There is this poem: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
As one might imagine, Wallace Stevens provides the reader with over a dozen different views, snap shots, and perspectives on birds. Birds, I suppose are interesting. But honestly? They are not that interesting. I wonder if this was part of the point. I wonder if there is implication that if we could look at something as simple as a bird in 13 different ways, how many different ways could we possibly view something more abstract, something more complicated, something, perhaps, more important.
I have wrestled with the idea of writing a poem in response to Steven’s work. It would be called 13 Ways of Looking at the Cross. Because the Cross? That’s a pretty important thing. It is at the center of what it is to follow Jesus. It was a failure to understand it that prevented me from following Jesus for the first three decades of my life. I was intruiged by the person of Jesus to such an extent that even his obnoxious followers couldn’t keep me away. It was the fact that I could not make sense out of that cross he was nailed to, this is what truly kept me from calling myself a Christian.
The story of how I made peace with that struggle is a story for another time. The thing I want to write about today is that I heard a lot about a single understanding of what Jesus death and resurection meant. In Theology texts they call it penal substitution. In short, this says that we people have earned a consequence for our sin. Somehow, the universe is structured in a way that this penalty must be paid by somebody. However, it doesn’t have to be us. The account goes that Jesus took on the penalty of our sins that we can avoid that penalty.
God gave us this frustrating, amazing, ambiguous, and brilliant gift when he gave us the bible. One of the understandings we can gather from reading the bible is the penal substitution view. But it is not the only understanding.
Viewing a simple bird in at least 13 ways gives us a fuller view of the bird than we would have if we only viewed from one perspective. Even after we view it in 13, or even 130 different ways, though, we will still not truly understand.
How could it be otherwise with a God who came to Earth and then died?
There are lots of troubles with our simplified view of the meaning of the cross. For now, I will discuss a single one.
I am growing increasingly convinced of the importance of nonviolence in following Jesus. Our unhealthy dependence on the penal-substitution view has created this feedback explosion. We begin with the idea we got from the world. This idea is that violence redeems. We carry this idea into our understanding of the meaning of the cross. We think the penal-substitution view is the sole, literal meaning of the crucifixion. We can then take this as the ultimate example of redeeming violence. And so we enact violence on the world around, individually and collectivally, verbally and physically, in our thoughts and in our deeds. At the end of it all, we look back at the violence we have done. And somewhere, deep, deep inside, we are ok with it. Because if the universe is structured in a way that violence has to happen to somebody, if there is justice in submitting the wrong person to punishment, then how can we, in our own lives, be blamed for whatever it is that we do?