alongside us in solidarity. God is not complicit in the death of Jesus nor is he guilty
of arranging any of the events that befall us. In pastoral terms the theology has more than
just a personal application. It also impacts on how individuals and communities relate to
their political, social and economic environments. The most liberative event in the life of
the poor is to come to the realization that God does not will their poverty. In fact the
opposite is true. God finds their poverty offensive. This is why a theology of Liberation is
both powerful and dangerous; why it draws such opposition from both third and first
world elites - within the church and outside it. Without this theological shift in Gods
whereabouts a true and informed conversation about social justice from a Christian
perspective is more difficult than it needs to be.

Author: Michael Elphick holds a Masters in Education from ACU National and is studying for
an M.A in Theological Studies with the Sydney College of Divinity. He is an Education Officer
with the Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education. He is a sessional lecturer
in the school of education at Notre Dame University in Fremantle and in Sydney. Michael also
teaches in the overseas programme of Arcadia University, Philadelphia, U.S.A. His
professional interests include human rights education, organizational design and
development, as well as political and liberation theology.