Giovanni Battista: Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves. (Wikimedia Commons)
One of my yogi readers here at elephant once asked me whether or not I believed we human folks were part of God.
He was referencing a centuries-old debate within Hinduism between the dualists (dvaita), like the Hare Krishnas—who believe, with most Christians, that God is entirely distinct from us—and the non-dualists (advaita), who teach that there is no essential difference between the human soul and God, of whom all human souls are part. Our task, they say, is to overcome the illusion of separation and realize our divine nature.
I am most sympathetic to the middle ground, or modified non-dualist (vishishtadvaita) position. This, I told my questioner, is the position Jesus endorsed when he told his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” The vine is not the same thing as the branches, but it is of the same substance, and all the branches are more alike than not, connected to each other to the point of being, arguably, part of one another. As one author describes this position, we are all the only-begotten of God—only Jesus wasn’t anything else.
When we take this view, it makes it clear what the Crucifixion really was: a human act of scapegoating violence. God didn’t lop off the branches in order to make a sacrificial victim of the vine. Jesus died “for our sins” in the same way that Iraqi civilians did: because there needs to be a victim, someone to blame and punish; because, as the High Priest Caiaphas advised, “it is expedient that one man should die for the people.” Jesus embarrassed the powerful, saw further than the educated, shamed the wealthy, attacked the venal and, like Mother Jones, “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.” God didn’t demand Jesus’ blood–people did.
Mark Heim, in his book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, put it like this:
Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to destroy us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died…Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor…Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours…And the result, uneven but real, is that victims of such acts become harder to hide. They look too much like Jesus.
If we are aware of our vine-and-branch relationship with God-in-Jesus and with each other, how can we scapegoat undocumented aliens, LGBT people, African-Americans, the poor, women, Muslims, or any of our fellow human beings? If we have that awareness, scapegoats look too much like Jesus. How can we be indifferent to the suffering that our lifestyle engenders world-wide? Jesus told us flat-out that whatever we do to “the least of these,” we do to Him. How can we hold ourselves above others? Jesus told us to take the lowest place at the table. He told us to love our enemies and pray for them that persecute us.
As a kid, I took it for granted that the repentant thief had “earned” Paradise by believing that Jesus was the Son of God—just like the centurion did. But the fact is that, while the centurion, moved by Jesus’ death, said, “Truly, this man was a Son of God,” he would have said the same thing about the Emperor. The Hebrew term “messiah,” meaning “anointed one,” was applied to the Jewish King and the High priest as well as to the awaited redeemer. Whatever the centurion meant by “Son of God,” it isn’t what the Church means by it now. So I don’t think Paradise was a reward for precocious Christological orthodoxy on the part of a criminal.
I believe Jesus offered Paradise to the repentant thief, not because his request had made him worthy of it, but because it had shown him to be ready to receive it—ready to live in a world without scapegoats.
And what the thief said to Jesus on the cross, Jesus in turn says to us all: Remember me. In the poor, the marginalized, the war-torn, the forgotten, the discounted, the stranger, the alien, the abused, the addicted and the convicted, Jesus says to us, Remember me. And if we hear Him, and remember, we will no longer demand scapegoats and sacrifices. We will abide in Him and He in us like vine and branches.
And that is what Paradise looks like.Peter Paul Rubens: Christ on the Cross Between Two Thieves (Wikimedia Commons)