The Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: Substitution vs. Solidarity

Sub.sti.tu.tion – the action of replacing someone or something with another person or thing.

Sol.i.dar.i.ty – union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests.

It’s Holy Week, a time dense with memory and meaning.  Within this short span, the gospels speak of the betrayal by Judas, Jesus’ final meal with his friends, prayer and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, the rushed trial before Pilate, the walk to Golgotha, the state execution of Jesus and burial of his body. 

At the risk of vast oversimplification, two of the primary ways Christians interpret the crucifixion of Jesus have to do with substitution and solidarity.  Each comes with implications for how we view ourselves, Jesus, and God.

Jesus’s death as substitutionary emphasizes a penalty for human sinfulness Jesus takes on himself in our place.  This has been the dominant teaching in Protestant Christianity.  But most versions are deeply problematic, portraying a god who requires punishment in order to exercise a just forgiveness.  So, in effect, Jesus saves us from god.  The primary response of the believer is just that, to believe, and thus be saved.  I’m caricaturing, but just a little.

Jesus’s death as an act of solidarity leads in directions that are more fruitful.  It is humans, rather than God, who created the punishment and scapegoating systems.  God’s presence in Jesus speaks of Divine solidarity with human life and suffering.  The cross exposes our violence and critiques systems of oppression.  More than mere belief, we are invited to participate in another way of being human, which Jesus announced, taught, and lived, calling it “the kin-dom of God.”  Sometimes this leads Jesus-followers to suffer the same kinds of betrayal, unjust accusations, and violence Jesus experienced.  God’s grace-filled presence in us empowers us to address injustice, relieve suffering, and expand the breadth of solidarity with others. 

How we interpret the death of Jesus matters.